Maybe it was obvious — an event or a series of events that you now understand altered your organization’s status quo. Perhaps it was inconspicuous — the emergence of alliances or rhetoric challenging the organization’s direction or your own judgment. Perhaps it’s just another influence born of the emerging generational dynamics, broader stakeholder access and diversity, and general tax fatigue that now inform how local and regional governments interact with people and serve communities. You know it’s imperative to harness this energy to move the organization forward but refocusing committed elected officials, passionate activists, influential citizens and dispirited employees can be akin to herding cats! More importantly, how does this “new normal” affect your organization and how you lead your organization to adapt?
This might be the right time to consider conducting an organizational study. Recognized as an astute leadership tool, organizational studies are an established best management practice to advance stakeholder alignment, improve organizational performance, and re-energize organizations around their mission. Organizational studies represent a unique opportunity to leverage shared interest in better serving the public by developing stakeholder consensus about an agency’s current and future priorities and limitations. These types of studies may also provide information about how to best allocate resources to accomplish the agency’s mission, and how the agency can serve the community more effectively and efficiently.
Internal or External Review
Organizational studies can be designed and executed using internal staff or in collaboration with an independent third-party expert. The benefit for a third party review is that stakeholders typically perceive third parties as being both experts in the process of inquiry and independent of management or other stakeholder bias. This perceived objectivity, especially when reflected in the details of the investigational process you design and implement, builds trust in all stakeholders that the study’s evidence, results, and conclusions are valid and form an appropriate basis for future planning and allocation of public resources.
Periodic, organizational studies are used by many organizations to inform strategic, workforce, infrastructure and related “big-picture” planning efforts. In these cases, timing is a function of process. Timing may be dictated by external conditions or emerging opportunities. Independent organizational studies may also be initiated in response to a significant negative event. Finally, the governing body can mandate the execution of an organizational study. It’s always better to be proactive and even a bit early, rather than reactive and late, on the timing of these initiatives. So start early by engaging an external expert or assembling an internal team of subject matter experts.
Purpose and Scope
Begin with some structured thinking about the purpose and scope of a study that will benefit your organization. Ideally, the purpose of an organizational study is to develop accurate, complete, mission-focused and actionable information that can be applied to improve organizational performance. Performance evaluation, disciplinary fact-finding, ethics inquiries and similar matters have established investigatory pathways and are thus not appropriate subjects of an organizational study. Alternatively, scope is always context sensitive. One way to structure your thinking about scope is to sketch ideas in each of the following dimensions: target of study, motivation for study, and expected actions.
- The target of study is the organizational unit to be assessed/reviewed. This may include the entire organization, a vertical or horizontal subset of the organization, an existing mission-critical service or activity, or a new service or activity the organization is considering.
- Understanding the motivations for studying the target is essential for success (i.e., staffing, cost efficiency, cost reduction, competitiveness, leadership and/or management effectiveness, or benchmarking to an appropriate peer group). Success is more likely if you are able to identify an operative concept that can generate consensus among stakeholders about what a successful study looks like.
- These sorts of studies tend to affect organizations for several years. Thinking early about expected actions provides the best opportunity to make sure all stakeholders are clear about how information developed through the organizational study will be shared and how management will follow up on the study’s recommendations.
No matter how it starts, the shared experience and common perspectives that often emerge during an organizational assessment ultimately help build, or re-build, trust among staff, elected officials, regulators and the public while creating lasting communication processes that reinforce critical messages about the importance of roles and role integrity in any organization.