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Managing change is part and parcel of the modern CEO’s position. As Richard Corbridge told CIO.co.uk when he was CIO for the Health Service Executive in Ireland, “Change is what we do; indeed, I wonder if the whole debate about my CIO title could be reopened as Change and Information Officer.” Yet, while the CIO’s role as a technology evangelist often makes them a natural transformation champion, managing change often requires a different approach, not so much leading from the front as gently shepherding change along. While its possible to impose new technologies and structures on a workforce, this doesn’t always make change stick. Sometimes driving change forward has to take backseat to enabling and encouraging.

First, what do we mean when we say Change Management? Think of it as a methodology for handling the transformation of an organisation’s processes, technologies and goals which focuses on supporting those within the organisation. In a 2019 article for CIO.com, columnist Bart Perkins notes that it “reduces the risk that a new system or other change will be rejected by the enterprise” and “increases the teamwork required for the enterprise to accept the change and operate more efficiently”.

This involves working on three levels. Firstly, at the individual level workers need to move through the kind of process delineated by the much-used Prosci ADKAR framework, going from Awareness of the need for change to Desire to support the change, and from there to Knowledge of how to change, Ability to demonstrate new skills and behaviours before, finally, Reinforcement. This structured approach has been proven to help individuals make sense of change, while helping CIOs measure progress and remediate potential headaches.

Beyond this, CIOs need to work at the organisational level, defining the tools and steps the project team needs to employ. This has its own 3-phase Prosci framework, which sees the organisation first prepare for change, then manage the change and, once it’s in place, reinforce it. Finally, at the enterprise level, CIOs can focus on the overall approach to change management and how its implemented within practices and processes.

Managing change is never easy, and even the most inspiring CIO might find that leadership skills – let alone technical skills – are not enough. Moving individuals and teams through the phases of the ADKAR framework (or any similar framework) can sometimes requires a lighter touch.

This can start with building a culture around change, with clear principles in place and communication throughout the organisation. Talking about his experiences with the HSE in Ireland, Richard Corbridge talks of “a new heightened communications principle” where the team worked to “maintain clarity of the purpose for change and be sure to not enable problems not associated with the change to become attached.” To do this, Corbridge and his team adopted a policy of ‘radical transparency’ where they tried to be as clear as possible about why change was necessary, what it would involve and why it would be worth it. In Corbridge’s words, “we know we need to finish the journey we have started with all of our staff and our stakeholders.”

Change management through culture and expertise

Structure also has a part to play. Corbridge talks of having the right organisational design principles in place, shaped by expert advice at all stages of the process, and the importance of avoiding a structure that focused on geography and instead adopting one where all roles could be located anywhere. This reflects Corbridge’s belief, based on his initial failures, that form should follow function when it comes to company structure, and not vice-versa.

The other crucial step a CIO can take is to build and maintain a network of ‘change agents’ through the organisation; something Red Hat CIO Mike Kelly talks about in a recent article, ‘Change management: Why CIOs should sometimes lead from behind.’ In the article, Kelly argues that while the CIO should sets the stage for change and introduce it, change takes better when others outside IT stand up and drive it forwards. For this Kelly recommends recruiting sympathetic agents across other areas of the business, so that they can support change within their own departments. This way IT becomes the enabler for change coming from within those teams, rather than an outside force trying to impose it.