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?

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

New Insights into Web 2.0 and HR

I've been under the 'cosh' recently finishing off our CIPD report on Web 2.0 and HRM. I have to thank some bloggers who have helped provide insight and new material for the report and have done so in the written version. However, I would also like to acknowledge them online in case they don't read the document when it comes out in late November. They are James Hayton, James Richards, John Castledine, Jon Ingham and Thomas Otter.

To single out a few new recent pieces of research worth reading, James Hayton recently pointed me to a report by Pew Research on networked workers - excellent! Thomas also pointed to the advice given by IBM as a model for a code of conduct on Web 2.0. Finally, Julian Birkinshaw and Sarah Pass have just produced an interesting piece of work for the CIPD on Innovations in the Workplace: How are oragnisations responding to Generation Y and Web 2.0? This seems to be one of the few pieces of hard data on the lack of knowledge about Web 2 by HR professionals (and other managers in the UK) , which is also a finding of our work. This doesn't prevent HR professionals from being interested in the subject, however; indeed, we have found the situation to be the opposite.

As evidenced by research from Pew, Gartner, Forrester and McKinsey, there is strong justification for HR to be thinking in terms of and planning for a generation gap, which is one of the conclusions of the Birkinshaw and Pass study. However, this gap may be more of sociographic, V-generation one than Gen Y demographic one (see the other surveys referred to above). Birkinshaw and Pass also report evidence that HR sees potential in Web 2.0 and the need to address that potential, but just haven't done much about it. Maybe they have more on their plates just now with the problems of the financial services industry and the economy?

Leaving aside the hype, we side with those that believe HR need to address this issue strategically, or else they maybe left at the starting line?