Unions/management Create Collaborative Culture

By Anderson, Stephen N. | Communication World, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Unions/management Create Collaborative Culture


Anderson, Stephen N., Communication World


Every day, every week, every month the changing business picture needs to be interpreted and effectively communicated. Ho hum. So what else is new?

Take a look at how a number of companies are adapting communication to the demands of an increasingly collaborative relationship between labor and management.

General Motor's Saturn auto subsidiary was conceived in a collaborative environment between General Motors' management and the United Auto Workers. The resulting "Memorandum of Agreement" contains six basic principles including these:

* Recognition of stakes and equities of everyone in the organization being represented.

* Full participation by the representatives of the union.

* Use of a consensus decision-making process.

Most important to communicators is the fifth principle -- "Free flow of information."

At the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., Dora Mack, former metal assembly worker and today the UAW's liaison with corporate communication, describes her position and her role: "I work as a team member with the manager of media relations and vice president of corporate communication."

Joint communication by labor and management to both internal and external audiences is a way of life at Saturn. Whenever there is a quote in a news release from the president of Saturn there is a parallel quote in the same news release from the president of the United Auto Workers' local at Saturn. This is what Mack calls, "putting the partnership out in front."

The Saturn communication methods and messages are developed jointly by labor and management and provide all the strategic and financial details that in the old General Motors were the private stock of management only.

It has been said that the Saturn model works primarily because it started as a "greenfield" in which everyone who joined the Saturn organization has been told the guidelines for this new collaboration, and all Saturn employees have had extensive training in how to work in this environment. While that is true, Saturn employees, including the communication group, have experienced continuous change through a reassessment and planning process since the plant's inception, constantly reinventing and improving.

One more turn of the kaleidoscope and an even more complex situation comes into view. Corning Incorporated is a high-visibility corporation with not just one plant, but multiple facilities spread out over several states and countries. It, too, has an evolving, collaborative management-employee culture worldwide that expects and depends on quick, reliable communication throughout the organization. And like General Motor's Saturn subsidiary, the information includes critical business data.

Corning Incorporated, headquartered in Corning, N.Y., and the manufacturer of some 60,000 products ranging from high-tech sunglasses to catalytic converters, faces continuous change in communication 11 years into its mission of excellence. Corning President Roger Ackerman said to a group of employees, "Look back a decade, when Corning operated from the hub of decision-making and activity in Corning, N.Y. Partnership in the work place was unheard of 10 years ago."

At Corning, an organization with 100 or more years of history and a mature, established culture, the evolution has a different set of issues. Carole Hedden, who is manager of employee communication, and has other communication responsibilities, describes the Corning communication practice as decentralized. "We practice driving every decision, including communication, as deep into the organization as possible. Twenty percent of my time is devoted to going out to our other operations and facilitating groups so that they determine how best to communicate at their locations."

In addition to this internal consulting, since 1988, Corning employees have been educated to understand business performance measures from parts-per-million to return on equity. …

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