It’s been nearly 30 years since the business world discovered a host of new programs and initiatives generated by consulting firms to rethink strategy, improve processes, deploy new systems and technologies, reduce costs, streamline functions and business units, recruit and retain talent, and solidify leadership practices.  During that time, the success rate – defined as the organization achieving the results set out by these various initiatives – is approximately 30%. Translation: Over 70% of these efforts fail.

Countless millions of dollars are invested each year on change management, yet the Return on Investment remains extremely low.  Ironically, adding to this dilemma is that a review of the communications approaches typically used to drive such programs internally reveal little has changed in the analysis, strategy, content, frequency, and structure.  This failure to improve and strengthen internal communications in support of change management initiatives is a key contributor to their mediocre results. In fact, it’s astounding to see the same mistakes being made year in and year out and no one – leaders, managers, communicators, consultants, employees – standing up to declare defeat.

The Digital Effect – It’s all about Dialogue and Debate

With business and society now ensconced in the digital age, such apathy regarding change communications can no longer be tolerated.  Employees are often operating with as much or more information on the company, industry, competition, and customer set as managers and leaders.  Opinions and discourse on change efforts are shared openly and sometimes discretely. Employees can reference outside sources as to the legitimacy of the initiative, check on past efforts, look up commentary on forums and blogs, and determine how media and analysts covering the organization characterize the situation.

The bottom-line: If people believe the information they are hearing and are involved from the outset, then the rate of success rises exponentially.

So, why in an age of open discourse and new technology, are internal communicators and leaders still following an outdated playbook regarding change management communications?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Communications is not integrated with the management model
  • Communications is based on a “sell” approach (what the organization wants to say) vs. a “discover” (the information employees want to know and discuss) approach
  • Consulting firms denigrate communications to a tactical necessity (PowerPoints, events, meetings, materials), severely limiting its value
  • Communications professionals rarely employ any type of analytics to understand the workforce relying instead on instinct
  • Communicators fail to ask relevant questions or to learn about the change effort in enough detail to challenge or offer better ideas for execution
  • Leadership fails to recognize and demand that Communications be seen as a strategic driver of the change effort

The “New” Playbook

The major lesson taken from over 30 years of change is this: employees want dialogue, discussion, and debate to understand, engage, and believe. The digital age is all about connectivity and conversation.  From a communications perspective, it’s about Discover vs. Sell.  Allowing people to get there themselves rather than selling them on the idea.

The example below describes just how different each method truly is:

The Six Questions to Ask at the Outset of a Change Effort… to Get Results

If you’re about to get involved in a major change initiative, you might consider getting answers to the following questions before doing anything:

  • What’s the current understanding of our business situation internally?
  • How does the workforce perceive the company today?
  • What communications content and methods are being used to engage and connect with employees?  Are they going to be effective going forward?
  • How much do I understand the change program itself and how am I connected to the PMO overseeing its implementation?
  • What do we ultimately need employees to know, feel, and do regarding the initiative?
  • How aligned am I with managers and leaders to drive this effort?

The pace of business is only going to get more intense, causing leaders to rethink everything from purpose to products to process to people.  Communicating and connecting with employees while engaging with them in meaningful and authentic ways throughout the change effort itself increases the chances for success. Employing new techniques, utilizing analytics, and developing new forms of content work together to expand thinking and give people the freedom to be – accept the shifting environment and choose the path forward.

Organizational communications has certainly come a long way.

Gary Grates is a Principal at W2O Group, an IPR Trustee and the Director of IPR’s Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow him on Twitter @GaryGrates.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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