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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

When History Changes Organizations

Marisa Guerin, PhD – April 7, 2021

Last year, I wrote about the “permission” that the pandemic was providing to organizations that might be in need of a strategic planning refresh. As the crisis has continued, I find myself observing further dimensions of the impact of this dramatic global event on institutions of all types.

In particular, I am wondering:

Which organizational roles are being invisibly, permanently and fundamentally changed by the pandemic crisis, in ways we have only begun to appreciate? Why does it matter? How will these impacts shape a new normal going forward?

Organizational roles have existence apart from the people who hold them at any given time – they have their own histories, and they change over time to serve specific, necessary purposes for the successful functioning of the organization.

For example, what once was an office responsible for public relations and communications may have evolved to include policy advocacy and government relations. An administrative role that once might have focused on keeping track of employee benefits and compensation may now be focused as well on employee engagement, motivation, and wellness. New demands from customers, employees, regulators, or investors pull on the key roles in an organization, stretching some into new configurations, shrinking others, and sometimes giving birth to whole new departments, like digital, social media and technology functions. All of this is what happens in the normal course of events.

We’re in a whole different order of magnitude now. I started thinking about how the pandemic is impacting this kind of organizational evolution when I noticed how it has prompted a rapid and wholesale change in the work of a close friend. Pre-pandemic, her role involved responsibility for the leadership development and succession planning of executives in a healthcare setting. As the coronavirus wave hit, suddenly, such long-term investments had to take a back seat. One new critical need that surfaced was for comprehensive, practical and emotional support for the front-line health care professionals who were thrust into almost war-time conditions caring for covid patients.

My friend’s professional training as a clinical psychologist gave her entrée and credibility into conversations with the other departments of the healthcare system as they swung into action, collaborating in completely new ways to create and deploy the range of resources needed by the staff in the hospitals and clinics of the system.

The usual menu of irritations that might be considered normal in any large system – lack of coordination, redundancy, some political jockeying – were no longer tolerable. According to my friend, the whole system shifted gears, jolting itself into entirely new levels of lateral integration and closer communication. She doesn’t see that need for coordinated action going away in the days ahead when the urgency and crisis mode of the pandemic subsides. Even if her attention can shift back to the ongoing importance of professional development for key executives, the context for her role appears to have shifted in a substantive way, operating now within a much wider aperture, better linked to the daily and strategic concerns of the other working parts of the system. Her role has entered a new chapter in its history.

I use the term role history in this posting to refer to a particular analytic concept, paired closely with role biography.* Together, these two notions provide a strong basis for understanding the current dynamics of any given organizational role, as well as the tectonic shifts currently occurring deep within organizations.

Role History is the idea that a job or position has its own accumulated history of organizational purposes and expectations, the product of history and multiple role holders over the years. Past incarnations of a role sometimes include secret, shameful, or traumatic events that impacted it and how the organization came to view it. Role history shapes the values, priorities, hidden landmines and powerful symbols that influence the way the role is held today. It is role history that I believe is being re-written in major ways during this unsettled time.

Role Biography, a companion concept, has to do with the person in the job. It refers to the fact that when anyone comes into a new role, they bring the accumulated skills and experiences that they have internalized from all the roles they have held before, both at work and in families and communities. (See blog post from September 2018 for more detail on Role Biography.)

Role biography interacts with the objective requirements built in to the role through its history. In the case of the healthcare system I mentioned above, the sudden and unexpected force of the pandemic crisis tapped the role biography of my friend, who happened to have the psychological training that turned out to be especially helpful. Previously, this part of her background would have been considered valuable, but not critical to her role. That may change going forward --- it is possible that with its new role history, her position will now be perceived in the organization as one that requires a trained understanding of the psychological dimensions of the workplace and of leadership.

Healthcare is not the only sector experiencing this kind of change. My network of contacts and colleagues touches on many different parts of the organizational world: universities, public agencies, religious organizations, nonprofit social service groups, large corporations, and small entrepreneurial efforts. Based partly on intuition and seasoned by my management and consulting experience, I have some hunches about the way roles are evolving now in many of these institutions. New chapters in their organizational role histories are being written as fast as they can pivot to the new realities.

Here are just three examples of dimensions of organizational roles that I think are being driven by the pandemic and its associated economic effects:

1. Employee protection and support

Organizations that are considered “critical services” – groceries, delivery companies, pharmacies, restaurants, schools, etc -- have had to pay exceptional attention to the safety and health of their employees, much more so than in normal times. Which roles have stretched or been created to monitor physical and mental fitness for duty? ... to ensure sufficient protective equipment and protocols? ... to create new policies for remote work, for changing shift patterns? What new skills are becoming requirements for the role holders?

Even those organizations that aren’t on the front line for the crisis have had to massively adjust their workplace practices, including all the chained implications of remote work, which has accelerated by at least five to ten years a trend that was already in motion. Senior leaders of organizations have had to focus their attention on the health, protection, and morale of their employees or members – something they might otherwise have taken for granted.

My guess is that even after the pandemic, there will be an ongoing element of management attention to employee health, safety, and wellness that exceeds previous standards. It will change job duties and job pre-requisites for those with roles in human resources, workplace health and safety, and operational management.

2. Organizational Continuity and Risk Management

Large business systems, governments, and complex nonprofit organizations such as universities have always had some roles that focused on the “What-if’s.” Operational managers usually have contingency plans for natural disasters, power outages, civil unrest, or perhaps tragedies such as a mass shooting event.

Since the pandemic, the range of scenarios for such contingency planning has expanded. In all likelihood, the responsibilities of administrative planners have expanded to touch on communications, purchasing, supply chain hardening, and especially the digital infrastructure for converting in-person work to remote modes. This applies even to small companies and nonprofits now as well, introducing role requirements they never needed before.

In some cases, the entire business model for the enterprise has been challenged by the pandemic, threatening continuity at every level. It may cause wholesale change to all of the roles within an organization, up to and including closing down.

3. Interagency coordination

As the global nature of the pandemic came into view in early 2020, we were able to watch in real time the effects of each nation’s different response to the crisis. In the US, the reality of our fractious multi-state nation and deeply polarized federal system became an immediate challenge, with life and death consequences that hadn’t been so visible before. Local, state, and federal levels of government have had to reach out and connect with one another, to communicate with the public and with the business sector, to organize testing and then vaccination, and to sort out policy directives regarding economic and social activity.

I think there was a time when the US was pretty good at such things, but if so, that part of the role history of our various governmental structures seems far distant. The confusion, inadequacy, and unpreparedness of so many states have been on vivid display.

My assumption is that these times are creating a hothouse for the forced growth of new organizational capabilities, communication links, oversight, and alliances that will be used to address the current situation, and that will also remain in place to increase future readiness. (Or at least, they'll stay for as long as public memory and commitment will sustain them. Skepticism is in order.)

Why might all of this matter?

To the alert leader, this historical moment is what used to be called an “unfreezing,” back when organizations and their environments were slow to change. In recent decades, most organizational experts have concluded that enterprises currently exist in fairly fluid conditions of ongoing change -- but this global shock is something much more destabilizing. Organizational patterns, assumptions, strategies, and roles are no longer in sync with a reasonable range of predictions about the environment; some arrangements have been suspended, some have been obliterated, others are seeking a new footing.

The silver lining in this instability is the opportunity for creativity. Now might be the time for taking the informed risk, trying the innovative idea, or moving away from the programs and products that were already weakening with age. If your experienced and empowered workforce could start with a blank screen, what would make sense today for their roles and workflows?

History is making its move – organizations that are open systems are being given the opportunity to revisit their realities and stretch themselves to meet the new normal that will gradually settle in.

What new chapter is being written in your own role history?

* Long, Susan. Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the Hidden in Organisations and Social Systems. 2013. Karnac Books.


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