5) Communicating  across  cultures  

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Changing the Communication Culture at Opal-Marti     Company Background

Opal-­‐Mart   is   a   large   retail   chain   (~30000   employees)   with   several   hundred   store   locations   in   Australia.   The   size   of   this   company   is   reflected   in   a   large   and   culturally   diverse   workforce,   with   Australian,  Indian  and  Chinese  staff  representing  the  largest  employee  groups.  Employees  range  in   age   from   16   to   senior   citizens,   many   of   whom   work   part   time.   Today,   each   Opal-­‐Mart   store   is   a   business  within  a  business  –  200-­‐300  employees  per  store,  round-­‐the-­‐clock  shifts,  and  one-­‐on-­‐one   competition  with  other  local  and  chain  owned  stores  in  the  community  in  which  they  are  located.

In  the  past  10  years,  Opal-­‐Mart  as  a  company  has  experienced  both  growth  and  retrenchment.  The   opening   of   many   new   and   larger   stores   has   been   counterbalanced   by   store   closings   and   the   elimination  of  entire  sales  regions  due  to  decreasing  profits.  Store  closings  became  painful  exercises   that  the  company  wanted  to  minimize  at  all  costs.  Not  only  was  the  relocation  and  release  of  many   employees  difficult,  but  the  “ripple  effect”  on  morale  in  other  sales  regions  was  a  cause  for  concern.   Taking  stock  of  itself,  better  communication  between  management  and  staff  and  among  employees   became  a  central  priority.

Opal Mart’s Communication Audit

Opal-­‐Mart  decided  to  commission  the  conduct  of  a  communication  audit  (Hargie  &  Tourish  2009;   Tourish   &   Hargie   2004)   to   gain   a   better   understanding   of   how   (in-­‐)effective   the   company’s   communication  culture  really  was.    The  purpose  of  this  audit  was  to  identify  the  current  barriers  to   communication  and  areas  in  which  the  company  could  improve.  The  audit   involved  focus  groups,   employee  surveys  and  interviews  with  a  number  of  staff,  including  sales  personnel,  store  managers   and  upper  management.  The  complete   list  of  communication  barriers  that  were   identified   in  the   audit  is  presented  in  Table  1  (p.  2).

The  audit  results  revealed  that  Opal-­‐Mart  employees  were  more  than  just  receptive  to  a  more  open   communication  culture.  They  seemed  to  have  a  real  thirst  to  become  more  involved  in  the  company.   However,  Opal-­‐Mart  had  a  rigid  system  of  top-­‐down  control  by  management.  Like  many  companies   of   this   nature,   Opal-­‐Mart   hierarchy   greatly   restricted   the   flow   of   information   to   its   employees.   Although  change  was  in  the  works,  the  staff  survey  results  essentially  confirmed  a  tight  control  on   information.   Many   Opal-­‐Mart   employees   believed   that   existing   internal   communication   was   ‘too   infrequent,  too  one-­‐dimensional  (one-­‐way),  and  too  management-­‐oriented  to  be  useful.’

In  addition,  Opal-­‐Mart’s  culture  was  characterized  by  frequent  conflict  between  different  groups  of   staff   and   a   general   lack   of   trust   and   collaboration.   This   did   not   only   show   itself   in   cross-­‐cultural   issues   among   the   highly   diverse   workforce   but   also   in   constant   battles   between   two   of   the   company’s  most  important  staff  groups:  buyers  and  merchandisers.

Traditionally,  Opal  Mart’s  buyers  came  from  an  artistic  creative  background.  Their  main  goal  was  to   develop  an  interesting  range  by  considering  the  look,  style,  and  customer  appeal  of  products.  Opal   Mart’s   merchandisers,   in   contrast,   were   product-­‐oriented.   Drawing   on   their   background   in   accounting  and  finance,  their  main  goal  was  to  create  an  economically  viable  range  by  continuously   scanning   financial   information.   Friction   was   invariably   created   when   buyers   and   merchandisers   sought  to  make  decisions  while  viewing  the  range  from  a  different  angle.  Ultimately,  both  groups   had  to  collaborate  and  make  decisions  that  led  to  the  best  possible  choice  for  the  customer  while



Organisational  Dialogue:  Theory  &  Practice     Case  Study  Briefing  sheet


maximising  retail  sales  and  profits.  This,  however,  was  a  source  of  frequent  conflict  at  Opal-­‐Mart.

A  further  issue  identified  by  the  audit  was  a  culture  of  ineffective  meetings  that  often  went  over   time,  wasted  energies  and  left  its  participants  wondering  what  outcomes  had  been  achieved.  Staff   often   shut   each   other   down   and   failed   to   listen   to   each   other’s   views   which   brought   about   a   negative  climate.  The  audit  results  showed  that  senior  managers  did  not  feel  they  had  the  skills  to   chair  meetings  in  such  a  tension-­‐laden  environment.

A  final  cause  for  concern  was  the  increase  in  customer  complaints  at  Opal-­‐Mart  and  –  perhaps  even   more   importantly,   the   poor   ways   in   which   store   staff   dealt   with   such   complaints.   Rather   than   seeking   to   understand   the   customers’   issues,   store   staff   tended   to   act   defensively,   brushing   customers  off  abruptly  and  sometimes  rudely.  This  was  partly  due  to  the  time  pressures  of  store   staff,  and  partly  due  to  their  inexperience  and  lack  of  skills.  Many  part-­‐timers  in  particular,  had  never   received   proper   communications   training   and   simply   did   not   know   how   to   appease   and   retain   customers  in  such  difficult  situations.

Opal   Mart   clearly   had   an   opportunity   to   improve   staff   communication   skills   and   develop   a   more   open  and  collaborative  communication  culture.  The  company’s  CEO,  along  with  his  senior  executive   group,   decided   to   act   quickly.   A   task   force   was   created   that   should   look   more   deeply   into   the   company’s  communication  problems.


Table  1  List  of  identified  communication  barriers


1. Poor  understanding  of  the  need  for  upward  feedback,  especially  by  senior  management.    Senior   executives  are  not  aware  of  the  importance  of  gaining  an  understanding  of  staff  issues  and  concerns   and  are  perceived  to  lack  empathy  and  listening  skills.

2. Poor  downward  feedback.  Staff  rarely  receive  feedback  on  their  work  and  if  they  do,  it  is  negative,   given  in  a  de-­‐motivating  way  and/or  leaves  staff  without  an  understanding  of  how  specific  issues  relate   to  broader  company  goals.

3. The  Opal-­‐Mart  workforce  is  highly  diverse  culturally,  with  Australian,  Indian  and  Chinese  staff   representing  the  largest  employee  groups.  Intercultural  communication  issues  and  misunderstandings   among  store  staff  are  frequent,  rendering  the  task  of  running  the  stores  effectively  more  difficult.

4. A  silo  culture  and  little  understanding  of  how  different  occupational  perspectives  are  part  of  a  broader   picture.  In  particular,  there  are  frequent  tensions  between  the  company’s  buyers  and  merchandisers.   While  both  groups  of  staff  rely  on  each  other  in  their  job  roles,  time  and  energy  is  wasted  on   unproductive  debates.

5. There  is  a  culture  of  ineffective  meetings  at  head  office  –  in  particular,  meetings  are  characterized  by   power  struggles  and  frequent  conflict.    Managers  chairing  meetings  lack  the  skills  to  resolve  conflict   and  facilitate  dialogic  communication.

6. Opal-­‐Mart  staff  are  often  not  skilled  in  handling  customer  complaints.  This  has  led  to  a  significant  loss   of  customers  in  recent  years  and  is  considered  by  the  Executive  as  a  key  concern  with  implications  for   brand  reputation.





Organisational  Dialogue:  Theory  &  Practice     Case  Study  Briefing  sheet



Opal Mart’s Path Towards a New Communication Culture

The  mission  of  the  new  task  force  was  ‘to  create  an  internal  communications  strategy  for  Opal-­‐Mart   that   will   increase   the   flow   of   information   among   all   employees   of   the   company   and   in   so   doing,   create   better   and   broader   understanding   of   -­‐   and   support   for   -­‐   Opal-­‐Mart’s   business   goals   and   objectives.’   The   task   force   was   unique   in   that   it   was   comprised   of   several   organisational   development  and  human  resources  managers  from  various  Opal-­‐Mart  sales  regions,  store  personnel,   a  consultant,  and  representatives  from  corporate  headquarters.  It  was  also  exclusively  devoted  to   one   mission:   studying   organisational   communication   within   Opal-­‐Mart   and   advising   upper   management  on  how  to  improve  it.

The  first  order  of  business  for  the  task  force  was  to  write  a  mission  statement  in  order  to  address  the   issue  of  what  specific  values  and  philosophy  the  company  should  espouse.  Although  the  wording  of   the   statement   was   subject   to   much   discussion,   there   was   consensus   about   the   desired   central   values.  Ultimately,  the  following  mission  statement  was  adopted:

Opal-­‐Mart  is  committed  to  the  development  of  an  effective  organisational  communication  culture   which  responds  to  the  concerns  of  employees  and  customers,  seeks  their  input  in  setting  and   attaining  company  goals,  and  is  characterized  by  practices  of  mutual  respect,  trust  and  collaboration.

This  broad  mission  statement  was  translated  into  the  following  value  statements:

1. We  work  together  as  one  team.  We  help  each  other  and  ask  for  help  because  we  know  that  we   can  offer  our  customers  the  best  service  when  we  work  together.

2. We  build  lasting  relationships  with  our  customers  by  making  them  our  first  priority.  We  listen  to   feedback,  provide  support  and  are  committed  to  the  continuous  improvement  of  our  services.

3. We  treat  each  other  with  respect.  We  embrace  diverse  communities,  cultures  and  points  of  view.   We  understand  how  we  differ  and  how  we  are  similar.  To  collaborate  well,  we  trust  each  other   and  work  together  towards  shared  goals.

4. We  strive  for  excellence  in  what  we  do.  We  are  committed  to  the  continuous  improvement  of  our   services  and  we  achieve  this  by  continuously  developing  and  deepening  our  knowledge  of  our   people,  our  customers,  and  our  business.

5. We  lead  in  ways  that  provide  recognition,  motivation  and  empowerment  –  by  listening,  seeking   feedback  and  working  with  our  staff  on  the  attainment  of  shared  goals.


The   second   order   of   business   for   the   task   force   was   to   commission   training   companies   with   the   development   of   communication   skills   trainings   that   would   help   overcome   some   of   the   existing   barriers.   A   request   for   business   proposals   was   developed   in   which   the   agencies   were   asked   to   outline  their  suggestions  for  future  Opal-­‐Mart  communication  trainings.  The  Opal-­‐Mart  task  force   specified  clear  priority  areas  and  audiences  for  these  communications  trainings.  These  included  (but   were  not  limited  to)  the  following  six  topic  areas,  presented  on  p.  4:







Organisational  Dialogue:  Theory  &  Practice     Case  Study  Briefing  sheet



1) Improving  performance  through  feedback   Target  audience:  Opal-­‐Mart  store  managers   Brief:  Develop  a  proposal  for  the  training  of  Opal-­‐Mart  store  managers  on  the  provision  of  staff   feedback.  The  aim  of  this  training  is  to  make  Opal-­‐Mart  store  managers  aware  of  the  importance   of  feedback  as  a  tool  that  leads  to  enhanced  staff  performance  as  well  as  assist  the  managers  in   developing  their  feedback  skills.

2) Developing  shared  understanding   Target  audience:  Opal-­‐Mart  buying  and  merchandising  staff   Brief:  Develop  a  proposal  for  the  training  of  Opal-­‐Mart  buying  and  merchandising  staff  which  will   assist  these  groups  of  staff  in  developing  a  more  collaborative  mind  frame.  Proposals  that  focus   on  the  delivery  of  communication  skills  and/or  methods  that  will  increase  the  groups’  mutual   understanding  of  issues  will  be  looked  upon  favourably.

3) Listening  to  your  staff   Target  audience:  Opal-­‐Mart  senior  management   Brief:  Develop  a  proposal  for  a  training  of  that  will  increase  Opal-­‐Mart  senior  managers’   awareness  of  the  importance  of  listening  to  staff  concerns  and  showing  empathy.  The  aim  of  this   training  is  to  allow  senior  management  to  gain  a  better  understanding  of  staff  needs,  thereby   reducing  the  current  communication  gap  between  senior  management  and  staff  and  increasing   staff  engagement.

4) Running  productive  meetings

Target  audience:  Opal-­‐Mart  senior  management   Brief:  Develop  a  proposal  for  the  training  of  Opal-­‐Mart  senior  managers  in  (meeting)  facilitation   skills.  Senior  managers  are  expected  to  leave  the  training  with  improved  knowledge  and  skills  in   at  least  one  of  the  following  areas:  facilitating  meetings,  conflict  management  in  meetings,   meeting  design  and  planning.

5) Communicating  across  cultures

Target  Audience:  Opal-­‐Mart  store  staff  (culturally  diverse  group,  predominantly  Australian,   Indian  and  Chinese)   Brief:  Develop  a  proposal  for  the  training  of  Opal-­‐Mart  store  staff  in  intercultural  communication   skills.  The  aim  of  this  training  is  to  improve  staff  communication,  reduce  cross-­‐cultural   misunderstandings  and,  as  a  result,  increase  team  cohesion  and  productivity.

6) Dealing  with  unhappy  customers   Target  audience:  Opal-­‐Mart  store  staff   Develop  a  proposal  for  the  training  of  Opal-­‐Mart  store/sales  staff  that  will  allow  them  to  deal   more  effectively  with  customer  complaints.  The  aim  of  this  training  is  to  provide  staff  with   insights  into  how  challenging  communication  situations  with  customers  can  be  resolved  in  ways   that  retain  the  customer  and  even  increase  their  satisfaction  with  the  company.

Your  task:  You  are  a  member  of  a  training  company  specialising  in  the  development  and  delivery  of   corporate  communication  trainings.  Choose  one  of  the  above  topics  and  respond  to  the  Opal-­‐Mart   brief  by  (1)  developing  a  proposal  for  the  delivery  of  an  Opal-­‐Mart  communication  training  on  the   respective  topic  (see  briefing  sheet  assignment  2)  and  (2)  delivering  the  training  in  class  (see  briefing   sheet  assignment  3)



Organisational  Dialogue:  Theory  &  Practice     Case  Study  Briefing  sheet


References   Hargie,  O.  &  Tourish,  D.  2009,  Auditing  Organizational  Communication:  A  Handbook  of  Research,  Theory

and  Practice,  Routledge,  London.   Tourish,  D.  &  Hargie,  O.  2004,  ‘Communication  Audits:  Building  World  Class  Communication  Systems’,  in

S.  Oliver  (ed.),  Handbook  of  Corporate  Communication  and  Public  Relations,  Routledge,  London,   pp.  131-­‐44.

i  Case  study  adapted  for  Organisational  Dialogue:  Theory  &  Practice  from  Fairhurst,  G.  T.  (1990).  Changing  the  Information  Culture

at  the  Pearson  Company.  In  B.  Davenport  Sypher  (Ed.),  Case  Studies  in  Organizational  Communication  (pp.  223-­‐234).  New   York:  The  Guilford  Press.

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