Like it or not, IT is at the heart of the change business

An essential part of change management is not just managing the implementation of new technology, but managing the impact of that implementation. Moreover, the impact can be wide ranging and very different for the various people affected.

An essential part of change management is not just managing the implementation of new technology, but managing the impact of that implementation. Moreover, the impact can be wide ranging and very different for the various people affected.

“IT change inevitably has a broad reach,” says Nigel Stevens, former senior vice president of information systems at publishers Reed Elsevier. “It affects senior management, employees, suppliers and, most importantly of all, customers,” he says.

There is one other consideration. “It can have an impact on the IT directors themselves,” he says. “What happens to them if the IT-instigated change goes awry? They’re usually held responsible.”

Whatever and wherever the impact, it is essential that the change itself is managed. Regardless of the change management methodology adopted, there are three key components to it:

  • Analysing and understanding where and what the various impacts will be
  • Communicating those to the stakeholders affected
  • Ensuring stakeholder buy in to what the effect the changes will have.

Unmanaged change in any part of the organisation can be disastrous, especially at the very highest levels. It can be dangerously easy for senior business management to fail to understand that decisions which they consider outside the remit of IT can, nevertheless, have IT implications as well.

Stevens recalls a decision made by the incoming chief executive at a major cosmetics company where he worked, to change, at short notice, the supermodel who represented their cosmetics range.

As no real thought was given to the impact of the decision, the company then found itself  required to remove all images of her from every piece of marketing and advertising material, in all media, worldwide within three months. “It cost the company millions of dollars to do that,” says Stevens.

Even something as apparently trivial as changing a font on printed materials can have an unforeseen impact. “The company selected one that did not show up clearly on the website,” he recalls.

Similarly, corporate rebranding needs to be assessed for IT impact. One company found out at the last moment, having decided on a new brand name, that the URL for that new name was owned by another party.

“CIOs have a huge issue in communicating their concerns about such non-IT decisions to their CEOs and being heard,” says Stevens.

Even where the IT impact is evident, senior management decisions can still have deleterious consequences if insufficiently anticipated.

“One company I worked for decided to relocate their IT and logistics operations,” says Stevens. “Although this was simple enough in terms of moving boxes and offices, the company had failed to allow for the fact that the majority of operations staff were secondary earners, and were highly reluctant to relocate. But because their personal knowledge was crucial to efficient operations, the company ended up bussing those who did not wish to relocate around the M25 for three months, because they could not do without them.”

All too often, both senior management and the IT function itself can under-estimate the impact of IT-associated change.

Stevens says, “Business can require change, but then fail to understand the full implications of, say, deciding to implement SAP globally. As the world becomes ever more complex, making and managing change becomes more difficult.”

However, there is then a danger that IT is simply seen as too negative, too fond of pointing out problems and risks.

“Change is difficult – it’s very easy to get it wrong, but we must be positive, identify the benefits and communicate them before getting started,” he says.

Those benefits, however, must not be merely implicit, and they must relate to the stakeholders. Nor is it enough, reminds Stevens, just to say "well, we’ve told them what the benefits are" and then assume that ticks the box when it comes to the impact of the change.

“Most change, especially that which arrives with a new computer system, is imposed on users – they don’t usually actively seek it. So you have to look at all aspects, the biggest one of which will probably be cultural – getting people to act differently,” says Stevens.

A classic example is the move towards staff and managers becoming self-service: making requisitions, applying for leave, or expenses, and registering budgets, now increasingly done online, without paperwork or the involvement of other departmental staff. Although the benefit for senior management may be obvious in terms of cost savings, it is unlikely to be of direct concern to employees and represents a big change that needs to be managed carefully.

The communication about the changes and impacts resulting from a new system therefore have to be different according to the position of stakeholders.

“You can’t make the same presentation to everyone,” says Stevens. “You have to talk in an appropriate fashion, explaining the individual impacts. Psychology is key.

"In the IT world you have to understand and work with a range of people, and you need everyone on your side. Communicating the impact of putting in a new finance system for the finance director, is completely different from changing the desktop for 40,000 employees," says Stevens.

No matter how trivial the IT change, Stevens warns that there will always be a change management issue that has to be anticipated, understood, communicated and planned for.

“It is never the case that we don’t need to tell anyone that we’re doing something to their computers,” he says.

“I was once told in an operational meeting that we needed to upgrade from NT 3.5 to NT 4.0 because the maintenance was running out. We then decided we might as well upgrade from Office 97 to 98 at the same time. How? Just put the new discs into the server on a Saturday morning. We did, and everything worked fine, ready for Monday morning, when the upgrade would appear completely transparent and unnoticed by users.”

“Then first thing on the Monday morning I got a call from the CEO’s PA to say she couldn’t get her Office 97 files up and what had gone wrong with the computers?”

Should change management simply be seen as yet another burden for the CIO, one more item on an already crowded agenda? Stevens recommends they regard it as an opportunity, not a problem. CIOs, he argues, are well placed to take on the essential business role of corporate change managers.

This is not just because IT systems inevitably catalyse and enable business change, which is, after all, the primary function of IT. It is also because the CIO is one of the few senior executives to have a comprehensive view of the whole organisation, and therefore to be able to anticipate the ramifications of just where the "change wavefront" will impact, and to what extent and severity.

Says Stevens, “We have to educate the other members of the business community about the criticality of effective change management, because there is unlikely to be anyone else as well suited as us to do it. Moreover, IT disciplines lend themselves to business process, impact, security and risk analysis.”

In short, says Stevens, “The CIO should not be seen as ‘an IT professional who can do change management’. We should be considered as ‘a professional change manager who understands IT’.”

For the savvy CIO, therefore, becoming the corporate change management expert is an opportunity that should be embraced.

Change management summary

• Implementing new IT will bring about changes affecting senior management, employees, suppliers, customers and the CIO themselves.

• Change must be actively and proactively managed as unforeseen effects can be costly and risky.

• Change management, especially in complex environments, is hard, and it is easy to get it wrong.

• Detailed impact analysis must be carried out, to see what the ramifications will be throughout the company and amongst all stakeholders.

• Behavioural and cultural changes will be have the most impact on staff whose working habits are altered by new IT.

• The changes that a new IT system will bring must be communicated to those impacted by it in a manner appropriate to their roles and concerns. Psychology is key.

• All stakeholders must buy in to the changes that will impact them, and sufficient time and attention must ensure this happens.

• Hiring a dedicated marketing communications expert specifically to oversee change management programmes can be a good investment for the CIO.

• It’s essential for the CIO to get the Board to understand that even apparently non-IT decisions can have IT implications that are costly and risky.

• No IT changes, however trivial, are likely to prove invisible to users.

• CIOs must beware of appearing over-focused on the risks of change, not the benefits.

• Change management is an activity in its own right, and will therefore require adequate resourcing.

• Change should be managed as rapidly as possible to minimise both the "disruption window" and the time in which other aspects of the business can change simultaneously, increasing the complexity of each change management programme.

• Becoming the corporate change management expert is a key opportunity for the CIO.

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