HR strategy during culture change: building change agency
Blog post based on an article in Journal of Management & Organization
Some years ago a Masters graduate rang me up to discuss the merger between her State Department and a related State Department. She asked me what her human resources (HR) section do to facilitate the change process and build a new culture? We began a joint funded project with an embedded researcher collecting more then 2 thousand views through a cultural survey, interviewing many supervisors and all 26 executive managers. Of course, there is no such thing as a merger. In this case the large transport section saw themselves being consumed by the small but prestigious planning section. Fortunately, these HR practitioners were being proactive. For a start they had called on our independent perspective, and were committed to moving towards a dynamic resourcing culture, where HR refocused around organisational needs, instead of a ridged employment ladder. We found shell-shocked staff operating in ‘Groundhog day’, as their old world was being disrupted. Many managers had risen on technical skills, and now the organisation wanted leadership. As new managers experimented with flexible roles and teams, other clung to past practices that were at odds with the emerging values.
How could HR help? How could HR accelerate the change process? The answer was direct from the more progressive managers. Do not focus on the compliance activities rolled out at this time of change. Make yourselves visible supporters of the new values, and managers living those values. It is manager actions that will embed the new culture, not HR. Support local manager initiatives that suit each unique section culture, build managerial leadership skills, and link in those who will be part of the succession plan. While courses for redeployment, retrenchment and job-seeking are necessary programmes, they are the ‘hygiene’ factors in this strategy, repressing the old, but not building the new. HR resources were re-orientated towards building a leader-full culture. The irony of this study is that just as these action was operationalised, a State election drove a change in political masters, and the departments were subsequently separated once again. However, what has been gained is an understanding of how to develop a strategic HR response at a time of disruptive culture change. This study has produced very useful knowledge for HR managers and academic engaging with such changes in the future.