Got Change? HR's role in Change Enablement

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
— Charles Darwin

While Darwin’s conclusion was a reference to survival of a species, the principle is certainly applicable to an organization. Organizations and the people who inhabit them are inherently dynamic. Whether the work is labor or capital-intensive or whether the business is a start-up or has been in existence for a century, nothing is truly static in the workplace.

 In such an ever-changing business environment, companies should have an embedded means of leading, managing and communicating change, regardless of the size or complexity of the change or the organization. Managing change is not a new management topic and there have been countless articles, books and case studies written about how organizations can most effectively align and marshal resources to support a significant change effort. Change is not a function to be outsourced. Managing change should be the responsibility of every leader and ensuring the organization has the skills and capabilities necessary to manage change should be a core accountability of the HR team.

Approximately 70% of change efforts fail for a variety of reasons at both the organizational and individual level. At the organizational level, Kotter most effectively outlined why major change efforts fail and defined the most critical elements companies should keep in mind:

And at the individual level, there are a myriad of reasons why employees and leaders may not accept change: 

The case for understanding the role HR should play is a simple one. Change efforts impact many different facets of an organizational ecosystem, most of which are critical to the employee experience:

  • Defining new capabilities needed to achieve new objectives
  • Identifying and embedding new behaviors in current staff
  • Changing the organizational structure and re-calibrating impacted positions
  • Ensuring the post-change organization appropriately recognizes and rewards performance and behavior change
  • Revising and cascading new goals and priorities
  • Ensuring new skills and behaviors are reflected in future recruiting capability
  • Creating key messages and other critical communication vehicles to ensure employees at all levels understand upcoming changes, impact on the organization and on individuals over time

Most importantly, leaders themselves must own change. This often requires building capability across all levels in leadership to ensure leaders are equally able to effectively communicate and lead change efforts within their work groups. Change is personal and often experienced most acutely at the employee level; managers therefore need to be equipped to communicate difficult or new messages, be able to field questions and to ensure there is effective communication upwards, downwards and across the enterprise.

Which team or function is best positioned to develop the critical framework and infrastructure necessary to carry out a significant and successful change effort? A strategic and OE-savvy HR organization will have both the organizational knowledge and functional capability required to develop the optimal approach and to ensure the business is focusing on the right levers in ways that are aligned with the organizational culture. The role of HR therefore is to enable change.

What organizational knowledge does a well-integrated HR partner have intimate understanding of and how does this expertise benefit the change process? There are a broad array of internal factors that need to be top of mind when planning for change and when assessing how effectively the organization is internalizing the change. For instance, a strong HR business partner will understand:

  • How different work groups and different leaders have dealt with prior changes as an indicator of the current change initiative
  • Where less-effective leaders are located in the business requiring more hands-on support
  • What kinds of messages and type of communications have been most effective and how best to cascade information in general
  • Who informal leaders are and how best to include them in the change process
  • When and how to solicit employee and manager feedback to gauge for understanding and acceptance and to highlight potential issues and disconnects
  • What else might be going on in the business that could impact the upcoming change and assist in minimizing potentially distracting organizational noise

Does your HR team have the necessary skills and capabilities to help drive and embed change? If not, it is a critical investment to weigh, especially given today’s business climate, the importance in maintaining a cohesive employee experience, and minimizing downtime as a result of poor internal change-related communications. In most organizations, employees generally perceive that company communications need improvement and this notion is simply compounded in more challenging change scenarios.

Businesses are dynamic entities and must be equipped to manage change that is both on-going and episodic. Change needs can range from smaller changes that might impact a function or process to larger transformation efforts that impact a significant number of business units and geographies. Regardless of the complexity, companies should adopt a consistent framework for managing change and be able to develop the needed tools internally with the leadership and guidance of HR. Developing a common approach helps ensure that employees are focused on the messages and outcomes (the “what,” or the actual changes) versus communication vehicles and different change models (the “how,” or methods in which changes are being delivered). Change efforts should be focused on bringing people along and an effective and integrated HR organization will have the needed capabilities for developing the right approach for the business.

Ultimately, change is about managing people. Managing people should not be outsourced. Managing change should therefore be a capability that businesses develop internally with the support of their organizational experts. Lastly, the HR team has a vested interest in ensuring a change effort is successful as they personally remain integrated in the organization and must ensure their internal clients are able to thrive in the new, post-change environment. Your HR team should be the most experienced enabler of change in your arsenal ensuring a consistent employee experience and way of facilitating change that is aligned with the business strategy and organizational culture.

Karyn Detje