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Culture Cohesion Requires Front-Line Attention E. Bruce Harrison
Georgetown University, and
CEO, EnviroComm International
August 30, 2010

Rick Wartzman, who keeps alive the Peter Drucker management flame at Claremont University's Drucker Institute, raised in a Bloomberg Businessweek column the need to empower workers at the lowest level possible with both "autonomy and accountability."

He quotes Drucker advocating (in his 1986 book, The Frontiers of Management) a companywide "understanding (of) shared values and, above all, mutual respect...a common language, a common core of unity" throughout the organization.

Employee empowerment is, indeed, a vital principle. Chief communications officers are strong advocates. But when you get down to cases, you have to wonder what, after all, is the power of the chief communications officer to influence comprehensive, ongoing, top-to-bottom values that build and sustain corporate culture?

Arguably, right now may be the best time for corporate communicators to test corporate cohesion on values. When the economy is lean and the pressure is up on production efficiency, there is evidence that other cultural values tend to yield.

Testifying before Congress, the head of Toyota admitted the company had set aside quality and customer safety values in favor of production volume.

Workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig told investigators they were less afraid of what could result from a risky operation than they were of challenging their supervisors on the need for cost-saving expediency.

At a major pharmaceutical plant, where workers had failed to keep black particles out of a popular drug product, product safety v. cost control seemed to be a factor, according to a Fortune article, with money the winner.

When quality and safety values that sustain a good reputation fall, companies are in a crisis of confidence — and it is no comfort to lean into a circa 1996 James Carvillean analysis: It's (just) the economy, stupid.

During crises — spurred by economic or other causes — values are the bedrock of corporate communications to restore trust.

There is abundant evidence to support Roger Bolton's view in a recent Page Society blog comment, that organizational culture change is ultimately in the hands of line management.

C-suite communications on values — such as safety, respect and accountability to stakeholders, which may be reasonably communicated and even enforced within offices — need to be saved from dilution as they flow down the line.

CCO's may find some inspiration in the hospital sector's moves to create "cultures of safety" to prevent errors in hospital care that kill about 100,000 patients a year. The idea now being communicated (see National Nursing News) is to empower front-line nurses to be "patient-safety advocates" who can, if necessary, challenge doctors and supervisors on patient-risky moves.

Basically, all companies and institutions need cultures of safety that are respected far from headquarters. Culture cohesion, extending to every interface with stakeholders, requires ongoing attention, just as Drucker — and now that I think about it, Arthur W. Page — recommended.

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