Friday, 30 May 2014

Missing people in M&A

There’s a slightly depressing story in Human Resources this week suggesting that people problems in mergers and acquisitions are on the rise. In a thawing economic environment, where such deals are bound to increase, that’s got to be a concern.

But the most depressing thing is that we have heard similar things before. Many times.  

There is plenty of literature, going back many years, on the importance of engaging and supporting people involved in a merger or acquisition (on either side). Focusing too much on meshing facilities or balance sheets, and not enough on fashioning an effective team, means any new entity becomes rather less than the sum of its previous parts. The value that the change is expected to deliver proves rather illusory as previous projections become akin to a house built on sand.
There are many people issues involved in any such change and highlighted in the Mercer report that lies behind this news story, but to my mind none is more important than employee engagement. It is simply vital to develop and implement a clear, comprehensive and flexible engagement programme to inform and involve diverse employees in the progress of change. This much is intuitive. So why doesn’t it always happen?

There is no simple answer, but I would highlight two, contrasting situations that I have seen over the years:
·         in the first, employee engagement is simply not seen as important enough in the grand scheme of things, and the team involved in designing and delivering change only looks to colleagues for support when they have, to all intents and purposes, already developed the approach themselves. Those nominally responsible for employee engagement or internal communication are then handed something of a ‘hospital pass’ as they seek to weave in some core principles and good practice – but they are already fighting a losing battle

·         in the second, internal communicators are involved – much earlier on – but are so keen to make things happen, or feel the need for action is so great, that they essentially escape the bounds of the change programme they are supporting. This can lead to a rush of unco-ordinated communications, at different times, with confusing messaging and inconsistent dialogue. A recipe for disaster, through which communication is throwing up more obstacles rather than smoothing the way.
These scenarios may look extreme, but I’d suggest both are fairly common. And they both demonstrate a poor grasp of the role and importance of employee engagement during change.

To me, the way to resolve is this is to establish engagement as a core business priority from the early stages of planning for change, and to ensure that the resultant programmes always maintain an umbilical link with the project they are there to support. This is vital in any scenario, let one in which the stakes are as big as they are for a merger or acquisition. As the pace of such deals picks up, I hope it’s something we’ll see more of in practice.