This is a draft unpublished paper that has been prepared in association with a National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA) annual conference presentation in Sacramento, California, July 16-19, 1997. Any references to this paper should note, along with attribution to the author, that it is an unpublished draft paper.


Changing Organizations: Two Archives Transformation Case Studies:

The National Archives of Canada

Andrew Birrell, Director General, National Archives of Canada

1. Introduction

Our subject today is cultural change in an organization. In order to make sense of the changes that have occurred at the National Archives I may seem to come at the subject indirectly, but being first and foremost an archivist I must, I feel, establish the "provenance" of this change and respect the order of the files on this subject. What I hope to show you is that whatever the specifics of an organization's experience there are always certain elements present for successful cultural change to take place. They are:

Over the past two years the National Archives of Canada has seen an extraordinary questioning of, and some change in, the roles of managers and employees. This has occurred not without missteps, natural pitfalls and a slow growth of understanding. This change has come about as a result of

This pressure for change struck the Canadian Public Service with full force only in 1990. It has left in its wake a residue of fear, distrust of management, loss of morale and great suspicion of change however positive its stated purpose.

Clearly any organization that is not completely dissolved must come to grips with these threatening forces, must renew itself and move forward. Having thrown off the constricting clothing of hierarchy and paternalism, bureaucracies may now re-clothe themselves in the comfortable and durable natural fibres of understanding and collaboration, recognizing that motivated people, not brilliant processes, bring success to an organization.

Organizational Learning, Continuous Learning, the Learning Organization and many other terms are used to describe the organization where individuals working together are able to expand significantly their own capacities while at the same time strengthening and improving the culture of the organization for which they work. It must be stated loudly and often that this is for the purpose of improving the productivity and effectiveness of the organization. Such a reorientation is necessary because work is undergoing a transformation for which the old structures of hierarchy and industrial organization are no longer adequate.

At the National Archives we have defined our goal to be an organization where "every individual is dedicated to making the organization and himself or herself more effective by sharing information, maintaining trust, encouraging cross-boundary problem-solving, and valuing and rewarding risk-taking and independent thinking by teams and individuals."

2. Origins

PS 2000 in the Public Service

What we call Organizational Learning at the National Archives had its origins in December, 1990 in the Public Service of Canada. Recognizing that the coming fifteen years would bring immense changes in the workforce, politicians and senior bureaucrats, at the instigation of the Prime Minister, launched a campaign of reform and renewal known as Public Service 2000. While the central goal of this campaign seemed constantly to be changing --

it did generate the kind of attention that only a "command and control" system can. Each department was required to identify what should be changed in these areas and then actually to implement the changes.

The top official of the Public Service, the Clerk of the Privy Council, stated that the most important element of this renewal program was that the Public Service "will be led and managed in a new way: one that is more oriented to service and to results and much more aware of the importance of individual initiative in contributing to improvements and efficiencies." (Tellier, p.4) This emphasis on individual initiative was laudable and did, in fact, result in many positive advances. However, in his first report in 1991, the Clerk had to deal with five elements in what was titled "Key Events and Milestones." It would have been more properly titled "Key Disasters for Public Service 2000." 1991 saw the following occurrences:

"Long after the public forgets this, we will remember. It will not be easy working with [ministers] who you think may turn on you at any time." (Quoted in Maclean's Magazine)

So, the agenda for change came to have a double meaning. Government restraint meant wage freezes, neutralizing the right of collective bargaining, "delayering" of management levels and "downsizing." Delegation of authority and "empowerment" meant pushing responsibility and work further down the hierarchical chain -- more work, longer unpaid hours, fewer people. Renewal meant change, rapid change, forced change, bewildering change: service standards, customer orientation, partnerships, annual announcements of further reductions, restructuring of huge departments, re-engineering, elimination of major government programs. The wonder is that anything was accomplished.

PS 2000 in the NA

In December, 1990, the National Archives created a working group which, by consulting widely, determined which inefficiencies should be eliminated, what problems existed, what attitudes should change. Its report concluded with thirty-three recommendations in four categories:

"...many believe that the National Archives is not an organization focused on the individual. They say that the Archives is more concerned with maintaining its holdings ... and that the rational use, management, and development of human resources is not a major concern." (Grimard, p. 20)

The final recommendations proposed appointing a coordinator and four more working groups to determine how best to carry out these recommendations! I tried to convince the National Archivist that creating additional bureaucracy to reduce bureaucracy might be inappropriate. He thought this a splendid observation and immediately appointed me to head the group dealing with the individual: agent of development and change.

Reaction to the Reports

Within two years the four groups had completed their work, producing four more reports which led to some useful changes and devolving of authority. Reaction to the reports varied, but clearly the two on the individual and on improved communication generated the strongest feelings. This is not surprising since they challenged existing practices and called for changes in attitude and culture, rather than for writing policies and visions or tinkering with processes.

In particular the report on the individual called for a new framework for training and development which embraced the concepts of the learning organization. It also suggested increased training and development -- especially for managers -- and the introduction of an upward feedback system. Unfortunately senior managers had difficulty understanding the confusing terms "continuous learning" and "learning organization" in spite of numerous attempts to explain it. The concept of upward feedback was obviously unsettling to some. As a result, though the recommendations were adopted with some changes and a few rejections by the Senior Management Committee, implementation was both slow and half-hearted or ignored.

Trouble brews in SMC

The stresses created by an atmosphere of change and uncertainty began to affect the Senior Management Committee in 1994 with the introduction of the most severe cuts yet announced. As in many businesses and government departments, the senior managers ran their organizations like fiefdoms. In times of plenty the aggravations of this style of management could be dealt with, but when already strained resources were faced with a potential additional 30% reduction, all reactions of self-preservation were magnified. A festering sense of distrust and poor communication surfaced around the executive table. To deal with the concerns about being "dysfunctional" the National Archivist tackled them head-on by convening several workshops led by external facilitators aimed at reviewing and changing our management values and principles and investigating the effectiveness of Senior Management Committee itself. This began a dialogue among senior managers which had some startling results a year later.

Dr. Wallot commissions

Two years after the agreement to put a "continuous learning" framework in place, it still had not been done in spite of several long discussions and one sincere attempt. Discussion always foundered on two issues:

Finally the National Archivist stated that he was weary of discussing the matter, that we had to deal with current problems if we are to prepare for the future and it must be done. He asked two members of the Senior Management Committee and the Director of Human Resources to spearhead pushing the matter forward.

Thus began the official organization renewal initiative at the National Archives. Clearly, though, it was not the beginning but rather a significant step in a process of questioning and change that had begun several years earlier.

POINT: Change comes only after a long accumulation of difficulties or grievances

Even then change comes slowly and with difficulty

Overnight success comes only after much trial and error

3. First Steps

The Steering Committee

The group of three, met for the first time in April, 1995. We concluded that the best way to proceed would be to bring together six or eight senior managers who were interested in introducing new approaches to management and work. By acting together we hoped to show how alternate methods could work. Next we agreed to second someone with experience to act as a coordinator. These proved to be two excellent decisions.

A coordinator is seconded

Our first activity was a workshop on the concepts of continuous learning for the managers who had expressed an interest. It showed them that they had a common bond in their concern over the existing situation in the National Archives. More importantly, they agreed to work together to make some positive changes. Out of this meeting we established a Continuous Learning Working Group, to formulate an action plan.

Let me say a word here about the coordinator we hired, Gita Baack. She launched herself into the work with enthusiasm and passion and in short order had set in motion and taken charge of a number of initiatives which immediately set us on a positive path. Furthermore she made communication at all levels and of all kinds a priority. As a result she became a counsellor, a mentor, a consultant, a teacher, a confidant, a neutral negotiator and a target of criticism. Quite simply she has been responsible for the practical success achieved so far.

POINT: The leaders of organizational change must see it as more than just another job to be done

You cannot spend too much time communicating

1995 Cornwall Planning Session

I mentioned earlier that the discussions about, and adoption of, a statement of management values and principles would have a big impact. In September, 1995, the annual Senior Management Committee planning session included all the senior managers and the agenda was not pre-planned ("Open Space Concept"). Rather the managers set the agenda themselves by indicating their interests and then seeing which of those subjects attracted the most participants for discussion groups. The process was a stunning success and revealed a startling and unsettling number of issues clustered around people and the organization.

One of the most difficult items to deal with was the criticism of the Senior Management Committee. The points made by the Directors included:

A group of the managers was asked to prepare some further analysis of this indictment. They concluded that three outstanding issues required attention:

After meeting with the Continuous Learning Working Group they concluded that its action plan would meet the requirements to change the culture of the institution and rebuild a sense of trust.

A plan developed - Focus Document

What was it that the Continuous Learning Working Group had produced? Members of the group had been surprised at the results of the planning session which indicated that a desire for change was widespread. In preparing an action plan it set out a simple set of results to be achieved for the NA.

Specifically it set as the objectives

The activities proposed for the first year were to define and put in place a new role for the Management Forum, to identify and train internal facilitators, to hold "participative planning" meetings where managers wished to try them, to develop and train team builders and to identify and train project mentors. This Action Plan was taken to Senior Management Committee for approval and it led to a remarkably candid exchange of views on "continuous learning" in which several members expressed their concern about its proposals. The former divisions for and against were unchanged and as before the National Archivist stated his support and affirmed that he wanted participative planning meetings to be held throughout the department. From this point forward, having been galvanized by the planning session and by criticisms of the previous reorganization, he regularly confirmed his support for cultural change in both word and action.

4. Some Specific Examples

The key development turned out to be the training by Gita Baack of internal facilitators to lead discussion groups, meetings, brainstorming sessions, by equipping them with the tools that gave them an understanding of leadership styles, group dynamics and consensus building. Over the course of the year seventy people volunteered for this training and they formed a crucial group of "change agents" at all levels from clerical and support staff to quite senior managers.

We had initially intended the participative planning meetings to be voluntary, but the National Archivist decided they should be mandatory. They were aimed at ensuring awareness of corporate goals by consulting staff on how to implement the local contribution to those goals. We found that it was a little like letting the genie out of the bottle -- you cannot always predict the results and once the genie is out it is impossible to get him back in.

Results of sessions

The sessions were led by the internal facilitators and the managers were aided by an internally produced booklet - "Managers Guide to Holding a Participative Planning Meeting." Planning was done in advance between managers and facilitators, and feedback forms were developed for managers, employees, and facilitators. The feedback forms showed that 90% of the respondents were satisfied with the opportunity for discussion and 85% indicated that they would like more such meetings. 78% felt the issues they discussed were important. Employees repeated time and again that follow-up would be essential.

Managers generally responded positively, but a number were surprised that employee criticism of their management parallelled their criticism of Senior Management Committee. This led later to concern that much of Organizational Learning at the National Archives was aimed at "management bashing."

The facilitators were pleased that they played a role in demonstrating how people can build consensus and make positive recommendations through a process of honest exchanges and collaboration. They were concerned that managers did not adequately see the future uses of facilitation.

One branch used the participative planning approach to prepare a work plan for moving themselves and a large proportion of the holdings to our new building in Gatineau. The sessions brought to light many other hot concerns, like parking and public transportation to the new location, which had nothing to do with work plans. Out of this process teams were developed that consciously attempted to break down division and branch barriers based on the common value of concern for the holdings.

The participative planning sessions were so successful that unfortunately they became identified with continuous learning. Some still feel that all major decisions should be made only after wide consultation and if it is left out the managers are viewed as hypocritical. Managers, on the other hand, were struggling to balance the need to make the decisions necessary to meet work objectives with the time consuming requirements of consultation. There still remains an unresolved tension over managerial accountability and decision making.

The Role of the Unions

At an early point in the work of the CLWG, perhaps its second or third meeting, we looked around our table and noted only senior managers.

"If we are talking about empowering the working level, developing team work and engaging the staff through consultation we are going to have to model that behaviour," we said to ourselves. A number of us felt that the unions had a role to play and so we organized a briefing session to inform them of what we had begun and hoped to accomplish.

Up until this time we had told ourselves in Senior Management Committee that we had a good relationship with the unions, but in my view that relationship was demeaning to them. Our relationship simply reinforced the fact that the managers held the power and the unions held their caps in their hands to receive news about major changes a few hours before staff. Since the union stewards were also working level employees, I felt that by including them in the Continuous Learning Working Group we could enrich the group and give the unions a meaningful role in introducing change. This would, I hoped, demonstrate to all staff that this was not simply another management ploy.

The union stewards were understandably sceptical, but indicated an interest in having one of their number attend as an observer and commentator. Instead we invited them all to participate and to our delight they accepted. Slowly and surely they moved from observers to participants. They were encouraged to express themselves freely and they did to the point that they had a discernible impact on which activities would be undertaken by the group and which would not. They have remained sceptical on some matters and to this day will not touch anything that appears to them to be a purely management issue. My hope was that both managers and unions would see the need for each other rather than continually viewing each other as the enemy. While we are not there yet, over the past eighteen months the unions have moved from scepticism to strong support of Continuous Learning.

This change was demonstrated recently at a Senior Management Committee meeting. A year ago the unions had requested to have a seat on the Senior Management Committee resulted in a refusal. Two months ago they were invited to Senior Management Committee to bring forward their concerns. As might be expected, this initial encounter was somewhat tentative but positive. Each steward commended the Senior Management Committee for what the Continuous Learning initiative had accomplished and urged on us to continue it and not to weaken or abandon it.

Information Sessions on Continuous Learning

Earlier, at the suggestion of one of the union stewards, the Continuous Learning Working Group planned a series of open information sessions to build a greater understanding of continuous learning. These sessions, which attracted only about 15% of the employees, were useful in communicating the concepts underlying the rather meaningless term "continuous learning." They served to indicate that we were talking about more than participative planning and stressed individual responsibility, team learning and the much more difficult concept of systems thinking. The unions played an active role in these sessions. They participated in the planning and actually delivered part of the information session. This was far more than I had hoped for after only six months.

It is never a bad idea to hold open discussions about difficult subjects, even when the responses are negative, as long as there is a conscious effort to gain understanding through an open dialogue and to address the issues raised. This was dramatically demonstrated when we had a session with the staff of the local Records Centre. The centres across the country had just completed a "re-engineering" project aimed at reviewing their functions and reducing their costs substantially. They had been targeted as the prime contributor to the NA's reduction goal. They were therefore very apprehensive. They saw themselves as cut off from the rest of the National Archives both geographically and intellectually. They had come from a decade of highly production oriented management and were being repaid for their efforts by potentially losing 25% of their numbers. There was considerable sense of alienation from management. The workforce was clerical and their jobs were numbingly routine with, according to them, little variety.

At the session, after we had made our presentations a firestorm ensued. They angrily and loudly noted that they had been required to attend and then pointed out that not a single manager was present. They said whenever they approached their managers with ideas the response was defensive or hostile. They complained that they alone, in the whole NA, had not had any participative planning sessions. All of this added up to seething frustration. I summarized their outpouring by stating that I sensed they were angry -- a vigorous yes -- and that they were powerless to do anything about it -- another strong yes. I suggested that they were powerless as long as they believed they were, but that they held in their hands the decision whether to succumb or not. We concluded the meeting by promising to brief the senior managers "downtown" about the meeting and suggested how they might approach their own supervisors for a participative planning meeting.

A few days later I had a phone call from one of the more outspoken participants who said that he had thought about the challenge of taking responsibility for their own situation and had decided that he wanted to do something. He then asked for some guidance about approaching his supervisor. He and the other most vocal person became facilitators. The outcome was a very successful series of meetings which dealt openly with most of their concerns and started the process of meaningful change in both jobs and relations with management. The gentleman who phoned me subsequently became a union steward and was part of the presentation to SMC.

POINT: Repeat the message as many ways as possible to ensure the growth of understanding

5. Lessons Learned

a. Take a long term view

i. be prepared to work alone until you find allies;

ii. allies are not clones

b. Be ready for disappointment

i. new concepts need to be experienced repeatedly before being absorbed into a culture

c. Appreciate the moments of exhilaration, e.g.,

i. when teams suddenly take off on their own

ii. when individuals suddenly "get it"

d. Have strong management support and a knowledgeable, engaged leadership

e. Prepare a clear plan of action, refer to it often, carry it out and remind everyone regularly what you have accomplished together

f. Managers are often the slowest to embrace these changes since they are caught in the middle and have the biggest adjustments to make

g. Communicate and demonstrate as often and in as many ways as you can the meaning of what you propose

h. Your employees really are your most important resource, therefore

i. people before process;

ii. people before profit.

Andrew Birrell

July 10, 1997

Phone: 613­995­5349

Fax: 613­992­7657