Aviation News Journal
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Communications and Structural Strategies: Formal vs Informal
This case study and analysis is written by Rod Hayward, an Associate Professor in the BBA AV (Bachelor of Business Administration in Aviation) programme at the University of the Fraser Valley. Rod has worked as a commercial pilot, AME M1 &2, QA manager, director of maintenance, entrepreneur and manager in the Canadian aviation industry and is currently the president of PAMEA. (Pacific Aircraft Maintenance Engineers Association). Feel free to reach out to Rod at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the fourth of a series of articles which focus on managerial challenges in the aviation and aerospace industries. The following brief scenario / case study which is meant to illustrate some of the challenges around organizational communication. As you work through the case think about your own organization – do you see similar challenges? Part 1 will outline the problem Part 2 will discuss the issues and possible solutions.
Part 1 – The scenario
Bob, the shipping department supervisor at Great Eastern Aerospace (GEA) was not sure how to respond to this request, after reading the email from Bob’s direct supervisor Graham. The email was asking Bob to avoid discussing work with fellow employees from other work units during informal lunches. It did not seem right. Bob had been going out for lunch once a month with about 6 or 7 of his fellow supervisors from across the company for years. These lunches were a great opportunity to share information and maybe learn a bit of gossip.
Bob had worked at GEA for 15 years, he initially started in the shipping department as a shipper and had worked his way up to being the shipping supervisor. The company itself had grown as well – originally a small airline with its own in house maintenance department the company had expanded its capabilities and had become not only an operator but also supplier of contract maintenance and flight operations. The company had also developed a number of aircraft modification packages which were sold to operator’s world wide. These had become an important revenue source for GEA as part of its manufacturing unit.
The organization was divided into 5 basic operating units and a number of sub units – shipping was included within the manufacturing component of the maintenance unit.
• Operations which was then broken into dispatch, flight standards, and cabin safety,
• Maintenance which was made up of Manufacturing, Line, and Heavy Maintenance,
• Safety and Quality standards
• Human Resources, which was then broken into training and development, recruitment and employee benefits.
• Administration, which encompassed accounting, customer service, sales and marketing, and new program development.
When Bob started at the company the organization was a lot smaller and less complex. Bob reminisced back to those days when the company had a little over 25 people in total – whereas there were probably 250 people in the organization now. One of the few things that had remained fairly intact up until recently was the culture. GFA had maintained a family feel even as the company grew – you felt like you were a part of the team where everyone’s contribution mattered. It was not uncommon to have Mark, the company founder wander into the shipping department and have coffee with the crew. But things started to change about a year ago when a new CEO was hired by Mark. The new CEO, Andrea came from a much larger organization and made it clear that the she felt that GEA was at the cusp of great things but it needed to become “more professional” by adhering to a more formal reporting structure. The email to Bob from Graham was a result of a directive from the new CEO that dictated that employee communication relating to company business adhere to the company reporting structure.
What should Bob or Graham do?
When reviewing a scenario, we ask a few questions like: who are the players? What are the primary / secondary issues here? What could happen? And what are the possible solutions to the problem? Take some time to write down some of the challenges and ideas for correcting the challenges.
Part 2 – Problem identification
When reviewing a scenario we ask a few questions like: who are the players? What are the primary / secondary issues here – root causes? What could happen? And what are the possible solutions to the problem? (Not unlike doing a corrective action plan)
Players; Bob – Shipping supervisor, Graham – Bobs boss and Manufacturing manager, Mark – company founder, Andrea – CEO, Other employees, the Company itself.
On the surface the issues /challenge here appears to be based around a few themes:
1. The company has grown in size and complexity – does the old structure and culture support this growth?
2. A new leader is making changes to the organizations culture – perhaps trying to instill a culture that they are more familiar with?
3. What should an employee do when being asked to do something that they are not in agreement with.
4. How does effective communication occur in complex, siloed organization?
As is the case with most challenges, this case touches on a couple of key issues around communication, culture, formal vs informal company structure and leadership style.
What could possibly happen? What is at stake for the company and for the players?
How an organization communicates is a reflection of its culture and organizational structure. An ill thought out initiative can impact an organizations ability in ways that are unexpected. In this case, Andrea the new CEO feels that the company needs to reinforce its formal structure in order to become more professional. Unfortunately, she may have given the wrong message to her managers and they feel that they need to formalize communication thus limiting the informal communication structure.
Corporate Silos; Many organizations due to the nature of the business they are in naturally develop silos. These silos exist where groups of employees work together on shared work. The challenge with a silo is that communication between silos can be a challenge yet these silos and the people within the silos must work together to achieve corporate objectives. The classic aviation silo being the flight crew vs the maintenance crew – these two groups need to work together to achieve corporate objectives but sometimes conflict can occur when the groups focus on their own individual objectives such as on time performance vs the challenges associated with troubleshooting a complex aircraft.
Unfortunately, shutting down informal communication between groups reinforces silos and leads to reduced corporate effectiveness. In this case the monthly supervisor lunch is a great opportunity for these supervisors to share information in an informal forum but more importantly it reinforces relationships across work groups. The result on the bottom line could be very detrimental if work units fail to work together to achieve corporate objectives.
Formal communication and Informal communications, and Formal structure vs the informal structure
Formal communication is necessary but managers that forget the informal communication channels and the informal structure do so at their peril. In the old days it was the chat around the coffee machine where information really flowed in organizations – now its through social media. A wise manager knows who are the informal leaders are and ensures that they are an important part of any communications strategy.
Part 3 - Building a solution
We have reviewed the scenario, identified the players, what is at stake, and proposed a couple possible issues. Now what should Bob, Graham or the leadership group do at this point / and in the long term to correct the current challenge?
Bob’s first reaction to Grahams request to avoid discussing work over lunch should not be discounted. But what should he do, a failure to follow a directive from your supervisor is insubordination? As with any problem Bob needs to step back and asses the situation and look at the options, he has available.
Bob really sees three main options:
• Ignore Graham – Bob ends up being insubordinate
• Comply – which in all reality would mean not attending the lunch
• Or speak to Graham about the request – this is probably the best option
Questioning your supervisor’s direction is something which should be handled delicately. But that being said a good manager will listen to the concern. This is a sign of leadership – listening to your people when they have a concern. Engaged employees are ones who think critically and ask questions – a wise leader will take the time to listen to concerns. If Bob takes the time to remind Graham of the benefits of sharing information with his fellow supervisors, Graham will probably see the benefit.
This case is designed to illustrate a few managerial realities around structure, communication, culture and how these areas are linked together. Any organization is as complex as those who work in it, the wise leader is aware of the constant balance that any organization needs to meet to survive. The other message in this story is around the need for managers to develop a culture which supports critical thinking and corporate growth. In a world which is changing rapidly we need to develop strategies which ensure everyone is engaged in thinking about how to do what they do better. We need people that question why we do what we do, as opposed to accepting the status quo.
Hierarchies by nature are designed to maintain the status quo – in a world of constant change we need to remove barriers to change – what structure will allow your organization to adapt to a changing world.