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The why and how of change communications

Recently, IABC Victoria and Coral Communications launched one of Australia's most comprehensive studies of Internal Communications. In this, the first in a three-part series, Coral's Nick Barnes looks at change communications – the number three priority in our recent 2014 communications priorities survey.

 

 

Taking time out to learn from each other

More than half lack the training needed to do their job properly.  Less than a third use narratives to deliver their corporate strategy.  And change is dominating their professional lives.  These are just some of the insights which the Coral Communications iC survey uncovered about working in Internal Communications in present day Australia.

Over the coming weeks we will be posting a series of articles which expand on the findings from the iC survey.  Written by experts, for experts, the articles link together the insights using research data to support best practice.  Our aim; to provoke discussion, inspire fresh thinking and challenge orthodoxy.

 

Where you lead, I will follow…

Good communication is the cornerstone of any effective change, and the results from the iC survey appear to be shouting this adage louder than ever before.  Look at any recent newspaper and count how many times you read the word CHANGE in Internal Communications vacancies.  Cost cutting, restructuring, mergers, demergers, redundancies; it is little wonder that IC professionals are feeling the pressure of managing these communications on top of their business-as- usual activities.

The iC survey not only showed how change is a fact of life these days for people in IC roles, but it also revealed the impact that effective communication can have on change management.

So what are we talking about here? When people think of change they often think of upheaval on an epic scale – global acquisitions, organisational transformations, redundancies.  In our uncertain climate these are always going to be a possibility. But the magnitude of change is no indicator of the damage it can have to reputation, and it is often the small things which require the most attention and that can slip through the net.

At the heart of any successfully managed change, irrespective of its scale, is the ability to keep employees with you along the journey.  For organisations, that means being on the front foot when it comes to the way they communicate.  The ability to engage an organisation’s backbone – its people – during change, plays a vital role in its survival. 

The iC survey findings suggest that it is not the volume of change that is leading to its poorly perceived management.  Rather, it is a combination of disconnected behaviours and inefficiencies, on behalf of an organisations communicators and its leaders, which are hindering the potential to engage people. 

In the following sections, we outline the steps that both leaders and communicators, caught up in the daily grind of change, need to take.  So let’s begin at the top:

 

Leading through change

Internal communications is not getting the buy-in it needs from leaders; in the case of more than two in five IC practitioners, leaders are believed to be either indifferent or actively opposed to the function.  And the relationship is clear – leaders who are supportive of and involve the IC function in shaping their key messages, are much more successful at managing change.

We often look up to our leaders like children look up to their parents. If they do not believe in something, it is a safe bet we will not either.

Senior leaders need to step up to the mark during periods of change.  What they say, the direction they set, their visibility, the way they engage people and what they are seen to do, will dramatically impact people’s perceptions and experiences.

Leaders, uniquely, have the opportunity to deliver that ‘eureka moment’ to audiences; where complex concepts and terminology of a project suddenly become relatable and grounded.

A recent study in Australia found that employees with the most positive perceptions of change, experience a pivotal ‘communication moment’, more often than not, delivered by CEOs.  One manager from the study recounted his experience from a session in which the CEO told a personal story centred on the ‘journey’, drawing an analogy to the current state and desired future state of the business.  This provided a simple, repeatable message which could easily be shared with peers.

Research on this topic is consistently clear; leadership teams which fail to tap into and acknowledge the value of their internal communicators are missing out on opportunities to take people with them on the journey.

So what can IC functions do to convert the non-believers and better assist leaders in creating that eureka moment?

 

Getting your story straight

A one-size-fits-all approach to messaging very rarely proves effective. While blanket messaging can be, in some instances, unavoidable, when it comes to change, messages need to be relatable.  It is important to be able to segment your audience and target employee groups which are at the highest risk of low motivation and disengagement.  Introducing the Change narrative.

With almost double the proportion of people whose organisations had a strategic narrative in place saying change is managed well in their organisation, the iC survey served to quantify clearly how a narrative style approach to communications can impact positively on managing change. 

Having a single list of key messages is not enough when it comes to change communications.  Weaving these messages together will ensure a change ‘narrative’ which is both credible and engaging and that resonates with its audiences.

A change narrative begins with a short (one or two page) ‘story’ of the change.  This enables people to grasp more easily the longer ‘story’ that is unfolding and where the present sits in that.  It should grab and, more importantly, retain people’s attention, identifying which aspects of the past need to be left behind and which are carried forward, providing a glimpse into the future and inspiring people with confidence to move on.

A series of small ‘stories’ follow, which change leaders and others can use to show that the programme is not an ‘ivory-tower’ exercise. These include examples from where the programme is already up and running in parts of the organisation and, over time, stories of success to demonstrate progress.

Once developed, these stories need to feed in to practical materials which penetrate the organisation through team meeting discussions and workshops.  Materials such as ‘warning stories’ that help to see the danger of maintaining the status quo; ‘half stories’ and stories of challenges that open up discussion around difficult issues; ‘springboard stories’ to help people get a better understanding of the change by seeing it from the points of view of different protagonists.

The change narrative framework serves as a touchstone for all change communications and ensures that messages are aligned and pointing in the same direction.

The next step…

 

Channelling messages effectively

86% of communicators said that communicating organisational change was a key part of their role.  Yet, with the exception of face-to-face briefings, usage of and preference for more interactive channels pale in significance compared to email, intranets and newsletters.

The channels used for communicating during a period of change have the capability to win over or alienate employees.

Mass media channels such as email bursts or webcasts used at the wrong times can promote a stifled one-way ‘tell’ approach to communicating change. Involving employees through two-way, interactive communications can make them feel much more a part of the change process.

Crucially however, to ensure interactive channels do not end up being more corrosive to change than supportive, thought needs to be given to how the feedback is used and how its subsequent use is demonstrated to those who provided it. 

One way to ensure this is to talk about it regularly in communications.  Research shows that the satisfaction of seeing an idea taken on board by leaders far outweighs financial incentives and succeeds in making sure employees feel more involved along the journey.

While communicators are often limited by the channels available to them within the organisation, it is the role of IC people to use these creatively, in some cases adapting them to make them more interactive.

And the final piece of this change management puzzle…

 

Monitoring what is being said

Regardless of what an organisation is experiencing, if employees think that something is in the air it is important to address these concerns and move quickly.  During change, even employees from the most stable companies will be feeling vulnerable. They want to know what is happening to their organisation, and how this will affect them.  

The iC survey revealed that those who regularly sought employee feedback and tested the effectiveness of their messages, were nearly four times more likely to say that change is managed well in their organisation than those who don’t measure at all. 

One of the keys to building trust during change is integrating feedback mechanisms into communications.  To have any sort of credibility and longevity, employees need to see that leaders are listening and hearing their feedback. 

And we’re not just talking about surveys here.  To be most effective, feedback processes during change need to be about practical, sleeves rolled up involvement of employees. 

Providing employees with a simple platform to give day-to-day feedback during change, and then following up on that feedback, will help inform strategy and enable people to better understand the change process and the role they play. 

 

The final word

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for ensuring the success of change.  The last 12 months have seen the scale and pace of change escalate to an unprecedented degree.  Communicators need to help their organisations survive the range of corporate ‘traumas’ that come with change.  By so doing, this will raise credibility of the function among the most senior people in the organisation.

Just like all professionals, communicators need to earn the trust of executives by demonstrating clearly the tangible economic value they bring.  Telling ‘stories’, channelling messages effectively and measuring the impact of your communications are powerful ways of engaging leaders and colleagues, both intellectually and emotionally.

With many organisations on the defensive, internal communication has never been more vital to survival and success.

 

If you'd like a copy of the IABC Victoria / Coral Communications iC survey report, go here and drop Nick a line.

 

 

About Nick Barnes

Nick Barnes is a specialist in measuring people engagement, with more than 10 years agency experience supporting some of the world’s best known and most complex organisations, including HSBC, BP, Travelocity and BAA.  Nick has extensive experience working in and in close partnership with HR and Corporate Communications, in the areas of measurement , strategy creation and brand,.  Nick spent 11 years in London before moving to Australia in 2012 to establish Coral Communications.  Nick believes strongly in partnering with people to develop and deliver complimentary and sustainable communications and measurement strategies.

About Coral Communications

Helping people in business thrive! 

At Coral, we partner with people; likeminded professionals who are passionate about creating an environment where people can thrive.  We help connect a business with its people.  How do we do this?  By restoring the balance to your communications processes; activating brands in the hearts and minds of people; holding the mirror on what matters most; and releasing creativity by navigating the path to innovation.

 

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