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Unions/management create collaborative culture.

Every day, every week, every month the changing business picture needs to be interpreted and effectively communicated. Ho hum. So what else is new?

Take a look at how a number of companies are adapting communication to the demands of an increasingly collaborative relationship between labor and management.

General Motor's Saturn auto subsidiary was conceived in a collaborative environment between General Motors' management and the United Auto Workers. The resulting "Memorandum of Agreement" contains six basic principles including these:

* Recognition of stakes and equities of everyone in the organization being represented.

* Full participation by the representatives of the union.

* Use of a consensus decision-making process.

Most important to communicators is the fifth principle -- "Free flow of information."

At the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., Dora Mack, former metal assembly worker and today the UAW's liaison with corporate communication, describes her position and her role: "I work as a team member with the manager of media relations and vice president of corporate communication."

Joint communication by labor and management to both internal and external audiences is a way of life at Saturn. Whenever there is a quote in a news release from the president of Saturn there is a parallel quote in the same news release from the president of the United Auto Workers' local at Saturn. This is what Mack calls, "putting the partnership out in front."

The Saturn communication methods and messages are developed jointly by labor and management and provide all the strategic and financial details that in the old General Motors were the private stock of management only.

It has been said that the Saturn model works primarily because it started as a "greenfield" in which everyone who joined the Saturn organization has been told the guidelines for this new collaboration, and all Saturn employees have had extensive training in how to work in this environment. While that is true, Saturn employees, including the communication group, have experienced continuous change through a reassessment and planning process since the plant's inception, constantly reinventing and improving.

One more turn of the kaleidoscope and an even more complex situation comes into view. Corning Incorporated is a high-visibility corporation with not just one plant, but multiple facilities spread out over several states and countries. It, too, has an evolving, collaborative management-employee culture worldwide that expects and depends on quick, reliable communication throughout the organization. And like General Motor's Saturn subsidiary, the information includes critical business data.

Corning Incorporated, headquartered in Corning, N.Y., and the manufacturer of some 60,000 products ranging from high-tech sunglasses to catalytic converters, faces continuous change in communication 11 years into its mission of excellence. Corning President Roger Ackerman said to a group of employees, "Look back a decade, when Corning operated from the hub of decision-making and activity in Corning, N.Y. Partnership in the work place was unheard of 10 years ago."

At Corning, an organization with 100 or more years of history and a mature, established culture, the evolution has a different set of issues. Carole Hedden, who is manager of employee communication, and has other communication responsibilities, describes the Corning communication practice as decentralized. "We practice driving every decision, including communication, as deep into the organization as possible. Twenty percent of my time is devoted to going out to our other operations and facilitating groups so that they determine how best to communicate at their locations."

In addition to this internal consulting, since 1988, Corning employees have been educated to understand business performance measures from parts-per-million to return on equity.

Organizational communication in the collaborative culture clearly begins to take on a "we are not corporate journalists" shape. It addresses communication as a two-way network that must be quick, effective, accurate, human and must provide meaningful business information.

Hedden describes her work at Corning as having to act as a consultant, providing a forum for communication from employees to management and providing "beefed up" information for team leaders so that they can be the communicators locally.

Bottom line? "We must provide whatever our individual business units need to get the job done effectively, whether it is working with leaders to be strong communicators, preparing a video of the president, putting together our eight-times-a-year magazine, or a news bulletin," comments Hedden. "One thing for sure," she adds, "we listen to our employees' needs so that we can effectively communicate the business goals in a way that everyone can understand and use."

Communication at organizational transitions

The communicator's role in an established collaborative culture is hard work even when things are going well. But the ability to adjust, to change and reinvent the function is tested when an organization is working itself through the transition from where it was toward a collaborative relationship and negative events occur.

Judith Thomson, of BHP Minerals' Iron Ore Division in Perth, Western Australia, worked through two, two-year "enterprise agreements" between BHP and its work force in 1993.

"In the four years leading up to these agreements there were extensive consultations with the employee representatives through the five unions on our sites at Newman and Port Hedland," Thompson noted. "These consultations were precipitated by a serious strike at the end of 1988 when the company's relations with its work force fell to an all-time low."

The negotiation, which was successfully concluded in July 1993, ended many restrictions on work practices and demarcations and resulted in employees having a greater variety of tasks and more training opportunities. "Our aim throughout has been to ensure it |fulfillment of the contract~ happens with the cooperation of our employees," said BHP Iron Ore Group General Manager Dick Carter, soon after the signing.

The public affairs department does not have primary responsibility for communication to employees at BHP at this point in time, although it does produce the monthly internal division magazine sent to employees. Line management has communication responsibility, and during the negotiations the events were communicated by line managers to the work force at work group meetings.

"There has been a widespread acknowledgement in the division that there was a need to improve our internal communication and there have been several processes put in place to facilitate this," Thompson added. The result was training for supervisors and briefing sessions held division-wide to inform employees about the new contract.

Labor union communicators have had to make a close examination of their roles and begin to change to match the needs of their members.

James Grossfeld, director of public information for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., considers the new era of labor-management relations in this way: "It's ironic, but the communication challenge that worker empowerment poses to American unionists has some similarities to the one Solidarity was up against in Poland when it made the transition from being simply a protest movement to also being a partner in economic decision making. Work-place democracy doesn't change the fundamental relationship of unions to employers, but it does make it much more complex."

The UMWA, historically a militant and combative union, concluded two major agreements in 1993 that have collaborative relationships well integrated into the heart of the contracts.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich commented on the new contract, saying, "The union has reached its goal of establishing an important measure of job security for its members," and he added that the contract included, "provisions that further strengthen work-place democracy and provide for miners to have a real say in the way work is performed."

Stephen N. Anderson is a communication and quality management consultant in San Francisco.
COPYRIGHT 1994 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Anderson, Stephen N.
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:1261
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