The obvious counterargument to changing the status quo is: “Why? I’m quite happy with the way things are.”

So it goes with communication and collaboration within large organisations. Those responsible for managing the flow of communication are often happy with an approach that puts them in the centre and in control. And the way people work together (a.k.a. ‘collaborate’) tends to be a function of a complex interplay of structure, geography, pay and reward models, individual powerbases and a host of other factors which comprise ‘the way things work around here’ – rather than anything strategic or optimised.

The result is that organisations persist with old models of communicating and working, comforted by the thought that “it’s worked pretty well in the past so why shouldn’t it work in future?”

The drivers for change

This argument is of course looking increasingly fragile. The pace of change brought about by demographic, economic and technological forces means that the world of work looks radically different now to 10 years ago, and in another 10 years it’s likely to be even more fundamentally transformed. Social, mobile and the cloud; the global recession and its aftermath; the attitudes and needs of a new generation that will soon form the bulk of the workforce – these factors and more mean that organisations need to replace their old models of working if they are to compete in future.

And it’s not as if this hasn’t been recognised. It’s easy to find research and commentary from any number of respected sources on what these changes mean for the way organisations are led, managed and organised:

  • IBM’s most recent global CEO study found that ‘creating more open and collaborative cultures – encouraging employees to connect, learn from each other’ is a key factor in creating value and outperforming peers, with CEOs regarding ‘collaboration (75%) and communication (67%) as the top employee characteristics crucial for this new era of work’.
  • McKinsey & Company’s seminal 2012 study ‘The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies’ identified huge opportunities for organisations adopting new ways of working and communicating using social and collaborative technologies, including potential productivity improvements of 20-25% amongst knowledge workers.
  • MIT Sloan and Cap Gemini’s recent global study ‘Embracing Digital Technology’ reports that for ‘78% of respondents, achieving digital transformation will become critical to their organisations within the next two years’. They define digital transformation as ‘the use of new digital technologies (social media, mobile, analytics or embedded devices) to enable major business improvements (such as enhancing customer experience, streamlining operations or creating new business models)’.

What’s holding back change?

So when the disruption and need for change (and the attendant challenges and opportunities) are so clear to see, why is it that so many organisations still seem wedded to outdated ways of working?

Certainly there are some leaders and managers who have yet to acknowledge that things need to change and are therefore happy to stick with what they know. However increasingly the blocker is with those who have acknowledged the need for change but they do nothing. What’s the story with them?

I believe the key reason is that identified in the recent MIT Sloan report mentioned above. It found that the biggest obstacle to digitally-enabled transformation is a lack of urgency, and that this flowed out of the C-suite: ‘Only 38% of respondents said that digital transformation was a permanent fixture on their CEO’s agenda’. No wonder so many organisations are falling behind the curve on this.

So what’s the solution?

Overcoming the barriers to change

From our work with global businesses who are on the journey of digital transformation, we see four common success factors:

1. Create a sense of urgency

Given that lack of urgency is such a key barrier to change, this is often where you need to start. In some cases the change is led from the C-suite, but it commonly falls to the managers and visionaries ‘lower down’ the organisation to take the lead.

The classic ‘burning platform’ approach can be very effective, with your narrative linking the macro changes impacting your organisation to the opportunities and challenges presented by new ways of working and communicating. Make it real and tangible, focus on business outcomes and link to existing strategic priorities and tactical/operational initiatives.

2. Set a direction

Strategy development can be a complex and lengthy affair, especially in larger and more risk-averse organisations looking for high levels of certainty, often preventing new initiatives from getting out of the starting blocks.

To overcome this, focus on setting a broad direction – rather than trying to define the future in great detail. This is about having a clear intention and a vision of the outcomes and opportunities you’re seeking to achieve. Of course you need to define your objectives, but appreciate that the nature of social and collaborative technologies is such that new horizons and opportunities will emerge iteratively once you start working and communicating in new ways.

3. Get people on board

Change of this nature and scale cannot be driven through from one place: you need people across the organisation engaged and aligned with the vision and direction. And you’ll need to understand attitudes and appetites for new ways of working and communicating, and current technology landscape and future investment plans, which will exist across your organisation (especially when dealing with multiple territories and operating companies).

To do this, identify the key stakeholders who can both help shape your plans and who’ll provide important support and leadership for the change. Recognise there are vested interests at stake, so you’ll need to be clear about the impact and the ‘what’s in it for me’ at every level. And above all, take a collaborative approach to planning and activating your programme.

4. Get started

The most important step of all!

You might start by bringing in a new technology platform, or perhaps launching a behaviour change programme to reinvigorate and leverage existing technology. Wherever you start, you’ll need to address both the ‘X axis’ of technology and the ‘Y axis’ of culture if you’re to achieve the tangible business outcomes you’re seeking.

Make sure you have the programme, people and processes in place for your launch and post-launch activities. The first three to six months are crucial for establishing and building momentum, so focus on initiatives and ‘use cases’ which address strategic, operational and individual priorities and requirements. And put the tools in place to track activity and outcomes so you can play back successes and continually improve.

Of course this is only the start of your journey, but you’ve made the crucial first steps to new and better ways of working, and there’s no turning back…

Author: Chris Copland

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