Organizational Dialogue Case Study

Organisational Dialogue: Theory & Practice Case Study Briefing sheet


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Changing the Communication Culture at Opal-Marti Company Background

Opal-Mart is a large retail chain (~30000 employees) with several hundred store locations in Australia. The size of this company is reflected in a large and culturally diverse workforce, with Australian, Indian and Chinese staff representing the largest employee groups. Employees range in age from 16 to senior citizens, many of whom work part time. Today, each Opal-Mart store is a business within a business 200-300 employees per store, round-the-clock shifts, and one-on-one competition with other local and chain owned stores in the community in which they are located.

In the past 10 years, Opal-Mart as a company has experienced both growth and retrenchment. The opening of many new and larger stores has been counterbalanced by store closings and the elimination of entire sales regions due to decreasing profits. Store closings became painful exercises that the company wanted to minimize at all costs. Not only was the relocation and release of many employees difficult, but the “ripple effect” on morale in other sales regions was a cause for concern. Taking stock of itself, better communication between management and staff and among employees became a central priority.

Opal Mart’s Communication Audit

Opal-Mart decided to commission the conduct of a communication audit (Hargie & Tourish 2009; Tourish & Hargie 2004) to gain a better understanding of how (in-)effective the companys communication culture really was. The purpose of this audit was to identify the current barriers to communication and areas in which the company could improve. The audit involved focus groups, employee surveys and interviews with a number of staff, including sales personnel, store managers and upper management. The complete list of communication barriers that were identified in the audit is presented in Table 1 (p. 2).

The audit results revealed that Opal-Mart employees were more than just receptive to a more open communication culture. They seemed to have a real thirst to become more involved in the company. However, Opal-Mart had a rigid system of top-down control by management. Like many companies of this nature, Opal-Mart hierarchy greatly restricted the flow of information to its employees. Although change was in the works, the staff survey results essentially confirmed a tight control on information. Many Opal-Mart employees believed that existing internal communication was too infrequent, too one-dimensional (one-way), and too management-oriented to be useful.

In addition, Opal-Marts culture was characterized by frequent conflict between different groups of staff and a general lack of trust and collaboration. This did not only show itself in cross-cultural issues among the highly diverse workforce but also in constant battles between two of the companys most important staff groups: buyers and merchandisers.

Traditionally, Opal Marts buyers came from an artistic creative background. Their main goal was to develop an interesting range by considering the look, style, and customer appeal of products. Opal Marts merchandisers, in contrast, were product-oriented. Drawing on their background in accounting and finance, their main goal was to create an economically viable range by continuously scanning financial information. Friction was invariably created when buyers and merchandisers sought to make decisions while viewing the range from a different angle. Ultimately, both groups had to collaborate and make decisions that led to the best possible choice for the customer while



Organisational Dialogue: Theory & Practice Case Study Briefing sheet


maximising retail sales and profits. This, however, was a source of frequent conflict at Opal-Mart.

A further issue identified by the audit was a culture of ineffective meetings that often went over time, wasted energies and left its participants wondering what outcomes had been achieved. Staff often shut each other down and failed to listen to each others views which brought about a negative climate. The audit results showed that senior managers did not feel they had the skills to chair meetings in such a tension-laden environment.

A final cause for concern was the increase in customer complaints at Opal-Mart and perhaps even more importantly, the poor ways in which store staff dealt with such complaints. Rather than seeking to understand the customers issues, store staff tended to act defensively, brushing customers off abruptly and sometimes rudely. This was partly due to the time pressures of store staff, and partly due to their inexperience and lack of skills. Many part-timers in particular, had never received proper communications training and simply did not know how to appease and retain customers in such difficult situations.

Opal Mart clearly had an opportunity to improve staff communication skills and develop a more open and collaborative communication culture. The companys CEO, along with his senior executive group, decided to act quickly. A task force was created that should look more deeply into the companys communication problems.


Table 1 List of identified communication barriers


1. Poor understanding of the need for upward feedback, especially by senior management. Senior executives are not aware of the importance of gaining an understanding of staff issues and concerns and are perceived to lack empathy and listening skills.

2. Poor downward feedback. Staff rarely receive feedback on their work and if they do, it is negative, given in a de-motivating way and/or leaves staff without an understanding of how specific issues relate to broader company goals.

3. The Opal-Mart workforce is highly diverse culturally, with Australian, Indian and Chinese staff representing the largest employee groups. Intercultural communication issues and misunderstandings among store staff are frequent, rendering the task of running the stores effectively more difficult.

4. A silo culture and little understanding of how different occupational perspectives are part of a broader picture. In particular, there are frequent tensions between the companys buyers and merchandisers. While both groups of staff rely on each other in their job roles, time and energy is wasted on unproductive debates.

5. There is a culture of ineffective meetings at head office in particular, meetings are characterized by power struggles and frequent conflict. Managers chairing meetings lack the skills to resolve conflict and facilitate dialogic communication.

6. Opal-Mart staff are often not skilled in handling customer complaints. This has led to a significant loss of customers in recent years and is considered by the Executive as a key concern with implications for brand reputation.





Organisational Dialogue: Theory & Practice Case Study Briefing sheet



Opal Marts Path Towards a New Communication Culture

The mission of the new task force was to create an internal communications strategy for Opal-Mart that will increase the flow of information among all employees of the company and in so doing, create better and broader understanding of – and support for – Opal-Mart’s business goals and objectives. The task force was unique in that it was comprised of several organisational development and human resources managers from various Opal-Mart sales regions, store personnel, a consultant, and representatives from corporate headquarters. It was also exclusively devoted to one mission: studying organisational communication within Opal-Mart and advising upper management on how to improve it.

The first order of business for the task force was to write a mission statement in order to address the issue of what specific values and philosophy the company should espouse. Although the wording of the statement was subject to much discussion, there was consensus about the desired central values. Ultimately, the following mission statement was adopted:

Opal-Mart is committed to the development of an effective organisational communication culture which responds to the concerns of employees and customers, seeks their input in setting and attaining company goals, and is characterized by practices of mutual respect, trust and collaboration.

This broad mission statement was translated into the following value statements:

1. We work together as one team. We help each other and ask for help because we know that we can offer our customers the best service when we work together.

2. We build lasting relationships with our customers by making them our first priority. We listen to feedback, provide support and are committed to the continuous improvement of our services.

3. We treat each other with respect. We embrace diverse communities, cultures and points of view. We understand how we differ and how we are similar. To collaborate well, we trust each other and work together towards shared goals.

4. We strive for excellence in what we do. We are committed to the continuous improvement of our services and we achieve this by continuously developing and deepening our knowledge of our people, our customers, and our business.

5. We lead in ways that provide recognition, motivation and empowerment by listening, seeking feedback and working with our staff on the attainment of shared goals.


The second order of business for the task force was to commission training companies with the development of communication skills trainings that would help overcome some of the existing barriers. A request for business proposals was developed in which the agencies were asked to outline their suggestions for future Opal-Mart communication trainings. The Opal-Mart task force specified clear priority areas and audiences for these communications trainings. These included (but were not limited to) the following six topic areas, presented on p. 4:







Organisational Dialogue: Theory & Practice Case Study Briefing sheet



1) Improving performance through feedback Target audience: Opal-Mart store managers Brief: Develop a proposal for the training of Opal-Mart store managers on the provision of staff feedback. The aim of this training is to make Opal-Mart store managers aware of the importance of feedback as a tool that leads to enhanced staff performance as well as assist the managers in developing their feedback skills.

2) Developing shared understanding Target audience: Opal-Mart buying and merchandising staff Brief: Develop a proposal for the training of Opal-Mart buying and merchandising staff which will assist these groups of staff in developing a more collaborative mind frame. Proposals that focus on the delivery of communication skills and/or methods that will increase the groups mutual understanding of issues will be looked upon favourably.

3) Listening to your staff Target audience: Opal-Mart senior management Brief: Develop a proposal for a training of that will increase Opal-Mart senior managers awareness of the importance of listening to staff concerns and showing empathy. The aim of this training is to allow senior management to gain a better understanding of staff needs, thereby reducing the current communication gap between senior management and staff and increasing staff engagement.

4) Running productive meetings

Target audience: Opal-Mart senior management Brief: Develop a proposal for the training of Opal-Mart senior managers in (meeting) facilitation skills. Senior managers are expected to leave the training with improved knowledge and skills in at least one of the following areas: facilitating meetings, conflict management in meetings, meeting design and planning.

5) Communicating across cultures

Target Audience: Opal-Mart store staff (culturally diverse group, predominantly Australian, Indian and Chinese) Brief: Develop a proposal for the training of Opal-Mart store staff in intercultural communication skills. The aim of this training is to improve staff communication, reduce cross-cultural misunderstandings and, as a result, increase team cohesion and productivity.

6) Dealing with unhappy customers Target audience: Opal-Mart store staff Develop a proposal for the training of Opal-Mart store/sales staff that will allow them to deal more effectively with customer complaints. The aim of this training is to provide staff with insights into how challenging communication situations with customers can be resolved in ways that retain the customer and even increase their satisfaction with the company.

Your task: You are a member of a training company specialising in the development and delivery of corporate communication trainings. Choose one of the above topics and respond to the Opal-Mart brief by (1) developing a proposal for the delivery of an Opal-Mart communication training on the respective topic (see briefing sheet assignment 2) and (2) delivering the training in class (see briefing sheet assignment 3)



Organisational Dialogue: Theory & Practice Case Study Briefing sheet


References Hargie, O. & Tourish, D. 2009, Auditing Organizational Communication: A Handbook of Research, Theory

and Practice, Routledge, London. Tourish, D. & Hargie, O. 2004, ‘Communication Audits: Building World Class Communication Systems’, in

S. Oliver (ed.), Handbook of Corporate Communication and Public Relations, Routledge, London, pp. 131-44.

i Case study adapted for Organisational Dialogue: Theory & Practice from Fairhurst, G. T. (1990). Changing the Information Culture

at the Pearson Company. In B. Davenport Sypher (Ed.), Case Studies in Organizational Communication (pp. 223-234). New York: The Guilford Press.

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