Saturday, 25 October 2008

Branding and Reputations: the Needs for Equivocality, Flexibility and Adaptability

It’s been my week for working on reputation management and employer branding. Along with colleagues in the Centre, I’ve just finished off a couple of draft reports on employer branding and reputation management for two of the largest health boards in Scotland, given a presentation on the topic to the senior executive team of another health board, and about to give a presentation on corporate reputations to a specialist conference on the subject in Rome in a few hours. So it was extremely helpful to have received a mail from a good colleague of mine, Kerry Griggs, from Charles Sturt University in Australia, who is working with me in this field. Kerry pointed me in the direction of an insightful academic piece in the Journal of Management Inquiry by Kirstin Price, Dennis Gioia and Kevin Corley from the USA entitled ‘Reconciling Scattered Images’, which has helped me make sense of the scattered images we have unearthed in our own health service research and revise some of our model building on employer branding, coming out in two books early next year by Ron Burke and Cary Cooper and by Paul Sparrow.

Price et al discuss organizational images from three perspectives. These are projected organizational images (self presentation), refracted images (how outsiders read specific aspects of an organizational image) and intercepted images (how particular employees and leaders interpret images, often based on the way insiders think outsiders see them). So far, nothing much new here, aside from new terms. However, it is what they make of these, often competing, images that help me make sense of organizations such as the NHS. They argue that these images are ‘best seen as ‘virtual commodities modified and exchanged’ in a marketplace for ideas about an organisation. Thus people hold multiple images of organisations, often at odds with the official one that organisations such as the NHS would like to dominate the marketplace for ideas about health providers. As an example, our research (on, in their terms, projected, refracted and intercepted images) has unearthed four competing and complementary images among health service employees in rank order of the 'volume' (a measure of frequency and intensity with which they were expressed during group interviews): as organisations dominated by financial governance, power and politics; as professional bureaucracies structured along strong clinical identities, as employers of choice; and as a patient-centred, caring organisations. Interestingly, while the first two images dominated, the last two were not widely held or consistently expressed during our interviews.

Price et al's key insight is that organisations such as the NHS need to be flexible and adaptable in identity management to cope with the dynamic environments in which they operate. In this way they become sustainable in the long run – the dynamic capabilities argument. Organisational image architects (and academics) need to think in terms of ‘image equivocality’ to mitigate the scattered images problem. Roughly translated this means they need to build in flexibility (relevant to time and context), consistency (non-contradictory images) and inclusivity (relevant and authentic to most employees and users). How organisations such as specific health care providers achieve this is dependent on their ability to create images that maintain employees’ appreciation of its needs for adaptability (say in moving care towards the community and away from hospitals, and in meeting ever stringent financial resourcing) while not producing cynicism and mistrust through projected duplicitous images (e.g. those emphasising patient care that health service workers sometimes find difficulty in buying into, given their perceptions of senior management's main concerns). Such projections have an awful tendency to come back to haunt them.

Political science tells us this is best achieved by creating images that constituents can write what they want into them, while still remaining consistent with their overall mission and values. Which is why we are advocating public value as a equivocal image for health services providers. This notion, part of another of our research programmes on healthcare discussed on this blog, seems to fulfil the criteria of flexibility, consistency and inclusivity because it is ‘what the public values’, an idea broad enough to be flexible,consistent and inclusive but also a compelling one. What the public values may change over time with ratcheted expectations of healthcare providers; it may also change over time to incorporate an economic as well as caring mission. However, it remains a consistent goal for many healthcare employees seeking to gain meaning from their work while being fairly rewarded and provided for, and being allowed to hone and utilise their professional skills. For example, new public sector financial stringencies will lead to investment problems for all healthcare providers in the UK, while demographic trends point to major problems in recruiting clinical and non-clinical staff from traditional labour markets. A public value image allows healthcare to reflect these environmental changes by being at the heart of economic development as well as a caring society - providing good knowledge-intensive jobs in regions that need them and in providing employment for disadvantaged groups who are often those most in need to healthcare as a consequence of their marginalisation (see the results between unemployment and health). These economic goals are easily reconcilable with a healthcare and prevention mission, and place Scotland’s healthcare providers at the heart of economic growth.

Is this a projected image that we can all write into it what we want to, while remaining consistent with the traditional values of the NHS?

1 comment:

Kerry Grigg said...

Graeme I’m glad you enjoyed the Price, Gioia & Corley article. Dr Susan Mayson from Monash University alerted me to this article due to its relevance to my current research exploring the use of employer branding strategies around an organisation’s work life balance (WLB) credentials. I am really enjoying your blog and hope you don’t mind that I've taken the liberty of using it here to reflect on and share some thoughts on my current research project. My research has uncovered a diverse range of organisations attempting to link their WLB policies (e.g. telecommuting, flexitime) and culture to their employer brand in a bid to attract, retain and engage the best employees in a (until recently!) tight labour market. Examples in the Australian context include the ‘Be who you want to be’ employer brand of Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) and the deliberate strategy of St George Bank to use their well publicised success in a string of high profile WLB HR Awards to complement and reinforce their ‘Good with People Good with Money’ corporate branding strategy.

Building an employer brand around a company’s purported commitment to WLB is risky business, especially in light of the scattered images problem identified in the Price, Gioia & Corley article. In the St George example the implicit message was clear and unequivocal – 'trust us to provide outstanding customer care (and do the right thing with your money) because as you know we are the most caring and trusting employer in the industry, we even have the awards to prove it'. These consistent messages and images were conveyed to a diverse audience including customers, employees, shareholders and the broader community with the help of savvy advertising and public relations and an obliging media interested in the WLB issue.

The development of a genuine and compelling employer brand proposition built around the promise of WLB for organisations in the ultra competitive world of professional services consulting is more challenging. While PWC certainly wasn’t a focus of the recently released book Pin Striped Prison by Australian journalist Lisa Pryor, other well known organisations in the sector were savaged for what Pryor claimed were deceptive and misleading promises made as part of their sophisticated employer branding strategies. Delivering on WLB promises, and therefore using it as part of the employer brand, is more difficult than it perhaps sounds. There is widespread agreement that WLB goes beyond HRM policy considerations. Merely creating a set of WLB policies available to employees is not enough. Fostering an organisational culture that encourages and supports the use of available policies is critical if both employees and employers are to enjoy the benefits afforded by WLB strategies. For many large consulting firms built on a competitive culture of long working hours the organisational change required to shift mindsets and behaviour to deliver on their well intentioned employer brand promises is overwhelming. Herein is the problem of scattered images. To link the employer branding concept to the concepts raised in the article by Price and colleagues - organisations that fail to live up to the employer brand expectations they have created through their projected images are left with scattered images and disparate organisational expressions and impressions. In these situations, the potential for employee perceptions of psychological contract breach (a topic for another day) are rife.

Returning to my Australian examples (and commenting as an outside observer), St George Bank has leveraged their WLB credentials to great effect and has pioneered a truly WLB employer brand in the retail banking sector. Given that the bank is set to merge with one of Australia’s largest banks (Westpac) and the uncertainty enveloping the sector due to the current global financial environment, St George will need a committed and loyal workforce to negotiate the challenging times ahead. As for PWC, the organisation is in the relatively early stages of rolling out their employer brand but it’s my understanding they have developed an excellent set of policies and ‘infrastructure’ to support their WLB and broader employer branding promises. However the true strength (and parity) of their organisational images and effectiveness of their employer brand will rest on the company’s ability to adapt their organisational culture to support and complement the excellent range of policies on offer.

Organisations that fail to combine the right mix of HR policy + leadership + organisational culture to deliver on their projected image and employer brand may find themselves the unwanted focus of attention of the next book or website (e.g. or highlighting the broken promises of organisations through the eyes of disgruntled employees.