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Change Management: Achieving Results

by Jim Boring on 12/31/2003
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For the chief learning officer, changing the culture of an organization is a complex and ambitious undertaking. Those who take on such a task need to have a mix of skills and attitudes that include audaciousness and humility, ideals and street savvy, humor and seriousness, patience and a sense of urgency. They also need formal training in, and intuitive sensitivity to, the dynamics of organizational cultures. Unfortunately, those given the assignment to bring cultural change about almost never have all of these characteristics.

Acknowledging this lack is a good starting point for those intrepid souls who voluntarily or otherwise take on cultural change. Your skills and attitudes are incomplete, but your motives are not disinterested. You have this assignment because management has business objectives it wishes to accomplish by diminishing the disparity between what the current culture produces and what is expected. It is management's judgment that this productivity gap is caused, at least in part, because of conditions within the existing culture that are counterproductive. And so you come to the table representing an already-established point of view that inevitably influences your analysis and your interpretation of data.

The effectiveness and credibility of the CLO as a change agent depend on the degree to which he or she is able to acknowledge the foregone conclusion that something is "rotten in Denmark," but still objectively analyze cultural data so that those who are affected must see any recommendations for change as fairly arrived at, in keeping with their best values, and as reasonable and appropriate bridges from the current to the desired culture.

Education of the Readiness Agent

Organizational cultures change in many ways. Left to themselves, they adapt to their changing external environment and thrive, or they fail to do so and die or become withered vestiges of their former vitality. External change agents who wish to move the organization in a new direction often find that, despite their best intentions, they are perceived as a foreign and coercive force that should be resisted either publicly or covertly, actively or passively. The most effective metaphorical stance a change agent can take is with one foot solidly in the present culture and the other in the new and desired culture. Therefore, the most effective change agents must be recruited from within the existing culture.

These agents must be fully engaged both intellectually and emotionally in the task of change. They require solid grounding in the need for, and the benefits of, the proposed direction of change. They need a ready and willing source for all the questions and problems they pose, and the issues they wish to discuss. They do not need to be told what to do so much as they need to be convinced change is necessary and good. Back in the workplace, these agents will exert their positive influence to affect the readiness of other members of the organization to adopt the needed changes. Indeed, these individuals might be termed "readiness" agents since their role is to prepare their associates by setting an example and by being trusted and thus influential sources of information.

It is important that these readiness agents not be perceived by their associates as mere functionaries or stooges of the forces of change. Their credibility depends on their remaining members of the legacy culture who seek what is best for the members of that culture. They must not be asked to report on the progress of change within their sphere of influence. The quickest way to quash a readiness agent's credibility is to inadvertently put him in the position of informant.

They should not be subjected to propagandizing. Their concerns and doubts should be addressed honestly and forthrightly. Only then can they represent the new culture persuasively and effectively.

The Lens of Culture

A culture is a lens through which its members see the world. A subculture adds a filter to that lens that magnifies certain issues, minimizes others and eliminates still others. These lenses and filters are invisible to the wearers when they operate solely within their culture. They are the unconscious motivations, values, drivers, taboos and customs that are so prevalent they are not noticed and need no comment or justification. They are the givens.

It is only when a broader perspective intrudes on the culture that these lenses and filters become apparent. Then they become either a distinctive source of pride and individuality or a mark of inferiority-or both. If the external change agent comes to the current culture with the attitude of saving the heathens, the task will be impossible. Imposed change does not work. Imposed change is accomplished only by eliminating the current culture, not changing it. It is vital to the success of any cultural change that the change agent emphasize the positive values and accomplishments of the current culture, that the traditions, skills and knowledge of its members be acknowledged and honored and that the proposed change be put in terms of opportunity to take on still greater challenges and not solely as a corrective for present failures.

One Person's Reward Is Another Person's Insult

It is important for the change agent (who is sure of the positive good that the proposed direction of change will bring about) to avoid patronizing members of the current culture. Often this patronizing comes in the form of supposed rewards for good behavior. These "rewards," meant to honor, often insult or trivialize real accomplishment. Highly skilled knowledge workers have acquired their competence because they enjoy the work they do and want to do their best at it. Rewards for such workers come in the form of fresh challenges and opportunities to stretch the range and application of their skills. These workers can easily distinguish between real accomplishment and mere excuses for recognition. Recognition and rewards are important parts of the change agent's toolbox, but all too often these tools are badly used.

The Model of the Net

Current organizational theory suggests that the most effective collaborative organizational model is the net or mesh. When nodes within the net are connected to other nodes, communication happens. When there are too few connections, not enough channels are available for the node to collect or distribute information or to collaborate. When there are too many connections to any individual node, communication also suffers by overloading the capacity of any single node to utilize information effectively.

For the change agent, the task is akin to gardening-pruning away channels here, adding channels there, until the entire web of the organization is optimized to distribute, collaborate, share and use information.

Organizational Values and Coaching

Organizations are a hierarchy of values. Some are fundamental, and anyone employed by the organization is expected to share these values-integrity and respect for others, for example. Other values include engineering, design or manufacturing excellence, or technological invention and innovation. Still others have to do with organizational excellence, including the willingness and the eagerness to learn, to reach out to the new and to believe in the adaptability of the organization.

Each of the major categories of values has its own fundamental principles and content. Each category can also be considered as a node in the network of values that together are the organization. The change agent for a unit of the organization can utilize this broader web of values as an overlay onto the web of values found within the current culture of the unit. Without belaboring the places where disparities between broader organizational values and the values of the unit exist, the change agent can build or reinforce connections to those values. This can be done by introducing (or reintroducing) departments within the unit culture to similar departments in units elsewhere in the organization whose own cultural attributes are more in keeping with what is desired.

The effect should be twofold:

  • Putting members of the unit in proximity to characteristics of organizational behavior the change agent wishes them to acquire.
  • Increasing the practice of collaboration among related business units, which can then be more easily extended to other entities.

This strategy could be considered a form of organizational coaching and would benefit from the considerable knowledge database already used in individual coaching practices at most large organizations.


Using the net or web metaphor, it is possible to describe a communications strategy that reaches every node (department, individual, stakeholder) in the web of connections that includes the business unit, related units, the company, the customers and potential customers, and other stakeholders.

If change must be the result of persuasion, leadership, examples and the nurturing of desired behaviors, then the communications strategy must be the primary example of collaboration and not merely a mouthpiece for management. Communications channels should be developed, and programs that enable collaboration should become commonplace.

You will know if the system is right if (again speaking metaphorically) there are 40 channels with a different category of content available on each one. You will know it is not working if you have 40 channels and the same program is on each one. That is propaganda, and propaganda, like the organizations that depend on it, will eventually collapse under its own dead weight.

A strategy or a system that encourages collaboration also encourages participation and responsibility. In such a system, no one controls information because there are many sources of information. The role of the CLO as internal culture change agent or communications strategist is to devise programs, structures and media that best facilitate the efficient flow of information and enhance its value.

Communications in a culture-change situation are responsible for creating the environment in which positive change can happen. Here's how a communications strategy can enable cultural change:

Create an ongoing professional dialogue between representatives of similar disciplines or projects at different locations within and outside the business or unit undergoing a culture change. More specifically, consider three or four important categories of content. These could be departments, disciplines, products or product lines-whatever is most vital to the culture. Find the counterparts or complementary categories at other units or locations. Find individuals who best represent and can articulate these content areas. Make sure you do not simply select senior managers-your selection should attempt to consider the entire hierarchy of important jobs within the culture. Produce a program for each level once a month. If you have three levels, each level would be represented in a program every three months.

By way of example, one continuing program could be a conversation between the head of a department in India and his counterpart in the United States. This one-on-one telephone conversation with a moderator to guide and keep it on track could be edited and distributed on CD to an audience that would include members of both departments, similar departments in other locations, peers in other units and other interested stakeholders. The program should be carefully edited to avoid gaffes and redundancies. It should also be attractively packaged. This kind of program, with its seemingly casual but focused conversation and the sound of the human voice, creates a kind of intimacy that is very effective in bridging gaps of geography, culture and work environment.

Produce a Web and print companion piece to the program that elaborates on the conversations. This dialogue at various levels of the organization can bring individuals and departments closer together and thus make the next step toward collaboration easier to take. You don't want to work with someone you don't know and who doesn't understand your situation. Programs such as this help humanize and familiarize the stranger.

However, such programs only work if they are produced on a regular schedule. A single program is not worth the trouble to produce and does not, as it is sometimes assumed, test the receptivity to such programs. It is only after half a dozen such programs are produced that their acceptance and effectiveness can be gauged.

Culture change within organizations is not for the faint of heart. Neither is it a job for mere propagandists, cheerleaders or whitewashers. It is the realm of the pragmatic idealist, the chief learning officer who truly understands that the health of the organization depends on the health of its organic parts. The job requires an eagerness to embrace the legacy culture while leading it toward a new vibrancy. It requires the skill to evoke motivation rather than attempting to instill it, and whatever it costs is less expensive than all the alternatives in terms of either human or business values.

Jim Boring is a Fort Lauderdale-area consultant in organizational development and communications. His writing on these subjects has appeared in publications such as S-Business, Certification Magazine, the Society for Marketing and Sales Training, the Society for Human Resource Development and others. For more information, e-mail Jim at

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Categories: 2004, Human Resources

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