Communication Strategies for Successful Organizational Change

By Klein, Stuart M. | Industrial Management, January/February 1994 | Go to article overview

Communication Strategies for Successful Organizational Change

Klein, Stuart M., Industrial Management

We usually take for granted that those who are involved with organizational change will communicate with those who are not but who otherwise might be affected by the change. If the commonly accepted guidelines of organizational development are adhered to, the involvement of those affected is useful, sometimes necessary, if the change is to be effective. To be involved is to know what is going on.

Since organizational changes ordinarily should be provisional, incremental and consequently non-inclusive at the beginning of the process most organizational participants are only vaguely aware that changes are taking place. The ambiguity surrounding these changes provides a fertile ground for rumors, anxiety, negative attitudes and ultimately resistance. This is true even though management may have communicated its intent through specifically designed messages.

The author' s experience some years ago as corporate manager of basic personnel research in a large multi-national company serves as an example of what we mean. The company was in the process of implementing a massive organizational change in eight of its manufacturing plants. Before the change, the plant employees operated under the assumption that they were to provide a "fair days work for a fair days pay," and that motto was repeated throughout each of the plants. A fair days work was based upon past performance levels called "past actuals." A fair days pay was determined by a percentage figure somewhat above the local prevailing wage for similar work job-for-job. The value of quality was widely accepted among manufacturing employees.

An industrial engineering fir was hired to study the production process. It was found that production was well below industrial norms. Management accepted the consultant's recommendation to institute a work measurement system using normative time and motion data as work standards.

The change was carefully planned. It began slowly and provisionally in areas of greatest probable success. All employees were informed through plant and company publications that a change was coming and the reasons for it. Plant management and supervision were informed directly through plant meetings. The departments covered by the new process were monitored using production records on the one hand and attitude survey data on the other. The data showed production rising and job satisfaction falling, the latter precipitously in some cases.

Some in management suggested that the reason for the decline in job attitudes was due to poor communications. They felt that if the employees had really known and understood the reasons for the new system then they would have approved of it. Those of us responsible for the attitude studies felt that other factors were more significant causes of the decline in attitudes.

The two most prominent factors were responsiveness of supervision to employee complaints about work standards and the degree to which employees felt that they had influence over how they did their job and at what pace. Accordingly, several relevant changes to the process were made. Data indicated that the negative impact was reduced among those covered by the new program and in some cases it was reversed. The issue of deficient communications as a major contributor to lower job satisfaction was put to rest, at least for awhile.

We are convinced now that a different communications strategy could have helped for precisely the reasons offered by management at the time. We say this because the attitude slide, although not as pronounced among employees not covered by the work measurement process as among those who were, was plant wide in every instance. Mast people did not fully comprehend the necessity of the change nor how it ultimately might affect them. Rumors, mostly negative, abounded despite the company's communication effort.

The received message was different from that which was intended. Instead of a well understood new process that was designed to reduce costs through increased productivity and more efficient production methods, what the operators saw were "college boys nosing around the joint" (a direct quote from one of our interview protocols) who then went back to offices set well apart from the factory floor, put together some numbers from a seemingly incomprehensible book full of statistics, and issued new production standards against which the operators were measured. …

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