I recently stumbled across a digital workplace project which allocated 80 percent of the budget to change management. Eighty percent! 

Clearly this team recognized the importance of taking a structured approach to driving behavioral change and embedding new ways of working. They knew that to unlock the value of their digital tool investment, they needed to actively drive adoption.

Let's be clear: Allocating 80 percent of a project budget to change management efforts isn't realistic for most. But it serves as a nice counterpoint to the many digital projects that minimize change management in their plans.

Build It, and They Probably Won’t Come

No one believes in “build it and they will come” any more (if they ever did), but half-hearted or limited change management efforts puts us perilously close to living up to that motto.

Neglecting change management in the digital workplace happens for various different reasons, including:

  • the strategy didn’t account for change management or the organization’s readiness to undertake new ways of working
  • the project ran out of money
  • the post-launch project phase was inadequately resourced, and left the project team exhausted from the launch
  • the project only followed more traditional top-down approaches to change, rather than adding in the bottom-up and peer-to-peer efforts needed to win over hearts and minds.

Over-expectations about the achievable levels of adoption within a limited time period also handicaps projects. Many people fall under this umbrella: eager stakeholders seeking ROI, optimistic consultancies and agencies, or implementation teams making a persuasive business case. 

Although there are always exceptions, changing how your company works usually takes more time than anticipated. Positive change management interventions sometimes seem unsuccessful when they are actually working due to these unrealistic expectations.

You Can't Force Change

The best way to think about change management for large digital workplace projects (including intranets, social networks, and agile and flexible working initiatives) is to:

  • tackle change early and 
  • make it engagement-driven.

Change management needs to be engagement-driven, not just some mediocre communications with a bit of training thrown in. Conversations, two-way interaction and listening to users needs are all hallmarks of effective change management.

Digital workplace projects which incorporate a social or collaborative platform usually involve optional tools for employee use. Cases like these give implementation teams little leverage to “force” change in behavior or use of those tools, especially since alternatives already exist — in the form of email, file shares, spreadsheets and personal consumer apps. 

Rarely can a company impose digital workplace-driven change.

Instead, the onus needs to be on winning hearts and minds, and persuading users of the benefits. 

By engaging users, actively seeking their input, listening to their concerns and showing how this feedback has influenced solutions, users are much more likely to buy into the change and even feel a sense of ownership.

This tactic may backfire if you ignore someone's feedback, but generally speaking, when someone helps shape a solution, they are more likely to use it.

Incorporate Change Management Into Your Strategy

For change management to succeed, you needs to start planning it early on. Change management should be an integral part of your strategy, your project, your planning and design phase of any initiative — and should be resourced accordingly.

Considering change early on also means engaging stakeholders and users from day one. 

Whether defining a strategy, performing a discovery phase, building up a business case, driving up requirements, forming a group to inform a project or just communicating your intentions, this is an excellent opportunity to involve employees. An early conversation means engagement and, in turn, this will mean more engagement with the change.

8 Tried-and Tested Change Management Approaches

A Digital Workplace Group research report arrived at a number of recommended practices to consider when managing change in the digital workplace. Here are eight of them.

1. Change management activity needs to be constant

Change management and efforts need to continue over the entire lifecycle of a new platform, not just during its launch. Do not let change management become an afterthought once the project moves into the “business-as-usual” phase.

2. Change management efforts change over time

The nature of the interventions you make will likely change over time. Clearly, efforts will be more intense immediately before and after launch, and will evolve as users get familiar with the new ways of working.

3. Target interventions to engage different groups

Target change management efforts to the needs of different groups. From senior management to super-users and different roles, targeted communications and training will result in higher impact.

4. Grow and leverage advocate networks in large organizations

As stated earlier, bottom-up and peer-to-peer approaches to driving change can have more impact than more traditional communications. For example, launching any large digital platform, such as a social network in a global organization, is difficult for a small central team. Many companies have found success leveraging the enthusiasm and energy of a network of motivated advocates to both communicate and educate their peers.

5. Give local autonomy to change management efforts where you can

Any launch in a large, distributed and possibly global organization will rely on local managers to help coordinate any change management efforts. Giving them some autonomy can help keep these individuals engaged and also allow them to launch efforts in the best way for the local team.

6. Take a cross-functional approach

Getting other central functions involved, such as HR, training and IT, can gain valuable buy-in and also allow you to leverage different skills and perspectives, which can help your change management efforts. Seek the “guiding coalition” that Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter and others advocate.

7. Speak the language of the business and employees

Avoid fluffy concepts and vocabulary, and focus instead on how the new initiative or platform will help employees in their everyday work. Communications should also cover the bigger picture: why has the organization introduced this?

8. Utilize training

While training is sometimes viewed as unimportant, having targeted sessions for different groups of users, such as managers or super-users, can be highly effective. Larger groups make end-user training difficult, so consider using a self-service model of access to training resources.

Engage Users From the Start

When you plan for a large digital workplace project, change management is vital. Without a realistic appraisal and focus on changing behavior, adoption may suffer.

Employing some of the approaches we’ve suggested above will help but, fundamentally, change management needs to start with a series of two-way conversations from day one. 

Involve users early on to lay the foundation for change management efforts and to complement the more formal top-down communications and training usually associated with the launch.