Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Magic of Symbols

If you want to change culture, you need not only new archetypes for business, but the kind of gossip that will spread infectiously. Stories that emphasize the core of your business (whether that be scientists, social change or light bulbs) and yet emphasize that change and new ideas fit within the profit margins are keys to making organizations change. Who tells your stories how changes rate and type of change.
Research backs up this idea of the importance of stories. Communities of practice won't develop unless a "harmony of values" between business and employee interests is reached ("Transforming an Old Economy through Strategic Communities," Mitsuru Kodama, Long Range Planning, 2002 (35)) and one of the keys to internal collaboration seems to be making sure emerging networks are linked to "burning issues" in the company ("Building Knowledge-Creating Value Networks," Bettina Buchel & Steffen Raub, European Management Journal, 2002 (20, 6)). Context is vital to motivation. Company environment and company processes for innovation need to espouse the same values, and environment and process are clearly different things ("Innovation Alchemy," Michael Schrage, CIO, 2005). Change doesn't just happen; advocacy and consistent proseltyzing is how change is absorbed into corporate culture--which is one role of a CKO ("Implementing Knowledge Management: Three Strategies for Effective CKOs," Steffen Raub & Daniel von Wittich, European Management Journal, 2004).

Many articles about how to encourage innovation harp on values. But how do you manage values? How do you not just talk about objectives, but turn values into something employees internalize into tacit culture that changes interactions and processes throughout the business? Higgins and McAllaster (2002) suggest that stories and tangible cultural artifacts are the ways to effect cultural organizational change through easily-understood, significant symbols.

Story-telling isn't the first step towards organizational change. Higgins and McAllaster emphasize that first a strategic plan, objectives, resources and hiring need to be aligned with new organizational goals. But to diffuse that change through an organization into the daily activities of business, stories and cultural artifacts do the trick. Changing culture sounds (and is) daunting and nearly impossible to approach systematically. But Higgins and McAllaster know that cultural artifacts such as the layout of a building, the names of teams and myths told around the office reflect organizational culture. Since that's the existing strata of organizational artifacts, to effect change first a business must figure out what kinds of stories their employees tell around the water cooler.

Example: 3M and Post-Its. The employee who invented Post-It notes, Fry, developed the sticky notes to use in his church hymnal. Market research showed no interest in this product, but Fry gave them to secretaries until they were hooked by the new possibilities and eventually it was developed into a new product line.
Higgins and McAllaster break this story into the values supported by 3M: perseverance, openness to ideas, advocate for your own ideas, success is rewarded & stories promote corporate values (2002, p. 78).

Example: Yokogawa Electric Corporation & the Bullet Train. When a new corporate strategy was needed for the electric corporation, the CEO used the metaphor of the new, high speed bullet trains to emphasize that a quantum leap in strategy requires new technology, new modes of thinking and new ways of laying the groundwork. Just as a bullet train needs a different kind of engine than a traditional train, straight, wide tracks and a new design, corporate strategy change requires that the groundwork, engine and design of the company change together.
Higgins and McAllaster emphasize that Yokogawa succeeds with this metaphor because a new "richness" is added, that "transcends the words themselves."

For more details, stay tuned to our reports from the research project...

SOURCE: "Want Innovation? Then Use Cultural Artifacts that support it." (2002) James Higgins & Craig McAllaster. Organizational Dynamics 31(1), p. 74-84.

[Summary Prepared by: Caroline]

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