Hearts and minds is the only way

A personal thread, this one.

I’ve been pursuing an MSc in Organisational Development for the last 18 months. With a special focus on Gestalt and complexity theory. I’ve learned a lot about the frustrations of OD practitioners – and I’ve been reassured by the admission that many ‘change’ initiatives fail to secure much traction. (Which reflects my own experience.)

I’m not planning a change of career though: the study is just better to understand how sponsorship can sit and deliver within OD frameworks. And the conclusion is: very nicely.

OD suffers from a multiplicity of definitions: in short, its aim is to improve organisational effectiveness. The answer to ’What is organisational effectiveness?’ of course increasingly reflects a sustainability perspective and therefore centres around: whatever serves the long-term interest of the business.

There’s usually a structural component to OD – how can we restructure processes, systems, teams to perform better.  But there’s always a human component. After all, an organisation without people is no more than a collection of buildings, books and machinery. So I’ve been surprised by how much of OD comes down to how employees are engaged, motivated and aligned with the organisation’s values, vision and direction of travel. Surprised and delighted, because we’re squarely in the territory of sponsorship.

There is a growing body of research into sponsorship, especially into the factors relating to consumer purchasing decisions. Although an internal dimension to sponsorship is widely acknowledged, there has been very little research into its organisational impact.

Aila Kahn and John Stanton from the University of West Sydney are a notable exception, exploring the impact of corporate sponsorships on employees. In 2010, Kahn and Stanton published a paper titled, ‘Examination of the Effects of Corporate Sponsorship on Employees of the Sponsor‘. Kahn and Stanton established a positive correlation between employees’ opinions of corporate sponsorships, and Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB). OCB is defined as ‘individual behaviour that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system that in the aggregate promotes the effective functioning of the organization’, and includes altruism, courtesy, conscientiousness, civic virtue, and sportsmanship,

Organisational identification, or the extent to which an employee identifies with the organisation, is a key concept here, because there is an obvious and thankfully proven connection to organisational commitment and OCB. The centre of gravity of Kahn and Stanton’s research was to establish that approval of corporate sponsorship enhanced organisational identification, a point we alluded to in an earlier Red Thread (October 2013).

There were a number of limitations in their research. Critically, their methodology did not take into account the differing impact of different types of sponsorship activity, treating high profile national sports sponsorship as equivalent to partnership with a local not for profit organisation. My own experience – and common sense – suggests that both the nature and management of sponsorship activity is a major determinant of organisational employee engagement.

Here are two extreme examples.

Barclays’ sponsorship of the ATP was widely regarded within the business as a personal expression of CEO Bob Diamond, disconnected from the business and therefore incapable of generating organisational identification. Most companies, by contrast, allow employees an open or semi-open choice of charity partner – and charity partnerships of this kind usually record extremely high employee engagement levels. (Although not generally considered sponsorship, the charity of the year falls within our definition framework – an organisational alliance, modelling brand values and with an intent to deepen relationships.)

To suggest that sponsorships should be put to a popularity vote with employees is to miss the real point. Even to suggest that sponsorships need thorough internal activation is off focus. The absolute point is that sponsorship design needs to ensure absolute genuine alignment with organisational values and needs.

The whole field of ‘charity partnerships’ is underutilised. They deliver against different objectives from most corporate sponsorship, under-delivering on media but over-delivering on engagement. But in a digital age, an age of social media, the ability for businesses to carve out and deliver messaging targeted carefully against audience and brand, the not for profit sector offers more than ever a fertile territory for brand expression.

The phrase ‘hearts and minds’ is usually evoked to suggest an extraordinary commitment to connect emotionally with people. The truth is, it’s the only way.