Changing with the Times

Knight Ridder is on the block today,
according to the New York Times. As a mainstream media company, bids will tell
something about the value of this old line media conglomerate in the day of new
media, the Times contends.

Daily, one is reminded of the changing environment for communications, entertainment and music among a host of other activities. And the reminder usually comes with reference to an older company or industry facing the need to change or die.

While it’s in no danger of death and is in good health, the Knight Ridder newspaper conglomerate is the latest indicator, according a New York Times article this morning. The article contends that the bids for Knight Ridder will reveal how buyers view the future of a 32-newspaper combine that has come to symbolize mainstream media.

I’ve been impressed with Knight Ridder’s attempts to converge newspapers, the web and television in places such as Tampa. This represents creative adaptation to the new media environment.

Making such change is not easy to accomplish. An organization develops its own culture and this becomes a transparent overlay that significantly influences how the organization behaves even if it isn’t consciously acknowledged. Culture is like a gyroscope. It nestles in the core of the organization keeping it on course. And it takes significant influence to change course, even when a collision looms ahead. I equate it to changing the direction of an ocean liner that has set its direction and reached cruising speed. It can’t turn on a dime, it can only make the course change slowly and gradually.

In a quick-changing environment the inability to turn on a dime is a competitive disadvantage. In many situations change and the need to adapt come faster than the old oceanliner can acommodate.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Knight-Ridder, but I’ve observed enough organizations facing change over the years that I do think the challenge of changing culture is much greater than acknowledged.

In a crisis in which their survival is at stake, organizations and their employees are more likely to change quickly. Short of that, however, it’s been my observation that change occurs slowly, with great pain and sometimes with wrenching dislocation. I witnessed this in one organization that reached its lowest point about ten years ago. Its funding collapsed. It took major staff reduction, programmatic cuts and new leadership to make the turn. This organization, The National Council of Churches, is on the upswing again. But only after a decade of painful disassembly and re-construction.

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