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SIOP UN Committee Sounding Board: Helping the United Nations Assess the Impact of Change

SIOP UN Committee: Julie Olson Buchanan, Stuart C. Carr, Sharon Glazer, Jenna McChesney, Ishbel McWha-Hermann, Ines Meyer, Morrie Mullins, (Mat) Osicki, Mark L. Poteet, & Nabila Sheikh-Hashmi

For over 10 years, SIOP has been an NGO with special consultative status with the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In this role, SIOP helps to advance the goals of the UN through applying employment-related theory, research, and practice. The SIOP UN Committee is a team of members and student interns who interact directly with UN stakeholders to scope, plan, and implement various types of initiatives aimed at helping the UN progress on its goals.

In doing so, the UN Committee often leverages the broader community of SIOP members to participate and contribute their expertise to UN stakeholders. For example, Nancy Tippins presented UN Common System stakeholders with guidance about how to use formal assessments for hiring in the complex UN organization (“Nancy Tippins Talks With UN Staff About Using Assessment Tools for Hiring”). Multiple SIOP members have provided presentations on research, theory, and evidence-based best practices with UN human resources professionals (“The Innovation & Learning Speaker Series: A Partnership Between the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the United Nations Office of Human Resources Management”). In another effort, a group of SIOP members advised the UNDP on best practices for developing and implementing rewards and recognition programs (“SIOP-UN Short-Term Projects: Sounding Boards and Literature Reviews”). Other examples of SIOP’s work with the UN can be found in the article “We’re 10 Years Old! Celebrating SIOP’s Partnership With the United Nations”.

The purpose of this article is to describe the most recent opportunity that SIOP had to work with the UN, specifically on its efforts to determine the impact of a grassroots organizational change effort. This initiative was borne out of discussions that SIOP UN Committee Chair Julie Olson-Buchanan had with Dennis Stolle, senior director in the Office of Applied Psychology (APA), and Gabriel Twose, senior international affairs officer (APA), about SIOP’s work with the UN. They noted that they had been speaking with a group at the UN that was attempting to facilitate changes to the UN’s workplace culture via an effort called #NewWork. Additional meetings were held with a few of the #NewWork stakeholders, including Liliana Uruburo and Einat Tempkin, which helped solidify the #NewWork group’s needs, specifically, to measure the effectiveness of the effort at driving organizational culture change. It was quickly determined that a sounding board approach, which had been used successfully with the UNDP’s Rewards and Recognition program, would best fit the UN’s needs for this work. Further meetings were held between SIOP UN Committee members and #NewWork stakeholders to plan and prepare for the sounding board.

Background on #NewWork

#NewWork is best described as a grassroots, staff-led initiative aimed at changing the UN workplace culture. A variety of data and information (e.g., staff engagement surveys) indicated that a change was desired to help the UN become more agile and innovative in adapting to internal and external changes and pressures. Its goals center on encouraging more collaboration, empowerment, innovation, flexibility, and future fit within the workplace. This culture change is enabled through a wide range of activities and projects, supported by a growing network of UN staff within and external to the UN’s Bangkok, Geneva, and New York offices. Sample activities and projects that have been implemented include (a) a regular communication event called Innovation Day, which provides staff with briefings on new ideas, processes, and concepts at the UN; (b) training and implementation in agile work practices; (c) training in problem-solving skills to help staff tackle difficult challenges and inspire new ways of thinking; (d) training in practices and behaviors to facilitate more engagement when working within teams and with clients; (e) creating a new global orientation program for new hires; and (f) implementing an app that staff can use to submit and process requests for flexible working arrangements.

The #NewWork Sounding Board

The SIOP UN Committee first sought to identify and invite participants whose interests were thought to best match with the #NewWork group’s needs. Specifically, we aimed to create a sounding board containing a mix of practitioners, researchers, and academics with interest and expertise in the areas of change management, training, organizational development, cross-cultural issues, and evaluation. We used several SIOP resources (e.g., Corporate Social Responsibility and Prosocial/Humanitarian I-O Registry [CSR Registry]; Consultant Locator; recent publications) to identify potential participants for the sounding board. Participants were contacted via email with a description of the initiative and an invitation to attend. Prior to the sounding board, the participants were provided with background information on the #NewWork initiative and results from a recent UN Staff Engagement Survey. This proved to be valuable step as it allowed sounding board participants to see what resources might already be in place to help measure change.

On January 13, 2023, a 2-hour Zoom virtual meeting was held between several #NewWork stakeholders including Liliana Uruburo, Einat Temkim, and Beth Magne-Watts; APA officials Dennis Stohle, Irina Feygina, Gabe Twose, and Mark Chan; and sounding board participants Sharon Glazer, Jason Huang, Marc Sokol, Walter Reichman, Kimberly Scott, Traci Sitzmann, Jolene Skinner, Jennifer Dimoff, Marissa Shuffler, Elissa Perry, Ines Meyers, and Tracy Griggs. SIOP UN Committee members Julie Olson-Buchanan, Morrie Mullins, Jenna McChesney, and Mark Poteet helped to facilitate the meeting. After brief introductions, an overview of #NewWork was presented by UN staff, including its goals and key questions of interest for the group. Sounding board participants were then provided an opportunity to ask questions to clarify the context of the initiative and understand the UN’s needs. As noted by Tracy Griggs, “Some of our initial challenge was just about getting on the same page by clarifying the questions and issues facing the organization. After we arrived at a shared understanding and language, we were able to provide some practical suggestions about how they might move forward.”

Once questions were answered, participants were divided into two breakout groups for 25-minute brainstorming sessions aimed at identifying how other large, complex organizations measure change in culture and what best practices could be leveraged at the UN. After reconvening, each breakout group reported its discussion points, resulting in a rich discussion of different frameworks and approaches for measuring change, different types and sources of data that could be used, as well as practical tips that included leveraging resources and tools that may already be in place at the UN. Even more, following the meeting, the UN was provided additional resources and materials by some of the sounding board participants.

This effort had several beneficial outcomes for all involved. For the UN, stakeholders walked away with ideas, perspectives, and practical tips for how to both view and measure change in organizational culture. Feedback from the UN stakeholders was positive, as indicated by Liliana Uruburo:

The sounding board with SIOP was extremely helpful in confirming our suspicions about how difficult it is to measure culture change and to rethink what and why we even need to measure. Does measuring deliver impact or is it just a checkbox? At the same time, it also generated some great ideas for accessing data we had not previously realized we could leverage (e.g., Glassdoor). We are so grateful to Dennis, Gabe, Julie, and Mark for their engagement and for organizing this event. We would also like to thank all the volunteers from across SIOP who brought their particular expertise and views to the dialogue, really enriching the conversation and opening our eyes to new perspectives. We appreciate SIOP’s support in this difficult transformation journey to a more people-focused, agile, and creative organizational culture for the United Nations and look forward to further collaboration.

Several of the sounding board experts were exposed to the culture and work of the UN, and follow-up feedback from some indicated that they found this to be an engaging and rewarding experience. For example

Elissa Perry: “I think about the research–practice gap often in the context of my own work. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be in conversation with employees of the UN who may be in a position to put some of the evidence-based ideas that we shared into practice.”

Tracy Griggs: ”This was a great way to extend our collective professional expertise to a meaningful organizational effort. To work with other I-O professionals, even in a short-term capacity like this, sharpened my consultation skills. It was fun and exciting to learn from my professional peers and to work with an organization of international prominence. There are so many opportunities for SIOP to engage in bridge-building efforts to the public sector. I’d welcome the chance to do this again.”

Marc Sokol: “It’s always a pleasure to apply our I-O psychology insights to help members of a mission-driven organization explore their challenges and opportunities. Just as enjoyable was to do so in the company of other I-O psychologist volunteers. I found our collaboration and the breadth of our suggestions to be truly impressive, as did the UN team with whom we met. It left me feeling proud to be a member of this profession and of SIOP.”

The UN Committee continues to look for additional ways to provide service to the UN and is open to any questions or suggestions from SIOP members. We also invite SIOP members who wish to be a part of such future efforts to indicate their interest in SIOP’s Corporate Social Responsibility Registry and to ensure their content areas are updated in the Member Directory and Consultant Locator, as applicable.

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