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For most IT departments, the only thing that's permanent is change. Whether IT is implementing new spending policies, adopting new technologies, or assimilating new infrastructure as part of a merger or acquisition, much of the work involves embracing new ways of operating. Since change is an inherent part of the job function, every CIO should bone up on change management techniques.

The first thing change management experts will tell you is that there are three kinds of change an organisation might undergo:

  • Developmental change, which is a sort of fine tuning of existing ways of doing things. People might improve skills through training, better technology may accelerate existing business processes, or new hires may move into existing roles. In each of these cases, the difference is incremental.
  • Transitional change, which involves moving from one way of doing things to another. This kind of evolution is frequently implemented through a series of steps. During the intermediate steps, the organisation is neither what it was before, nor what it intends to become.
  • Transformational change, which is the most radical kind of shift, as it involves taking on a new set of beliefs and values. What's more, the desired state is usually unknown until it begins to take shape. This is the kind of change eastern Germany underwent when the Berlin Wall fell.

Let's put transformational change aside and focus on the kinds of developmental or transitional changes many IT departments will face in 2014. Here are six of the most likely ones listed in order of increasing magnitude:

  1. Modifications to processes: In any given year, organisations may change any of a number of business process, including things like supplier management, purchasing, or hiring. IT is just one of many departments affected by such changes.
  2. Reduction in costs: When the business pressures IT to spend less and produce more, the staff sometimes has to make personal sacrifices. At the very least, job satisfaction is threatened at all levels.
  3. Swapping one preferred vendor for another: If you swap Windows out and Android in, staff members skilled in the tools of the old brand suddenly have to learn the toolset offered by the new brand. One of their biggest concerns is what the change in skill sets does for them on the job market.
  4. Adoption of new technology: Many organisations will take on new technology such as tablet computing, or video conferencing in 2014. IT staff has to be trained to help the rest of the business make the change.
  5. Offloading services to the cloud: IT is under increasing pressure to move processing to the cloud. But moving work out of IT means staff members have to be put onto something else or made redundant.
  6. Taking on new infrastructure as the result of a merger or acquisition: When two companies merge, or when one buys the other, IT infrastructure has to be consolidated and decisions have to be made about what to keep. Almost everybody in IT is affected.

The role of communication in change management

While some of these changes are imposed from outside, the IT director needs to be the one to lead his or her organisation from where they are now to where they need to be. A key success factor is the degree to which the team understands the vision and the reasons behind the vision. To ensure a smooth transition it's best to have the staff do more than just understand. They should integrate the change as if they had initiated it themselves.

The first thing to do is identify the stakeholders. Employees, internal customers, and key suppliers are three that immediately come to mind. Make sure you communicate the vision to each of the stakeholders, and try to get their buy in.

Remember that you can count on people to act selfishly. The first thing anybody is going the think about is what the change does for him or her. If you can present your vision in terms of what's in it for each stakeholder, you have a good chance of success.

When you talk to your staff, make a convincing case that the change will improve their marketability. When you talk to your internal customers, make a convincing case that the change will make them look better in the eyes of their own customers and supervisors. When you talk to your suppliers, help them understand what the change means to their business. You may not have good news for all suppliers, but by giving them clear signals about your direction, you help them manage their business, and they may return the favour somewhere down the line.

Make sure everybody understands the problems that brought on the need for change. Unless people start out with a common view of the problems, you'll have trouble getting them on board for the solution.

Make sure everybody understands your vision of the outcome. Elaborate on that vision and explain what it looks like from different angles. How will it look from the customer's point of view? How will it look from the point of view of management? How will it look  from the point of view of staff?

In communicating the vision, make sure you provide a compelling reason to change. Tell people what happens if you don't change. Create a sense of urgency. Tell people when you need to change and what happens if you don't change on time. Remember that you need to win intellectual support, but you also need to win emotional support.

Once people understand the problem and the desired outcome, you need to lay out the plan for getting from here to there. Identify the key steps and provide timelines and milestones.

Communication doesn't stop there. During the change process you have to keep people informed. Be honest and open. Choose your communication tools and channels carefully and use them consistently. Some of the tools commonly used to communicate during change management are email, blogs, video conferences, conference calls, presentations, videos, focus groups, social events, and good old fashioned one-on-one conversations.

Whenever you meet a milestone, let everybody know. When you reach the desired outcome, make that clear and congratulate the team.

Common causes of failure in change management

Unfortunately, some organisations never reach the desired outcome. Anytime you undergo a change there's a risk of failure.

Failure takes on many forms. It may result in the need to reverse the change and go back to the old way of doing things. This was the case with Avon, who recently pulled the plug on a multi year, multi million dollar project to overall their order management system and equip their sales reps with tablet computers and apps to access order management. The problem was, the new system was clunky and involved changes to sales processes. The reps simply refused to use it. Had Avon sales reps been included in the early stages of the change process, maybe this disaster could have been avoided.

Failure may result in even bigger flops. It may go so far as to destroy the company. Look at what happened to Digital Equipment Corporation, the leading provider of mini-computers in the 70's and 80's who failed to manage the change towards manufacturing and selling smaller computers. DEC was a company of 130,000 people. By the time they were bought by Compaq, the leading vendor of personal computers, DEC was down to under 55,000 employees. DEC's organisational structures were so set, it was impossible to implement the changes required to meet evolving market demands.

Some of the common causes of failure are:

  1. Discordance between what top management says about values and their behaviour.
  2. Lack of involvement of key stakeholders.
  3. Unclear goals, or goals that aren't understood by everybody in the organisation.
  4. Unclear distinctions between the means for making a change, and the desired outcome of the change process.
  5. An unrealistic timeframe for completing the transition.
  6. An attempt to impose new ways of thinking on old organisational structures.

The role of leadership in change management

Each of these factors may cause failure, but leadership is the factor that makes the biggest difference between success or failure in change management. The most successful change agents lead by example. People follow the actions of leaders more than they follow leaders' words.

An excellent example of change management is the way Microsoft turned on a dime to respond to the fast-evolving internet. In 1995, slightly behind on the internet, Bill Gates kicked off a monumental transitional change to the company in a nine-page memo to "Executive Staff and direct Reports". In the memo entitled "The Internet Tidal Wave", Gates described the context of Microsoft's success and how much that context was about to change because of exponential growth in internet adoption and the resulting exponential growth of content. He identified the opportunity and he predicted what would happen if Microsoft didn't position itself up to ride the new wave.

Bill Gates embodied the company culture, so in 1995 when he urged Microsoft to change, it was easy for managers to accept him as a change agent. In his lengthy memo, Gates explained his vision clearly, and provided supporting facts. Contrast the successful change of Microsoft in the 1990's with the disastrous change of HP led by Carly Fiorina at the turn of the century. A new CEO dressed in expensive designer suits and conducting herself like a movie star, Fiorina used sound bites to communicate her vision to a company of brilliant, but casually-dressed and socially-challenged engineers.

Staff may pay lip service to directions coming from the top, but unless they trust the leader and internalise the vision, change is never gonna' come.