posted 27 Apr 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 8
Put it to the board: Organisation constellations
A large German retailer recently expanded into the European market by taking over its biggest competitor, a French company. The new company kept the German name. The stock market was initially positive about the takeover. However, soon after the acquisition, the integration of IT operations stalled, which threatened annual profits. Although they had agreed to merge the two existing systems, the French managers argued that the German system was too inflexible and would not work under their conditions. This is common in international M&As. What seemed to be a straightforward merger of people and operations became a muddle.
The KM consultant advising the German company suggested primarily addressing the systemic dimension of the problem, not just the individual and operational dimensions. He led an organisation constellation – a change-management simulation performed as a solution-focused role play. The simulation involved a managing director, representatives from the German and French managers, the original French company, and those involved in the joint task of merging the systems.
The simulation found that the German board, driven by economic considerations, had all but forgotten about the acquired French company and its employees. Reconciling steps had to be taken to acknowledge their importance to the new company’s success, which also meant modifying the company’s brand. A few months after the constellation, the two IT systems were merged successfully with no further complications.
What happened here? Every member of a work system is blinded to some extent by his or her own personal context and normal human limitations. The system as a whole, however, does have the knowledge, a kind of systemic awareness, if you will. Organisational-constellation work is a technique for drawing out this knowledge, bringing it to the surface and presenting it to individuals who are often relieved when they grasp the realities of their system. These results are not usually achieved through traditional coaching methods with individuals or teams, or with a re-engineering approach. In this case, when we looked at the individuals, teams or job itself, all we saw was confusion and suppressed emotion. Only by looking at the system as a whole could we see the nature of the entanglement obstructing the solution.
Knowledge managers are often faced with similar situations because their task – helping to improve knowledge flows and sharing within organisations – is systemic by nature. Once they have realised the importance of soft issues they need to take the next step and dare to think big, by designing their interventions to include results of complexity and system sciences. Such organisational constellations are of particular value to consultants dealing with outsourcing, and M&A processes, which have a long-term impact on relationships within and external to the system. I will be leading a half-day masterclass on Systemic KM Interventions at KM UK, London, on June 16 2004.
Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe