Are you prepared for staff input?

The second case study from How Much and How Important? An Executive View of Employee Engagement Factors
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/20/2009

David Neumann

Human Resources Manager

Computronix is a high-tech, private-sector firm based in Edmonton. It employs 75 people.

The survey process identified Computronix as a leader in best practices that lead to an engaged workforce. David Neumann, manager of HR at Computronix, was interviewed about two best practice areas in which his firm excels: connection to the big picture and empowerment.

Connection to the big picture

Computronix maintains an open door policy, in which all managers are accessible, according to Neumann. Its organizational charts reflect more than just the formal and traditional reporting relationships in an organization. It has three organizational charts:

•one that reflects who reports to whom (the traditional chart);

•another that reflects the quality system structure (the people linked into producing best practices relating to quality in nine quality areas); and

•a third chart that outlines responsibilities for staff development learning areas (this has major implications for “big picture” learning within the organization).

“Traditional organizational structures are falsified ways of putting talent together,” said Neumann. “Structures should not be primarily about who is most important, but rather about how to get things done in ways that meet the needs of the organization and its employees. Respect, trust and truth beat falseness. As I often say, no one in the organization owns more than one-seventh of the truth.”

Big picture staff meetings that matter

The company’s “corporate care” initiative is comprised of quarterly meetings for all employees. These are held off-site and include a paid lunch. Each corporate care meeting starts at 11 a.m. and runs until 2 p.m. and is followed by break-out groups to discuss specific issues.

All managers are expected to make presentations and receive feedback at corporate care meetings. The presentations have two give-and-take components: “What happened?” and “What next?”

Employees who are at a distance from the corporate care meeting site can connect to it electronically, and there are sub-meetings organized at satellite sites.

These meetings allow employees who are in one place, or one virtual place, at one time to hear from and react to all managers, rather than hearing bits and pieces at different times from different managers. This shows employees the big picture, which includes the components of history (what was done) the present (where we are now) and the future (where should we go).

“We have been holding these corporate care meetings for nine years, and we also use them as opportunities to present awards and to congratulate people for accomplishments,” said Neumann. “These meetings work effectively because our managers have learned to have thick skins when they are criticized (they have learned not to take criticism personally) and because we all use humour to laugh at ourselves on occasion. This use of humour helps us to not take ourselves too seriously in an environment in which scientists, engineers and managers all want to rule the world.”

In a recent corporate care meeting, Computronix’s chief information officer was frank enough to describe a strategy he had developed, and then said, “I was wrong, because I didn’t see far enough ahead in terms of marketing the product.”

Because of this admission, employees were able to help figure out how the strategy could be altered to make it more workable. This relates to the big picture because it reflects the honesty required so that those in the organization see the picture as it is, and not as managers would like it to be. This honesty also involves a willingness to allow ideas to be attacked by others.

“In our organization’s culture, attacking an idea does not equate with attacking a person,” said Neumann. “A specific example of my own involvement in a big picture incident occurred after I had been struggling with how to enunciate and measure our core values. A small group of our employees had been at a conference of other organizations, and returned with something that had been done by another organization that was exactly what I wanted to do, but hadn’t figured out how to do, at Computronix.”

Neumann said he adopted what they had brought to him, but made sure they were recognized for their work by making it clear in a broadly distributed e-mail that they, not him, had found the idea.

“I also asked them to come up front at one of our corporate care meetings to be recognized and to describe the idea,” said Neumann. “The big picture involves not only the knowledge we generate, it also involves knowledge generated by others that we can adopt, and people who bring such idea from the outside need to be recognized for contributing such externally generated ideas to the big picture.”

Empowerment

Neumann said there are two ways of seeing power — the “king” model in which power is concentrated in one place and the “democracy” model in which power is distributed more equally across a population.

“While organizations like mine cannot be democracies, they can adopt some of the features of the democratic model to foster empowerment within their organizations,” he said. “To a large extent, people who work in Computronix demand and expect empowerment. About 65 of our 75 employees are highly technical, and are accustomed to challenging and criticizing other people’s ideas, often in very blunt ways.”

In many ways the corporate care meetings are a great example of empowerment, he said.

“However, if you want a different example, a little while ago I took a seven-week leave of absence to think, reflect and write,” said Neumann. “As a result of that period of reflection, I decided to lead within Computronix the development of a ‘building a healthier organization’ initiative.”

This initiative is essentially a tool meant to help the company get beyond the recruitment paradigm (“you will fit the machine”) and replace it with the enabling paradigm (“what are you made to do?”).

Tapping into employees’ capabilities

“The core of the initiative is the idea that there are five ‘social thought systems’ that we in Computronix must examine in terms of meta-level concepts about ourselves as individuals within the company,” he said.

These include:

•the “charity” thought system;

•the “servant leadership” thought system;

•the “people have worth” thought system;

•the “personal development” thought system; and

•the “community means us” thought system.

This tool is meant to empower employees because it should help them define, with support from the organization, their view of “what they are made to do.” An employee who has a better sense of what she is meant to do is an employee who is better able to proactively contribute to the organization, based on a better understanding of her own capacities and personal purposes.

“One of the sources of my thinking about this tool was a boss I had shortly after joining the company,” he said. “At first I expected him to simply tell me what to do, but he refused to behave that way. Instead, when I asked him what I should do, he said, ‘I will tell you the boundaries within which you must operate… and I can tell you, you haven’t exceeded the boundaries yet.’”

Neumann headed the group within Computronix that developed the first draft of the tool with support from other managers. Computronix is now going to test it within the organization, adjust it based on the testing and then use it on an ongoing basis.

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