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Culture change in outsourced accounts - some personal observations.

When companies merge two, sometimes very different, cultures come into contact. The frictions that result can be unsettling unless action is taken to harmonise the different beliefs and behaviours. I have experienced the merging of several cultures personally as I previously worked for a small consultancy that was acquired by a large Systems Integrator. They subsequently went on to acquire multiple groups of new employees through outsourcing and I worked in a number the outsourced accounts. The following are my own personal, empirical observations on some of the tactics that work successfully in merging disparate cultures:

  • Make an immediate tangible change. The biggest real change immediately visible in my company is the introduction of free tea and coffee. This is a real culture shock, at least in the UK, where pay vending machines or "coffee clubs" are the rule. I reckon it is because the company's founders were programmers and it is well known that a major food group for that type is caffeine. (BTW - the other food groups are nicotine, grease, sugar and alcohol.)

  • Let the two groups meet. We conduct road shows with "no holds barred" question and answer sessions with ordinary employees not HR or OD professionals. Their instructions are to answer the questions truthfully but to be positive and upbeat where possible.

  • Re-brand. Make sure that the new identity is very visible: new signs outside all the building and in the foyers; give away large quantities of coffee mugs, mouse mats, lapel pins, sweat shirts, etc.

  • Then leave them alone for a year. That allows the jitters to settle down, people to get used to the idea of the new ownership and realise that not everyone gets laid off. Outsourcing can make people feel they have been bought and sold, it take time to realise that basically all has happened is they have changed employers and their jobs are fundamentally still the same.

  • Reorganise and relocate. Co-location is a key technique in cultural transformation. We have major organisational restructurings every year and minor ones every six months. The next major shake-up allows departments and practices to be merged, split and generally homogenised. Then you get to work alongside these new, strange people and discover that they are in fact quite normal, OK kind of guys; stereotypes get demolished.

  • Send people on training courses. Instructor-led training events are one of the best enculturation techniques for induction of transferred staff into the greater organisation, especially residential events. No matter how much we use CBT and self paced study books we should never forget the power of these events, especially for new-comers. That it where they start forming the essential networks of contacts across the old divides.

  • Send in consultants. I work for the consultancy arm of our company and they have a major role in culture transfer. On outsourced accounts we get called in to provide project management disciplines, technical expertise and to wave our arms about, facilitate workshops and generally talk plausibly. But in fact, these consultants play a major role in "Lead by Example" to inject the company's culture into the account by acting as role models. Unfortunately the word "culture" brings to my mind the image of consultants as a dollop of live yoghurt being dropped into a vat of stale milk (apologies to anyone from an outsourced account). The consultants' role is to bring it alive and get things bubbling.

What is "culture" anyway?

I always thought "culture" was one of those fluffy, touchy-feely concepts until it was brought home to me that you see it through what people say and what people do. Let me illustrate:

When my previous company was acquired the two cultures were very different. In short, the stereotyped view was: the consultancy, working with commercial clients, had a strong entrepreneurial approach and little management discipline but it was fun (or do I mean challenging); the new owners, were in defence and government with strong "by the book" project management, long time scales and did NOT have a fun image.

The first joint Christmas party following the merger arrived and the invitation was a scroll in the likeness of a pirate's treasure map. "Yo-ho-ho, me hearties. Ye are invited to partake of a tot of Christmas rum at the xyz hotel, …" Two lads worked for me at the time. Steve spent Friday afternoon with a red bandanna tied round his head going "Ah-ha Jim Lad!" to all the secretaries. Simon went to Toys-R-Us™ in search of a cutlass. Failing to find one, he showed creativity and came back with a Jedi™ light sabre.

The evening of the party Steve arrived early, parked up, knotted the bandanna and was rolling up his jeans when the coach from new employer arrived. And out stepped men in grey suits and women in cocktail dresses. "Oh $*&*!" thought Steve, "I just assumed it was a costume party."

He stood around for some time wondering what to do when the consultancy coach arrived and out poured pirates, eye-patchs, wooden legs, inflatable parrots, the lot. Big sigh of relief :-)

The picture that remains in my mind's eye is the hotel lobby with a fountain in the middle like a de-militarised zone. Formally attired men and women on one side demurely sipping gin and tonic and on the other side a party going strong with much beer and noise. That is culture.

About the author: Mark McLellan is a Principal consultant with the consultancy division of a major systems integrator. Email: mark.mclellan@mmenterprises.co.uk

The above article appeared in The Facilitator Summer 1999 edition.