Any senior executive knows the prospects of succeeding at a major change initiative are questionable at best. The research about the difficulty of successful change varies only to the extent of its bleakness.
Surveying the literature, you can find failure rates estimated anywhere from 50 percent to
85 percent. In other words, the chances of successfully managing a major transformational change initiative are worse than playing against the house odds in Las Vegas.
Does it have to be this way? Not if you understand the deeper reasons why change programs so often fail — and the contribution learning executives can make to improve those success rates.
The unfortunate secret at the heart of most organizational change management initiatives is that, at least in practice, such programs still owe too much to an approach to management science that is almost 100 years old. Rooted in analyses of how to improve productivity among manual laborers, it is manipulative and, at times, even undignified.
Today, the top-down tactics managers too often engage in to get their people to perform in new ways and improve productivity in response to strategic and marketplace change must be replaced by bottom-up programs that tap into knowledge workers’ enormous intellectual energy and creativity.
And no one is better placed and prepared to be the catalyst for this new approach to effective change than learning executives and the enterprise learning function. It’s time for learning leaders to step up.
A Short History Lesson
Frederick Taylor is sometimes credited with inventing management science for the industrial age. His classic 1911 treatise, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” laid the foundation for the modern assembly line, reinventing the way people worked toward a common goal and contributing to a 50-fold increase in manufacturing productivity in the 20th century.
To a modern reader, however, the condescension and smugness in Taylor’s attitude toward “Schmidt,” the laborer hauling pig iron for Bethlehem Steel and the object of Taylor’s “scientific” approach (we would call it “process re-engineering” today) are distressing, to say the least.
From the characterization of Schmidt (“mentally sluggish”) to the mockery of his immigrant accent (“Vell, I don’t know vat you mean”), the message is clear: The management gods know, through their scientific analysis, what the people are to do. The people’s job is simply to do it.
The improvement in Schmidt’s iron-hauling productivity based on Taylor’s re-engineering of his work processes was impressive, to be sure: from 12.5 tons hauled per day to 47.5 tons per day (and an increase in his daily wages from $1.15 to $1.85). But the manipulative tactics to make that productivity improvement happen, and the presumption that the worker was a little less than fully human, leave something to be desired for the 21st-century manager.
Today’s change management approaches never would dare to speak overtly of a worker as Taylor did. But one important aspect of the underlying attitude is much the same: Management knows what to do and so must set about “inducing” people to do it (or getting them to “own the change” as some now phrase it) while also, as Taylor says, “making them glad to do it.”
Such an underlying attitude is what makes it possible for change experts to talk without apparent irony about communicating a “shared sense of purpose,” for example, when in fact it is management’s vision and sense
of purpose that it now wants employees
A New Model for Involving Knowledge Workers in Organizational Change
Consider a new model for managing organizational change, one that presumes:
1. The world and marketplace are so complex, no single management team can ever have all the right answers.
2. Ingenuity, experience and innovation reside in the people of a company more than in the boardroom alone (because they have most of the recent front-line experience).
3. Workers are more prone to support a change program that they have helped to shape.
Such a model would proceed, not by presenting employees with a “fait accompli” direction and then “inducing” them to perform in accordance with it. Instead, it would actively involve people in the vibrancy of discovery and dialogue.
And although it could not possibly take into account every opinion and every nuance of employee sentiment and thought, it would still give employees in general a message loud and clear: Your brains are the intellectual capital of our company. Your input into the future direction of our company matters.
Impossible? Consider some recent work directed by David Vachell, head of learning strategy and policy for BT Global Services (BTGS), a division of the global communications services company. When Vachell came onboard, immediately he was asked to help BTGS’s sales and customer service employees adapt to a new selling environment centered on value-based sales and solution selling rather than the sales of individual products and services.
Vachell took what he describes as a “collaborative network” or “social learning” approach to this goal.
“We began by bringing together quite large groups of people (40 to 50 people at a time) for an intensive workshop,” he said. “A great deal of our time was spent discussing what good sales practice would be. The most important part of the workshop was the dialogue of the people with each other. In effect, they worked out for themselves what the new performance environment and learning curriculum might look like.”
That initial work was then followed by a three-month period during which diverse groups worked on projects specific to their particular performance environments. These were action learning projects (or, as Vachell describes them, “real-life work projects”) that were then informed and refined by interaction with colleagues and a senior facilitator or coach. At the end of that period, each of the teams came back and presented to colleagues the outcomes of the projects on which it was working.
“In effect, we were asking them to simultaneously develop the business and develop themselves,” Vachell said. “They used the change ideas coming out of the initial workshop, as well as the subsequent dialogue with their peers, to create programs that had an immediate impact on how BTGS went about enabling its sales and service employees.”
How successful was the program?
“I went to every closing event for this program,” Vachell said. “Many of the participants, including some very experienced people, came up to me and said this had been a transformational program for them because they actually had become a different person in the process. They said this approach had taken them far, far beyond a tactical approach to improving their sales methodology — they had actually had reason to look at themselves differently.”
The evidence of success is more than anecdotal, however. Vachell and the management team have run numbers that show the program’s return on investment exceeds 500 percent.
For Vachell, the success of the initiative was founded on several distinctive characteristics: the learning program was peer-driven, guided — but not stifled by — management and based on a facilitative and dialogic mindset rather than a didactic approach.
Fighting the “Rubber Band” Effect of Change
Organizations also must beware of the “rubber band” phenomenon within the traditional approach to leveraging learning as part of managing change. Vachell describes this approach as one in which the learning and development organization comes along “only in a supporting role to train people in how to use new processes or how to talk to people differently rather than being a proactive partner in identifying innovations or strategic targets.”
David Smith, Accenture global lead for talent management, goes so far as to describe companies applying that approach as “laggards” in terms of their ability to apply advanced workforce performance principles to drive improved business performance.
For nearly a decade, Accenture’s High-Performance Workforce Study has tracked the trends of industry leaders versus laggards when it comes to workforce management in the pursuit of better business performance.
“According to our research and experience, companies that are not staying ahead of the curve are simply going out and building programs to support a major strategic or organizational change,” Smith said.
He also said the problem with that approach arises when the company’s learning fundamentals are missing.
“By the time the company has ramped up, planned and staffed a project and then designed and rolled out the right training programs, the company has moved on to the next change” Smith said. “So, companies are always playing catch-up.”
Worse still, in a kind of rubber band effect, the lagging learning program brings up the rear, actually impeding the organization’s ability to rise to the challenge of the next wave of change. Because it represents a considerable investment, companies are likely to implement a learning program, no matter whether it’s still relevant.
For the workforce performance leaders, on the other hand, enterprise learning is fully integrated into the strategy and is helping drive the change.
That approach can be seen in a current initiative at Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, where Linda McKula, head of the professional education and knowledge management groups, has been tapped to lead a new internal organization, Practice Enablement, as part of a major technology and business change program.
The change program associated with establishing the new organization is wide-ranging in that it intends to transform how Diamond’s global consultants work, from back-office administrative support to client-facing work including information access and knowledge sharing. The broader change program covers “soft” areas such as work-life balance, as well as “harder” areas such as performing time and expense reporting. Ultimately, the initiative will put in place the technological and process foundations to help Diamond’s people collaborate more effectively and work more efficiently to serve clients.
McKula said she sees this initiative as something that can counteract the problems of “lagging” training initiatives.
“Many of the technology-based tools available to improve the performance and productivity of knowledge workers end up not satisfying their needs, but not because there is anything wrong with the tools themselves,” she said. “What happens is that proper learning does not take place at the right time to enable people to take advantage of all the relevant functions and features. After a period of time, you miss the window of opportunity. The tool is what it is, and the process is what it is, and it’s really hard to change it. So, we see this as a chance to start fresh and to enable people upfront to perform in new ways rather than having such enablement bring up the rear.”
An important ingredient to success has been the planning and commitment of the senior executive team that had the insight to frame the project correctly and put the right leaders in charge.
“Certainly no one had to include me in a project like this,” McKula said. “But our executive leadership saw the challenge ahead and properly characterized it as a change project, not just a technology project. Ultimately, programs such as this do not fail because the technology or the processes designed are bad — they fail because people don’t embrace them, don’t learn them or don’t understand them. We’re working proactively to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Significantly, that proactive work has involved a healthy dose of working from the bottom up. McKula’s team began by conducting hundreds of interviews with Diamond employees across all levels and geographies to identity their primary pain points (obstacles to their ideal performance environment when working in the field). Those interviews then informed the specific programs subsequently designed to better enable the practice.
A logical question to ask is, “If learning and change must be integrated and executed simultaneously, what is the extent to which change management needs to be an internal capability rather than something leased on an ad hoc basis?”
If organizations must rely on primarily external change experts brought in to support a specific need, in effect, they have put themselves in precisely that lagging or rubber band position they are trying to avoid. What companies need instead is an ongoing capability that sustains continuous change, in part by continuously tapping into people’s experience and knowledge.
Traditional training mostly has been a one-way phenomenon — management declared a need or a new strategic direction, a central group created a course that was then delivered to employees along with “inducement” to change.
Today, organizations must get the flow of intellectual energy going the opposite direction too. Latent value resides all the time in employees’ individual and collaborative minds, so companies need to create an ongoing knowledge refinery that can transform this resource into additional value.
An internal change capability that delivers learning to employees and simultaneously receives learning from employees essentially creates a culture more adaptive to continuous change and more responsive to what could be called “crisis change.”
In the face of competitive or economic threat, especially diminished returns to shareholders, senior leadership often withdraws, issuing proclamations and orders from inside the bunker. Yet, it is precisely at those moments when the ability to tap into employees’ expertise is most needed — it would be extremely odd if the answers to a crisis could be found only outside the organization. In a crisis, companies need fewer “deciders” and more “listeners.”
Knowledge Workers, Productivity and Corporate Change
Corporations are not participatory democracies, of course. Tapping into the innovation and experience of the workforce does not mean “consensus decision making,” nor does it mean a strategic plan has to reflect some combination of every employee’s input.
It does mean no CEO should express surprise at a failed change program that did not include a healthy portion of listening to the workforce’s ideas. Knowledge workers’ productivity cannot improve and be sustained by merely imposing management’s vision for the future on them.
Rather, almost by definition, knowledge workers ought to participate in the reshaping of the corporate agenda.
Today’s knowledge workers are tasked with hauling around information, not pig iron. Employees are working directly with the potential value of the company: its knowledge, innovation and expertise. If organizations are to successfully weather a change, or even induce that change in their industries, they need to be able to tap into the intellectual capital residing at all times in their people.
Unfortunately, few organizations have in place the structures, processes and technologies that enable them to get that value very easily. It is the learning organization, above all — especially one in which learning and knowledge management already have been integrated — that stands in a superior position to support the kind of innovation mining needed to win in a competitive marketplace.
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