Conflict Resolution|systems design

Ombuds: Some Robust Resources for a Prudent Practice

Wilbur Hicks, Ombuds of the International Monetary Fund (and before that for Shell and Princeton) has directed our attention to the Ombuds Blog.  Even a cursory review shows that this is a robust and (for me at least) hitherto overlooked resource for commercial conflict managers.

Institutional Ombuds offer a different type of conflict management service from (a) classic Ombuds or (b) human resources, peer groups, mediators or other offices.  They differ from classic Ombuds because they focus on concerns raised within the enterprise, rather than concerns between the enterprise and outside bodies (such as governments, consumers or communities).  And they differ from other dispute management offices because they depart from traditional, hierarchical command structures.

The attributes of the Ombuds office are neutrality, confidentiality and independence.  The Ombuds is neutral in that she does not advocate for any disputant, but rather listens, learns and tries to assist with the resolution of a problem.  The Ombuds is confidential in order to encourage reporting of sensitive issues such as violations of company policy, suspected ethical breaches, and criminal behavior.   Most intriguingly, the Ombuds is independent in order to ensure that information adverse to senior managers can be reported without risk.  Traditionally, therefore, the Ombuds office does not reside in the legal or HR departments, but rather reports directly to the CEO, and the Ombuds’ reports advise of levels of activities or trends but never in such detail as would permit identification of individual disputes or disputants.

The International Ombudsman Association is the treasure trove of information and guidance on the special role of the organizational Ombuds.  The Blog mentioned above is a sound and stimulating forum to report, discuss and debate the contours of the Ombuds responsibility.  It also has a great list of corporations, universities and other enterprises with Ombuds offices.  (Interestingly, though the institutional Ombuds is frequently used in workplace disputes, I first came  across it in the system whereby McDonald’s manages conflicts involving its franchisees.  That system is described in a chapter on the Franchise Mediation book that I previously discussed on this blog.)

In short, the Ombuds is a problem-identification and problem-solving office, and as such is uniquely useful to systems designers.

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