When it comes to change management, organizations could use a boost.
According to a study by professional services firm Towers Watson, many organizations struggle when it comes to managing broad, sweeping changes, such as implementing a new HR system or adapting to a new technology. And much of the time, the study found, organizations fail in their change projects because they can’t keep them on schedule and on — or under — budget.
Of the roughly 600 organizations surveyed by Towers Watson, only 44 percent reported they had been able to stay on schedule in their change initiatives; 47 percent said they were able to hold team members accountable on project deadlines; and 48 percent said they stayed under budget.
Given the abundance of disruptive technologies continuing to rock the fabric of how organizations operate — and the development role of the learning leader — such news should be viewed as an opportunity for CLOs, said Holly Miller, a senior consultant with Towers Watson and one of the authors of the study, “The Truths About Change: What It Takes to Get It Right.”
Learning professionals can leverage their development position to inject leaders with the competencies needed to manage change projects.
Miller said, “At the beginning of a change initiative [we ask], ‘What is it going to take to get employees ready for these changes?’ And nine out of 10 of our clients are going to say we need to have some learning activities.”
The Towers Watson study identifies six areas, or skills, that every organizations needs to get change management right — leading, communicating, learning, measuring, involving and sustaining — and Miller said organizational learning is at the heart of many of these areas.
In fact, five out of the six, it could be argued, link directly to the core responsibilities and capabilities of an organization’s top learning professional, said Doug Upchurch, strategic consultant to the executive at Insights, a leadership development consultancy.
Upchurch said when it comes to change management initiatives, the CLO is like “the grease to the whole process” — the leader who is absolutely vital in making the initiative run smoothly.
“Learning’s role, in my mind, is to help organizations as change agents and sponsors [to] think about not only the process and structure [of a change management project], but also about the human component,” Upchurch said.
But more often than not, he said, organizations are reacting to change instead of anticipating it, and learning is typically pulled in on the back end. “In the rare case where [the change initiative] may be an HR system, learning may be involved,” Upchurch said. But “in most cases, we’re still seeing that being an afterthought.”
Training leaders on change management could use some refreshing, according to the Towers Watson study. While 82 percent of organizations reported training their managers in the area, just 36 percent said it was effective.
Upchurch said CLOs should aim to embed change management skills in the course of a normal leadership development program. That way, when change initiatives do come up, leaders are prepared to act without having to drop everything and take on new training.
He recommended applying case-intensive learning around the subject in a leadership development curriculum, studying how successful organizations have dealt with major change initiatives, and evaluating the skills and behaviors those leaders had that translated to success. Then, find ways to create experiential learning opportunities — whether they are simulated in a classroom or on-the-job assignments — for leaders that permeate down through the organizational ladder to lower-level employees.
Above all, Miller said, communication needs to be prevalent throughout any change initiative. Smooth communication aligns the organization from top to bottom. Without it, learning’s impact on change is heavily diminished.
Upchurch said, “When you think about the strategy for learning and development, the CLO’s job is going to be to make sure we’re helping leaders see where their strengths are and then helping create the skills and development opportunities to grow those leaders to where they need to be to manage the change.”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.