Change management in the context of organizations is the process of planning, directing, and controlling a transition from one set of organizational conditions to another. Change management has been studied for many years in the management and organization studies disciplines. It has not traditionally been considered a communication process, although models of change management typically have included communication as a component of effective change management.
However, several related trends have led to change management and communication becoming much more closely interrelated. First, the rate of organizational change has increased, as has the perceived importance of changing organizations to managers, executives, and other stakeholders (Zorn et al. 1999). The result of this is that organizational reputation is greatly influenced by the appearance of keeping up with the latest trends, as captured in organizational buzzwords such as benchmarking, continuous improvement, and best practice. Second, as a result of the massive failure rate of major organizational change initiatives (a 50 – 80 percent failure rate is typically reported in the literature), practitioners and scholars have given significant attention to rethinking the process of change management and the reasons underlying failure. In particular, there is a recognition that resistance by stakeholders – particularly, but not limited to, staff – impedes many organizational changes, and a concurrent belief that communication is the key to managing such resistance. Third, some prominent scholars have argued that organizational change is constructed in communication. That is, communication is not simply a tool to use in the process of managing change; rather, what we consider to be change is an intersubjective phenomenon co-constructed in discourse among organizational members and stakeholders. Ford and Ford’s work is exemplary here; they describe change as a series of conversations in which people bring change into existence (or resist it) through their conversations (e.g., Ford & Ford 1995). Finally, as strategic communication has become more central to organizational strategy, communication with both internal and external stakeholders is seen as more central to change initiatives.
Much of the research on this topic is, not surprisingly, quite applied or “managerialist” in orientation, although the body of interpretive and critical literature has been increasing rapidly in the past decade. Of course, some research has both applied and interpretive (or critical) dimensions, but this distinction is still useful for differentiating the aims of most studies of communication and change management.
Application-oriented research has focused particularly on strategic means of announcing or initiating change, principles for communicating effectively with stakeholders, methods of stakeholder involvement, and means for managing employee stress and resistance. Several scholars have focused their efforts on identifying the elements of communication that introduce change to stakeholders. This work stresses the importance of adapting change announcements to the situation, taking into account the organizational dynamics and the particulars of the change initiative and crafting messages that influence stakeholders’ buy-in or readiness for change (e.g., Smeltzer 1991). Armenakis and Harris (2002) argue that such messages will be effective to the degree that they clearly identify the discrepancy between the present and desired state, and that they convincingly argue that: (1) members have the efficacy to be successful; (2) the particular change initiative is appropriate; (3) adequate support and resources will be provided; and (4) members will benefit from the change.
Perhaps the most extensive research on the topic of communication and change management has focused on principles and practices of communicating with employees in the process of implementation. As Elving (2005) argued, management attempts through communication processes to inform and direct employees, while at the same time creating a sense of coherence and community. Klein (1996) summarized the applied literature on effective implementation communication in the following seven principles: (1) message redundancy enhances message retention; (2) using multiple media is typically more effective than the use of just one medium; (3) face-to-face communication is often more effective than alternatives; (4) the line hierarchy is the most effective organizationally sanctioned communication channel; (5) direct supervisors are the expected and most effective source of organizationally sanctioned information to employees; (6) opinion leaders are important conduits to changing attitudes and opinions; and (7) personally relevant information is better retained than abstract, unfamiliar, or general information (1996, 34).
Of course, change agents are interested in communicating with stakeholders other than employees, too, and often adapt the approach taken depending on the particular group of stakeholders targeted, as well as other factors. For example, Lewis et al. (2001) studied the strategies that nonprofit organizations used to communicate with external stakeholders, as well as the influences on their choices. They identified six separate approaches that vary from simple one-way message dissemination to highly interactive and/or adapted communication. They found that many factors might explain the choice of change communication strategies, for example, the scope, novelty, and complexity of the planned change, as well as the nature of the organizational culture and the management style of the implementers. However, many of these influences are indirect in that they influence two factors that more directly predict the implementation strategy chosen: the perceived need for efficiency in communication and the perceived need for consensus building. Implementers are more likely to see a need for communicative efficiency when (1) the organization has limited channels for communicating; (2) there is perceived to be little time for interaction about the change; and (3) when resources are scarce. A high need for consensus building is likely to be perceived when (1) changes are perceived to be highly controversial or novel; (2) there is a history of resistance to similar changes; (3) critical resources are controlled by stakeholders; and (4) ongoing cooperation is needed for implementation.
A number of studies have examined employee participation practices as a key element of strategic communication in the change process. The importance of participation methods stems from the consistent finding that participation is associated with positive outcomes, including increased commitment and decreased resistance to change as well as more positive adjustments for employees who feel included in change-related decisions (e.g., Bordia et al. 2004). Thus, scholars have investigated alternative means of participation. For example, varieties of collaborative “dialogue” as a method or practice of communication have been explored for their potential to enhance the quality of organizational change initiatives (e.g., Kellett 1999). Dialogue is particularly valued for its emphasis on increasing understanding and learning, both of which may be valuable in enhancing relationships and creative action. Similarly, methods such as appreciative inquiry that focus on involving employees in identifying and building on existing, positive aspects of organizational practices have received increasing attention. Proponents of these methods theorize that such practices are energizing and motivating because they reframe change from a problem orientation that puts a spotlight on negative deviations from desired standards to an “appreciation” orientation that focuses on positive deviations and methods for enhancing them. Finally, given the documented value of participation in creating positive outcomes, various large-group participation methods have been devised and explored for their potential to include a higher proportion of an organization’s members in the participation process.
Since employees’ responses to change initiatives can be a critical factor in the success of change initiatives, substantial attention has been directed at identifying factors that influence their responses and ways to manage them. In fact, much of the research on communication principles and participation studies reviewed above has been motivated by concern for generating positive responses from employees. Involving employees, in particular, tends to create a greater sense of control and commitment. In addition to research on participation and communication principles, other research suggests that early, regular, and relatively complete communication, along with various forms of social support, tends to relieve the stress associated with change as well as to decrease resistance to change.
Interpretive And Critical Research
Beyond application-oriented research, interpretive and critical studies of communication in change management have focused on how change initiatives and practices are symbolically enacted and socially constructed, the tensions and contradictions underlying change processes, and the political processes through which participants employ power in their struggle for material and symbolic resources. An example that encompasses many of these themes is an in-depth, longitudinal investigation of change processes in the context of the post-merger developments at Nordea, a multinational financial services company (Søderberg & Vaara 2003). The study illustrates sense-making and political processes employed by managers and other stakeholders in the process of attempting to merge companies representing different organizational and national cultures into a coherent entity. The findings demonstrate that the process is fraught with tensions and struggle.
Another theme within interpretive and critical studies is characterizing the role of discourse at multiple levels (e.g., macro, meso, and micro). Both change agents and stakeholders draw on prominent socio-cultural (or macro-level) discourses in framing their meso and micro-level discourse in the context of organizational change. For example, managers are influenced by discursive hype surrounding new management trends such as e-commerce, sustainable business, and enterprise resource planning. They subsequently draw on the same discourses in selling these initiatives to stakeholders both internally and externally. Through resonance with these discourses – often framed in terms such as “best practice,” “leading edge,” and “world class” practices – organizational persuasion (meso-level) campaigns as well as manager–employee (micro-level) interactions take on legitimacy. Stakeholders, often immersed in the same discourses, draw on them to interpret as well as resist change initiatives. Critically oriented scholars often seek to demonstrate how discourse is used strategically to mask efforts to serve the interests of some groups – both within and external to organizations – at the expense of others.
Future research on change management and communication will need to pay more attention to theory development. At present, much of the applied research on change communication is atheoretical, although there have been attempts to draw on speech act theory, stakeholder theory, social identity theory, and others. Critically oriented research, for its part, will need to move beyond critique to offering alternative visions of more positive change communication processes.
- Armenakis, A. A., & Harris, S. G. (2002). Crafting a change message to create transformational readiness. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 15(2), 169 –183.
- Bordia, P., Hobman, E., Jones, E., Gallois, C., & Callan, V. J. (2004). Uncertainty during organizational change: Types, consequences, and management strategies. Journal of Business and Psychology, 18(4), 507–532.
- Elving, W. J. L. (2005). The role of communication in organizational change. Corporate Communications, 10(2), 129 –138.
- Ford, J. D., & Ford, L. W. (1995). The role of conversations in producing intentional change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 541–570.
- Kellett, P. M. (1999). Dialogue and dialectics in managing organizational change: The case of the mission-based transformation. Southern Communication Journal, 64(3), 211–231.
- Klein, S. M. (1996). A management communication strategy for change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 9(2), 32 – 46.
- Lewis, L., Hamel, S., & Richardson, B. (2001). Communicating change to nonprofit stakeholders: Models and predictors of implementers’ approaches. Management Communication Quarterly, 15(1), 5 – 41.
- Smeltzer, L. R. (1991). An analysis of strategies for announcing organization-wide change. Group and Organization Management, 16(1), 5 –24.
- Søderberg, A.-M., & Vaara, E. (eds.) (2003). Merging across borders: People, cultures, and politics. Copenhagen Business School Press.
- Zorn, T. E., Christensen, L. T., & Cheney, G. (1999). Do we really want constant change? San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.