Written by Cynthia Stuckey
Change management emerged as a business buzzword over the last decade. But today, ‘change malaise’ is rampant in organisations, as employees have grown weary of change initiatives.
A 2011 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) found that 77 percent of organisations had launched more than two change initiatives over the prior 12 months, with 73 percent projecting another two or more initiatives over the following 12 months. In addition, 47 percent increased, or significantly increased, resources for significant change initiatives.
Increased resources and time spent on change are fine if they yield results. But that’s the problem; most respondents felt that no greater than half of their change initiatives were successful. This is just the latest in a long line of studies with similar findings.
What does this mean to businesses? We believe strategies designed to boost revenue, reduce costs, and regain market share will shrivel in the face of strong organisational inertia if strategic change initiatives are unable to gain traction.
So what is causing the problem? When asked, “What is the most important measure in determining whether a change initiative has been successful in your organisation?” The top response was “Behaviour change in the organisation.”
By applying a systemic approach to changing behaviours across thousands of employees, we have seen companies reap significant results - to the tune of tripling sales of complex products, and double-digit spikes in their customer engagement index.
Read related articles in Business Review Australia
But why do behaviour change initiatives fail so often?
For many corporate learning systems, the distribution of investment does not align with where business impact is derived. The overwhelming majority invest their time, energy and budget almost exclusively in formal learning “events”. These events, which comprise the “Equip”, phase in a learning process, actually forms the second part of a three-phased learning approach. The two other important phases – “Align” and “Sustain” are unfortunately ignored.
Aligning stakeholders in the importance of, and their role in, behaviour change, and Sustaining learning by applying tools, metrics and other reinforcement methods to make learning ‘stick’, are very critical phases. In fact, Robert Brinkerhoff, an internationally recognised expert in training evaluation and effectiveness, had suggested the 40/20/40 rule, in terms of giving priority to these three phases.
The most effective sustainers of behaviour change invest their time and resources where the impact is. So if we focus on and invest in the aligning and sustaining stages of learning, we would be able to effect behaviour changes that drive performance improvement.
Aligning stakeholders and creating a measurement strategy
Sustaining behaviour change starts long before there is anything to sustain. First, senior stakeholders must agree on which behaviours will drive execution of their strategy, and how those behaviours will be measured. The importance of this step cannot be overstated.
With many strong opinions and agenda within an organisation, it is critical to get the right people in on one conversation: executive sponsors, business leaders, subject-matter experts, core team members, people playing analytics roles, and people representing marketing, finance, and strategy functions. Bringing everyone onto the same page crystallises the strategy and drives commitment.
The team can then create a concrete plan of action for creating and measuring behaviour change, including key metrics, how they will be tracked and by whom, and how the results will be reported back to stakeholders.
The benefits of this approach are many: the measurement and sustainment strategy is grounded in reality, the strategy is viewed as credible, and clear roles and responsibilities helps the team move quickly and efficiently from talk to action.
Once there is agreement on the overarching and measurement strategy, it is time to execute.
Choosing the right content and methods to drive behaviour change
After gaining alignment, it is time to choose the learning methodology and content that will equip people with the skills they need to support the change.
Teams can consider traditional classroom experiences and beyond. What is critical is to extend learning into the work through the use of approaches such as action learning projects and re-connects, thus providing applied learning - and dialogue to drive additional learning.
Today, as technology advances, we see additional methods to provide tighter integration with work projects and greater access to relevant skills and tools. In addition to e-learning, podcasts, and web classrooms, social media provides important and powerful tools to advance behaviour change.
As Jane Hart puts it in her book, The Social Learning Handbook, “(social media) has turned the concept of learning on its head. It is no longer about waiting to be taught or trained, but about individuals having the power in their own hands to deal with their own learning problems much more quickly and efficiently than before.”
By driving the development of extended and blended learning solutions, participants build a solid foundation of skill and knowledge, allowing each individual to adopt the skills and behaviours required to execute the change.
Making behaviour change stick
Effective leaders know that the sustainment phase has the most impact on behaviour change. To make the application of learning more consistent and effective, we must pay equal attention to what happens after the learning event as to what happens in the learning event.
In the past, Learning and Development organisations typically focused on the elements of learning over which they had the most control, which meant the formal learning event—its timing, structure, and content. Today, the vast majority believes that managers or learners, rather than the L&D organisation, have the main accountability for sustaining learning and behaviour change after the training.
The ‘Leaders’ have a strong propensity to hold managers accountable. L&D organisations can make it easier for learners to sustain behaviour change and easier for managers to hold their people accountable for behaviour change.
To determine which sustainment strategies will work at an organisational, managerial and individual level, executive sponsors, line leaders, L&D consultants, and HR business partners need to work together to sculpt a sustainment approach best suited for the organisation’s unique context.
“Okay,” you might say, “This all sounds great, but let’s face it: in the real world, it’s not that easy.” And you’d be right. Many organisations are doing more with less - more change initiatives with fewer resources - than ever before.
In addition, organisational and marketplace complexity has spiked. Only 20% of employees can easily describe their firm’s strategy, structure, operations, and products/services. This is down from 33% three years ago. In complex environments where people can barely describe what their organisation does, it can be an uphill battle to get mindshare and time from learners or their managers in order to make specific changes happen.
Fortunately, leading L&D organisations are making progress in that battle by distributing energy more evenly across all three phases of learning: align, equip, and sustain. Organisations are discovering new and effective methods of driving behaviour change that extend well beyond the formal learning event and create significantly increased accountability, measurability, and results in unique organisational contexts.
About the author
Cynthia Stuckey is the Managing Director, Asia Pacific of Forum, a leading global provider of learning solutions that focus on people to transform business performance. More information on: www.forumaustralia.com.au