Culture change or climate change

Charles Handy author of landmark bestseller Understanding Organisations says ‘many of the ills of organisations stem from imposing an inappropriate structure on a particular culture, or from expecting a particular culture to thrive in an inappropriate climate. Social Work, I feel, has always felt at odds with being seated in a large organisation and a time managed, performance driven framework. In trying to help and support people you can’t have the clock ticking and you shouldn’t have a huge bureaucratic system to feed with information. This takes your focus away from the job in hand. It seems that the therapeutic dimension has been stripped out of most local authority social work. This is not because of a lack of desire to engage in such work from social workers but as a consequence of what has been imposed on social work.

Handy identifies various cultures in organisations and the one that fits best with what we see in local authorities is the role culture. Role culture comes with the hierarchical structure that we all know so well with its need for ‘sign off’ and authorization by someone often detached from the actual work that took place. This leads to a formal and rigid chain of communication that can often slow down decision making to a virtual stop. There are rules and policies to guide how the organisation operates and functions leading to process driven work that sometimes just doesn’t fit with the specific style of the individual worker or the needs of the person you are working with. So while there appears to be flexible options at our finger tips to offer service users – like Direct Payments for example – these too are drowned in bureaucracy. The emphasis in this organisational culture is on written documentation…. Don’t we know it!

There are, or were, positives to such a structure. Historically working in such organisations gave great job security. ‘Work in local government! It’s a job for life!’ Sadly we know this not to be the case now as a smaller workforce with higher caseloads, and the constant threat of a restructure, will testify. Also clear, transparent systems with criteria and thresholds should mean there is more chance of the division of resources, via the provision of services or funding, being more equitable for service users.

Handy uses a diagram of a Greek Temple (or is it Roman I never can tell) to show how such an organisational culture works. The strong pillars (the departments in the organisation) are all distinct with a specific role supporting the roof that overarches all of the pillars where the senior managers sit linking together all of the pillars in their strategic meetings. For as long as I’ve ben involved in social work there has been a drive to move away from this ‘working in silos’ approach but I still feel that there is an ethos of ‘that’s not my job’, ‘someone else will do that’ in local authorities. There has been some movement away from some tasks having to be ‘handed off’ but this is more from chance than design. It’s more as a consequence of administrative roles being removed with such tasks being handed on to social workers rather than a well thought through positive change in direction.

Handy suggests that this role culture is appropriate in organisations that are not subject to constant change. The culture functions well in a stable environment, but is insecure in times of change. We tend to view change and change management in terms of thinking about a change that is on the horizon, thinking about how to plan for that change, delivering the change, then having a settling down period after the change. This is not now how organisations work. All organisations, not just social work departments, are in constant flux, responding to changes in the task environment often primarily driven by external influence at the whim of government whatever their political position. This role culture that is typically found in local authorities finds it extremely difficult to change rapidly. But a way to work in this constant state of change needs to be found. Organisations need to be responsive.

This role culture, based on a bureaucratic model, Handy said, may be suitable for government organisations, but it is not suitable for business organisations that need quick decision making and flexibility in procedures. I would argue that social work departments and indeed local authorities in general have become businesses therefore this model no longer works. There is too much difficulty in communication, too much emphasis on reports and justification, and a stripping out of professional decision making and autonomy.

The environment needs to change or social work needs to move into another environment. We are seeing social work move out of the local authority arena and into the independent sector and this seems to be where the interesting work and the more therapeutic work goes on. However if such independent organisations are commissioned by local authorities to do their work and are constrained by the same inflexible management and performance systems then we just move the problem somewhere else. The opportunities in the independent sector to do things differently with a different focus need to be embraced.

Handy would suggest a task culture where work is task or project orientated, where groups of people come together to pool their expertise, and where groups can be formed and reformed depending on what is required, drawing on all of the transferable skills that come embodied in a professional worker. This would provide the flexibility to respond to change. Change at the level of working with an individual – a ‘what does this person need’ approach to shaping the work around them – and at an organisational level where responses to changes in the task environment can be adapted to quickly and effectively.

Social work certainly isn’t dead or not required, and does have a very positive future. But maybe we’re hanging onto old structures and old ways of doing. As I read somewhere, and am fond of saying, “what got us here won’t get us there’.

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