PDM and Change Management


Communicating Change

Communication is important to overcome the fears and concerns aroused by change. People wonder what effect it will have on them - will they still have a job after the change, will they maintain their rank, will they have an interesting role, what will their future be? Because these questions will always be asked, and uncertainty in a working environment reduces productivity, it's important to communicate what is changing and why.

Consider three important questions - when do you communicate?, what do you communicate?, and how do you communicate?

Communication is an ongoing process. It's clearly necessary to communicate to people at the beginning of a change project - to answer their initial fears and concerns, but it's also necessary to communicate throughout the intermediate states of the change process. As the change process advances, two things happen. People will have new questions to be answered, and new ideas and understandings of the intermediate and final states will be developed. In response, people have to be kept up-to-date with actual and future states, and answers given to their questions.

There are four key subjects of communication - the present state, the intermediate state, the future state, and the activities of the change process. People need to be informed of the reasons why the organization has to move away from the current 'as-is' state, and of the dangers of staying there. They need to understand the pressures that make it necessary to change. Explain to them why the current state used to make sense, but the organization must also change because the environment in which it exists is changing. And explain what will happen if the organization doesn't change - and what this will mean for them as individuals.

It's also important to communicate the future state. Explain what it will look like, why it will look like this, the advantages of being in this state, which parts of it are clear and which are still hazy, and what this future state will imply for the roles of people in the company.

The intermediate states of the organization are unsettling for everybody. In them it's no longer possible to cling to the familiar past, and the hoped-for future state feels as if it is never going to be reached. Communication about the intermediate state builds confidence. Confidence that although people may appear to be in a state that is completely out of control, this state has been recognized in the planning process as a necessary step on the path to the future state, and before long it will be over and the organization will have moved into the future state. The communication needs to show them how the future state will be reached, and what things will look like along the way.

Communicate the activities of the change process. Tell people what is going to happen, when it will happen, and why. Let them understand that the process has been clearly thought-out, is well led and well planned, and is under control. Show how the process will help people to participate in the change and how it will help them to change.

Communication can be carried out in a variety of ways such as a Newsletter, e-mail, Intranet, video, person-to-person, or in small groups. Person-to-person communication takes a lot of time and doesn't provide the synergistic benefits of presenting the message to a group of people. A Newsletter can be a good communication tool but there is always the danger that some people will be 'too busy' to read it. Videos tend to over-formalize communication, and don't provide a direct way for people to ask questions. E-mail suffers from being a generally inaccurate medium and being easy to ignore and delete.

The best method of communication is for each manager to communicate a well-prepared change message and accompanying support material to their direct reports. This process should start at the top of the organization and be followed at each level. As a result, most people will first hear the change message from their boss and be able to ask questions, and then be forced to understand the message well enough so they can communicate it to their team members - and answer their questions. In this way, a single message and accompanying support material can be communicated throughout the organization.

Most people in the organization will have a lot of questions about the change process. For any one of a variety of reasons they may not like to ask these questions directly to their boss or colleagues, so it's always best to include some mechanism in the communication process by which people can ask questions anonymously or off the record. And finally, don't forget to put a feedback process in place to make sure that the communication process is meeting its objectives.

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Page last modified on March 16, 2000
Copyright 1999, 2000 by John Stark