Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Architects of meaning - From CHRO to CMO

"It doesn't make sense!" This is a statement that one is likely to hear quite frequently in today's 'dynamic & complex' business organizations. This makes me wonder if the problem has more to do with the 'it' part (the situation) or with the 'sense' part (the implied definition of the term 'sense' in this context) or with 'make sense' part (making sense of the situation)?

All the three seem to be highly probable 'suspects' - individually and in various combinations. Corporate life often throws up many 'strange' and 'messy' situations for the employees (e.g. those created by frequent reorganizations, frequent changes in the strategy/operating model etc.). It can also be argued that since business organizations are somewhat 'artificial' entities (significantly different from the 'natural habitats' or 'natural social groups' for humans), the term 'sense' should have a different interpretation in the context of business organizations as compared to that in more 'natural' settings! However, this post let us take a closer look at the third 'suspect' - 'sense making' - in the context of business organizations (i.e. process of giving meaning to experiences in organizational life). We will also explore the possibility of using another concept that has often been discussed in this blog -myths - as an aid to sense-making (see here and here for examples).

It is said that nothing is more practical than a good theory. So let us begin by examining some of the theories on sense-making. According to Karl Weick, sense-making is about contextual rationality. It is built out of vague questions, muddy answers and negotiated agreements that attempt to reduce confusion. Our perception of reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs. Sense making is not interpretation as it encompasses more than how cues are interpreted; but it is concerned with how the cues were internalized in the first instance and how individuals decide to focus on specific cues. Two types of sense-making occasions common to organization are ambiguity and uncertainty. In the case of ambiguity people engage in sense-making when they are confused by too many interpretations whereas in the case of uncertainty they do so because they are ignorant of any interpretations.

Sense-making occurs when activity/practice (habit/pattern of behavior) is disrupted (e.g. by events or ambiguity). However, people first look for explanations or reasons that will enable them to resume the interrupted activity. In cases where no explanation or reasons for the disruption can be found, a sense-making process is initiated. The process of sense-making on a situation has two steps. Bracketing & filtering cues followed by creating meaning. This in turn serves as the springboard for action. But the process is not so linear. It is muddy and iterative. Social sense-making is most stable (and effective) when it s simultaneously constructive and destructive -when it is capable of increasing both ignorance (unlearning) and knowledge (learning) at the same time.

As you might have realized, while the above theory on sense-making seems very reasonable, there is one important problem. The sense-making theory is mainly 'explanatory' in nature. This does not directly help us in our objective of facilitating/helping sense-making in organizations. To remedy this, the concept of 'sense-giving' has been developed. Sense-giving is the process of attempting to influence the sense-making and meaning construction of others toward a preferred redefinition of organization reality. Logically speaking, this could involve influencing the way people do the 'bracketing & filtering' of cues (i.e. the first step in the sense-making process described above). I feel that interventions based on behavioral economics principles (see note 3 in 'The power of carrot and stick') can be of use here. We can also look at influencing the second step in the sense-making process (i.e. creation of meaning). This is where myths comes in!

A myth is a story that embodies a powerful truth. While the incidents in the original story might not be factually correct (see Too true to be real) the 'truth' contained in the story remains valid across time. Anthropologically speaking, one of the key uses of myths in a society (or any group in general) is to help the members to make sense of the events in their life -especially the profound and/or no so pleasant events - the events and transitions that shakes one up. Myths can serve the same purpose in organizational life also. By the way, if you are wondering if concepts from Anthropology are relevant for today's business organizations, please see 'Accelerated Learning and Rites of Passage' for a discussion on how another concept from Anthropology - 'rituals' - can be used to facilitate key role transitions in corporate life.

We create stories about our experiences to give meaning to them. This can happen both at the individual and at the group/team level. Teams work well when they share a common set of myths - stories that have powerful, emotional truth - truths the team learned during their struggles/experiences in organizational life - stories they have created to give meaning to these experiences. Leaders can be more effective if they can tap into these myths - to generate energy to pursue new opportunities and to hold the group together. As Karen Armstrong says, myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave.

Now, let us come back to second step in the sense-making process that we have seen earlier - creating meaning. By helping individuals and groups to create stories we can help them to create meaning from their experiences. Stories can help people to 'find their place' in the organization. This is important as who people think they are in their context shapes how they interpret events and what they do. Stories can also help in making sense (deriving the meaning) of the inevitable not so pleasant/unsettling experiences in organizational life. All these can very useful especially for new entrants to the organizations (e.g. management trainees). HR practices that create time and space for introspection as a group can create opportunities the group members to collectively understand and share their experiences of organizational events. Hence they can facilitate the process of organizational sense-making.

This discussion becomes very significant as meaning (finding meaning in work) is becoming an increasingly important issue in the workplace. This is possibly because of ‘higher order needs ‘(where ‘meaning’ forms a significant factor) becoming more active in a greater percentage of the employees and because of the unnerving pace of change in the workplace (that push employees out of their comfort zones and prompt them to think about ‘deeper’ issues including that of finding meaning). It can also be argued that one of the key responsibilities of managers/leaders in such situations is to help the employees to find meaning in work. Thus HR interventions that can help the employees and managers/leaders in this endeavor should become one of the key focus areas for HR.

By the way, if we leverage power of stories in HR interventions like coaching and mentoring, they are likely to be more effective in helping employees to make sense out of their experiences and to be better adapted to the organization. Stories can be useful for sustaining/celebrating the existing culture and also for changing the culture. Taking an existing story (myth) and making subtle changes to it (to the story and/or the truth implied in the story) can be a great way for initiating change. When we are telling a story to others we are telling the story to ourselves also. In a way, by changing our stories (and the truths embedded in those the stories) we can change ourselves. Also when we interact with others and with ourselves through story telling, the stories evolve.

From a change management perspective, stories have many advantages. Stories can communicate complex meanings and ideas (that are required to be communicated in today's complex organizations/organization contexts). Stories can help people to organize and integrate experiences (even a set of experiences that are not internally consistent). Since stories and story telling come naturally to human beings they are inherently non-threatening and hence the stories can directly engage emotions without having to face too much screening/too many arguments from the analytical mind. This can be very useful in generating initial buy-in for a new/unfamiliar idea. More importantly, people can add on to the stories. This can lead to a situation where people consider the stories (and the truths contained in them) to be their own and tell the stories to others. This in turn can convert them from being passive recipients of the change to active advocates of the change.

What does this mean for HR professionals? May be, we should start talking about 'being Meaning Architects' in addition to our (increasingly annoying) talk about 'becoming Strategic Business Partners!Extending this line of thought, the Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO) should become the Chief Meaning Officer (CMO). This transition from CHRO to CMO is not without risks! I am sure that if 'creating meaning' becomes accepted as the key deliverable for business leaders, business heads (and possibly even the CEOs) might get tempted to 'steal' the CMO role and/or title from the CHROs! They can use the ‘tried and tested argument for these kinds of situations' - ‘the matter is too important to be left to HR’!!!

What do you think?

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