This ‘corner’ has been created to encourage conversations about our (the community’s) work and interests. Our assumption is that what is happening to some, will be of interest to all. If it doesn’t work that way, we will re-think this initiative. This time I will offer some thoughts on two research projects that I’ve been working on. Comments and contrary opinions are welcome!
One of the best things about retirement is having agency over what I do with my time and over how I do what I want to do. As a result, I can cherry-pick any offers of work that come my way based on how interesting the task is, and on how serious those who are offering the task, are about its contribution to their mission. This latter point is judged according to how ready they are to commit to critical reflection on their own practices, especially their leadership practices.
Since retiring I have taken on two research tasks, both of which have uncovered a fundamental contradiction between the espoused and the enacted strategy of each organisation. In one case, a small highly innovative and profitable business (which I’ll call SonCo) that had been acquired by a large corporate company (which I’ll call MotherCo) a few years ago, initiated an investigation into its situation (motivated by discontent among the senior management of SonCo that it was losing its capability to innovate since its acquisition by MotherCo). As an initial contextual study [wherein I wanted to explore the organisational context from an internal (staff) and an external (customer) perspective], I undertook to interview more than a quarter of staff members and four customers on their ‘lived experience’ of working in, or being a customer of, SonCo (for those who have done MRM, the study utilised a phenomenological research methodology). The results were clear – staff loved working for SonCo and were proud of its innovative capabilities, while customers raved about its innovative products and reputable brand (as exemplified in its lengthy warranties and exemplary customer service). SonCo’s products are market leaders in every market in which they compete, and customers are proud of the role that they play in SonCo’s innovation strategy – several highly successful products, and some fine-tuned administrative processes, had been co-designed and co-developed between SonCo’s staff and some of its customers.
However, staff and customers complained that since SonCo was acquired by MotherCo, things were changing for the worse. Additional process, rigid permissions regimes, and time-consuming reporting systems had been introduced with the effect of slowing down response times and destroying the social capital that exists among staff and between staff and customers. Staff claim to have gone from proudly supporting SonCo’s meaningful mission of producing environmentally-friendly unique Australian-made products, to becoming accomplices in MotherCo’s strategy of manufacturing/importing and selling commodity products. Intangible incentives (personal purpose being strongly aligned with SonCo’s purpose) have been replaced by tangible incentives (financial rewards for achieving KPIs) to push revenue at all costs. The research and development (R&D) staff (whose personal raison d’être is to develop innovative products for the company) are no longer allowed to
collaborate with (or even talk to) customers (a practice upon which most of SonCo’s innovative capabilities were based) as the marketing function now ‘owns’ customers. In this way the transformation of one of Australia’s most innovative companies into a standardised arm of a widget-making corporation is occurring.
The question the research report asks in its conclusion is, ‘what motivated a large corporation to acquire a small Australian company with exceptional capability to innovate, if it was just going to turn it into a standard facility to increase minimally its production capability?’
The second research project (also involving a contextual analysis through interviews with staff and customers) was conducted in a partnership-based Australian company with a history of success for over one hundred years, that has failed to address disruptive phenomena that are threatening its survival. This case offers a classic example of why innovation is essential for survival in any industry, and yet the company continued on its traditional path in spite of falling revenues and red lights flashing everywhere. In this case, the role of perceived personal interests over perceived company interests led to a Titanic-type route towards the ever-closer iceberg as partners were unable to reach consensus on the transformation of the company. At a very late stage in the process, the company’s strategic direction has been altered but it is still too early to say whether the iceberg has been avoided or not. One interesting finding from the contextual analysis, was that the staff and customer perspectives were strongly aligned, with each group clearly identifying the same issues that needed to be addressed within the company. The question this raised was, ‘if the majority of the staff and all of the customers were aware of the issues, why was the leadership reticent in addressing them?’ Although everyone was aware of the problems, nobody spoke up (and broke the silence within the company with respect to these problems).
In both cases, the research results (the contextual analysis in each case) have facilitated action on the issues facing these two organisations. Thus, although not initiated by them, the research has been taken seriously by senior management. Given these outcomes, these experiences have reassured me on the important role that research can play in facilitating leadership action. Even better, though, would have been senior management initiating such proactive leadership by recognising strategic research as being their responsibility.