Archive for the ‘Meaning’ Category

Is it me or is a sign of the times, that sense making and meaning tend to appear more often in academic literature? I had immersed myself into the subject of CSR and was surprised by  Hanke & Stark (2009) “Strategy Development: Conceptual Framework on CSR”. A concept which very simply states that CSR strategy development  has two main elements: Legitimization and sense making, where sense making here again is understood as “active, ‚negotiating expectations’ in collective and interactive processes”.

A CSR framework

If we look again at the model by Lips-Wiersma and Morris (2009) it could be very easy to avoid what Calvano (2008) calls “Stakeholder Perception Gaps” usually created by stakeholder power inequality. Stakeholder dialogues logically should be part of a viable CSR strategy process. The corporation “makes sense” to its internal stakeholders such as employees and management, but also to external stakeholders, such as the community or NGOs. One could even argue that this is a process of social integration. But what stakeholders should be approached and to what extend should their concerns be incorporated into the overall business practice without endangering the economic success of the company?

The Trade and Investment Division of UNESCAP writes 2009 in their STUDIES IN TRADE AND INVESTMENT 68 to ask the following questions:

• To whom do legal obligations exist?
• Who might be positively or negatively affected by the organization s activities?
• Who has been involved when similar issues needed to be addressed?
• Who can help the organization address specific impacts?
• Who would be disadvantaged if they were excluded from the engagement?
• Who in the value chain is affected?

Mitchel et al 1997 defined attributes of key stakeholders or salient stakeholders as being powerful, legitimate and urgent. However Calvano (2008) warns that stakeholders such as communities or NGO which might not be seen as powerful in the CSR strategy conception can develop certain dynamics when their interests are being infringed.  Longo et al, 2006 propose the following grid to what values stakeholders expect from the corporation:

The grid of values

Although the above values appear to be a bit anticipated, they very much demonstrate again how stakeholders make sense of a corporations action in the light of their own expectations. Above grid also shows how norms, values and culture of an organization impact CSR strategy. Corporate culture is thus in an interrelated web with values of the stakeholders, emphasizing that CSR is an activity which builds social capital.

The values web

The Values Web (McBain 2010)

This idea of a value web also demonstrates the necessity of the CSR effort to be authentically grounded in the organizational culture and be well linked with its core competencies to allow other actors to actually allow themselves to be associated with the corporation. Any sort of CSR effort should thus start with a careful audit of the company culture.


Calvano, L. (2007) Multinational Corporations and Local Communities: A Critical Analysis
of Conflict, Journal of Business Ethics (2008) 82:793–805
Hanke, T. & Stark, W. (200) Strategy Development: Conceptual Framework on Corporate Social Responsibility; Journal of Business Ethics (2009) 85:507–516Copyright © United Nations 2009
Longo, M., M. Mura and A. Bonoli: 2005, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Performance: The Case of Italian SMEs’, Corporate Governance 5(4), 28–42.
Mitchell, R. K., B. R. Agle and D. J. Wood: 1997, ‘Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and
Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts’, Academy of Management Review 22(4), 853–886.

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I had the pleasure of recently giving a training at the Palestine Securities Exchange and also introduced the below model of “Communicating the gap”, which I had mentioned in a previous post.   Of course I could not just let the  theory speak for itself – it appears to be very abstract – so I was happy to find a study by the University of St. Gallen and the German Association for Investor Relations (DIRK), very helpful people,  who also have a range of studies published on IR. Unfortunately most of the material is in German, so I see it as adding value to present main points of their joint study here in English, since it generated great interest in the PSE training. Back to meaning creation and “communicating the gap”:

The study emphasizes that the calculated value of an organization by mathematical models is not identical to the valuation of the capital markets, so other value drivers must be taken into account. In the study interview partners state that they take the quantitative data and correct by using qualitative data. However, they also state that – and this is important for IR practitioners – that relevant qualitative information is hard to come by and that

corporate communication delivers elementary information as input of “sense-making” efforts of investors.

As stated before, I had expanded on the sense-making process and was glad to see the concept in action. The study goes on to show that the perception of a public company on the capital market decides on its value and thus also on its strategic options. Qualitative factors of the corporation

  • are used to contain risk
  • allow a realistic assessment
  • form “capital markets reputation”
  • and shape the collective judgment of actors on capital markets

The study, which rests on qualitative interviews with European analysts and institutional investors. identified seven main categories of qualitative data  which are relevant to the respondents:

  1. Corporate Communication
  2. Quality of Management
  3. Corporate Strategy
  4. Corporate Culture
  5. Corporate Governance
  6. Customer- and Industry Relations
  7. Public Affairs

The study goes on to identify another 46 sub-factors of above categories, and created a weighted ranking of all these. I do not want to give the comprehensive list of all the weighted factors and categories, but in the training we created a “Top Ten List”, which I want to present here, and which showed some remarkable results

  1. Longterm  Strategy (Strategy)
  2. Implementation of Strategic Plans (Quality of Management)
  3. Complete Disclosure (Corporate Communication)
  4. Shareholder Value (Strategy)
  5. Comprehension of Top Management of Business (Quality of Management)
  6. Leadership (Quality of Management)
  7. Approachability of IR (Corporate Communication)
  8. Attainment of Prognosis (Quality of Management)
  9. Pro-active Theme Setting (Corporate Communication)
  10. Continuity of Corporate Communication (Corporate Communication)

What was surprising to me, was that Leadership ranked so high with all factors, in fact “Quality of Management” is pretty dominant in the top ten as well with “Corporate Communication”.  It was good to see “Strategy”  in the top ten, after reading so much on the demise of strategy.Iit was good to see that analysts and investors  apparently see it as very relevant for their recommendations or decisions.

Of course the other 34 factors are also important and relevant for IR. Another common interest in  the course that an identical study for the Arab region would be of great interest and help to IR practitioners in the region. Would be an interesting survey to work on.

Source: DIRK Deutscher Investor Relations Verband e.V.  &  Universität St. Gallen (2007) Corporate Perception on Capital Markets

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The irony is that today I crossed an infamous bridge: Allenby bridge. On my way to my training assignment in Ramallah.  As some tourists commented on the border facilities being like the Berlin wall, I replied by saying: Yeah, and I experienced the Berlin wall as a child, seems like making a full circle. Perhaps the spiraling movement one makes in life is something talked about in Cowan and Becks “Spiral Dynamics” and did I not make a nice bridging into the subject of Management and Leadership?

Before I left for Palestine  I was talking to a PR Manager about social media and when I quizzed him about how he defined his target groups he said: “You know what Luke, we don’t think like that anymore ‘Male, 45 years, living in a suburb’. What we do we define our target groups by keywords.” and then he went on how he posed a question to himself “What keywords would people use to find us?” and then ran those through Google Insight. Well that sort of struck me as novel. To define target groups through what they enter as words or string of words in a search engine. This makes them connected on much deeper level, the search for the explanation of something. And then I ran across this: “How Semantic Clustering Helps Analyze Consumer Attitudes“.  And from this article and I quote:

Crudely, semantic clustering is a software technique that allows computers to understand sentences and their meaning

Oh MEANING. Yes I loved it already, one of my biggest words in the tag cloud. Apparently the researchers let the software run across thousands of websites and blogs which then identifies key concepts and the connections between them.

Form this data they then are able to derive some relevant attitudes towards a certain issue, in this case the recession. It made me wonder how perhaps in the future our identity will revolve more about the bits and pieces of information we need at the moment to create meaning (See also my article on Communicating the gap.) In a discussion I had with my brother the other day, we talked about how we  will not define ourselves by belonging to a group but by engaging for periods of time in certain behavior related to a groups (or several groups) activity to bridge then over to another activity and part of our identity.

Perhaps a not totally unrelated I found this piece about communication: “The power of powerless speech.” I liked it because it stated that

Powerless speech is characterized by:

  • Hesitation like “Well” or “Um”
  • Tag questions like “Don’t you think?”
  • Hedges like “Sort of” or “Maybe”
  • Disclaimers like “This may be a bad idea, but … “
  • Formal addresses like “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am”

In situations where people are expected to work in a team, speech with these “powerless” characteristics is much more effective than a more assertive way of speaking. People who spoke less assertively in these situations were perceived as more likely to be promoted and to gain status and power …

I guess I liked it, because I make a lot of ah, um, and well, myself ( Just listen in to my interview with Mathias, if you understand German). But I found it also interesting because here the leader is using communication as  bridge builder. He or she is actually inviting the team to make sense of the situation as they see it.

And last not least in an interview with Management Consulting News, Dave Ulrich, a business professor at the University of Michigan said the following

…. Can people find meaning for themselves? A leader who is able to find meaning should help others find it.

Ultimately, what strengthens you as a leader is helping others grow and develop. That’s because they, in turn, will make your company more productive and make you a more successful leader. That becomes a virtuous cycle, which is what I think we want to see in organizations.

So if leaders build bridges to allow us to find shared meaning, would that not be great vision?

On an ending note I have to add something else which I found, which again relates again to another blogpost “Communicating the gap”, I found this model of social sense making in a PhD on Crisis Communication authored by Schulz (2000). Schulz calls this process “agenda setting”.

In it social actors fight for the interpretation and meaning of a certain event, in this case it was the sinking of Brent Spar, which was a great PR success for Greenpeace. In the end the mainstream thought that the sinking of the oil rig was ecologically unsound and it was dismantled onshore.

So sense making and meaning attribution seems to something which occurs on the personal level, the organizational level and on the societal level.

Sources: Schulz, J.  (2000) Management von Risiko- und Krisenkommunikation – zur Bestandserhaltung und Anschlußfähigkeit von Kommunikationssystemen, Dissertationsschrift Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

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So bear with me: I had to make somehow the link between the whole issue of sense making and communication, because next week I am booked to give a course on PR Strategy at the Palestine Securities Exchange and was asked to expand a bit more on the subject of communication.

Now I have to add that I find the communication concept given by Wolfgang Reineke and  Gerhard A. Pfeffer in  “PR Check-up” quite convincing and use a lot of it a basis. I found it very useful in my consulting work and really has enormous amounts of helpful material. A book by the way, which is now out of print, but I would really recommend to all those PR people out there: try to get your hand on it.  It is amazing how many tools and concepts are introduced in this book. Back to the communication model they introduce.

It consists of three levels: The polity level, which is responsible for corporate culture, corporate identity and corporate design and which through communication, creates the corporate image. Then the policy level of PR, Public Affairs and Internal Relations which impacts publics internal and external also on the level of corporate image and. On the third level all those marketing tools such as Sponsoring, Product Placement, Advertisement, Sales Promotion and Marketing kick in to finally create the Brand Image and have the emphasis on products on services. It sort of clarifies that a company cannot not communicate and that perhaps there is not necessarily congruence on how a corporation perceives itself and how it is perceived by the outside. So we come back to the culture issue here, but more of that later. I appreciate in any way, how this model attempts to show different layers of communication.

Of course the good old sender, encoding, decoding and recipient is presented as well.

But was never quite happy with this model, until I stumbled over this paper by Reijo Savolainen and recognized some things I have been working on lately.  He describes that since human beings are bound by time and space to solve problems and to shape their surroundings around them, the always take a step by step approach, called here “step-taking”, in a world which is characterized by “ultimate discontinuity”. In this “step-taking” process every step “Means an act of defining the situation emerging due to the continuous moving ahead”. This definition is what we can call sense-making. So what the wanderer does, he receives information being sent and uses it to create meaning to gap the bridge between the present into the future.

Savolainen: Sense-Making assumes that each individual is the expert on his in developing strategies for bridging his own gaps, each individual consciously or unconsciously theorizes why certain strategies are appropriate or useful for him.

Of course others confirm this point of view.

Communication is the process by which people interactively create, sustain, and manage meaning (Conrad and Poole, 1998)

But what it means for me and for the messages created by PR people is that they should somehow get an idea of what ultimately would make sense to the people there are addressing. In effect they would have to sit down with a journalist or a member of a public they which to address and talk about their perception of the meaning of life. One should not ask them what story they would like to hear or what they are working on, or what their responsibilities are, but rather ask them:

What does your work mean to you? What makes sense in your everyday experience? Describe a moment, when everything just fell into place.

To get someone to talk about the meaning of life might not be easy, and I d not know if is being done at all, but it sure would be interesting to find out. It needs empathy, courage and wisdom to do and to take this issue serious. To get some guidance, one can use the tool below.


Conrad, C.  & Scott Poole, M.S. (2004) Strategic Organizational Communication: In a Global Economy , Wadsworth Publishing; 6 edition ISBN-10: 0534636217 ISBN-13: 978-053463621

Savolainen, R.  (2006)  Information Use as Gap-Bridging: The Viewpoint of Sense-Making Methodology , JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, 57(8):1116–1125

Reineke, W. & Pfeffer, G.A. (2000) PR Check-up , Stamm Verlag; Auflage: 1. Aufl.  ISBN-10: 3877730191

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Some papers deserve just more attention, because their simple  clarity and their will to create something helpful is just overpowering.

Lips-Wiersma and Morris (2009) have set out to see what people find meaningful. They clearly set out to distinguish between meaningful work in management literature, which looks at meaning creation as a tool to motivate people in a sense of vision and mission,  and the meaningful work humanities which looks at meaning in a more broader holistic sense.

First of all: All people strive to make sense of what they experience. it is part of the human condition  to create meaning. I am surprised how little this is discussed in the workplace. In what sense is our work meaningful?

Lips-Wierma and Morris present several themes of the humanities, such as authentic living, which underpins the wish of a life full of personal discovery and free choice as opposed to prescription and domination. Moral living deals with the question on “how are we to live?” and enacting virtues. Work becomes meaningful if it supports this wish for moral development. Dignified living deals with the inner wish to have just and diginifed work, the ability to resist and oppose. Finally Lips-Wierma and Morris mention living that serves an ultimate concern, a concern which transcends not only self, but also the organization to a “more universally beneficial legacy”.

These four cornerstones would be enough for every workplace to discuss and explore:

  • Do we offer possibilities for being authentic at the workplace?
  • Does our company enable our people to live up to higher moral standards?
  • Do we ensure the dignity of employees and how?
  • How do we serve an ultimate concern?

But Lips-Wiersma and Morris go a step further an uncover various elements of meaningful work and their relationship to each other.  They claim that there are four sources of meaningful work and life:

  • Developing and becoming self: The ability to enjoy moral development, personal growth and staying true to one self.  I can maintain and develop  the identity of my choosing.
  • Unity with others:  Belonging to a community, sharing values and working together
  • Serving others: To make a difference and to meet the needs of humanity. I can see that my work is relevant to something bigger.
  • Expressing full potential: Creating and achieving and influencing my surroundings.  I have impact with what I do.

Lips-Wiersma and Morris suggest the following framework to make “the various components of meaningful work visible”:

I would find it very interesting if any reader out there will one day work with this framework and perhaps can notify my what the results were.

In the classic view of leadership, it is the leader who shapes culture and provides meaning, through creation of a corporate identity.

This of course is a one-sided view as Lips-Wiersma and Morris put it  ” it is a condition of the being human to create meaning”

Coherence and wholeness are of prime importance as each individual creates meaning for him and herself subjectively by relating external events to an inner stock of values and experiences. Meaning thus is something very personal, it cannot be provided, but only be made. In this sense Lips-Wiersma and Morris follow up with  recommendations:

  1. Meaning should emerge from the collective.
  2. Tensions between vision and reality should be addressed openly because Because discrepancies  disrupt the individuals wish to find meaning in work.
  3. Make commonality on our human aspirations, while respecting the differences.
  4. Moral issues are just as important and should be engaged in just as actively as in the management of values.


Lips-Wiersma, M. & Morris, L. 2009, Discriminating Between ‘Meaningful Work’ and the ‘Management of Meaning’,  Journal of Business Ethics 88:491–511

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In an interview with a retired public manager of a Berlin tax revenue office, we went through the topic of leadership in several sessions. First of all it was a great interview; I got insight into how the state finances itself.  Also it was quite interesting to see the results and how much they mirrored the findings of the private sector.  This is what I noted down in my analysis of the discussion:

1)      Several concepts known from literature have remerged, such as:

  • Value leadership as the driving concept, here specifically the value of justice. A driving value used to
    • Resolve conflicts
    • Make decisions – even to the extent to which the decision might go against assumed organizational interests and generally accepted behavioral norms.
    • Influence employees
    • Create culture
  • The concepts of culture and sub-culture and these being dependant on the leaders values and behavior
  • The concept of coaching as a main source for personnel development
  • The concept of employees as stars, cash cows and poor dogs, but presented here in the concept of a “Gauss distribution curve”, with the top 5 to 10% of employees as high performers, the middle 80 to 90% as medium performers, and the bottom 5 to 10 % as low performers.  This included different strategies on how to address these different employee groups.
  • External collaboration, political management: According to the subject, very little contact to the political level existed, however: “It is necessary to have ‘Bundesgenossen’ (strong allies) to influence the political level.” … and in this specific case to improve cooperation between agencies.
  • Internal collaborative leadership

2)      New concepts emerged, which have not yet been observed in existing literature:

  • An office can have “goodwill”. According to the subject, leaders need to build the “goodwill” of an organization to incur trust in oversight bodies to allow the leader more flexibility in solving problems, while at the same time not overstepping any legal boundaries. The concept of “goodwill”, known in the private sector, and here referred to a virtual value of the organization,  reminds the researcher very much of the concept of “social capital” (Fukuyama, 1995) which is needed for individuals to trust each other and to foster collaboration.
  • The concept of empathy, which Crosby and Bryson (2005) perhaps define as “caring for the common good”. In this case  Mr. C. said: “We have to be aware that people suffer and we should try, if possible, to ease their suffering.”

I still like the idea that a good leader instills trust into collaborating agencies and thus creates public value and I thought I had hit a jackpot in my research.  But I was overly enthusiastic about having discovered the connection of leadership and social capital in fact there are some very good papers out there which did just that. I can just name three of them:

  • Hitt, M. A. & Ireland, R.D. (2002) The Essence of Strategic Leadership: Managing Human and Social Capital
  • King, N.K.  (2004) Social Capital and Nonprofit Leaders
  • Maak, T.  (2007) Responsible Leadership, Stakeholder Engagement, and the Emergence of Social Capital

Instead of ranting on what a great concept that is and how social capital relates to values, culture, internally and externally, I will give a little room for those excellent researchers.

King writes: “Nonprofits and their leaders would do well to take stock of their organization’s social capital, assessing the strengths and areas for improvement. The assessment could include identifying strategic networks and relationships that they need to developed. Importantly, this audit could also help the organization identify any problems or costs related to generating or leveraging social capital.”

Maak writes: “To conclude, I suggest to think of a responsible leader with respect to stakeholder engagement as a weaver of social ties, as an embedded and engaged networker who makes sure that her organization is ‘in sync’ with stakeholder expectations, and who is able to mobilize multiple stakeholders in a coalition to build a responsible and sustainable business.”

A leader as a weaver of social capital – I like that.


Crosby, C. & Bryson, J.  (2005) “Leadership for the common good”, San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons

Fukuyama, F.  (1995), “Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity”, New York: Free Press

Hitt, M. A. & Ireland, R.D. (2002) The Essence of Strategic Leadership: Managing Human and Social Capital, The Joumal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 2002, Vol. 9, No.l

King, N. K  (2004) Social Capital and Nonprofit Leaders,  NONPROFIT MANAGEMENT & LEADERSHIP, vol. 14, no. 4, Summer 2004

Maak, T.  (2007) Responsible Leadership, Stakeholder Engagement, and the Emergence of Social Capital,  Journal of Business Ethics (2007) 74:329–343

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There seems to be an interlinked deep structured relationship between narrative, leadership and organization through the theme of narrative at different levels.

Level one: The organization is a collective narrative which is told by its members but framed by its leaders. This concept relates also to Appreciative Inquiry which builds on past success to dream and fulfill the future destiny. In the collective story telling process, the members become aware of their part of the narrative and how they play a vital role in building the story into the future.  Overcoming obstacles is a way to embody the story, continue its narrative and achieve a higher level of consciousness. The promise of all stories is to become more than what you are currently. The organization as narrative fulfills transformational and spiritual leadership and also relates to Otto Scharmers Theory U – leading from the future http://www.ottoscharmer.com . Future is anticipated and “written”  by deep listening and constant creation. Since all members are working inside of the narrative context, conflict and misunderstanding is minimized.  If leaders want to know where they will be going, they should look at the deep narrative structure of their organization.

Level two: Narrative as a vehicle for communicating values, creating consensus and expressing organizational culture. Following Denning http://www.stevedenning.com , but many other management scholars, storytelling is the essential leadership tool to shape communities and transmit messages. Denning claims that different stories fulfill different objectives such as:

  • Sparking action
  • Communicating who you are
  • Transmitting values
  • Fostering collaboration
  • Taming the grapevine
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Leading people into the future

As these messages are being decoded, they enhance the sense of purpose, meaning and belonging in people who listen to them.

Level three: Narrative as a means to understand community, culture and leadership. Narrative analysis, just like the critical incident technique, can serve as an a tool for extracting information. A tool which already has been used in researching leadership behavior (Danzig, 1999), and which can expand the thematic analysis to include a structural analysis by looking at how the story teller selects particular narrative devices (Riessman, 2003). Most researchers on storytelling and narrative analysis agree that in stories and narratives there is a form of equilibrium in the beginning of a narrative which is disrupted by an event and in which the protagonist, sometimes the narrator, tries to establish equilibrium again, usually on a new level (Franzosi, 1998). I want to highlight the structural components of Labov (1982), because Labov works on the assumption that not what is said is said will reveal the core of the story, but what is done, this being very much in line with Aristotelian conception of story and narrative.  Labov points out that a narrative has six common elements:

(1) An abstract (summary of the substance of the story)

(2) Orientation (time, place, situation, participants)

(3) Complicating action (sequence of events)

(4) Evaluation (significance and meaning of the action, attitude of the narrator)

(5) Resolution (what finally happened)

(6) Coda (returns the perspective to the present)

In a comparable analysis, the researcher is able to discover patterns in the stories themselves. How do people solve problems? How do they interpret events and gain what sort of lessons?  What are typical problems which one with struggles in the system?

If any interdependencies of the three levels exist needs to be verified, but I suggest the following cycle of analysis and practice:


Danzig, A. (1999) “How might leadership be taught? The use of story and narrative to teach leadership”, International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, VOL. 2, NO. 2, 117 – 131

Franzosi, R. (1998) “Narrative analysis or why (and how) sociologists should be interested in narrative”, Annual Review of Sociology, 24, 517- 554

Labov, W. (1982) “Speech actions and reactions in personal narrative”, Analyzing Discourse: Text and Talk, ed Tannen, D., Washington DC: Georgetown University Press

Riessman (2003) “Narrative Analysis”, The Sage Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods, eds. Lewis-Beck, M.S.; Bryman, A. & Futing Liao, T. , Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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