posted 25 Aug 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 1
Managing change for the better
The role of technology in KM is a contentious subject, but intranet development can promote a knowledge-sharing culture if approached with the user in mind. Giulio Quaggiotto, former knowledge manager at WWF International, guides us through a step-by-step change-management approach used at the organisation and offers tips on structuring technology without deconstructing personal motivation.
Nomen est omen, the Romans used to say: your name contains a clue to your destiny, and this sentiment applies to many intra-organisational projects today. Give a project the wrong name and it is doomed to fail, either because it fails to catch the imagination of your colleagues and is dismissed as ‘fluff’, or because it doesn’t fit conveniently into any existing organisational box. Knowledge-management literature is full of examples of initiatives that have collapsed because people couldn’t relate to the term itself. We have all heard the plea, “Whatever you do, don’t call it knowledge management!” In my experience, intranet projects suffer from a similar problem. Plagued by a somewhat confusing suffix, they are unlikely to set imaginations on fire and, when they do, the label often conjures up an immediate association for managers and end users alike: a new intranet? That’s surely a job for the IT department. Project leads and budgets are thus assigned accordingly.
However, many intranets fail to deliver on the value they promise. In my view, this is because the equation ‘intranet development = IT project’ is misleading. In 1996, a second-generation intranet was launched at the International Secretariat of WWF, an organisation with 4,500 employees in more than 100 countries around the world. We fell into a similar trap as the system was developed almost single-handedly by a member of the web team and the project budget came out of the web department. End-user training was limited and focused on functionality and technical issues. As a result, the intranet was perceived internally as ‘something for the techies’.
In 2001, unhappy with this outcome, WWF began to put together the business case for a re-launch. The first step was to analyse the lessons learnt from our first attempts to establish an intranet and from other major IT projects. From our investigations, it became apparent that what had been missing was a holistic framework that tied technology in with the organisation’s mission and culture. Blinded by technology, we had lost sight of our ultimate goal: to improve WWF’s effectiveness in achieving its conservation goals by helping our colleagues to think beyond organisational boxes, manage their information more effectively, consider lessons learnt before embarking on a new project and proactively share ideas across continents and departments. When we articulated the objectives in these terms, we realised that our intranet project was best conceptualised and promoted as a change-management initiative, rather than an IT project. With this in mind, we realised that we needed to make sure that the intranet project would be fully aligned with WWF’s wider KM strategy.
The eight-stage approach
Following the results of the investigation, the development of the new intranet, WWF Connect, was informed by the eight-stage model of change management developed by John Kotter, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School.
Kotter’s eight-stage model for implementing change:
1. Establish a sense of urgency;
2. Create the guiding coalition;
3. Develop a vision and strategy;
4. Communicate the change vision;
5. Empower a broad base of people to take action;
6. Generate short-term wins;
7. Consolidate gains and produce even more change;
8. Institutionalise new approaches within the culture.
Stages one to four concern modifying a consolidated status quo. With stages five to seven, new practices and attitudes are introduced, which are then grounded in the organisational culture by stage eight. The next challenge was adapting and applying this model to WWF’s intranet project.
Establishing a sense of urgency
According to Kotter, many change-management initiatives fail because those who lead them “write a memo instead of lighting a fire” and fail to establish a sense of urgency. “Too often leaders launch their initiatives by calling a meeting or circulating a consultant’s report, then expect people to rally around the cause,” says Kotter. Intranet projects often suffer from similar shortcomings. The leading team should be able to ‘light a fire’ by providing compelling arguments for change to senior management and end users, who are likely to be dubious about modifying the way they operate.
At this stage, a common mistake is forgetting to appeal to emotions. The emphasis on strategies and processes, documentation and metrics can easily lead to missing the obvious: that ultimately you are engaging with human beings. In order to strike the right chord with colleagues, it is important to spend some time analysing what motivates them to come to work every day and what causes them frustration. An intranet initiative should appeal to these contrasting emotions and channel them towards the desired change. Nick Usborne coined the phrase the “art of being human” and pointed out that the interaction with many websites “is about as warm and human as banking with an ATM machine”. Unfortunately, the same applies to many intranets and the way they are promoted.
I was recently invited to attend intranet training for an international aid agency. The presenter went straight to a very detailed, step-by-step description of how the system worked. The result was that participants were frantically taking notes and drawing diagrams, fearing to miss a vital step that they might not be able to reproduce on their own. The emphasis was very much on how the technology worked, but very little was said about why people should use the intranet in the first place. No attempt was made to appeal to motivations, so participants left the room with enhanced knowledge, but with unchanged attitudes. It was doubtful that any of them would use the intranet more often in the future.
Language should also command more attention at this stage of the project. Every potential target group is likely to have its own ‘idiolect’ or jargon. For example, while CEOs are most likely to react to ‘bigger picture’ scenarios and metrics, end users are unlikely to be moved by statements such as, ‘you need to use the intranet to generate efficiencies’. Despite this, project teams tend to concentrate most of their efforts and thinking on the initial pitch to senior management. Once they receive the green light, they are too busy with the implementation to devote much of their time to soft issues such as language. The language and diagrams from the proposal to management are copied and pasted into the presentations to staff, and so often sound abstract, or worse, patronising. Using the appropriate tone and phrase can go a long way towards winning over the hearts of reluctant colleagues.
There a number of strategies that can be used to make the case for change. Several authors have suggested developing metrics: Nielsen calculated that “the average mid-sized company could gain $5m per year in employee productivity by improving its intranet design.” Likewise, Jared Spool recently suggested calculating “the cost of frustration” to demonstrate the need to improve usability.
Personally, I have found that nothing works like storytelling to light a fire in employees. This can be done in the form of a case study. At WWF, we developed a gallery of worst practices, illustrating cases where we encountered problems because of poor information management. The challenge is to find colleagues who are willing to stick their neck out and talk about their failures. One way of alleviating their fears is to present the case study in the form of a fictitious story, keeping it one step removed from the individual. The ‘once upon a time’ frame immediately creates a non-confrontational atmosphere.
Creating the guiding coalition: good managers and leaders
Once the case for change has been made, it is essential to identify who will lead the project. This may not be straightforward given the project’s potential complexity and far-reaching implications; the process of change introduced by an intranet project is better led by an inter-departmental team, rather than a single individual. Furthermore, the choice of the team members is critical, not only in terms the skills they can bring to the project, but also from an internal-communications point of view, since colleagues will automatically draw conclusions from the team’s composition.
One of the advantages of conceptualising intranet development as a change-management process is that the members of the guiding coalition can be selected according to parameters that are not confined to technical skills or seniority. “A coalition of 20 people who are decent managers but ineffective leaders is unlikely to create meaningful change – or much else that is new,” says Kotter. Intranet teams should include ‘influencers’ who have experience of change management and internal communications. Involving representatives from those departments that play a major role in determining the culture of the organisation is also crucial. In the case of WWF, we made sure that representatives of the conservation programmes were involved in the development of WWF Connect.
Developing a vision and strategy: combating ‘me, myself and I’
Intranet project leaders are sometimes affected by ‘me, myself and I’ syndrome. On one hand, there is the assumption that both the problem and the solution lie in the technology. On the other hand, once approval has been given by senior management, project leaders often fail to engage and consult with users. Such an approach leads to a project that could promote a hostile user culture.
A change-management framework can help intranet teams formulate a clear vision that all employees can relate to and buy into. If the objective is to generate new attitudes and practices into the organisational culture, it is necessary to create a long-term strategy. Areas of resistance need to be identified; benefits need to be visualised. In other words, an intranet project needs to grasp the collective imagination of an organisation. For example, at WWF we overhauled the structure of our intranet training courses to include a session on the ‘big picture’ before exploring the technical aspects. The change in the attitude and attention was remarkable: training sessions became more interactive and it was common to see even notorious technophobes ask questions about how they could use the intranet to change the way their team operated.
It is essential to constantly update the strategy to make sure that original assumptions are still valid. At WWF, we established an open, bi-monthly forum where users were introduced to a different aspect of the wider knowledge and information-management blueprint and were invited to contribute comments. This proved to be an invaluable strategic tool, gathering feedback and avoiding any ‘them and us’ tension.
Communicating the change vision: frequency and reach
Developing a strategy alone is not enough. In order to ensure buy-in, you need to communicate constantly as complacency is a project’s worst enemy. “Most leaders under-communicate their change vision by a factor of ten,” according to Kotter. In order to avoid this, it is important to include an internal-communications component in the intranet budget from the beginning, and identify all possible areas where the project can be promoted. Frequency and reach can be usefully applied in this context.
From the outset, WWF put together a regular calendar of venues (for instance, the induction course for new staff) where the team would market WWF Connect. Sessions were followed up by e-mail remainders at bi-weekly intervals. To maximise visibility, WWF often runs promotional features in our internal newsletter, correspondence with e-mail campaigns and in face-to-face sessions. In order to guarantee maximum reach, WWF recruited ‘super-users’ in each regional office to help spread the message and conduct promotional activities locally. We also developed customised campaigns to target key gatekeepers (such as personal assistants) and get them on side. As a result, we saw PAs training managers in how to use WWF Connect.
It is important to select communication formats that fit with the organisational culture. At WWF, the culture is non-confrontational, so by developing a presentation in the format of sequences from a movie titled ‘A day in the life of…’, our vision could be effectively communicated. Through this imaginary diary, we pretended to follow a WWF employee over the course of a working day, witnessing the gradual build-up of frustration due to lack of adequate information-management tools. The voluntary tone of exaggeration made colleagues smile, while at the same time conveying the message that there was a need for change.
It can be useful to add messages that support the main thrust of the internal-communications campaign to the intranet site. Within WWF Connect, a virtual tour of the system for first-time visitors featured a member of senior management who acted as a guide, introducing the different features and functions. This reiterated the message that management was fully behind the project.
Empowering broad-based action: the value of volunteers
An intranet project can uncover a pool of volunteers within the organisation. Staff members who have suffered from a lack of adequate information-management tools are often willing to devote some of their time to getting it right. The trick is to identify them, get them to buy into the overall vision and empower them with tools to support the project.
When WWF Connect was first launched, the system consisted of four major applications: a photo database, a document-management system, a yellow-pages directory and a global-project database. It was apparent from the beginning that we would need colleagues around the world to help us update and clean the data. In order to do this, we could have opted for an official approach; getting CEOs in each office to appoint a person to do the job (and in some cases we had to do this). However, wherever possible, we appealed for volunteers, reaching out to the network of contacts we had built up over the years. To make their task easier, we developed a special online toolkit. The response went beyond our expectations. A number of volunteers took the initiative to set up internal training courses and translated all the promotional materials for the intranet in their local language. As a result, one year after the launch of the system, around 80 per cent of staff had updated their personal profile.
Creating a community of practice can encourage volunteers to share good practices, tips and frustrations. Early intranet supporters can feel isolated and the ability to get in touch with like-minded people across the organisation reinforces their belief and drive to change the attitudes of others. Once connected through an online community, WWF Connect volunteers became vocal advocates for knowledge sharing. To acknowledge their efforts, we regularly featured a ‘super-user of the month’ on the homepage of the database they contributed to. This usually led to them receiving a number of congratulatory e-mails from colleagues around the world. This internal recognition is the most effective incentive to encourage broad-based action.
Generating short-term wins: an organisational culture
While some intranet teams favour the iterative approach, others want to get things perfect before the launch. Again, a change-management framework can help make an informed choice about the appropriate method. To generate cultural change, it is important to have concrete examples to showcase to sceptics early on in the project. For short-term wins, it might be helpful to draw a list of processes that the intranet could support, and concentrate initially on the ones that are most likely to produce a tangible benefit for the users. Organisational culture and praxis must be taken into account when making this choice. For example, WWF prides itself on its partnership approach to conservation, which entails the frequent organisation of conferences and workshops, taking up considerable administrative time and resources. Workshop organisers were therefore an obvious target when it came to promoting the use of the document-management system within WWF Connect. We focused on high-profile workshops, such as the annual conference, in order to target senior management. Initially, we encountered some resistance as time-pressured managers preferred to get workshop documentation e-mailed to them, rather than having to download it from the intranet. However, the new system was soon adopted when managers realised that it helped reduce paper consumption and maintain document-version control. At this point, WWF produced a case study to illustrate how workshop organisers had saved the organisation time and money by using the intranet. This rapidly generated a healthy spirit of competition and most workshop documentation within WWF is now handled via WWF Connect.
Consolidating gains and producing more change: personal engagement
If communication is the keyword to challenge the status quo, engagement is key to consolidating the change brought about by an intranet project. A one-off introductory document or presentation won’t win the hearts and minds of reluctant users; however, regular, positive interactions with the system, and the team behind it, will consolidate change. In the project-planning phase, I would recommend identifying one or more dedicated members of staff who have the time and inclination to engage with users. This skill, comparable to that of the moderator in virtual communities, is often not taken into account but is crucial to ensuring the successful adoption of a system.
At one stage I chased a WWF colleague for a couple of months to encourage him to post a report to the intranet. I could have uploaded it on his behalf, but I wanted to convey the message that spoon feeding was over and it was now everybody’s responsibility to share expertise through WWF Connect. Finally, he got round to posting it and I immediately sent him an e-mail of congratulations and gave him some tips on how to change the metatags so that the report would be easier to locate. He replied saying, “I didn’t realise there was a human being behind the system! I thought nobody would take notice.” He then asked a few questions about search engines, to which I replied with some additional information. A week later he posted a new report, this time with the correct metatags, and I got in touch with his line manager, praising his efforts to share expertise with the rest of the organisation. This once-recalcitrant user later volunteered to become an editor for WWF Connect.
Constant attention and one-to-one engagement are required to persuade users to change their attitudes. Mass mailing or impersonal help-desk replies are not effective. Time should be devoted to building personal profiles of intranet users and translating the overall strategy to their specific context. Within WWF Connect, we found that colleagues who received a personalised e-mail when they entered the system for the first time, explaining the importance of information management for the organisation and directing them to relevant resources for their work, were much more likely to become active contributors in the future. It is easy to underestimate the value of people skills at this stage of the change-management process.
Cementing new approaches in the culture
After communicating the intranet vision and rationale, engaging with the users and generating initial enthusiasm, it is easy to become complacent and forget that an intranet is a process, not a one-off product. As Paul Chin notes, “An intranet is one of those systems that doesn’t end at roll-out. It is a constantly growing entity. In this respect, while many IT systems can be compared to a book with a definite beginning and end, an intranet is more like a newspaper that needs to be updated every day.” Making sure that the new system becomes part and parcel of organisational culture is the most challenging stage in the change-management process. By recruiting local administrators, running ongoing training sessions, reaching out to new staff, setting up virtual communities for super-users and designing an online knowledge-sharing curriculum, WWF quadrupled intranet usage in under a year.
Identifying obstacles to change
I once began an intranet training session by drawing three columns on a flip chart. The headings for each column were: ‘me’, ‘my boss’ and ‘the intranet’. I then asked participants to place a dot under the column heading that, in their view, represented the biggest obstacle to using the intranet more actively. Almost everybody put the blame on the system.
We then spent some time analysing the answers, giving each person some time to articulate their views in detail. It became apparent that users were using the technology as an excuse to justify their resistance to change. Lack of leadership and incentives from management was also an issue. When the exercise was repeated at the end of the session, most dots were under the ‘me’ or ‘my boss’ column.
I believe there are a number of advantages that can be derived from applying the change-management framework to intranet projects:
- It helps to root the intranet project in the wider organisational strategy;
- It shifts the focus from the one-off event (the launch) to the long-term process;
- It provides an overall blueprint that informs all aspects of the project. Armed with an overarching framework, it is much easier to light a fire in others;
- It gives equal prominence to soft and hard components. If financial difficulties arise during an intranet project, the tendency is to cut down on the soft elements such as internal marketing campaigns, because they are not seen as concrete deliverables. A change-management framework can help project leaders argue the softer case with management;
- It helps build realistic expectations and identify dependencies. Changing people’s habits is more difficult and time consuming than fixing a design problem and budgets should be drawn based on this consideration.
The biggest benefit of change management is that it provides project managers with a framework that helps them break away from the ‘intranet = IT project’ equation and devote equal attention to winning the hearts and minds of their colleagues.
1. Gibson, L.P., ‘Why three heads are better than one (how to create a know-it-all company)’ in CIO Magazine (2003)
2. Capozzi, M., Lowell, S. & Silverman, L., ‘Knowledge management comes to philanthropy’ in The McKinsey Quarterly (2003)
3. Kotter, J.P, Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996)
4. Kotter, J.P., ‘Winning at change’ in Leader to Leader (Number. 10, Fall 1998)
5. Usborne, N., The Art of Being Human (www.nickusbourne.com)
6. Nielsen, J., ‘Intranet usability: the trillion-dollar question’ in Alertbox (November 2002)
7. Spool, J.M, The Cost of Frustration, (August 2004)
8. Kotter J.P., op cit (1998)
10. Chin, P., ‘Keeping your content owners… content’ in Intranet Journal (July 2004)
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of WWF International.
Giulio Quaggiotto, programme associate, United Nations University, Institute of Advanced Studies, email@example.com