Magazine article Communication World

How Issues Management Turned the Tide: A Case Study for Action and Results

Magazine article Communication World

How Issues Management Turned the Tide: A Case Study for Action and Results

Article excerpt

In the past, the term "issues management" often meant a cumbersome process with fuzzy results. But today, the need to actively implement and get value from an organized system of issues and knowledge management is critical to achieving success in the business battleground.

In my recent years as an internal strategic planning consultant, I served on a team of change catalysts at the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Salt River Project (SRP), a water and electricity supplier. We launched a results-oriented approach to issues management.

SRP has come a long way from a decade ago, when the company's efforts to identify and manage major issues were scattered and turf-driven. A few executives informally controlled and communicated the company's key, big-picture issues with certain constituencies, while other departments focused on a number of micro issues. Although strategic issues were on the horizon, we were missing opportunities to leverage all of our company's knowledge sources and potential ambassadors for communication.

How did SRP transition from turf-driven to team-based issues management? Here are some lessons we learned in getting a corporate grip on strategic industry and company issues that drive business results:

Lesson No. 1:

The business case and desired outcomes for issues management must be clearly understood and supported by senior management.

Several years ago, an issues management program was launched. Although an admirable effort, it was cumbersome and process-driven. The effort failed to continue gaining senior management's support, after it was launched with a group of mid-level managers, because of the following reasons:

The effort lacked clear and explicit business results. No "burning platform" reason was positioned to incite support for dissecting painful and highly political issues. (In working with a number of companies, I've found that even when a clear business case is built, if issues are highly sensitive, often the business case must be restated and re-sold to the senior-most level of management - to prevent the issues management effort from being shut down. If your company's issues management effort faces roadblocks, return to "square one." Reaffirm the business case. If needed, return to your key decision makers with a best alternative plan.)

A decade ago, the utility industry culture served as a barrier to sharing issues-related information throughout a company. Utilities operated in a monopoly environment where no threat of aggressive competition existed.

The initial issues management effort was viewed as communication-controlled, rather than communication-enabled. This promoted silent opposition in other departments, which led to the effort's demise.

Lesson No. 2:

Competition and rapid change usually serve as a trigger for creating the demand, or "pull," for issues management.

Several major industry events served as a gigantic tidal wave for competition in the utility industry. For example:

The U.S. National Energy Policy Act of 1992 and other regulations introduced competition into the utility industry; dozens of mergers and acquisitions occurred in recent years, enabling a host of huge utilities to compete on the basis of size and scope; and hundreds of non-utility players have entered the utility industry, offering new technology, cheaper prices and new services.

Because of the rapid changes brought on by competition, senior management needed to examine - and develop positions for - issues threatening our ability to remain competitive. Suddenly, issues briefings were in great demand. …

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