Exploring the Role of Communication in Change Management

communication-in-change-management

Ours is a very fluid discipline and its strength is in the ability to adapt and serve the most urgent needs of an organization. It is, therefore, not a surprise that every existing model in the MBA armamentarium discusses the essential role of communication in change management. Every book on change management has a chapter dedicated to communication. Every sound change management strategy includes supporting communication activities.

Communication is versatile and can yield great benefits at all stages of the change process.

This seems like a reason to celebrate. Corporate communication practitioners have been longing for this strategic recognition for years, if not decades, and finally here we are.

And yet, something doesn’t add up in this equation. At least, I don’t experience communication to be a separate part of a sum called “change”. Communication is a process, as is change. These processes must be aligned, as one doesn’t happen without the other.

Communication fuels the organization’s ambition to climb a steep hill of change and it preempts danger when the organization is about to take a sharp corner. Communication is versatile and it can yield great benefits at all stages of the change process.

In this post I am going to explore the role of communication in change management – from tactics to strategy and from being active to being proactive.

The supporting role of communication in change management

The organization is going through a change programme and communication facilitates change by providing a comprehensive support system to all those involved in the process. This function of communication is vital to the life of any organization and today it is also best rehearsed. There are multiple models that define the role of communication in change management and the extent of its contribution within each individual programme.

Models differ in the amount of detail, but many of them are built upon Kurt Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze paradigm, in which change can only be implemented and then maintained if the environment is responsive to it.

According to these models, it would thus be the job of communicators to take on the leadership’s strategic vision and

  • convince the stakeholders that change is necessary and beneficial
  • translate the leadership’s vision into specific messages, tailored to the needs of the stakeholders and communicated through appropriate channels
  • motivate and empower all participants to adopt the behaviour which would successfully transition the organization
  • provide mechanisms for broadband leadership-stakeholder communication
  • provide long-term support for the change programme, by generating measurement and evaluation insights and communicating milestone successes to the stakeholders.

This approach, in its multiple variations, brings very tangible benefits. Y. Yates & S. Vallas, quoting the Change and Communication ROI Study in their article “The Character of Communication” say that organizations that are highly effective at both communication and change management are more than twice as likely to outperform those that are not effective at either.

It would be too optimistic to say that the supportive function of communication in change management is successfully executed in the majority of change programmes – change is risky, unpredictable and cannot be jammed into a simple template. On the positive side, we do have the recognition, many tools, years of accumulative experience and a whole library of best practices to rely on and this significantly increases our chance to succeed.

Communicating to change

There is a lot of chatter in the communication ether these days with many saying that the role of communication in change management holds much more potential than described above. Various LinkedIn groups regularly raise the issue, pointing to the fact that communicators are strategically placed to resolve various organizational problems and inspire change.

This potential is best realized when the organization’s leadership acknowledges the need for change but lacks insights into the root of the problem. Here, communicators come to rescue with their research, insights and situation analysis – they break down the vision of the leadership into specific objectives, talk to the people on the floor (or any other relevant stakeholder group) and identify that elusive gap. This gap can be anything that prevents the vision from being translated into practice – from misinterpretation, conflicting messaging to the lack of support mechanism.

Jim Shaffer, IABC Fellow and author of Leadership Solution calls this process “communication to change”. In his article “Taking the Wheel” for the April-May 2011 issue of Communication World he argues that “managing communication to change is a proactive approach, as it correctly assumes that communication breakdowns cause people to do things that hurt performance.” He then goes on to describe a relatively traditional mix of communication tactics which enable communicators to deal with the gap and implement the change.

Communicating about change vs. communicating to change – what’s the difference? It is subtle but important. In the first case we broadcast the leadership’s vision of change and make it relevant/applicable for everybody and everything. In the second case we help to shape this vision by treating communication as an inseparable element of all processes within an organization, regardless of its core business.

Advocating change

I wonder if we can take this discussion even further. Communication practitioners, if wholeheartedly involved in the life of the organization, are in the unique position to identify and bring attention to organizational bottlenecks. Often involved at an interdepartmental level, we are usually the first to spot inconsistencies in the way organizational strategy is translated and practiced internally as well as perceived from the outside. In an ideal situation, one that is highly conducive to proactive behaviour, communicators could be excellent advocates for change.

Would this be the ultimate marriage of communication and business strategy: communicators with their audits, research and analyses gathering intelligence and shedding light on issues where change is due? Perhaps this picture is slightly utopic, but not entirely unrealistic.

I can already see elements of this in my work, and I can imagine that I am not the only one thinking and acting along these lines.

Zhenya StarkovaExploring the Role of Communication in Change Management

2 Comments on “Exploring the Role of Communication in Change Management”

  1. Rafael Marin

    Hello Zhenya. Thanks for sharing this article full of insights on the strategic role of communication within corporations. As you say, communication has been gaining ground from being a tactic tool of the organization, to become a strategic business partner, helping it to achieve its business goals and supporting the top leadership with key communication topics. As both a communication / change management professional, I totally agree with the importance of communication within the change management effort. I do also think that the communicator’s role during change is to help each stakeholder to realize their own roles and responsibilities during change, offering them support and empowering them to fulfill these roles and thus bring about the change in the organization.

  2. Zhenya Starkova

    Rafael – thanks for your comment! Yours is an excellent addition to my line of thought. Indeed, I have also experienced that whenever roles, responsibilities and tools for a change programme are in place you can start reaping the benefits almost immediately. This is a very applied concept and has a fantastic ROI (which always comes in handy in a conversation with the leadership).

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