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Transformation is Getting Harder: Improved Communication Is Critical

By Andrew Goldberg and Tim Orr, Metropolis Group 360 and Senior Strategists


The struggle for large business transformation is increasingly relentless, and the impact of increasing stakeholder demands in areas such as DEI has compounded the challenge. Yet, anywhere from 60 to 80% of change programs are not fully implemented. These low success rates may partially account, for the high casualty rate of large companies since the late 20th Century. Of the companies listed on the Fortune 500 list and the FTSE 100, over half have disappeared. By some estimates, average company lifespans have declined from 60 to 17 years.


Successful adaptation requires that top management summon a wide range of strategies and skills to rally employees at all levels to embrace and promote changes that produce improved business outcomes. In this effort, we see a company’s communications and communicators as critical. Yet heads of communications, we believe, could play a more enhanced, leading role in change strategy and its implementation. As a start, top management and communicators should revisit three areas of communications that offer opportunities to positively impact the adaptive process.



Communications, Inclusion, and Influence Networks


Employees at large firms consistently report high levels of disengagement from the purposes and values of top management. Given that CEOs and business leaders have been committing to more open and inclusive communication around change for decades, one might ask why employees feel as they do.


One reason is that communications surrounding most change programs are still executed in a top-down manner. Moreover, communicating with large numbers of people is often inefficient, confronting many informal barriers.


Research from multiple disciplines that examine how influence and persuasion actually work in organizations, sheds light on a better way to use communications. In any organization, given particular tasks, a relatively small number of individuals are perceived by their peers as influential, in the sense that they are relied upon for advice, knowledge, support, and inspiration. A small number of influencers, therefore, have a disproportionate impact on shaping the perceptions and behavior of the wider organization. Communicating directly with these influencers, as partners in communicating the company’s values, purpose, and strategy is a system that can be leveraged by the communications function.


In the social media era, communications professionals have become particularly proficient at identifying and communicating with customers and other outside influencers. This is an expertise that can be applied to organizational influence networks by using more advanced, better-targeted research.


The outcome of communicating with and engaging influencers is not only knowing whom to speak with. It also provides a more effective means for management to obtain valuable information and guidance from key individuals throughout the firm that they would normally not receive. It gives their employees a more immediate sense of inclusion and influence over the firm’s purpose, values, strategy, and work processes. This leads to greater trust, consensus, a sense of empowerment, and support.


Narrative, Values, and Emotion


It’s become well-understood that individuals are often moved by the content and style of narratives. Whether overt or implicit, humans are story-telling and sharing creatures. Narratives are most impactful when they have a high emotional resonance. This understanding is reflected in contemporary marketing, politics, and entertainment.


The same narrative influence can impact individuals and groups within organizations. The problem is that most business communications of purpose and values tend to focus solely on pragmatic, unemotional principles, objectives, and methods–the language of rational action. Words like agility, transformation, inclusion, and innovation are simply placeholders for complex rational concepts that don’t inherently motivate behavior.


When employees are surveyed on values, they tend to use more emotive language, reflecting their personal uncertainties. Am I respected? Am I included? Am I valued for my ideas as an individual and as part of a team? These are difficult questions not only to answer in rational terms. They are also difficult for many companies to act on, given the hierarchical, top-down process of interaction typical of so many business models.


Communicators have a professional understanding of the emotional power of narrative. Their expertise in this area can shape strategy and messages that enable managers to better convert rational values into emotive messages and symbols. Communicators can be a force for improving the alignment between management’s business purpose and employee perceptions and concerns. They can also enable managers, in their direct interactions with employees, to communicate more empathically and with greater impact.



Management Engagement and Performance


Communications only leads to improved results when management behavior reflects the values and messages they intend to convey. The bigger the organization, the more difficult it is to deliver on this task.


Creating mechanisms for direct dialogue with relevant employee influencers, as we discuss above, is one way to make this process more efficient.


Another element is to motivate management behavior by linking their success to improved communication and changed behavioral outcomes.


James Ryan, the CEO of Mercedes-Benz Financial Services Canada, offers a novel approach to creating better organizational change outcomes—by introducing new KPIs to evaluate successful management. He proposes four types of KPIs–Return on Engagement, Return on Involvement, Return on Trust, and Return on Values. This type of approach offers a quantitative framework for what are often considered “soft”, qualitative factors. It is a starting point for measuring change that affords common ground among operational managers, CFOs, HR, and Communications executives.


Transformation is a ceaseless and difficult process in our digitally charged, dynamic, and unstable social and business environment. Only total mobilization of a company’s organizational resources, particularly communications, can sustain competitiveness. Communications–smart, targeted, and empowering–are essential ingredients.




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