W.A.J. (Edwin) Santbergen

RSM - Rotterdam School of Management
Erasmus University Rotterdam
ERIM Doctoral Student
Field: Organisation
Affiliated since 2005

PhD Project

Employee Alignment A Model for Promoting Strategically Aligned Employee Decision-Making and Behaviour

Organizations increasingly use structures that depend less on tightly linked superior-subordinate units and more on the autonomy and independence of employees and business units (e.g. Collins & Porras, 1991; Kahn, 2002). As a result companies face the challenge of decentralizing while simultaneously fostering coherent, coordinated effort. (Collins & Porras, 1991). Trying to influence employees to use their discretion in ways that benefit the strategic direction of the organization, companies are trying to ‘align’ employee decision-making and subsequent behavior with that direction. Especially in the context of the implementation of a new strategic initiative employee alignment with the strategy is required (Gagnon & Michael, 2003).

 

Employee alignment can be thought of as representing the final step in the overall organizational alignment process. According to Dell & Kramer (2003) strategic business alignment represents the organization's capability to coordinate the activities of all its components for the purpose of achieving its strategic objectives. In their view it is grounded in a shared vision and common understanding, as well as ownership by all stakeholders of what the organization wants to achieve and why. Labovitz & Rosansky (1997) simply refer to this concept as alignment and define it as the integration of key systems, processes, and responses to changes in the external environment.

 

Several authors in strategic and human resource management theory have argued that ensuring a consistent fit between organizational mission and the structure, policies, and procedures of the organization and the practices of its leadership can significantly improve organizational performance (for a review, see Crotts, Dickson & Ford, 2005).

 

For instance, a study by Bart & Baetz (1998) tracing the linkage between organizational mission and financial performance found that the degree to which an organization aligns its internal structure, policies, and procedures with its mission was positively associated with employee behavior which, in turn, had the most relationship with financial performance. According to the authors, an explanation is that an extensive and comprehensive alignment between a firm’s mission statement and its performance evaluation system appears to focus and prioritize the activities of firm members such that their behaviors reflect and reinforce strategy. As such, the result of internal organizational alignment is “a total environment that envelops employees, bombarding them with a set of signals so consistent and mutually reinforcing that it’s virtually impossible to misunderstand the company’s ideology and ambitions.” (Collins & Porras, 2004: 201).

 

On an employee level, work on alignment has centered on the knowledge and attitude of employees regarding new strategic initiatives (e.g.; Floyd & Wooldridge, 1992; Parker, Wall & Jackson, 1997; Boswell & Boudreau, 2001; Gagnon & Michael, 2003; Van Riel Berens & Dijkstra, 2006). For instance, Boswell & Boudreau (2001) state that there has been increasing effort by organizations to enable their employees to understand and articulate the organization’s mission and their contributions to achieving the organization’s goals. In their view this understanding may be a mechanism for better ensuring that employee actions are aligned with the organization. Furthermore, in the view of Floyd & Wooldridge (1992), unsuccessful execution of strategy is caused by middle- and operating-level managers who are either ill-informed or unsupportive of the chosen direction. Successful execution on the other hand, means managers acting on a common set of strategic priorities, and achieving it depends on the level of shared understanding and common commitment. Furthermore, Parker et al. (1997) found that employees’ understanding and acceptance of principles that derive from strategic objectives increased as a result of communication and training.

 

Several constructs have been used referring to the understanding of the strategy by employees, such as ‘line of sight’ (Boswell & Boudreau, 2001), ‘strategic consensus’ (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1992) and ‘strategic orientation’ (Parker, Wall & Jackson, 1997). Next to internal organizational alignment, internal communication is often mentioned as one of the key factors contributing to such a strategic orientation of employees (e.g. Rapert, Veliquette & Garretson, 2000; Boswell & Boudreau, 2001; Goebel, Marshall  & Locander, 2004).

 

The importance of developing an employee orientation consistent with strategy has been widely argued in the service marketing and personal selling literature under the concept of customer orientation. According to Peccei & Rosenthal (2000: 562) programs designed to strengthen customer orientation among front-line service workers represent one of the most common forms of culture change initiatives within service organizations. One element reflected by these programs is their attention to normative control. These interventions represent attempts by management to instill or to strengthen proactive service attitudes and values among front-line workers as an important route to the desired customer-oriented behaviors. These attitudes and values are seen to offer the basis for self-management by employees, and hence for the provision of more authentic and consistent service behaviors. In a similar vein, it can be argued that activities aimed at fostering a strategic orientation represent attempts by management to instill or to strengthen proactive strategic attitudes and values among employees as an important route to the desired strategy-oriented behaviors. This offers the basis for self-management by employees, and hence for the provision of more authentic and consistent strategic behaviors.

 

However, in terms of employee alignment, getting employees to understand the corporate strategy might not be sufficient to promote aligned employee decision-making and behavior. Rather, it serves to create a strategic orientation, which can be the basis for employee self-management. In other words, organizational alignment provides the employee with the direction to follow, and the incentive to do so, but it does not necessarily foster employee self-management or employee self-regulation.

This is acknowledged in the work of Parker, Wall, & Jackson (1997), who found that the implementation of new production practices can in itself lead to the development of a strategic orientation appropriate to new manufacturing. For employees to generalize this strategic orientation to their own work roles, on the other hand, required the introduction of more autonomous forms of working.

 

The premise of this research is that the crux of employee alignment is in the actual day-to-day decision-making and behavior of employees. To use their discretion in line with the strategic direction employee arguably need more than a strategic orientation alone.

First of all, to adequately interpret situations and behavioral events as relevant regarding the new strategic initiative employees most probably need a certain type of awareness, labeled here as strategic mindfulness. The concept of strategic mindfulness represents the ability of employees to recognize the relevance of the new strategic initiative to a certain decision or situation. A similar concept was introduced into business ethics literature in the form of ethical mindfulness by Thomas, Schermerhorn & Dienhart (2004: 16), who state that: “ethical mindfulness becomes a form of self-regulation that causes one to behave with an ethical consciousness from one decision or behavioral event to another”.

 

Furthermore, next to the ability to recognize the strategic nature of a decision or situation, employees have to have the volition to follow through on their interpretation. This not only requires motivation, which but it also necessitates willpower for purposeful action taking (Ghoshal & Bruch, 2003). Research on volition by Ghoshal & Bruch (2003) found that it was the decisive driver of effective implementation of change initiatives.

 

As a result, the process of employee alignment warrants extra attention, reflected in the central research question of this project:

 

“How can companies ensure aligned decision-making and behavior by organizational members in the context of new strategic initiatives?’

 

Furthermore, as employee communication is seen as one of the crucial factors in facilitating employee alignment (e.g. Noble, 1999), this research project will devote extra attention to the effect of communication on aligned decision-making and behavior. While previous studies (e.g. Farmer, Slater, & Wright, 1998; Rapert, Velliquette, & Garretson, 2002; Edmondson, 2003) have investigated the contribution of providing information and of communication climate to employee alignment, they have not paid attention to the actual decision-making process of alignment. Furthermore, knowledge regarding the effect of different types of employee communication on employee alignment is limited, with the notable exception of Van Riel, Berens, & Dijkstra (2006). As a result, a secondary research question for this project is:

 

“How do different forms of employee communication contribute to aligned decision-making and behavior in the context of new strategic initiatives?”.

Keywords
Time frame
2005 -

Address

Visiting address

Office: Mandeville Building T11-40
Burgemeester Oudlaan 50
3062 PA Rotterdam

Postal address

Postbus 1738
3000 DR Rotterdam
Netherlands

Supervisory team

Edwin Santbergen
Professor of Corporate Communication
Promotor