Social Media Transforming the Way Companies Communicate Change

By Kathryn Kibbe

Jan. 27, 2010

Managing change was never easy. But with the advent of such social media tools as Twitter and Facebook, it has become significantly harder.

Some organizations have tried to ignore the very existence of social media—to their own detriment. Others may have wanted to harness social media’s power, but have been wary, knowing that social media is not without some risk.

Using social media can be a venture into unfamiliar waters. It can feel like navigating the most turbulent rapids: a little scary, dangerous and exhilarating all at once. But, if used correctly, the reward from social media is well worth the effort.

Traditional approaches to change management emphasized discipline over dialogue. After clarifying the change, the traditional path for change management includes:

• Chartering the change management team.
• Creating the business case.
• Carefully identifying, facilitating and socializing stakeholders.
• Making decisions centrally with formal and informal input.
• Crafting and delivering messages in a controlled way.
• Seeing communication as an artifact of the process.
• Using task orders, linear milestones and issues management protocols.

But now? Things have changed. Here’s how:

Stakeholders are part of the process: Even if you aren’t using social media within your organization, many of your employees and other stakeholders—including customers, suppliers and investors—are active users. That means the conversation about change starts as soon as the change happens—sometimes very publicly. Sensitive information about mergers, acquisitions or layoffs can end up on Twitter, for instance. However, there are ways to use social media internally and externally to the organization’s advantage to find out what people in the organization are really thinking and what they really want to know before they commit to the change.

For example: As one company went through a recent merger, the integration team was able to comb through online posts in multiple forums, from Twitter to industry-specific blogs.

After sorting through varied content, they formed a clear picture of the employees’ real issues, based on how frequently they were brought up, and how similarly the sentiments were expressed, rather than reacting disproportionately to polarizing pro or con opinions. After gauging the full spectrum of employee reactions, the integration team used these insights to tailor their formal communication to speak accurately and appropriately to workers’ concerns.

Internal tools such as message boards and online brainstorming can channel dialogue back to your change team by facilitating an online conversation about specific topics. Today, there’s a growing number of ways to gather qualitative feedback with these tools.

You can, for example, use a brainstorming tool to ask your stakeholders to provide ideas on a topic to get the conversation flowing—but you can also build in ways for people to vote on the ideas they like best or predict which ideas will have the most impact. That means even the “quieter” people who don’t want to post messages can provide their input into the conversation.

Meaning has more importance than message: Remember when “stay on message” was a rallying cry for leadership during a big change? Now it’s “stay on meaning.”

Early chatter and dialogue regarding a change is now the norm, and people are hungry for an authentic response from leaders. The same talking points repeated over and over get stale fast. Leaders need to internalize the messages enough to build meaning and infuse their own thoughts and opinions into the dialogue.

With the right tools and approaches, you can enlist your stakeholders to help design your solutions. This approach will ensure they are actively involved when you launch the change.

An example is a technology company that recently faced its first layoffs. Its managers, who had little or no experience handling layoffs, were upset. Company leaders responded by creating a secure manager site where they encouraged “rants” and posted supporting tools and online training. The leaders monitored the rants (with the managers’ knowledge, but without interfering with the discussion) and were able to see how they could reframe their communication with managers and revise their support.

Mostly, they watched as managers supported one another. “I don’t understand why this has to happen. Why couldn’t we find another way to cut costs?” posted one manager. “Times have changed,” posted another. “We need to change too, and this will force us to put our resources to better use.”

The managers also shared their fear of the difficult conversations they anticipated and created a sense of community throughout the process.

Executives watched the process and used the stories to help create stronger connections among managers. No one liked what was happening, and there were bumps along the way. But everyone agreed that allowing the managers to connect without censorship was key to helping the change take place.

A new change process requires new facilitation: One of the biggest challenges in this new process, where stakeholders participate early and establish an ongoing dialogue, is your ability to manage their expectations and align the organization’s thinking. Once the conversation is public, many people will want their ideas and advice to become part of the solution.

Managing the process, rather than controlling it, requires clear thinking, proactivity, diplomacy, flexibility and quick reflexes.

How do you survive the change process amid a constant storm of feedback and input? The answer always comes back to how you facilitate the change process. The most effective companies charter change teams very early in the process, so they can begin to take part in the discussion.

These teams quickly analyze stakeholder input in the context of project goals and guidelines, helping leaders respond quickly and setting expectations while correcting any misconceptions. And you can also set clear expectations upfront regarding how feedback will be used.

When senior leaders in one company decided to make significant changes to employee benefits, they knew some of the decisions would be tough for employees to accept and understand. They worked hard on communication, but kept coming back to the issue of feedback.

Some didn’t want it: “We know how this is going to go. Why do we want to open that can of worms?” Others suggested harnessing it: “Let’s find out how we’re doing and use the feedback to address issues. After a good debate, HR took the plunge and created a feedback section on the company’s HR portal.

At first, HR leaders got exactly what they expected: complaints. But as they reviewed the comments, they were able to see a few key areas where there were true misunderstandings. They quickly sent updated communication support to field HR and managers and used some of the complaints to reframe the conversation. Soon, employees began to accept and understand what was changing and why.

Interestingly, the blog and Twitter chatter outside the firewall started calming down too.

Time helped, but the leadership feels the internal conversation helped as well. What didn’t change were the decisions the company made regarding future benefits. What did change was how the leadership explained the changes and how managers learned to engage in conversations with employees on a difficult topic.

The benefit can be a snowball effect: In 1994, Russell Ackoff published The Democratic Corporation, a book explaining his position on how all stakeholders—employees, suppliers, customers, investors, creditors, debtors and government—play a role in helping a company grow and develop. He called for changing the way companies design and manage work. Social media wasn’t around when Ackoff wrote his book, but it may drive much of the transformation he called for.

As more people use social media in their personal lives, they expect the same immediacy and participation at work. If you don’t provide the vehicles for interaction, your employees will create them on their own. They’ll stick a server under a desk and start something–or they’ll move the conversation outside.

Employers ignore social media at their own peril, especially during change. It comes with risks but also with great reward. It does have a snowball effect. As more people participate, more people want to be involved. It’s not exactly what many in leadership expected. But those who have learned about the power of participation can also learn to love the wisdom of the crowds.

By engaging the workplace community, we can find ideas for innovation and a greater appetite for risk. Those are often just what you need to get the results you want from a change effort.

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