“The only constant in life is change”—coined by Greek philosopher Heraclitus 2500 years ago—is one of those sayings that feels progressively more true. From mergers and acquisitions to reorgs and big technology projects, it seems like we’re always in the midst of a “transformational” shift that sucks up the organization’s collective bandwidth and emotional energy.
To some extent, we have to accept and adapt to this constant churn as the new normal. But if staying competitive means organizations have to keep changing at this frenetic pace, those responsible for guiding us through change need to step up their game. They also need to train and empower more effective change agents. Many knowledge management leaders recognize this and are trying to improve the change management competencies on their teams.
When we asked KM professionals about the top 3 skillsets for their KM teams to develop further in 2019, 46 percent cited change management—putting it in the top spot by a significant margin. I’m featuring this as APQC’s August KM metric of the month as a way to talk about what change management skills really are and how we can foster them.
Obviously, KM programs can build change management competencies by training team members on methodologies such as Kotter’s theory or the Prosci ADKAR model. Each model has its own nuances, but most emphasize the need to communicate about change, get people excited, train them about what’s happening and their role, and then reinforce the change over time through rewards and other cultural signals. If senior leaders prefer a particular model or have outlined their own change approach for the organization, make sure team members are up to speed on the preferred methodology.
But behind these models, here are three things KM programs should keep in mind as they strengthen their change management capabilities.
1. Start with a clear strategy to guide change
A surprising number of organizations hire or train change managers without providing a clear strategy for them to work toward. For example, according to our most recent research, only 40 percent of KM programs have change strategies (even though 46 percent have KM team members explicitly responsible for change management). It’s hard for change agents to make people aware of and enthusiastic about change if the organization hasn’t outlined a vision and roadmap.
APQC has strong evidence that a defined change strategy helps standardize KM enterprise-wide and mitigate barriers to knowledge sharing and use. And given the current change rate, an articulation of the overall strategic direction has become even more important. People often feel confused and overwhelmed by a jumble of changes that seem to overlap or conflict with one another. A strategy that shows the goals behind KM-related changes, as well as how they fit into the organization’s larger change roadmap, can go a long way to empowering change agents and increasing everyone’s comfort level.
2. Be responsive vs. sticking to "the plan"
According to APQC’s latest change management research, one of the biggest pitfalls is an overemphasis on “check the box” change management. Many organizations focus on technical measures related to milestones and activities, rather than looking at employee attitudes and behavioral adoption. They also fail to build flexibility into their change plans, which means they’re focused on sticking to deadlines instead of making sure that changes actually stick. Although standard change models are very useful, an overreliance on them can cause change managers to move mindlessly from step to step, instead of evaluating the circumstances and acting accordingly.
In reality, change management benefits from a more fluid and agile approach. People have different change drivers based on personality, role, and learning style—and they aren’t always ready to change on your predefined schedule. When change agents are encouraged to stick to the timeline no matter what, they may adopt a one-size-fits all approach that leaves part of the workforce behind.
Change management that incorporates personalized two-way communications and coaching tends to be more effective in the long run. Those responsible for change need to know how to interpret employees’ emotional reactions to change and troubleshoot resistance where it crops up. As you think about building change management skills on your team, it’s important to include coaching and emotional intelligence so that people can go “off script” to motivate people and work through challenges.
3. It’s not how you start, but how you finish
A lot of change efforts start strong only to fall down on the sustainment portion of the cycle. Up-front communications and training are important, but they’re not the only components of change. If you want big changes to stick—especially if they require shifts in employee behavior—then you need to reward employees for embodying the changes while building those changes into the organizational priorities and culture.
Top organizations don’t just train employees on changes; they teach them change management principles so they are better equipped to move through the stages of change. These firms also reinforce changes by publicly recognizing exemplars and incorporating change behaviors into employee performance evaluations and promotion decisions. There will always be a segment of the workforce at the back-end of the change curve who wait to see if an “initiative” goes way before they engage. If those people see colleagues who have adopted the changes leapfrogging over them, they are more likely to get on board.
For best practices on change management, I highly recommend APQC’s Closing the Change Management Gap research collection. If you’re looking for the specifics of change management for KM, check out the following resources. Starred items are available to nonmembers.
- Supporting Transformational Change Through Knowledge Management
- Tips to Motivate Knowledge Sharing and Reuse: Webinar* and Slides*
- How to Promote KM and Make It Stick in Your Organization*
- Communicating About KM: Report and Executive Summary*
- Develop a Change Management Strategy to Support the KM Strategy and Approaches