This is a draft unpublished paper that has been prepared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that it is an unpublished draft paper.
Archives of Canada
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."
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
"...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
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
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
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
A group of the managers was asked to prepare some further analysis
of this indictment. They concluded that three outstanding issues
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
"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.
July 10, 1997