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Communicating change in the work place of the nineties.

COMMUNICATING CHANGE in the work place of the nineties


But for US workers, as well as for workers in other countries, little attempt is made to communicate the full impact of economic change on their work lives. In my judgment, that failure on our part has led to a frightened and ill-informed work force waiting for the bad things to stop happening and for things to return to normal.

We need to find simple ways to communicate the hard realities of today's work place. Fragmented discussions won't do the trick. They leave employees confused and angry--confused about what the event means and angry that no one seems to be dealing with the company's problems.

Let's be bolder than that. Let's take a page from the historian's book and talk not merely of events but of the great forces that are now driving events. Those who write history have never been bashful about saying that there were three causes of Y, and here they are. Or that the war of blank was a logical consequence of these four events. Was it always that clear-cut? I doubt it. But such grouping and classifying permits a kind of understanding of everyday happenings, without which we conclude that life is only random and chaotic.

Competition Is Global

In today's global economy, there are four fundamental forces in collision. First, there is Competition on an unprecedented scale. For most businesses, it is global in nature and cut throat in character. Whereas for many years, we in North America pretty much had world markets to ourselves, we now have formidable world competitors who use the combination of higher quality and lower cost to chip away at what we believed was our "traditional" market share.

This first force has required us to either raise quality and cut our own costs or face losing market share to aggressive competitors. It is the driver of so much of today's corporate change.

Change in Corporate Policy

Change itself is the second of the four fundamental forces. It is a reaction to the new competitive realities and manifests itself in all kinds of initiatives inside the organization. We must change product and production technology to win competitive advantage. We must change management style to give workers decision-making authority and the opportunity to be heard. And we must change our organizational structures so that inefficiencies and bureaucratic procedures don't limit our ability to respond to customers.

Quality Is Vital

Indeed this need for change in technology, structure and style can be the rationale for all sorts of other initiatives such as Quality, Employee Improvement, Involvement and whatever the organization is undertaking to make itself more competitive. The classic mistake made by most companies is to paint such initiatives merely as "new programs" rather than as fundamental changes in direction forced by the competitive pressures of the marketplace. The point is that competition is forcing the changes, which are merely intelligent competitive responses to protect the company and the work force.

Commitment to Customer and Company

Again, the details are different from company to company, but the reality of Competition forcing serious and sometimes painful Change to protect market share is a powerful story for employees. It begins to give them the confidence that the leadership both sees and is dealing with the company's problems.

The third force is Commitment. Again, there's a rich and interesting story to be told to employees. There's the matter of the eroding and shifting of customer commitment to the company's products and services. There is the eroding and shifting commitment of the institutional investor, the individual company shareholder and what drives their behavior. And there is the fascinating question of what the employee is committed to--his or her support of company objectives, his or her expectations of the continuing relationship of the company and the work force on matters like job security, compensation, benefits and mutual responsibilities. And so the chain unfolds: Competition leads to Change; Change has a serious impact on everyone's Commitment and on the fortunes of both the organization and the employee.

The skillful communicator is able to weave the story for the company, showing the intricacies and subtleties introduced by intense global communication and by the change it forces in the company's technology, its structure, and even its style of doing business and managing people. Instead of disconnects and poorly understood management motives, the employee begins to see relationships to market forces and an overall strategy driven by response to customer needs. Even if the story is sometimes frightening, it has a compelling logic that tends to enlist employee understanding and support.

Performance Counts

The last of the four fundamental forces operating in today's marketplace is Performance. If competition makes the case for change and raises very important questions about commitment, it is Performance that is the desired end product. David Kearns, the CEO of Xerox Corporation, told his work force when they recently received the Baldridge Award for Quality, that they were in "a race without a finish line." It was his metaphor for the unending commitment the company needed in a marketplace characterized by constantly moving targets. The task is to raise company performance by winning employee, shareholder and, ultimately, customer commitment. The interesting question is how a company goes about winning such commitment. What kind of employer must it be? What kind of investment must it be? What kind of products must it deliver with what level of service? All of these questions become the subject of crucial discussion with employees who wish to have maximum control over their destinies.

Recently, I took part in a company meeting with a client in which the CEO told a group of insiders that he and the other executive committee members had sworn each other to secrecy about a top-level strategy study commissioned by the company. One vital outcome he would discuss was the leadership's decision that they had to cut company overhead to become more competitive in the marketplace. Almost the entire discussion focused on the fairness of cutting back this or that operation in the company with the usual charge that the corporate staff was non-essential, out-of-touch with the customer, and guilty of making stupid decisions that were costly for the field offices to implement. The consensus was that any cuts should be made first at headquarters and that the field offices should not be burdened with having to do more with less.

Much of the discussion was off the point. It missed the vital linkage between Competition, Change, Commitment and Performance. Instead it jumped to the simplistic view that the competitive problem is a result of unnecessary corporate overhead that drives up prices. The reality was that the marketplace had become increasingly competitive; that the competition was forcing important changes in product delivery and pricing. And that, in turn, these changes were raising serious issues among both employees and customers about their own level of commitment to the company and its products. The group's conclusion was that changes were indeed necessary but that it was "the other guys" who needed to change, not them.

Change is Everyone's Responsibility

This view that change is someone else's problem is perhaps one of the most formidable issues faced by companies who want to be competitive in a global marketplace. So what's the answer? How does any organization communicate change in a marketplace rocked by the four fundamental forces identified earlier? The answer lies in the understanding of some simple principles of human behavior. First, what makes continuing change bearable? In other words, how do people tolerate prolonged ambiguity in their lives?

When David Kearns asks Xerox employees to envision a race without a finish line, he's asking them to develop an extraordinary degree of tolerance for continued ambiguity. In turn, that requires them to have access to a number of conditions that don't automatically exist in corporate life.

They must be confident people who believe in their job options, in short, who assume that if they don't survive here, there are other places where they can go. They must also have some sort of short-term economic safety net to ensure personal survival. They must also have human support networks, people who will encourage and support them in their battle fatigue and weariness, who will comfort them when things look bleak.

They must also have an excellent grasp of the elements of the situation. What is now causing the organization's problems? What forces are driving the company's marketplace behavior?

And, finally, they must believe in their ability to contribute, to influence events. Clearly, the support networks, a grasp of the situation, and a sense of personal empowerment are all effects of carefully planned and orchestrated employee communication.

The clear need in today's global companies trying to survive the hazards of global competition is a communication strategy to calm the work place, restore confidence in the leadership's ability to navigate the organization through uncharted waters, and to interpret change as an essential and singular constant. But how do we create such a strategy?

Focus on Realities

Because each case is different, we can only identify principles. First, communicate the realities of the business. Let people know exactly what the business is up against these days. It will come as no surprise to them because they live with those realities, and their admission will only corroborate what they already know. Indeed not to admit such things is to raise doubts about the leadership's understanding of the business and the extent to which they are in touch with customer needs and demands.

Once those realities have been acknowledged, the next step is to communicate a clear and simple business strategy to deal with them. One of the best examples I know of is an automotive division head who hammered away at three simple principles when he took over a deeply troubled division of his company. He said that they would get the business back on track by attention to three things: quality, the reduction of overhead and cost, and close collaboration with each other in support of divisional objectives. The division had lost sight of quality and had been inattentive to its customer relations. It had permitted its costs to get out of control, and it had run its operations with a heavy and arbitrary style which placed little value on employee contribution or involvement.

In the last four years this once troubled division has largely ensured its survival by focusing on a clear and simple strategy which everyone could understand and support. Of course, the operating elements of the strategy were more complex than these three simple priorities suggest, but people's ability to name the priorities gave them a focus that would have otherwise been lost in detail. They also gave them a benchmark they could later use to explain their success in transforming the division and as a springboard to the next set of priorities.

Fully as important as the simply focused strategy was a division head who made himself a role model of good communication behavior. Declaring himself "deadly serious" about his stated priorities, he was visible, accessible and candid, with a continuing emphasis on personally attending employee meetings and confidently driving home his simple strategy. Nor did he duck questions or refuse to acknowledge the division's precarious position. And he did all of this in the context of competition, change, commitment and performance.

Know Where You're Going

The one final ingredient in communicating change for the 1990s and beyond is vision. Warren Bennis, who has written so eloquently about leadership, says that the 1990s will be the "white knuckle decade." To survive such stress and pressure, we will need a very strong sense of who we are and where we're going. Authors Peter Senge and Charles Kiefer describe what they call "the metanoic organization," a Greek word defining an organization that operates from the conviction it can shape its own destiny. Faced with competition and change, it is able to formulate a vision that inspires both commitment and performance.

Clearly, we will need large numbers of metanoic organizations led by patient and persistent people who can inspire confidence. Threats and exhortations won't do it. Vision statements on conference room walls won't do it, and executive pronouncements and programs won't do it. Instead we will have to provide people with a strong vision of what the organization can be in its marketplace. We will have to give people all the information we can so that they can match their own values and needs to the values and needs of the organization. We will have to empower them so that their talents and motivation are unleashed in behalf of the organization. And we will have to help them find a balance between work and the other demands and priorities of their lives.

Competition, change, commitment and performance--therein lies the path to the human transformation we must make in our own organizations and in our connections to our work.

Roger D'Aprix, ABC, is a consultant with William M. Mercer, Inc., Rochester, N.Y.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on employees' ratings of bosses and employee trust
Author:D'Aprix, Roger
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Previous Article:Communicating for ethical change.
Next Article:Outerstreaming: the fourth communication paradigm.

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