Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) can be a trying and complicated undertaking. Given the inherent complexity of large organizations, there are many barriers to success, which explains why M&A efforts have a high failure rate. This places a large burden on HR, and especially the learning and development function, which often is in the position of being told about training needs instead of defining them.
What experts and researchers are finding is that an honest assessment of the acquirer and acquiree’s culture and processes, tethered to agreement from both parties of the purpose of the merger, is the best way to drive success and plan for training.
"Good time spent early on saves a lot of repair time afterwards," Paul Zonneveld, executive coach and a senior member of the transformational faculty with Mobius Executive Leadership, told HR Dive. "Any training, any development that you intend to do connected to what is the purpose of this whole enterprise… put it in a larger frame than just 'I now need to train them.'"
One of the first mistakes made in M&A is an over-reliance on projections from investment bankers and other outside parties, or even internal ones, that ignore the human element of combining two workforces.
"When an M&A is being considered," Zonneveld noted, "it's very often a numbers game, and expectations are being drawn on a spreadsheet." He added that they tend to lack a thorough evaluation of "people aspects" such as the history of the organization and any past "traumas" it may have.
A book that he co-authored with Mieke Jacobs, Emergent: The Power of Systemic Intelligence to Navigate the Complexity of M&A, emphasizes four "levers" they use to assess company cultures:
Company Purpose: This isn't company mission but, rather, "what is the outside world asking us to deliver?"
Connection: An evaluation of work processes and the interactions that trigger them.
Order: How seniority, privileges and benefits are distributed and any internal hierarchy among functions.
Exchange: "How much do we ask of people… and how much do you give back to them?"
More tactically, there are a variety of different ways to uncover this information. "A combination of assessments (for example, surveys, focus groups and workforce data analytics) can get a baseline of the culture, including similarities and differences between a newly-acquired organization and the buyer’s organization," Craig Johnson, a partner at the global consulting firm Mercer, told HR Dive via email. "Some organizations conduct cultural alignment workshops to tease out similarities and differences so they can identify tactics to address them."
Leaders also need to evaluate the extent to which there will be integration. On one end of the spectrum is full integration, where two organizations become one. On the other end, the new organization stays independent and the acquirer acts as a holding company and mostly a financial manager. Many options exist in between. "It's important that your decisions later on match what you have decided there," Jacobs, also Mobius transformational faculty and an executive coach, told HR Dive.
It is also ideal for HR and L&D to be involved as early in the process as possible, Jacobs noted, because the company making the purchase has limited exposure during pre-acquisition due diligence, and there are often holes or other points of exposure or risk, especially from a human capital perspective, that go unnoticed.
One of the key things that needs to happen before any teaching begins is for L&D "to give space and consider what people are losing and give them an opportunity to work on that," Zonneveld said. "Because that will open up an understanding so that people will open up for learning."
If leadership decides to fully integrate two separate organizations, it’s important for both sides to maintain a mutual respect and open lines of communication: "If the acquired company is being understood by the acquirer, they are willing to learn from the other side ... if you immediately start implementing 'I know better' [as your approach], that's where you create resistance," Zonneveld said. "Then it doesn't matter what kind of training programs you're going to put in there. It's going to be rejected.”
In a full integration, both sides, not just the acquiree, must accept that they will no longer look like they did before, that the two are combining into one unified group with a new culture and way of doing things. "The newly-formed system is inherently different than just the combination of the two," Jacobs said.
At this stage, leadership in both organizations must be on the same page, which requires a discrete effort. "Assuming leadership is aligned can be a mistake," Johnson said; "Get leaders in a room and confirm their alignment on the current and/or future state of your culture. Nothing can tank a project faster than misalignment of leaders."
After settling on a strategy for the future, Johnson said he recommends moving forward with a variety of development initiatives to move the newly combined company forward. This can include leadership summits to affirm the approach or launch videos, events, cultural alignment efforts, microsites and more, he said.
Finally, it's important to remember that change management of any kind is not a one-time event; it is a constant effort that requires feedback, re-assessment and refinement of the integration strategy, the experts said. "Cultural alignment is always a work in progress," Johnson said. "You need to keep repeating [evaluation] at a cadence that makes sense for your organization. Culture is not a 'set it and forget it' type of action."
At the end of the day, transparency and respect may play the largest role in overcoming differences and creating unity. While there is often fear spreading across workforces during M&A, it is not based on a fear of change, per se, Zonneveld said. "There is a fear and very often an experience of not being listened to. Of loss... not being acknowledged. So once you create a human connection, people are very willing to do a lot of things," he continued. "If you bypass the human connection and see people as assets or roles [...] then they go into resistance."