Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Engaging the English?

Four years after publication I've finally found the time to read Kate Fox's "Watching the English." It's a bit embarrassing that it's taken me that long, since it is all about "English culture" but I'm glad I finally did so. If you haven't read it, it is rich with insights into the "English character" and how these manifest in daily life. Kate Fox is a serious anthropologist and doesn't over-generalise too much, but at the same time has managed to write a witty and insightful book that is easy to read.

It's been widely reviewed, so I won't dwell much on the content, except to say that if you ever find yourself watching an English ritual (ordering at the pub, for instance) and wondering "what on earth is going on?" then this is a good book to read. The rules of "pub life" have also been put on the web at the SIRC site. (SIRC is the research centre where Fox works.)

However, the essential characteristics she laid out really got me thinking about the culture clash within a lot of "employee engagement" programs, especially within multinational firms.

A stereotypical example (to avoid identifying anyone!): a large US firm has an engagement program, with pieces implemented by HR and Internal Comms. Within the UK office, this is put in place by local workers.

Picking out three characteristics from Kate Fox's list, moderation/balance, humour, and finally a taboo against earnestness we can begin to see some problems. The program may well be sold locally with a good dose of humour by the local workers, despite the earnestness present in the original descriptions written in Michigan. However, the underlying aims of "employee engagement" as defined at the US HQ might well conflict with local cultural norms about "not being too earnest" or "moderation/balance in work and play."

Now in the case of a small division, this isn't fatal, because culture is a broad assessment and every country contains a range of personalities. You can fill out a single department with people who fit well with the originating culture (in this case the USA) but as your employment requirements grow it will become ever harder to find candidates who aren't typical of the culture.

In time then, we will need to develop different sets of philosophical ideas of employee engagement that can fit with the cultures of different employees. That requires not only an assessment of the culture but also a real sense of "engagement" beyond the stereotypical notion of a hypermotivated, hyperactive, workaholic team.



Tim Wright said...

I totally agree that communication to stimulate increased employee engagement and to understand all the meanings "engagement" is imperative in a "beyond borders" organization.

That's not just communication to plan an EE program. No, it is communication continuously asking questions and considering answers of what goes on in an organization.

What goes on in the organization is its business culture, whether formally implemented or informally grown. How much (or how little) employees engage in that culture determines how successfully (or not) the culture is actualized.

Ongoing communication across organizational levels keeps leaders apprised of how well their designed culture is being implemented. As well, communication keeps managers aware of why's and how's to keep that culture alive among employees. Finally, communication provides employees reasons and inspiration to live that culture.

Employee engagement is a living process. It varies from national culture to national culture. It also offers a success factor to a business culture.

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