Successful companies are experimenting with new ways of combining and recombining employee groups to drive innovation and change. JL
Celia de Anca and Salvador Aragon report in Harvard Business Review:
Any company that wants to improve collaboration (and) break down siloes requires a different approach.Organizations cannot oblige their employees to have coffee with this or that group, but they can create structures in which employees move out of their comfort zones to join temporary communities of aspiration that strengthen cross-organizational ties and help achieve its strategic goals.
There are three types of identities we all have as human beings. Identities of origin we are given at birth: gender, race, or religion among others. Later, we form identities of growth, those in which we seek to satisfy our emotional needs, based on our likes and dislikes. Finally, as we become more independent, we often look to make a contribution to society through our identities of aspiration.
These three sources of identity shape the communities we join and create. Communities of aspiration are especially powerful. When people who share the same ambitious goals come together, they can move mountains. While communities of origin and growth currently attract the most attention from HR leaders, we think communities of aspiration deserve more attention.
Any company that wants to improve collaboration, break down so-called siloes, or live into its diversity goals will be well-served by pursuing a deeper understanding of each. Each requires a different approach.
Communities of origin are our connection with the past; they link us to our forebears, who provided us with our first map of understanding the world. Whether we personally identify with them or not, other people will often categorize us according to them.
Whether it’s based on race, gender, religion, or country, some communities of origin experience obstacles to inclusion. Since the 1980s, some organizations have tried to eliminate these obstacles in their workplaces. One of the most common efforts has been to create affinity groups within the company for people sharing a specific identity (a “Women’s Leadership Network” for example) so that participants can mentor each other and discuss ways to overcome the shared challenges they face. For example, IBM has created its business resource groups (BRG), employee-driven units based not only on race or gender but also on issues like cross-generational differences. By 2015 the total number of such groups in IBM was at least 244 around the world. Such communities are particularly useful in recruitment, hiring, talent development, or in defining employee retention policies.
Most multinational companies now have similar BRG schemes that help achieve specific key performance indicators on how diversity of origin manifests itself in the organization.
Communities of growth offer connections to the present; they are made up of people we feel an affinity with based on our current likes and dislikes. Communities of growth may be official or semi-official – such as the company softball or soccer team – or self-organizing and informal, such as a group of employees who regularly meet up for yoga and coffee. Communities often provide us with a feeling of security. They also give us maps of the world different to those of our identities of origin, which is why they change as we change, while at the same time always representing our present.
Many companies have attempted to develop friendship-based communities among employees, typically organizing activities such as weekends out, departmental Christmas parties, and so on, in a bid to create emotional ties between workers and the company. But because emotional communities are held together as much by the likes as by the dislikes of members, they can be unpredictable and difficult to manage. As a result, these emotional communities can sometimes work to the benefit of organizations, but they can just as often end up having the opposite effect, particularly when people share a dislike for certain policies, boss, or for what they consider to be an unfair situation.
Emotional groups, which represent communities of growth, are difficult to value in terms of their contribution to the organization, given their unpredictability, and it can be risky for management to try to engineer them.
We suggest that HR leaders make minimum interventions in trying to influence communities of growth. Emotional communities will emerge in organizations, whether management likes it or not, and will have a life of their own.
Communities of aspiration look toward the future. If communities of origin and growth are bonded by perceptions of sameness, communities of aspiration are held together by the differences between their members.
Corporate communities of aspiration (CCAs) are (often temporarily) bound together by a common business or intellectual challenge. They benefit from the differences between members to co-create or co-execute specific tasks, and when the task is complete, they dissolve.
They have the added benefit of helping to foster ties between employees in different communities of origin and growth – ties that otherwise might not occur. Research we conducted with our colleague Patricia Gabaldon showed that although in the organizations we studied (which were Spanish and Moroccan firms) employees often affiliated according to communities of origin or growth. At one company, this was linguistic, with English-speaking, French-speaking, and Arabic-speaking employees occupying different levels in the organization and rarely intermingling; while at another, it was geographic, with employees from the Basque Country being overly represented among top management positions. Education was another factor, with one company reporting that its engineers bonded closely, creating a closed community that was very difficult for outsiders to penetrate, as was religion, with a Moroccan company noting the limited interaction between women who wore the veil and those who do not. The problem was not so much belonging to a minority, but just being part of a specific group, whether considered a minority or not, and not being able to exit that group to move among others within the organization.
The results of this research suggested that integration among employees in organizations would be improved if further horizontal mobility among affiliation groups was promoted. Communities of aspiration offer a way to do this, making different groups more permeable and accessible.
Making a Corporate Community of Aspiration WorkFor a CCA to work, five elements need to be present:
A common project: The main pre-requisite for a CCA to work is a common project, initiative, or the search for a solution to an existing problem within the company. This can be top down, (the company set up a particular challenge or new product) or bottom up (the company allows employees to develop their own creative ideas, and then choose the most convenient ones)
Voluntary: Most CCAs are open to voluntary membership, whether appealing to individuals for specific skills or to the company. People typically aren’t assigned to them, but join them because they’re excited about putting their ideas to work.
Short term: A CCA does not represent a new position or a new career: it is a temporary place in which the individual can channel their ideas or abilities, and once the project is finished CCAs are dissolved. If a new product or unit is required as result of the exercise, then a new team will be put in place on a more permanent basis.
Interlinked: Members of CCAs can belong simultaneously to many others. This creates multiple links among them as part of a super-community structure that allows individual participation within a comfortable small group while at the same time providing exposure to a multiplicity of different groups.
Collaborative: CCAs are not solo pet projects, but require employees to work together. People join in to co-create or co-execute a solution for an existing problem or to co-develop a new initiative or a new product.
Communities of aspiration can be used to come up with new ideas and solutions, as well as execute them.
For example, Valve Corporation, a videogame developer, has defined a unique corporate structure with no bosses or managers at all. Each member of the firm is invited to define her/his contribution to the company according to their choices and preferences. A highly talented developer specialized in graphics animation could choose to work on a game by assuming a “group contributor role,” becoming part of the group (CCA) developing that game. (On the other hand, after finishing this “group contribution”, the same person could choose to work in a more individualistic fashion on the next task.) This “free to choose” approach is mirrored in the firm’s office design. Valve Corporation offices incorporate wheeled desks to foster mobility and allow the fast configuration and re-configuration of groups as well as individual work.
Other companies select specific initiatives as laboratories to test some of the components of CCAs. For example, Everis, an NTT Data Company, launched the “ 1W4US” (One Week for Us) initiative in 2014 to foster collective talent. The company issued innovation challenges related to its strategic plan. Out of all the published ideas, the best five were selected through a combination of participants’ votes and managers’ opinions. Groups of four then formed around the selected ideas to prepare pitch presentations to a jury of the company’s clients. Then the teams spent a week developing an execution plan for each idea. Finally, those plans were presented to a group of investors who weighed in on the value of each idea so that a decision could be made about whether and how to proceed.
A third example is PwC iMarket, an innovation initiative launched in 2013. Once at year Employees can submit ideas to an internal platform. Managers can then “buy” those ideas or choose to participate in developing them further. Each project lasts for 60 days, and then the management team performs an evaluation both of the project as well as the team that developed it.
Whether as a temporary initiative or a permanent way of organizing a company, CCAs are helping companies like these leverage employees’ diverse strenths and motivations.
Organizations cannot oblige their employees to have coffee with this or that group, but they can create structures in which employees can temporarily move out of their comfort zones to join temporary communities of aspiration that strengthen cross-organizational ties and help the company achieve its strategic goals.