Fostering Adaptive Behaviour

Updated: Sep 17 2003, 05:30am hrs
At the turn of the 20th century, most articles on management focussed on the 21st century firm. The main arguments centred on the need for such firms to develop capabilities to adapt to a continuously changing environment and that too on a global basis. From this it was obvious to expect organisational practices and processes to exhibit a global character. The emergence of a global manager was predicted. Someone who would have global perspectives on issues and be capable of enhancing the organisations adaptive behaviour. In fact, adaptability of organisations was conjectured as an essential pre-requisite for surviving and flourishing in the 21st century.

Adaptability of any organisation is dependent on its internal processes, leadership styles, behaviour reinforcement systems, and stakeholder orientation. Particularly, management thinkers have focussed on the importance of people management practices in influencing the flexibility and adaptive capability of organisations.

Capability to adapt means capability to learn and change by putting the learning to work. Have organisations really been doing this in recent years more vigorously than before I doubt it. In my experience, I find most organisations do not have the necessary processes and cultural mechanisms in place for fostering adaptive behaviours.

In order to facilitate learning in an organisation, it is necessary for the organisation to promote a culture of confronting existing reality. In other words, employees at all levels should not be stopped from airing views, even if they are uncomfortable in the existing context. But in most organisations it is so common to see such confrontation of reality by an enterprising employee being put down by force of authority. It is very common to see many new ideas being shouted down or ridiculed by seniors. In such an atmosphere it is very difficult to have reason-based confrontation. People hoard ideas and avoid conveying any news good or bad. As a consequence, the organisation is saddled with only considering whatever the top management personnel have to offer as ideas. An undesirable state for any organisation which wants to be adaptive.

Organisational communication, an important process for enabling generation and implementation of ideas, is still very weak in most organisations. Organisations either communicate selectively about the key aspects of change or do not communicate at all. This leads to speculation about the change and its consequences. Trust is usually a casualty in such situations. Organisational communication also helps in involving people in the change process by getting each individual to understand her or his role in the change. But it is still a commonly held belief that pervasive communication would lead to a groundswell of opinions and views, which could eventually slow down the change process. It is time change managers realise that the benefits of continuous communication far outweigh the imagined problems.

In making organisations adaptive and flexible, it is common to come across the organisation structure as a stumbling block. In most organisations the structure is a manifestation of power equations. Any change in the structure disturbs the local fiefdom and hence it is difficult to have a meaningful analysis and discussion. This is truer for headquarters or corporate offices. While structural changes at lower levels may be grudgingly accepted, changes at corporate levels are either avoided or vociferously resisted. In a world where everyone is talking of getting closer to the customer and being responsive on a real time basis, it is very difficult to defend large corporate headquarters and elaborate structures therein. Yet, there are very few instances of dramatic changes in the organisation and structure of corporate headquarters in the recent past.

The discussion on adaptive organisations leads one to the inference that decentralisation and democratisation are two organisational aspects that need to be actively promoted. Whether it is the government or a corporate body, it appears that the focus of these two aspects of functioning is a necessity for ensuring adaptive and flexible behaviours. As organisations move towards greater decentralisation and democratisation it is obvious that the issues discussed in the previous paragraphs would be attended to automatically. It has to be understood that empowerment and centrality of the operating level unit, the main interface with customer or citizen, would ensure good service delivery, which is the raison detre of adaptive behaviour.

(The writer is a management consultant based in Mumbai)