How does culture impact change in organizations? This was discussed at the Global OD Summit 2009
in India in August and the moderator was seeking perspectives of organization development (OD) experts. This question suggests that not only is managing change a significant ongoing concern for CEOs and CHROs, so is managing cultural diversity, whether in India, Europe or Canada.
It is difficult to dispute that culture impacts change in organizations because there is so much evidence. But in order to answer "how", we first need to define what is meant by culture. Values, beliefs, traditions and language are the typical touchstones. If these have shifted within society over the years, then certainly an organization's ability tomanage change may have been impacted as well.
Coming of age in Montreal in the early 70s, I witnessed massive changes in Quebec society and the impact it had on the city. In west-end English NDG, Michel and Pierre lived across the street from me and attended the one French Catholic school kitty corner to my school but we never walked to school or played together. I never understood why.
In the 60s, Mayor Jean Drapeau wanted Montreal to become world-renowned. A modern subway system, Expo 67, the 76 Olympics: these bold initiatives presented Montreal as a world-class city. But the growing undercurrent of cultural tensions would change his plans.
The Sir George William riots of the mid 60's exposed the ugliness of perceived racist attitudes at the University. In the midst of this, immigrants from the Czech Republic poured into Montreal bringing with them conservative Central European values and beliefs. The growing passion for a French Canadian independent identity led to the shocking violent act of the kidnapping and death of Pierre Laporte, a provincial politician. Canadian-based companies such as Sunlife Insurance began to leave the city and when Bill 101 was introduced, young English Quebeckers also left. French-speaking immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and the East came to Montreal with their different dialects,
values, beliefs and traditions. French culture flourished but infrastructure suffered. Shifting the cultural focus from English to French changed the City from dual society to global diversity, and this introduced complexities that took priority over the physical changes Drapeau had been seeking.
Montreal is an exciting vibrant city but it is struggles to transform itself. In the 90s, cultural diversity training grew in demand due to newly-minted Human Rights legislation. Just like Montreal, Ottawa had been experiencing an influx of immigrants since the 60s. It was therefore no coincidence that my early consulting work centered on cultural diversity. One client was concerned about communication within its work teams. Theirsector overall was undergoing significant change and it attracted skills from many different backgrounds, with varied value systems and languages. This organization acknowledged that their new diversity was adversely impacting how well they could meet the changing needs of their client base. Training employees to behave appropriately was proactive and an effective intervention.
About a decade later, I found myself working with an international organization to review its human resources practices. Its focus was external, providing expertise to developing nations but it had neglected its own employees who came from many parts of the globe on short-term contracts, hoping to make a real difference. Training employees was not going to be the answer. The organization struggled with managing the tension of its diverse workforce. How could it introduce
change into this environment? What common language would employees understand? What core values would resonate with all cultures? What do these three scenarios have in common? In each situation, change was being introduced but the cultural make up was also changing. Would a "one-size fits all approach satisfy each of them? Not likely.
Organizational dynamics have changed over the years due to instant connectivity globally through technology, an unforgiving environment, changing expectations of the younger demographic and a shifting political balance of power. In spite of this, many of us are still offering the same type of cultural diversity training interventions. However, there are new researchers on the scene to assist the human resources practitioner in managing a diverse workforce.
Dr Lionel Laroche exposes the distance existing between the steps the immigrant and the organization have both taken to understand cultural diversity. That gap needs to be explored if organizations want to successfully manage change. Dr Linda Manning in her work on Leveraging Immigrant Talent has also considered the issue of "culture impacting change from a different angle. Instead of focusing on the immigrant, one should consider the ways in which organizations approach the topic of cultural diversity in their management practices.
One cannot assume that the academic change management process will work equally well in all cultures. Nor can one assume off-the shelf training is always the answer. However, one should also not assume that the diversity of cultures negates the possibility of a positive change management process.