Change management and the role of communications

How would you like to be running an automobile business today? How about a toy company? Media conglomerate? Hotels? Maybe own retail stores?

Virtually every client I work with is dealing with some form of disruption or change, and for many, it means the very survival of their business.

The management of disruption is a pervasive and phenomenally difficult challenge. If you're a car company, for example, you know that the future of your enterprise will involve electric vehicles, self-driving cars, and ridesharing competitors. This means that the core of your business is under threat. Thus, you must prepare your constituents for massive change: your workforce, your dealers, your shareholders, your suppliers and your customers. But you also have to keep motivating the three hundred thousand employees who are currently engaged in building and selling your vehicles, and somehow keep them focused, happy and productive.

A recent survey of top communications executives by the Gartner Group identified “Employee Change Fatigue” as the number one strategic challenge facing corporate communications departments in 2018. Not surprisingly, the study noted that Change Communications was the top priority for the past three years, and will be again for the coming year.

More often than not, organization engage management consultants, like McKinsey or BCG, to help develop a strategic blueprint for transformation. This might involve the divestiture of existing lines of business, strategic acquisitions, or the creation of new distribution channels. But the heavy lifting of transformation, the actual execution, is left to the senior leadership of the organization. And the dauntingly difficult challenge of convincing multiple, entrenched stakeholders that change is not just necessary but also good is frequently left to the communications function.

The communications department is often under-resourced and unprepared for the challenge. It's a long-running truth that businesses will pay millions of dollars for strategy consulting, but are stingy with resources when it's time to communicate and inculcate the transformational change that lies ahead. This imposes an extraordinary burden on the communications function.

But this dynamic is changing, and it's being driven by market necessity.

The new paradigm is visible through three emerging trends. The first is a movement by management consulting firms to acquire communications companies. Accenture, Deloitte, KPMG and PWC have all acquired creative, digital and public relations agencies in the past two years. They know, from being on the ground, that there is a great deal of executional work that goes along with strategy consulting. And they want a piece of it.

The second is the emergence of Employee Engagement and Change Management practices by the big, global public relations agencies. At Weber Shandwick, this practice is one of the fastest growing in the company, and similar offerings can be found in other large agencies. There is increasingly high demand for this service.

The third development, and perhaps the most notable for the industry, is the increasing role that the communications function is playing in driving change throughout the organization. Culture change has historically been led by the HR department, but this is beginning to evolve. It is not uncommon now to see change management being led jointly by HR and Communications, and in some cases, solely by the communications department.

The implications for the industry are significant. Corporate communications departments need to be staffed with professionals who have consulting and organizational development in their backgrounds. Analytical tools that measure engagement and attitudes must be developed, and PR agencies must continue to evolve to a more consultative model that can compete with management consulting and HR advisory firms.

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