How does one develop a successful working community?
How do you advise an organization that is involved in large-scale change? In answering this question, it is important to take account of the way modern organizations operate. Whoever does that, cannot ignore the crucial role played by working communities in the modern service-oriented network organization. The question then is: how does one develop a successful working community? Dr. Michiel Schoemaker, teacher at TIAS, names a few critical success factors.
In order to survive in a turbulent environment, many organizations need to operate like open systems. This implies that modern organizations need to operate like flexible networks, where production in space and time is often fragmented (Schoemaker, 2003). As a result of this, the past ten years has seen the emergence of the network organization.
Within these open network systems, collective collaboration is based on the willingness of people to contribute and develop their talents as members of working communities. Accordingly, the proper functioning of organizations depends on shared values in a common organizational identity between peoples' networks.
How can organization development function in the development process of working communities and what could the role of the change agent be herein?
New organizational forms
From the middle of the eighties of the last century, working in organizations underwent a fundamental change. Today, the majority of the working population in so-called "developed countries" is employed in service-oriented organizations, where information and communication technology (ICT) is regularly used. Computers, email, mobile telephones, intranet and Internet have become a firmly embedded part of the working environment.
At the same time, the dependence of employees' talents, and the social capital that they take along with them, has increased enormously. Thinking and acting have been combined in the workplace. Individuals are free to take their own decisions and to control their own work processes accordingly. Compared with classical industrial organizations, individuals have much more freedom to manage their own work activities.
It has become clear that talents and social capital provide the basis for connecting people in different networks and that they deserve special attention in a modern organization. This gives rise to an important concept in a modern organization: the working community.
People have the fundamental need to belong somewhere and to be a member of a community. A community can be: a sports club, a political party, an association, a church, a study, a company. So individuals are members of various communities at the same time. The modern network organization tends to become such a community too: a working community.
If one looks at organizations through this "ideal-type" perspective, individuals see membership of an organization as a way of developing their personal identity. Working in an organization offers a wide range of opportunities to invest in the personal talents and to develop them. This leads to creating and strengthening self-confidence and personality. One could argue that the network organization thrives on the will of its individual members.
The behavior of individuals is anchored in specific norms and values. Whether one becomes a member of a group depends on the congruence of values and norms at the group and individual levels. The stronger the congruence, the more the group will behave according to this specific and clear collection of values and norms. These values and norms also form the groups' identity.
Organizational identity leads to rhetorical questions such as: who are we as a group, as a department, as an organization? What do we stand for? A clear organizational identity gives a group a past, present and future and forms the groups' limits. It is this identity that shapes a specific working community (Schoemaker, 2003). Working communities tend to behave like flexible networks of people, whereby the organizational identity acts as the 'glue'.
Working communities are extremely important for the proper functioning of the modern working community. How can these working communities be developed? During the period 1995-2005, I have conducted 25 case studies as a researcher and consultant in Dutch organizations having 500 to 6000 employees. In this context I paid special attention to the development of working communities.
All companies were in a period of change. They tried to deal with a turbulent environment, changing demands or a big internal reorganization, thanks mainly to new developments in the ICT field. By means of interviews with actors (reflection and evaluation), logs and questionnaires, organization development was "followed" over time.
In 23 case studies it became clear that an unambiguous organizational identity is crucial for developing communities. In the discussions (both group and individual discussions) with employees it became clear that they, as employees, wanted to feel that they belonged. They were looking for a point of reference. For many employees, organizational identity is this point of reference, especially in changing organizations. The more explicit the identity of an organization is, the more employees recognized this identity and the easier it was for them to identify with the organization and its goals and core competences.
After the evaluation of all 25 organization development case studies, we came to the conclusion that explicit values, trust and a collection of collective norms, combined with leadership and talent development, formed the ingredients for shaping working communities. For many organizations, of different forms, these ingredients were repeatedly the critical success factors for shaping working communities.
The role of the change agent
The change agents in the 25 case studies were different types of people. They were not only internal project managers, team members, but also external consultants like me. We asked all these change agents to analyze their organization development processes and to reflect on them from a research perspective.
The role of the change agent in all these change processes is evidently a complex one. He/she wrestles with various problems (motivation, skills and obligations), as well as with the roles' ambiguity. In order to overcome these problems and the roles' ambiguity, the change agent will have to take some clear actions:
- First of all it is essential to make a proper diagnosis of the problem and the intake.
- The change agent will also have to decide whether he/she wants to, or may, or should play a role.
- Finally, the action perspective is of importance. Once a role has been chosen, it is difficult to change it without long-term communication, modeling, etc.
By using research (with a view to analysis and reflection) in his/her work, the change agent can build up knowledge about processes such as organization development and shaping working communities.
About the author
Dr. Michiel Schoemaker is teacher at the TIAS Masterclass Strategic Management. On the one hand his advisory and research projects are related to setting up and implementing personnel management. On the other hand, he supervises reorganizations, mergers and takeovers, especially in the HR field.
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