Rules of change

Today’s organisations need to embrace change rapidly to respond to market demands, competitive challenges and technological opportunities. But they must also create business model and process coherence and be able to deliver products or services to high standards. This combination of being flexible enough to achieve rapid change as well as having the stability to provide an effective platform for service delivery demands strong leadership, well-targeted training and development, good teamworking and a thorough approach to performance management. But how do we put this into practice?

In 2003, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) published a survey of UK chief executives and HR professionals which looked at the perception of reorganisation. It outlined the following four necessary conditions for successful change.

First, change planning needs to be organisation-wide in scope. To be successful you need to plan and implement cohesive programmes of change in organisation structures, reward systems, business processes and reporting systems. You will only maximise impact if you manage change across all relevant dimensions as an integrated process.

In reality, although changes in leadership, culture, business process and IT are often attempted, they are rarely fully integrated with each other. Nor are they supported by changes to career and reward structures, meaning change will often underperform.

Second, you should focus on programme and project management. Even organisations that use these methods when delivering to their own clients will not use them as a source of discipline with which to manage change.

Third, organisations need to integrate people management practices with organisation changes. Reorganisation affects employees in many ways. Often job losses and job reassignments are involved. New employees with new skills may be needed. Retraining, regrading and relocation may also affect many people. Interestingly, while most organisations put in place the means of communicating to employees in a period of change, it is usually top-down and one-way.

The CIPD survey revealed adequate retraining was provided in less than a third of organisations. However, those that invested in retraining and/or training for new processes were more likely to report higher levels of employee motivation.

Finally, the survey stressed that effective leadership is vital. Most interesting is the finding that in roughly two-thirds of organisations surveyed, respondents indicated that they needed to make greater use of learning from outside their business. Leaders seem to be too internally- or even silo-focused. Change is a challenge requiring leaders who are willing and able to learn and adapt.

Overall, there are two key roles for HR professionals during a period of change. They need to deliver a people- and project-oriented change management process, through which line managers can find their own ways of leading change, secure in the confidence that a disciplined process is in place. They also need to ensure changes are managed on an organisation-wide basis.

The challenge for HR is not about a need to push managers to achieve change, but rather about working with them to create an integrated approach to change.

For too long organisations have not moved forward, either because their approach to change is too narrow or lacking in ambition, or because senior teams pursue ‘big’ changes – particularly culture change – without considering the means to achieve them. Meanwhile, it is increasingly clear that what works are step changes managed in an integrated fashion, patiently, with a stable and coherent set of purposes and objectives.

There is plenty of experience of organisations managing change successfully from which we can learn. And this is the real point: change is a learning process. You cannot achieve success by always focusing on past ways of managing and working. What is needed is more forward and externally-focused thinking and more flexible, problem-oriented and collaborative working. Only then can we achieve success.

Colin Carnall is associate dean at Warwick Business School and author of Personnel Today’s One-Stop Guide to Change Management. This essential guide provides practical information and case studies to help HR manage change programmes more effectively. To order your copy at a special introductory rate, call 01371 810433

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