Tag Archives: Governance

USA moving to formalise project and program management capabilities

The concept of professional project management is gathering pace. The USA Government’s Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015 (PMIAA) was unanimously passed by the US Senate by in November 2015, and was passed by Congress in September 2016 on a 404-11 vote.  Because Congress made some minor changes, it now has to was returned to the Senate before it can be and signed into law by the President on the 14th December 2016 (see comment below).

obama-law

The Act requires the Deputy Director for Management of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to:

  • adopt and oversee implementation of government-wide standards, policies, and guidelines for program and project management for executive agencies;
  • chair the Program Management Policy Council (established by this Act);
  • establish standards and policies for executive agencies consistent with widely accepted standards for program and project management planning and delivery;
  • engage with the private sector to identify best practices in program and project management that would improve Federal program and project management;
  • conduct portfolio reviews to address programs identified as high risk by the Government Accountability Office (GAO);
  • conduct portfolio reviews of agency programs at least annually to assess the quality and effectiveness of program management; and
  • establish a five-year strategic plan for program and project management.

The Act also requires the head of each federal agency that is required to have a Chief Financial Officer (other than Defence which has its own rules) to designate a Program Management Improvement Officer to implement agency program management policies and develop a strategy for enhancing the role of program managers within the agency.

The Office of Personnel Management must issue regulations that:

  1. identify key skills and competencies needed for an agency program and project manager,
  2. establish a new job series or update and improve an existing job series for program and project management within an agency, and
  3. establish a new career path for program and project managers.

And finally, the GAO must issue a report within three years of enactment, in conjunction with its high-risk list, examining the effectiveness of the following (as required or established under this Act) on improving Federal program and project management:

  • the standards, policies, and guidelines for program and project management;
  • the strategic plan;
  • Program Management Improvement Officers; and
  • the Program Management Policy Council.

When enacted the Act will enhance accountability and best practices in project and program management throughout the federal government by:

  1. Creating a formal job series and career path for program/project managers in the federal government, to include training and mentoring – PMP, PMI-SP and similar certifications will become increasingly important!
  2. Developing and implementing, with input from private industry, a standards-based program/project management policy across the federal government.
  3. Recognizing the essential role of executive sponsorship and engagement by designating a senior executive in federal agencies to be responsible for program/project management policy and strategy.
  4. Sharing knowledge of successful approaches to program/project management through an inter-agency council on program and project management.
  5. Implementing program/project portfolio reviews.
  6. Establishing a 5-year strategic plan for program/project management.

You can read the text of the Act here, and stay up-to-date on the Act’s progress here.  The approach USA is aligned with regulatory actions in both the UK and the EU to require government agencies to improve project and program delivery. If this trend continues hopefully the ‘accidental’ project manager / sponsor will be consigned to history and the use of qualified professionals will become the norm.

Follow these links for more on achieving your PMP credential of PMI-SP credential.

Governmentality – the cultural underpinning of governance

Governmentality1Two major governance failures in recent times highlight the importance of organisational culture in delivering a well-governed entity.  Professor Ralf Müller has adapted the term ‘governmentality’ to describe the systems of governance and the willingness of the people within an organisation to support the governance objectives of the organisation’s governing body. When the willingness to be governed breaks down, as these two examples demonstrate, governance failures follow.

Toyota

The Lexus ‘unintended acceleration problem’ from 2009 has cost  car manufacturer Toyota a staggering $1.2 billion fine to avoid prosecution for covering up severe safety problems and continuing to make cars with parts the FBI said Toyota “knew were deadly.”  In addition to numerous civil actions and costs of reputational damage.  The saga was described as a classic case of corporate culture that favoured the seemingly easy way out instead of paying the cost and doing the right thing.  But, the actions of the people who magnified the problem by attempting to cover up the issues fundamentally contradicts the ‘Toyota Way’ that has guided Toyota since 2001. The Toyota Way has two core principles, respect for people and continuous improvement (kaizen).

Respect for people puts ‘people before profits’, and this is not an idle slogan.  Following an Australian Government decision in 2014, all motor vehicle manufacturing in Australia will cease by 2018 (this affects General Motors Holden, Ford and Toyota). In February 2014 Toyota president Akio Toyoda personally came to Australia to tell his workers of the closure and Toyota’s commitment to its staff through training and other activities has maintained staff commitment at our local Altona plant with everyone working to make the “last car the best global car!”.

The difference between the “people first equals customer first” attitude demonstrated in the approach to closing the Altona plant where people are still being released for paid training to up skill for new roles and the ‘customer last’ approach that dominated the Lexus saga is staggering.  The reaffirmation of the ‘Toyota Way’ may have been driven in part by the Lexus disaster but this does not explain why quality and customer service was allowed to fail so badly in the company that practically invented modern quality.

Volkswagen

A similar dichotomy is apparent in the Volkswagen diesel engine emissions scandal.  A company renowned for engineering excellence, from a country renowned for engineering excellence allowed engineering standards to slip to a point where the cars being sold were illegal.  The actual emissions were only part of the problem, Volkswagen engineers had developed a software program dubbed the ‘diesel dupe’ that could detect when the cars were being tested and change the engine performance to improve results. When the cars were operating under controlled laboratory conditions – which typically involve putting them on a stationary test rig – the device appears to have put the vehicle into a sort of safety mode in which the engine ran below normal power and performance thereby reducing emissions. Once on the road, the engines switched out of this test mode.

Governance issues

Neither of these issues involved ‘a few bad apples’ – the excuse used by most institutions to explain banking and financial scandals. They both required extensive management involvement and cover-ups or acquiescence. A substantial subset of both organisation’s management felt that doing the wrong thing was in the best interests of either themselves or the organisation (or both, at least in the short term). But the governing bodies of both organisations would seem to have maintained a commitment to their overall philosophy, the ‘Toyota Way’ and ‘Engineering excellence’.  So what caused the governance failure?

Governmentality

One element that seems central to both of these failures was a breakdown in the willingness of managers to comply with the overall governance philosophy of the organisation which in turn caused the governance processes to fail; this is the domain of governmentality. Governance cannot be successfully imposed on a population that does not want to be governed!

Governmentality2Governmentality is a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault around 1980 and refers to the way in which the state (or another governing body) exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace. The concept involves a complex series of two-way transactions involving:

  • the way governing bodies try to produce the people best suited to fulfil those governments’ policies;
  • the organised practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which people are governed, and
  • the techniques and strategies by which a society is rendered governable.

In the same way as governments rely on most people complying with legislation most of the time, organisational governance mechanisms such as ‘project management offices’ and ‘portfolio management’ cannot function effectively without the cooperation of the people being governed. When governmentality breaks down and people no longer support the governance processes they cease to be effective.

The challenge facing every governing body, in every organisation, is in three parts

  1. Creating an authentic vision and mission for the organisation.
  2. Creating an effective governance system that supports the achievement of the vision.
  3. Creating and maintaining an ethical culture that embraces and supports governmentality.

Effective governance systems can weed out the bad apples and correct errors, but they cannot oversee the actions of every manager all of the time if the majority of people do not wish to follow the governance dictates, or actively work to subvert them.

Developing the ‘right culture’ by employing the right people (and importantly offloading the wrong people) starts at the top.  The governing body needs to ‘walk the talk’, their CEO and senior executives need to model the desired behaviours and ‘doing the right thing’ needs to be encouraged throughout the organisation.

Achieving this requires authenticity and a holistic approach to the way the organisation functions; all of the elements need to work together cohesively. Achieving this is the primary responsibility and challenge for the ‘governing body’, in most organisations, the Board of Directors!

If you get the vision, mission and culture right, even major lapses such as the ‘Lexus unintended acceleration problem’ can be overcome.  Despite the damage this caused, Toyota is now the world’s largest automotive manufacturer with a market capitalisation that is nearly double that of Ford and GM combined.  This is also the reason why Objectives, ethics and culture are the top three elements in my model for the ‘Functions of Governance’.

Seeking a definition of a project.

Good definitions are short and unambiguous and are essential for almost every aspect of life. Even something as simple as ordering a snack requires a clear understanding of what’ required – this understanding is the basis of a definition. For example, doughnuts and bagels have a lot in common, they are both round and have a hole (a torus), and are made from dough but they are ‘definitely’ very different commodities! If you need a bagel for breakfast or a doughnut for you coffee everyone involved in the transaction needs to understand your requirements if your expectations are to be fulfilled.

bagel

donut

 

 

 

 

 

The simple fact is if you cannot define something precisely, you have real problems explaining what it is, what it does and the value it offers, and this lack of definition/understanding seems to be a key challenge facing the project management community (by the way, the bagel is on the left…… the other picture is a Krispy Kreme donut).

Definitions serve two interlinked purposes, they describe the subject of the definition in sufficient detail to allow the concept to be recognised and understood and they exclude similar ‘concepts’ that do not fit the definition. Definitions do not explain the subject, merely define it.

Way back in 2002 we suggested the definition of ‘a project’ was flawed. Almost any temporary work organised to achieve an objective could fit into almost all of the definitions currently in use – unfortunately not much has changed since. PMI’s definition of a ‘project’ is still a: temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. This definition is imprecise, for example, a football team engaged in a match is involved in:

  • A temporary endeavour – the match lasts a defined time.
  • Undertaken to create a unique result – the papers are full of results on the weekend and each match is unique.
  • Undertaken to create a unique product or service – the value is in the entertainment provided to fans, either as a ‘product’ (using a marketing perspective) or as a service to the team’s fans.

Add in elements from other definitions of a project such as a ‘defined start and end’, ‘planned sequence of activities’, etcetera and you still fail to clearly differentiate a team engaged in a project from a football team engaged in a match; but no-one considers a game of football a project. Football captains may be team leaders, but they are not ‘project managers’.

The definition we proposed in 2002 looked at the social and stakeholder aspects of a project and arrived at an augmented description: A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result which the relevant stakeholders agree shall be managed as a project. This definition would clearly exclude the football team engaged in a match unless everyone of significance decided to treat the match as a project but still suffers from a number of weaknesses. To see how this definition works download the 2002 paper from, www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P007_Project_Fact.pdf

 

Updating the definition

Since 2002 there has been a significant amount of academic work undertaken that looks at how projects really function which may provide the basis for a better definition of a project.  The key area of research has been focused on describing projects as temporary organisations that need governing and managing; either as a standalone organisation involving actors from many different ‘permanent organisations’ such as the group of people assembled on a construction site, or as a temporary organisation within a larger organisation such a an internal project team (particularly cross-functional project teams). The research suggests that all projects are undertaken by temporary teams that are assembled to undertake the work and then dissipate at the end of the project.

My feeling is recognising the concept of a project as a particular type of temporary organisation provides the basis for a precise and unambiguous definition of ‘a project’. But on its own this is insufficient – whilst every project involves a temporary organisation, many temporary organisations are not involved in projects.

Another fundamental problem with the basic PMBOK definition is the concept of an ‘endeavour’.  The definition of endeavour used as a noun is: an attempt to achieve a goal; as a verb it is: try hard to do or achieve something.  But, ‘making an effort to do something’ is completely intangible; projects involve people! Hitting a nail with a hammer is an endeavour to drive it into a piece of wood but this information is not a lot of use on its own; you need to know who is endeavouring to drive the nail and for what purpose?

Nail-Quote-Abraham-Maslow

Another issue is the focus on outputs – a product service or result; the output is not the project, the project is the work needed to create the output. Once the output is finished, the project ceases to exist!  A building project is the work involved in creating the building, once the building is finished it is a building, not a project. But confronted with the need to create a new building different people will create different projects to achieve similar results:

  • One organisation may choose to create two projects, one to design the building, another to construct it;
  • A different organisation may choose to create a single ‘design and construct’ project;
  • Another organisation may simply treat the work as ‘business as usual’.

The scope of the work involved in any particular project is determined by its stakeholders – projects are a construct created by people for their mutual convenience, not by some immutable fact of nature.

 

A concise definition of a project

Unpacking the elements involved in a project we find:

  • A temporary organisation is always involved, but not all temporary organisations are project teams.
  •  Projects cause a change by creating something new or different – this objective defines the work to be accomplished and usually includes constraints such as the time and money available for the work. These requirements and scope of work included in a project have to be defined and agreed by the relevant stakeholders at some point – there are no pre-set parameters.
  • The stakeholders have to agree that the work to accomplish the scope will be managed as ‘a project’ for the project to exist; the alternative is ‘business as usual’ or some other form of activity.

Modifying our 2002 definition to incorporate these factors suggests a definition along these lines:

A project is a temporary organisation established to deliver a defined set of requirements and scope of work, which the relevant stakeholders agree shall be managed as a project.

The definition originally proposed has been updated based on discussions with colleagues to:

Project:  A temporary organisation established to accomplish an objective, under the leadership of a person (or people) nominated to fulfil the role of project manager.

Project manager: A person (or people) appointed to lead and direct the work of  a project organisation on behalf of its stakeholders, to achieve its objective. The job title and the degree of authority and autonomy granted to the project manager are determined by the governance arrangements established by the project’s stakeholders.

Project management: The application of knowledge, skills tools and techniques to lead and direct the work of a project organisation.

This definition overcomes many of the fundamental problems with the existing options:

  • It recognises projects are done by people for people, they are not amorphous expenditures of ‘energy’.
  • It allows for the fact that projects do not exist in nature, they are ‘artificial constructs’ created by people for their mutual convenience, and different people confronting similar objectives can create very different arrangements to accomplish the work.
  • It recognises that projects are only projects if the people doing the work and the people overseeing the work decide to treat the work as a project.  The ‘always present’ factors are:
    • People decide to call the work a project (but just calling it a project is not enough)
    • The work is directed to achieving an objective that involves a change in something (new, altered, improved, demolished, etc)
    • The people doing the work are part of a temporary organisation (team / contract / ad hoc / etc) created to facilitate achieving the objective.
    • The work is led by a person fulfilling the role of a project manager and the work is managed as a project (PMBOK / ISO 21500 / Agile / etc).

What do you think a good project definition may be that is concise and unambiguous?

The challenge is to craft a technically correct definition, and then apply the Socratic method of thinking outlined in our 2002 paper at:  www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P007_Project_Fact.pdf.

I look forward to your thoughts!

Stakeholders and Reputational Risk

trust-valueYour reputation and your organisation’s reputation are valuable assets. The willingness of others to trust you, their desire to work with you and virtually every other aspect of the relationship between you and your stakeholders is influenced by their perception of your reputation (see more on The value of trust).  But reputations are fragile: they can take a lifetime to build and seconds to lose. Some of the factors influencing them are:

  1. Reputation cannot be controlled: it exists in the minds of others so it can only be influenced, not managed directly.
  2. Reputation is earned: trust is based on consistent behaviour and performance.
  3. Reputation is not consistent: it depends on each stakeholder’s view. One organisation can have many different reputations, varying with each stakeholder.
  4. Reputation will vary: each stakeholder brings a different expectation of behaviour or performance and so will have a distinct perception of reputation.
  5. Reputation is relational: you have a reputation with someone for something. The key question is therefore: ‘with whom, for what?’
  6. Reputation is comparative: it is valued in comparison to what a particular stakeholder experiences or believes in relation to peers, performance and prejudice.
  7. Reputation is valuable: but the true value of reputation can only be appreciated once it is lost or damaged.

Estimating the ‘true value’ of your reputation is difficult and as a consequence decisions on how much to invest in enhancing and protecting your reputation becomes a value judgment rather than a calculation. Your reputation is created and threatened by both your actions and their consequences (intended or not).  Some actions and their effects on your reputation are predictable, others are less so and their consequences, good or bad are even less certain. This is true regardless of your intention; unexpected outcomes can easily cause unintended benefit or damage to your reputation.

Building a reputation requires hard work and consistency; the challenge is protecting your hard earned reputation against risks that can cause damage; and you never know for sure what will cause reputational damage until it is too late – many reputational risks are emergent.

Managing Reputational Risk in Organisations

Because an organisation’s reputation is not easy to value or protect, managing reputational risk is difficult! This is particularly true for larger organisations where thousands of different interactions between staff and stakeholders are occurring daily.

The first step in managing an organisation’s reputational risk is to understand the scope of possible damage, as well as potential sources and the degree of possible disruption. The consequence of a loss of reputation is always the withdrawing of stakeholder support:

  • In the private sector this is usually investor flight and share value decline; these can spiral out of control if confidence cannot be restored.
  • In the public sector this is typically withdrawal of government support to reflect declining confidence.
  • In the professional sector client confidence is vital for business sustainability; a loss of reputation means a loss of clients.

Each sector can point to scenarios where the impact of reputation damage can vary from mild to catastrophic; and whilst the consequences can be measured after the effect they are not always predictable in advance.  To overcome this problem, managing reputation risk for an organisation requires three steps:

  • Predict: All risk is future uncertainty, and an appropriate risk forecasting system to identify reputation risk is required – creative thinking is needed here! The outcomes from a reputational risk workshop will be specific to the organisation and the information must feed directly into the governance process if reputation risk is to be taken seriously (see more on The Functions of Governance).
  • Prepare: Reputation risk is a collective responsibility, not just the governing body’s. All management and operational staff must recognise the organisation’s reputation is important and take responsibility for protecting it in their interaction with stakeholders. The protection of reputation should also be a key element in the organisation’s disaster recovery plans.
  • Protect: A regular vulnerability review will reveal where reputation risk is greatest, and guide actions to prevent possible damage. Each vulnerability must be assessed objectively and actions taken to minimise exposure. Significant risks will need a ‘protection plan’ developed and then implemented and monitored.

Dealing with a Reputational Risk Event

When a risk event occurs, some standard elements needs to be part of the response for individuals and organisations alike. For reputation enhancing risk events, make sure you acknowledge the ‘good luck’ in an appropriately and take advantage of the opportunity in a suitably authentic way. Over-hyping an event will be seen as unauthentic and have a negative effect on reputation; but good news and good outcomes should be celebrated. Reputation threatening risk events need a more proactive approach

  • Step 1: Deal with the event itself. You will not protect your reputation by trying to hide the bad news or ignoring the issue.  Proactively work to solve the problem in a way that genuinely minimise harm for as many stakeholders as possible minimises the damage that has to be managed.
  • Step 2: Communicate. And keep communicating – organisations need to have a sufficiently senior person available quickly as the contact point and keep the ‘news’ coming. Rumours and creative reporting will always be worse then the fact and will grow to fill the void. All communication needs to be open, honest and as complete as possible at the time.  Where you ‘don’t know’ tell people what you are doing to find out. (see Integrity is the key to delivering bad news successfully).
  • Keep your promises and commitments. If this becomes impossible because of changing circumstances tell people as soon as you know, don’t wait for them to find out.
  • Follow up afterwards. Actions that show you really care after the event can go a long way towards repairing the damage to your reputation.

Summary

Reputation is ephemeral and a good reputation is difficult to create and maintain. Warren Buffet in his 2015 memo to his top management team in Berkshire Hathaway emphasised that their top priority must be to ‘zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation’. He also reminded his leadership team that ‘we can afford to lose money–even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation–even a shred of reputation’ (discussed in Ethics, Culture, Rules and Governance). In the long run I would suggest this is true for every organisation and individual – your reputation is always in the minds of other people!

Project Governance and Controls Symposium 2016.

miracle2We are only a few weeks out from PGCS 2016 and this year’s  Symposium is shaping up to be the best yet.  The Symposium will be held in its usual ADFA, Canberra venue on Wed. 11th and Thur. 12th May 2016.

Governing for performance was the key theme of the AICD’s Australian Governance Summit held in Sydney last month. But organisations cannot perform sustainably if they cannot govern and control their projects effectively.  Unfortunately as the Shergold Report has highlighted (consistent with the findings of many other surveys), most organisations struggle to achieve the full potential value from their projects and programs – literally $billions are wasted annually by poorly governed and controlled projects.

PGCS was created to focus on the gap between intention and delivery – and to help build Australia capability in the governance and management of projects by providing a forum for the exchange of ideas between international experts, leading Australian practitioners, the people responsible for governing projects within their organisations, and the people responsible for making the governance and controls systems work.

The 2016 program is on target to fulfil this ambitious objective 100%:

  • We have speakers from the UK National Audit Office and the Australian National Audit Office, both of who lead the push for improved performance in government projects.
  • Controls and surveillance of projects is well covered with both international and Australian experts. Lisa Wolf’s pre-symposium Masterclass ‘A Practical Guide to Project and Contract Surveillance’ is a sell out, fortunately Lisa is also one of our Keynote Speakers.
  • The needs and expectations of organisational governors is covered by among others, Ms. Jane Halton the Secretary of the Australian Department of Finance who will be outlining her perspectives on improving the performance of major projects.
  • AIPM, PMI, IPMA and ICCPM are all supporting the Symposium and providing high quality speakers.
  • We have our inaugural Academic Stream – this aspect of the Symposium will become increasingly important as we direct any surplus funds towards Australian based research into the governance and control of projects and programs.
  • And there’s more – click through to our program page to download the full event program.

Thanks to the ongoing support of our Platinum Sponsor, The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Canberra, the cost of the symposium, including 2 full days and our reception at the ADFA Offices Mess is only $990 (early bird available prior to the 25th April).

To make the learning opportunity provided by the Symposium available to more junior staff, we also have a unique 2-for-1 offer in place with a number of ‘supporting organisations’; each senior manager who registers can nominate a more junior staff member to attend the Symposium at no additional cost (We are always happy to extend this arrangement to new organisations).

PGCS is designed to be a very different type of event compared to the traditional, and well loved, annual conferences run by the major associations – we are very focused on accessing and creating knowledge focused on ‘governance and controls’ – as part of this process all of the available papers from previous years are also made available to attendees and others via our on-line library.

The open question is can you afford to miss this world class event?  For more information visit our website at: http://www.pgcs.org.au/

Note: Patrick Weaver is a member of the PGCS Organising Committee.

Ethics and competition

EthicsThe report of The Senate Education and Employment References Committee report: A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders; released on the 17th March highlights a major National problem.

The report consolidates and affirms issues raised in some of our earlier posts including:

In a nutshell, the report confirms that large numbers of unethical employers are routinely exploiting 1000s of temporary visa holders to inflate their profits.  The report is worrying reading and hopefully will result in proactive government action to stamp out the worst of the excesses.   It’s in the government’s interest, many of the exploited visa holders in work are preventing an unemployed Australian from obtaining work; this is equally true in the unskilled categories and in skilled categories where skilled, older workers are frequently discriminated against.

What is more worrying, and the focus of this post is the ‘Coalition Senators’ total failure to understand business and competition.  One of the major areas of malfeasance with some of the worst exploitation of temporary workers is the Labour Hire business.  The committee recommendation #32 is that:

9.309 The committee recommends that a licensing regime for labour hire contractors be established with a requirement that a business can only use a licensed labour hire contractor to procure labour. There should be a public register of all labour hire contractors. Labour hire contractors must meet and be able to demonstrate compliance with all workplace, employment, tax, and superannuation laws in order to gain a license. In addition, labour hire contractors that use other labour hire contractors, including those located overseas, should be obliged to ensure that those subcontractors also hold a license.

In an annex to the main report, Coalition Senators state that they do not agree with this recommendation on the basis ‘it would punish those labour hire firms which are already complying with relevant laws’; and that the actions of a ‘minority of labour hire firms which are doing the wrong thing, in most cases, is already illegal’.

No one likes additional ‘red tape’ so superficially the Coalition Senators position is understandable.  What the Coalition Senators ignore is the effect the illegal activity is already having on the honest firms they purport to support!  The owners and operators of the dishonest firms using illegal and exploitative practices do not expect to get caught, and if they are caught expect the profits they make from their activities to significantly outweigh the penalties. Unethical is not synonymous with ‘stupid’ – the people making the decision to act illegally expect to make large profits. However, as a consequence of their illegal actions:

  • Honest labour hire firms cannot compete on price with the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and suffer as a consequence. The honest operators either make far less profit or go out of business.
  • The users of ‘hired labour’ from labour hire firms are also in competition and need to minimise input costs. They are incentivised to accept the low-cost offerings from the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and not to look too closely at their practices to compete within their market.  The alternative is to pay more for the workers and be at a competitive disadvantage to organisations that ‘turn a blind eye’ to the problem.

A licensing scheme will increase the cost of compliance for all of the businesses in the labour hire market, but if implemented properly, it will have the effect of largely eliminating the unfair competition created by the unethical exploitation of temporary workers.  Which will be hugely beneficial to those ‘honest’ businesses that are acting ethically and already fulfil their legal and moral obligations; both within the labour hire industry and the wider community.

The Coalition Senators do ‘support the prosecution of these illegal operations’ (as does everyone) the problems with implementing a clean up strategy focused on prosecutions alone are:

  1. The damage is done before the prosecution can take place.
  2. No prosecution stops illegal behaviour in the future. In an unlicensed regime the same unethical people can set up other businesses and carry on indefinitely through a series of ‘phoenix companies’.
  3. As suggested above, no criminal expects to get caught – deterrence is highly overrated.

Licences may not be ideal, but they do offer a practical way to support ethical behaviour that ‘prosecutions’ cannot. Good governance at every level is getting the balance between rules and flexibility right – the balance needs to support ethical behaviour without constricting innovation and growth. No one except the criminals benefits from the situation exposed in the Senate report that allows virtually unfettered unethical behaviour.

The art of ‘practical ethics’ is to develop systems that disadvantage unethical behaviour and encourage people to do the right thing. The combination of a beefed up ability to prosecute offenders and a licensing system that will make it difficult for unethical operators to remain in the labour hire business is the best way to drive the culture change needed in this industry, and in the businesses that rely on labour hire firms for their staffing needs.

Practical Ethics 2

EthicsA couple of weeks ago I posted Practical Ethics discussing the undue reliance governments and others  place on other people’s ethics, Through naivety, undue optimism, or laziness, they set up situations based on blind trust in the ethical standards of others which have resulted in deaths, injury and the loss of $billions.

In this post I want to look inside an organisation and discuss reason why Determining the ethics of the organisation is at #2 in my Six Functions of Governance and Creating the culture of the organisation is at #3.  #1 in the list is Determining the objectives of the organisation.

The underlying approach I’ve taken, founded in stakeholder theory, is the presumption that the best way to achieve an organisation’s objectives is to work with the organisation’s full spectrum of stakeholders so they contribute to the success of the organisation and everyone benefits. This requires a strong ethical foundation and an outwardly focused culture. The role of the governing body is to set the objectives and create the organisation’s culture and ethics, the role of management is to work within this framework to achieve the objectives. Whilst many aspects of governance can be delegated to a degree, setting the ethical standards of the organisation in particular is non-transferable. It starts and stops at the top – with the governing body.

The ethical standards of an organisation are created in two ways:

  • The way the organisation’s leaders act;
  • The ethical standards the leaders are prepared to tolerate in their subordinates.

This post will look at both of these aspects, using the example of the current scandal surrounding Comminsure (the insurance arm of the CBA bank) to highlight their importance – see more on the scandal.

 

Leaders set the standard.

Generally speaking, the top managers in an organisation create a ceiling on ethical behaviours. Leaders at the next level down tend to be rated lower than their managers on every leadership dimension including their honesty and integrity, many may rate equally but it is very rare to find a subordinate acting more ethically than the organisation’s leaders (for more on this see Ethical Leadership).

The key here is the word ‘act’ – leaders set the ethical standards of the organisation by their actions, not their statements. It more than ‘walking-the-talk’, talking is almost irrelevant.

One glaring examples from the Comminsure scandal will serve to demonstrate the issue.  The CBA’s CEO said that he placed a high value on transparency and open communication; this included both encouraging and protecting ‘whistleblowers’ within the bank. A commendable and highly ethical position; and from a practical perspective essential for the minimisation of wrong doing in a workforce of 55,000.

However, actions speak louder than words! In November 2014 the chief medical officer of Comminsure, Dr Benjamin Koh, disclosed his concerns over “an improper state of affairs” concerning aspects of Comminsure’s business to key independent directors at Comminsure including the chairman Geoff Austin. Two months later Comminsure began to investigate Dr Koh and he was sacked by the managing director of Comminsure, Helen Troup, for ‘misconduct’, in August 2015. He is now suing Comminsure and the CBA for unfair dismissal.

The appearance is that the bank’s management won’t fire you for whistle blowing but they will find some other excuse. The bank virtually admits as much, in this statement which states: “Commonwealth Bank encourages all employees to speak up if they see activities or behaviours that are fraudulent, illegal or inconsistent with our values. We provide a number of different safeguards to ensure that there are no negative consequences for raising concerns. We have thanked Dr Koh for raising concerns that led to the CMLA Board conducting a review. Dr Koh’s employment was not terminated for raising concerns. It was terminated primarily for serious and repeated breaches of customers’ privacy and trust involving highly sensitive personal, medical and financial information over a lengthy period of time.”  What they fail to mention was one of major issues raised by Dr. Koh was the manipulation, alteration and loss of information from the records he is accused of mishandling.

The perception may be incorrect, but to anyone looking on from outside of the organisation it would seem the person running Comminsure preferred to sack a whistleblower rather than deal with the problems he raised.

The CEO and the Directors of CBA can talk until they are blue in the face about the ‘ethical standards’ they purport to uphold, their actions speak louder. The person running Comminsure and responsible for the issues raised by Dr. Koh is still in her role, the ‘whistleblower’ is out of a job. If the board really meant what is says, the whistleblower would have been protected and the manager attacking him disciplined. Everyone else in CBA will clearly understand the message.

It really does not matter what the final outcome of all of this is; the actions of CBA and Comminsure management have made it clear to every one of their 55,000 staff that if you raise concerns within the banks ‘whistleblower’ processes you will be fired!

Given this perception, is it any wonder that the leaders of the CBA seem to be continually in the dark about what’s really going on in their organisation……..  Unfortunately for those in governance role not knowing is not an excuse.

 

Tolerating unethical behaviour.

Ethics2The second plank underpinning an ethical organisation is the degree of unethical behaviour it is prepared to tolerate. If an organisation is prepared to tolerate a person increasing his or her bonus by not paying out an insurance claim to a dying person for 3 or 4 years, everyone else in the organisation will understand the acceptable level of behaviour.

Comminsure has been shown to have withheld legitimate payments to claimants for years to boost profits and bonuses (only rectified after the national broadcast was imminent).  As far as I can tell everyone responsible from the managing director down are still in their jobs.

Previously the CBA was shown, courtesy of a Senate enquiry, to have misrepresented information to clients and falsified documents.  Again, most of the people responsible still work for the CBA and the ethical benchmark has been determined by this fact.

If the behaviours were ethically unacceptable people would be fired or moved into roles where they cannot adversely affect customer’s lives. The fact most people are still in their roles and still have their bonus payments from previous years indicates to everyone the CBA believes these behaviours are ethically acceptable and will continue to reward people for placing profits ahead of customers (see The normalisation of deviant behaviours). Management’s actions speak far louder then PR announcements and so called ‘public apologies’ that only eventuate after adverse national publicity.

 

Culture

Culture is ‘the way we do thing around here’ – one of the key elements of culture is the ethical standards people see as ‘normal’; another is the learned experience of how to behave within the organisation. As outlined above these settings are very different from the rhetoric.

But, ethics and culture are always shades of grey; the CBA’s culture is clearly flawed if the bank claims to be concerned about its customers. However, if the CBA is really only concerned with short-term profits, the culture, ethics and PR spin may be appropriate. In the last 6 months, the CBA achieved a remarkable return on equity of above 17 per cent, and a $4.8 billion half-year profit. And, despite the scandal, its shares have increased in price today. The cost is the damaged lives of some of its customers; the unresolved question is what are the acceptable limits? Maybe a Royal Commission will let everyone know.

Legal implications aside, the challenge facing the CBA is that changing culture and ethical standards is a massively difficult task and the people who created and thrive in the current culture are unlikely to be willing participants in changing it.  There’s no easy answer to this dilemma.

 

Conclusion

The real measure of an organisation’s ethical standards are set by the way people behave when no one is looking on – there will always be mistakes and unethical actions by a few, others within the organisation will correct these deviations and being behaviours back inside the culturally acceptable norms of behaviour of the organisation. This has undoubtedly been occurring within CBA and Comminsure on a daily basis, unacceptable behaviours will have been corrected or sanctioned; desired behaviours rewarded. What’s acceptable and unacceptable is determined by the culture of the organisation and its ethical standards.

The ethical standards of an organisation are set by the actions of its leaders. What they do themselves sets the ceiling and what they tolerate in others the floor. The rest of the people in an organisation will generally find a position between these two limits and the culture of the organisation will adapt to see this level of ethical behaviour as acceptable. The problem the governors and leaders of the CBA face is the simple fact that changing the ethics and culture of an established organisation is extremely difficult.