No Man's Land

I had the chance to observe organizations and communities since quite an early age, and something was really fascinating.

When organizations expand, often it is assumed that the “culture” of the original entity will spread to all its parts- as if the center were the heart, and the parts (branches, subsidiaries, etc) were limbs of the same body.

An anthropocentric view of organizational development.

In this article, a small framework to observe, analyze, and ensure that your organization complies with the same professional and ethical standards throughout.

This is a short article- more a bullet list than a description.

Creating (unintentionally) a vacuum

Let’s start with the title- it is just the title of a movie that, in his own peculiar way, was funny.

Peculiar- because there was nothing funny about the idea that somebody is stuck on a landmine but, being in a no man’s land, nobody is taking the responsibility.

In organizational terms, a no man’s land is the unintentional result of corporate growth, when some parts of the company will not really feel part of the same organization.

Still being nominally part of it- but sending and receiving increasingly irrelevant communications.

Or just simply plainly oblivious about practical issues (from cultural or linguistic differences to changes in the legal framework to endemic corruption).

The beginning: de-centralization to cut costs

If you work more than few years inside an organization, you will eventually experiment some cost-cutting, usually starting with the training and travel expenses.

While local training is cost-effective, and you can ensure that trainers maintain the same standards, decentralizing training along with the trainers removes a precious communication channel cutting across the organization.

If trainers are part of the same organization where the employees operate, they will be unwilling to provide feed-back that could then be perceived as criticism of their peers, environment, or bosses.

In simpler terms: neither of them will have the perspective to identify trends.

The trend: losing touch with (operational) reality

The decentralization of corporate training is often followed by other cost-cutting measures, such as converting meetings into monthly or bi-monthly quantitative reports based on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

A useful tool (well, it was the source of most of my income for over a decade), but just a reporting tool.

And, as any reporting tool, it “filters out” anomalies that you did not foresee- until the anomalies are large enough to affect some KPIs.

Some companies try to compensate by sending in auditors- but both announced and announced inspections are quite visible- with the latter being usually quite resented- and further expanding the vacuum.

And after that…

It is really a slippery slope.

By this point, the issue is visible- and constant organizational adjustments are introduced to correct.

But each adjustment has an increasing cost (e.g. splitting in units), while further expanding the cultural distance between different units.

Admittedly, I was called in to solve the issue in relatively small entities, ranging from projects to programmes to partnerships between companies.

But the interesting part of the approach is its “scalability”.

In larger organizations, you need to build a group of people following the same approach (a customer half-jokingly told me that I was creating a sect), so that they can apply the same approach in every part of the organization.

A practical approach

It is not rocket science- it is just a mater of observing and creating opportunities to constantly collect feed-back.

The real secret is to create opportunities to bypass the existing organizational structures, and generate unvarnished feed-back.

You will have to assess the results, but spotting trends requires having a large enough data sample- and having both day-by-day monitoring (i.e. having people seeing and collecting the details) and “embedded auditing”.

“Embedded auditing” implies having people who work in the specific unit, but understand the logics of the overall organization.

Instead of periodical sampling (“auditing”), some informal adjustments can be carried out in each part of the unit, with the purpose of re-aligning with the overall purposes, but without the usual side-effects of formal auditing and compliance assessment.

If the “embedded auditors” are perceived as simple “ears and eyes” of the overall organization, they will lose their usefulness.

The concept is to train them to have independent people who are constantly informed on how to keep the alignment with the general organizational purposes, but flexible enough to understand that their role is to help integrate the corporate approaches with those relevant to the local environment, in agreement with the local managers.

Keeping the embedded auditors floating

The most critical issue is identifying the right “time limit” of their presence, i.e. when they will need to rotate, to avoid that they will become so “embedded” to lose the “auditing” side.

If you want- more facilitators between the overall organization and the local unit, than controllers or internal auditors.

The alternative? Dispatching periodically somebody to validate, verify, observe.

Somebody who, being oblivious to the practicalities of operational life in that specific environment, will behave like most auditors do- focus on the formal instead of the substantial, and showing that each time they go somewhere some minor adjustments are done.

Sometimes, akin to realigning chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the ship is sinking.

Tailoring the approach

As I said, the approach is “scalable”, i.e. can be applied to smaller and larger organizations.

I plan to eventually publish something more detailed online, including some self-assessment questionnaires and methodological documents.

The only caveat: before applying it, try to assess where you are and spot what are the macro-disalignments between the different units vs. your organizational goals (a 1-6 month activity).

Why? To assess if your goals are realistic- and identify the appropriate training and staffing to produce either a temporary or a permanent shift.

For the time being, let me know if you have specific cases that you would like to see discussed here in details (only publicly available information, thanks!), and some feed-back on your application of the approach.

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