Mergers cry out for the human touch

LAST WEEK'S announcement that yet another pharmaceuticals merger - this time between Monsanto and American Home Products - had been called off before the parties could reach the altar brings into focus once more the heady world of mergers and acquisitions.

One of the things that seems to be stopping the current financial turmoil from plunging into a full-blown economic crisis is the continuing wave of consolidations in just about any sector you care to name. But compelling as the industrial logic put up by consultants, bankers and other interested folk may be, statistics suggest that a good many other deals will founder - before or beyond the altar.

In some cases, of course, the cause of the problems will be regulatory. Either the authorities will block a deal outright, or they will impose so many conditions that the parties feel it is no longer worth going ahead. Alternatively, as was said to have been the case in the failed link-up between accounting firms KPMG and Ernst & Young, the managements will find the whole process so offputting that they abandon the plan.

But a much more obvious difficulty relates to "the people issue". This sometimes surfaces as a reason for an abandoned merger - as in the supposed "personality clashes" that doomed the SmithKline Beecham-Glaxo Wellcome merger. But research due to be published tomorrow by the Roffey Park Management Institute in West Sussex suggests that the problem extends far beyond the boardroom.

Wendy Hirsh, one of the researchers responsible for the report, Mergers & Acquisitions: Getting the People Bit Right, says there is a clear finding that "people issues are very difficult and could be managed better than they are".

The report adds that although "complex and intangible", the human dimension can be managed if mergers and acquisitions are seen as human-based transactions.

According to the researchers, problems start to creep in because senior managers often abandon communications efforts too soon. In particular, they warn that if the transition phase that takes place in the immediate aftermath of the deal being "bungled", key players may not work to their full potential or may leave, taking much of their expertise and the business's competitive edge with them.

But perhaps their most telling comment relates to differences of perspective. Senior managers think their organisations want strong and dynamic leadership, while the workforce broadly favour a little bit of consideration instead of too much haste.

While the executives may claim that markets and commentators judge them by their ability to drive through deals to timetables, it also says a lot for how distanced many executives are from what really goes on in their organisations.

It is relatively straightforward for chief executives to demand that something happen within a tight timescale; it even makes them look good. But it is a different proposition for the middle or junior manager charged with implementing those demands.

Of course, business requires vision, decisiveness and all that. But it also requires an understanding of the realities of life. And one of those is that, while people may be increasingly described as assets, they are really very different from the buildings and plant which have traditionally fitted that description.

And at no time are people more sensitive and difficult to handle than during a merger or acquisition.