Taking the Wheel: Traditionally, Communication Professionals Have Been Asked to Communicate about Change. but They Can Communicate to Change as Well

By Shaffer, Jim | Communication World, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Taking the Wheel: Traditionally, Communication Professionals Have Been Asked to Communicate about Change. but They Can Communicate to Change as Well


Shaffer, Jim, Communication World


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As the head of internal communication, Shawna Todd helped improve Honeywell's billing cycle by 10 days and eliminate more than 1 million steps in various processes throughout the company.

At FedEx Express, Terry Simpson, manager of internal communication, led a large change process that generated a 23 percent increase in U.S. exports and a 1,400 percent return on investment.

And Heather Sandoe, communication manager at ITT Corp.'s Lancaster, Pennsylvania, operation, played a key role in an effort to reduce scrap and rework. These are just three examples of communication professionals on the front lines of change leadership in their organizations--not just delivering information about changes that are taking place. This type of broad-scale change management is not a functional or discipline-specific activity. It almost always requires knowledge and skills that cross organizational boundaries in order to get better results.

Executed well, change management is a systematic approach to transitioning people, teams and organizations from where they are now to where they need to be to succeed. It includes tools, techniques, processes and theories, most of which are time-tested. Some change management initiatives focus on the technical aspects of an organization--measures, formulas and strict standards. Others address the cultural aspects, focusing on driving change in leadership, communication and learning processes. Although the technical and cultural approaches are equally important, in my experience, an integrated technical-cultural approach is critical if improvements are to be sustainable over time.

The role of communication

The traditional role of the communication practitioner has been to communicate about change. The new role, however, is to communicate about change and to communicate to change.

Communicating about change focuses on explaining why the organization needs to change, what's been done or is being done to change, and what people need to do to help make the effort a success. It's a reactive approach to communication management.

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Managing communication to change is a proactive approach: It correctly assumes that communication breakdowns cause people to do things that hurt performance. Quite simply, the objective is to find and eliminate the communication breakdowns so that performance improves.

Here's an example of communicating to change:

When Anna Roach headed internal communication for The Earthgrains Co., a St. Louis, Missouri-based baking conglomerate, she helped manage a change process in a newly acquired baking facility. Working directly with the plant manager, she and I targeted an industry measurement known as overuse, which is defined as the percentage of the total cost of materials and ingredients that are wasted in the production of fresh bread. (In your kitchen, this might be the flour that falls out of the bowl onto the floor.) At an initial team meeting, the bakery manager shared information about overuse and its annual cost with representatives from the bakery's bread lines. After mapping the production process, it was clear that the overuse was caused by at least four communication breakdowns:

* Lack of information about the nature and size of the problem

* Lack of clarity about how bread should be made

* Lack of opportunities to get involved in identifying root causes and potential solutions

* No "what's in it for me" when problems are solved

These fundamental communication defects were causing overuse and high costs. A simple root-cause analysis led to solutions that the team agreed to implement. In just a few weeks, the bread line employees had reduced overuse by nearly 20 percent.

By managing communication to change, the size of the problem was reduced.

A primary reason that communication practitioners are adding the "communicate to change" role to their portfolio is the pressure that's coming from business leaders who insist that every person and every function increase the measurable value they add to the organization. …

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