An orthodox belief or interpretation is one handed down by founders, leaders, and generations of employees. The steadfast holding of established beliefs that is seen in religious orthodoxy is apparent also in other kinds of orthodox behavior. Unorthodox thinking is known in the business world as "thinking outside the box".
Organizational change recognizes the importance of convincing groups of diverse people to think, act and approach their work differently. And this is difficult since human beings are motivated by many things, have different fears and aspirations, feel varying levels of empowerment and commitment, and tend to be reluctant to change. Approaches that do not carefully consider employees' mindsets will fall flat and may even breed cynicism that saps morale and undermines progress. The collective mindset of groups of people about a practice or set of practices over the years can become an organizational orthodoxy.
When companies and organizations plummet in performance and go down in a spiral, stakeholders, financial analysts and academia try to analyze with post-mortems the reasons for the decline. Often, there is a debate about an organization being trapped in a belief that prevented things that were needed to be done on time to steer the company out of declining trends. The idea of this article is to articulate illustrations of some debates on issues on which there are divided opinions. Debates are not about asserting an opinion, one way or the other. A debate provides an opportunity to explore the possibility of an alternate view; to build a healthy debate as a refreshing alternative to a polarised view. It is useful to learn to debate any issue that appears to be dichotomous with the pros and cons. A debate is successful if there are no egos behind it. A judgment made after a balanced debate is likely to be better than one which is based on who said what and the politics of taking sides. Staying relevant is the most important aspect of a business organization today. Organizations that have basked in the glory of being market leaders for years have disappeared into history. It is more than ever important to create an organizational culture where issues can be debated with an open mind. This is important for breaking the bind of an organization's orthodoxy.
Debate No.1: Age for learning
The stereotype is that the aging brain finds it more difficult to pick up new skills and knowledge, this belief may be more of a mindset than anything else. Older adults who chose to work on complex problems will be committed to a sense of purpose in life and their own learning will be as agile and can be more reflective than their younger counterparts. This is a debate that can only be settled by research that will also give us differing results depending upon the context and time. In the Indian context, retirement from an organization, to a large extent concludes a learning journey. There is a tacit belief that a person’s ability to contribute comes to an end. With changing lifestyles and perpetual learning opportunities this mindset as an organization orthodoxy needs to change. A contrarian view is illustrated by the careers of Tenure Professors in US universities. Most don’t have retirement ages. Most tenured professors continue to work on things that they have worked on over the years. They refine ideas, extend them outward, rather than working on dramatically new ideas and concepts. The socio-emotional selectivity (SST) theory is related to shrinking social networks, partly by choice, and partly by reason of natural factors like the death of the cohort to which they belong. Socioemotional selectivity theory is a life-span theory of motivation. (SST; has been developed by Stanford psychologist Laura L. Carstensen) The theory maintains that as time horizons shrink, as they typically do with age, people become increasingly selective, investing greater resources in emotionally meaningful goals and activities. That should not be misinterpreted as the reluctance to learn and apply new learning whatever the age of a person.
Debate No. 2: Active inertia
Examples are often quoted particularly in Change Management Workshops about organizations that are old and were once thriving; struggling in the face of change. Good companies are reported to go bad because of the paralysis that sets in and prevents them from changing. An analogy is given about the proverbial deer in the jungle which freezes in the headlights. The reasons given for this freeze are many. Money and resources need to be brought in. Very often, the ability to innovate requires investment – of money, talent, and other resources. Managerial stubbornness, sheer incompetence, and active inertia are all associated with the inability to change in time and associated particularly with the older companies. There are many examples given of companies that have lost out because of not changing in time. Kodak, Nokia, Firestone are cited as examples of the long list of companies that have failed to change in time. However, the counterpoint is that many older companies such as L&T, Siemens, ABB, Unilever have continuously rediscovered themselves and transformed themselves with new beginnings. Openness to experience is important irrespective of age or position in the hierarchy, recognizing that hierarchies can be toppled, that new ideas need not be dangerous. This debate suggests that all old organizations are not faced with disaster. Their propensity and agility to change is what matters and not their age. They buck the trend of another organizational orthodoxy. Even elephants look graceful when they dance!
Debate No. 3: Employee Stock Option Programme (ESOP)
In their book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2011) argue about how Employee Stock Options have been overrated and are actually detrimental to the interests of an organization. To my mind, this is a blind spot of the authors expressed in their book and to attribute managerial avarice and greed to Employee Stock Options is a fallacious argument.
Employee Stock Options programs if designed keeping in view shareholder interests and also employee wealth creation have yielded very good results for employees and have generated a strong sense of ownership prioritizing value drivers and creating wealth for managers and the organization.
Pfeffer & Sutton suggest reflecting on three questions to avoid succumbing to an ideology or evidence (confirmation bias). They suggest asking:
- Is my preference for a management practice solely or mostly because it fits with my intuition about people and organizations?
- Do I require the same level of proof and the same amount of data between two issues, one in which I believe and one in which I do not believe?
- Are my colleagues and I allowing our beliefs to cloud our willingness to gather and consider data that may be pertinent to our choices?
Some organizations reject the implementation of an ESOP based on their “value” system. When probed further they are unable to state how the program goes against their value system. The rejection of this idea is clearly an organizational orthodoxy.
Debate No. 4: Organization structure: centralized Vs. decentralized
The debate is like the oscillation of a swinging pendulum. The debate gets even more intense when it comes to the HR Function. Conglomerates with multiple divisions that have their own independent P&Ls concede that the Finance function can be centralized. The argument gets augmented by the justification of a Central treasury department and the fact that a CFO’s responsibility is statutory in Company law. While attention to talent management has assumed new importance, the HR function is still seen as an enabling function and depends upon the personalities and power wielded by the business heads concerned. The HR Heads of a business division’s relationship with a Corporate HR Heads can be a barely visible light dotted line with a hard-line reporting to the Business Head or can be a healthy balance between the two. The Group HR function in many Companies with multiple divisions that boast of a federal structure with decentralization are still trying to position themselves to add value. In my view, a “demand-based” HR organization where the Corporate HR function is able to earn its space by offering expert services in areas such as Change Management, Leadership Development, Learning, Compensation Management, Labour Legislation, HR policy and provide advice with strong domain knowledge and credibility to guide can make the difference between being impactful or being insignificant. It is important to shake off the belief that the tensions of the duality of accountability is important for a function. A single point of accountability with a customer – service provider relationship with the stakeholders can dismantle another organizational orthodoxy about being infatuated with the matrix structure.
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Debate No. 5: Generalist versus specialist
This is a debate about which is the better choice for a career. And the debate has been inconclusive. One opinion is that a Generalist’s role is more fungible across diverse roles. There cannot be a better example than an IAS officer, who as a generalist learns how to run the administration of technical establishments also. On the other hand, the world seems to be gravitating more towards technical specialization and domain knowledge. The recently released National Education Policy focuses more on a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approach to education. It appears that the committee that prepared this visionary document was more inclined to emphasize the importance of competencies such as critical thinking and problem solving, than anyone domain specialization. However, in turbulent times when the job market gets tougher, the best insurance against unemployment is expertise in an “in-demand” domain or a “hot skill”. In today’s context that “hot skill” is with those who develop deep domain competence in data analytics, data science, writing code for AI, and Machine Learning. The debate goes on, but the career tracks in the Corporate world appear to be more partial towards the generalists. Those who can manage a Profit & Loss account (P&L), run a business, and have good general leadership skills, even if this is to the exclusion of deep technical knowledge seem to be able to achieve better career growth than the career momentum seen for Technology Leaders. Perhaps these generalists are able to ride on better career opportunities because of the shortage of technology leaders, compounded by the fact by yet another organizational orthodoxy that after a certain level in the organizational pyramid that specialization does not matter.
Debate No. 6: Roles for women at work
This could be an issue of mindset but the belief that women should be doing only office jobs is an unconscious bias that many may have. The debate is about whether women should be asked to work in manufacturing jobs or in project sites or can travel frequently. In defense of this mindset, many reasons are given. Some men in decision-making positions say that they are worried about the safety aspects of women at work. Or at least, they appear to be. Some feel that shop floor jobs involving industrial relations and an environment that is “tough” should be manned only by men. This is a debate that heats up when a diversity agenda is discussed. Some men have an unconscious bias and doubt the capability of a woman manager in managing the pressures at work as also the responsibilities of raising a family. This is a complex debate and can only be put to rest when women are given an equal opportunity at work and are provided facilities that make it conducive for them to handle any type of work responsibilities. I am happy to state that L&T has recently seen a woman leader responsible with her team for the biggest EPC order in the history of L&T. That women can’t cope with certain roles is an organizational orthodoxy that is fading to some extent and is important to dismantle in the organized sector in modern India where many young women aspire to hold positions of leadership and have the capability to do so. Women astronauts are involved in outer space projects. They work in the defense services. They are excelling in engineering and many other fields.
Debate No 7: Past success is not a proxy for the future
It can be a fatal error especially in a world that is more demanding in terms of agility and speed to depend only on strengths of the past. There are scores of examples of how past success without reinventing the offerings and services can commoditize businesses. Reinventing the differentiator in business offerings is essential to stay ahead of the pack. The Watch and the Camera industry are classical examples of how being imprisoned in past successes prevented companies from commercially exploiting their own discoveries. The quartz watch and the digital camera were innovations of the very companies that were market leaders in their respective fields. But the overconfidence about their tried and tested products, the brand salience, and their organization orthodoxy that the mainspring of the analog watch can never be replaced, saw some of the top Japanese watchmakers lose the competitive advantage in the race for Digital watches taking center stage. Later wearables further added a nail in the coffin for such companies. Similarly, the Digital camera first invented by Kodak was not commercially exploited by the Company at a time when the Company was wallowing in the laurels of the past. The death of film cameras and the reel film that it was manufacturing was unthinkable.
Debate No. 8: Online training
Online training during recent times has changed the way students and people at work learn and think. The organization orthodoxy that people learn only in a physical classroom setting has already given way to digital, synchronous, asynchronous, multi-format & online learning. Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Learning Management Platforms (LXPs) that are recommendatory in nature have changed the paradigm of how to learn, what to learn and when to learn. Multi-platform learning and hyper-personalized learning opportunities have reduced the difference between education and training by accelerating both. One point of view is that outcome-based education and application-based training are easier to deliver online, through lectures, podcasts, and videos since learners can learn at their own pace. The pandemic has given an opportunity to many to learn synchronically as well as synchronically and the schedules and formats for such learning opportunities have been offered in a manner that is convenient to most. Another point of view is that the classroom, a conventional blackboard and chalk cannot be substituted by the digital format. They argue that the opportunity to break down a problem into its elements, the animation, the fellowship of others around, the magic and drama of good teaching cannot be replicated by the digital mode. Most have to tread the middle path by suggesting that blended learning is the most effective. While the dust settles on this debate it is clear that learning will never be the same again. The digitization drive of learning started with storing information and knowledge of large libraries in digital formats. Electronic books and the Kindle replaced the book on the shelf. And now teachers and content are appearing on screens as small as that of a smartphone and are revolutionizing education. While early attempts in India started with distance-based education offered by IGNOU a few decades ago and graduated to online content through mediums such as NPTEL and the Swayam program, this trend has seen a tectonic shift during the pandemic in India and the World since the lockdowns saw schools and other educational institutions closed. In the new world, online education is perhaps one of the biggest shifts in thinking and is shedding this orthodoxy, at least partially. But the debate is still relevant because some skills just cannot be taught through an online mode. Example: counseling skills, dissection of a human body, bar bending.
Debate No 9: WfH Vs WfW
Work from Home or WfH, has been prior to 2020, an HR practice that has been more popular in the advanced countries. Also, countries such as Singapore where real estate expenses are exorbitant and where the facilities for internet are relatively easy to access saw this practice blossom.
Nicholas Bloom analyzed the merits of WfH through his experiment using Randomised Control Trials (RCT). In 2015, The Quarterly Journal of Economics published a paper he had co-authored extolling the benefits of WfH. The research was based on an RCT experiment involving 1000 employees of C Trip, a Chinese travel company. The experiment revealed that WfH leads to a 13% increase in performance, almost an extra day of output per week plus a 50% drop in employee quit rates. The experiment was so successful that C Trip rolled out WfH for the whole firm. The C Trip experiment had one set of employees on WfH working 4 days a week from home and office on the 5th day. Personal choice was offered to those who volunteered to WfH. The question though the experiment proved positive for WfH, is whether WfH is a useful management practice for raising productivity and profitability. The answer is that the initiative lacks further systematic evidence. It lacks consensus. There are serious concerns about the erosion of social capital. In fact, during the pandemic, Bloom posted a blog that he himself is not gushing over the global rollout of WfH. The pandemic circumstances were very different. Parents had to become full-time teachers. Space in small homes began to look even more cramped due to social distancing norms. In fact he exhorted the opposite in his blog. That WfH is a productivity disaster. That decisions regarding the WfH practice should not be taken during the pandemic but only after “normalcy” is restored. But people are already talking about the new norm. A hybrid solution between a full WfH and a full WfW. At least the orthodoxy in many organizations that WfH is equivalent to “shirk from home”, has been challenged.
Debate No 10: Digitization in HR Vs staying 'touchy-feely'
The debate is getting definitely skewed towards digitization in HR. The digitization in HR argument by the supporters starts with the argument that routine transactional activities such as reimbursements that can be insourced to a shared services department will release HR for higher-order work and see HR position itself higher in the value chain. The naysayers are worried about headcount reduction and the loss of “human touch”. Gamification, use of Machine Learning and AI algorithms in predicting patterns of human behavior that are getting more and more critical in this uncertain world. Today the use of technology, data analytics, and even blockchain in HR are essential competencies for all HR professionals. Bots may answer queries of employees using cobots and robots on routine matters. However, to counsel distraught employees is stretching the argument a bit too much. Biases baked into AI algorithms may be dangerous according to the antagonists and therefore they believe that balanced human judgment cannot be substituted. Many believe that the digitization move in HR is overdone. Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed an “EQ-Radio,” a device that can detect a person’s emotions using wireless signals. The answer to this is somewhere in between the hyperbole of digitization to predict anything versus the art of reading a person through nonverbal communication or body language and the spoken word. But the orthodoxy that digitization in HR is not worth the effort since it reduces the “feeling” function, stands now on shifting sands.
The best way to ensure that an organizational orthodoxy is not a millstone around the neck that slows down the pace of change or even prevents it is to get diverse viewpoints on a policy. The millennial viewpoint is particularly important in today’s times because it offers a different perspective. Being open to viewpoints of multiple stakeholders on a policy issue and debating them may help an organization to shed an organizational orthodoxy, or at least recognize one.
Read more such stories from the February 2021 issue of our e-magazine on 'Shifting Paradigms in Performance Management'
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.