As HSBC prepares to make a decision this week on whether to switch hemispheres, it’s worth reflecting on some of the reasons why 70 per cent of major organisational changes fail to achieve their stated aims.
This relocation debate has been contested on a handful of very observable issues, including regulation, tax and politics, without caring to go into the longer-term consequences of shifting the core of an organisation that employs hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
There are significant considerations that are often overlooked by multinationals and which threaten to undermine any decision by HSBC to re-domicile.
My concern for HSBC is the organisational disruption that would ripple out from any major move.
You cannot just shift the centre of gravity of an organisation from one side of the world to another and assume it will stand up because the numbers do. There are second and third order effects that are very difficult to account for, for instance the way an organisation passes information, directions and instructions between individuals or departments.
HSBC is a social network, more like a brain than a skeleton, and the relocation of a major global business inevitably severs key nerves and separates the nodes that invisibly connect people, decisions and processes.
They will unknowingly lose vital knowledge assets.
HSBC has been based itself out of Hong Kong before, of course, but the territory has changed remarkably since 1993, as indeed has the bank and the world.
Few organisations take the time to realistically assess their ability to build the same networks and relationships in the new structure and location as have been painstakingly established in the old home.
Geographical convenience can often be mistaken for ease of doing business regionally, but any headquarters in Asia is surrounded by highly diverse markets that defy attempts at being lumped together for perceived synergies.
As a result, organisations can end up operating from within comforting bubbles, which the local authorities are only too happy to maintain but which ultimately disconnect companies from the region.
Human capital is too often lumped in with other productive assets when determining the viability of transformational change. This is a mistake. The response of employees to major change is difficult to predict and even harder to control.
Even small adjustments can seriously affect the fortunes of an organisation a few years down the line, like how differently HSBC staff will feel about working for a Chinese company rather than a British company.
The difficulty with transformational changes is that optimism bias ensures many pressing business problems end up being deferred or lumped together into issues that will ‘solve themselves’ after the transformation. No matter how well advised, without great attention to HSBC’s social and anthropological systems, a decision to move will create a net reduction in effectiveness and efficiency.