The Importance of Communication Essay
The Importance of Communication
Workers at all levels of an organization, be they CEOs, middle managers, or entry-level staff, recognize that change is inevitable. However, the successful implementation of organizational change in response to changes in an organization’s external environment can be one of the greatest challenges top-level leaders face. Regardless of how far-seeing and meticulously planned organizational change may be, it will not be effectively implemented unless it is communicated to an organization’s staff in such a way that resistance is overcome, fears are assuaged, confusion is minimized, and buy-in by all affected individuals is secured. Kurt Lewin (as cited in Evans, Ward, & Rugaas, 2000) was one of the first to develop a model of behavioral change in his 1951 book, Field Theory in Social Sciences. Lewin described three stages as being necessary in the implementation of a change in a person’s behavior. The first of these is unfreezing, the stage during which a person becomes ready to learn or acquire a new behavior, perhaps by recognizing the ineffectiveness of a current behavior or by learning about the benefits that would accrue if the new behavior were implemented.
The second stage is the change itself, which will involve a trial period during which the person familiarizes him or herself with the new behavior. Finally, the refreezing stage occurs as the new behavior becomes habitual or ingrained with the individual. Thinkers in the management field have applied this model to the process of change within organizations. In order for change to be effectively and lastingly implemented, all staff affected by the change must go through this unfreezing-changing-refreezing process. Kotter (1995) lists eight steps that leaders of organizations should take in order to successfully implement change. One of the most crucial steps in the process, and the step during which many attempts at organizational change fail, is communicating the vision of change to the staff via every possible means. He notes that a classic error made by leaders trying to implement change is under-communication of the change to the staff that will be implementing it.
The most effective communicators discuss the change at every opportunity and incorporate the discussion into day-to-day activities such as performance reviews, employee training courses, and quarterly production meetings, thus making clear to employees not only the overarching vision of change for the organization, but also exactly where the employee fits into the process. Organizational leaders must also behave in ways that are consistent with the vision they are promoting: communication regarding the change should occur not only via words, but also via deeds (Kotter, 1995). Communication about change aids in the unfreezing of old behaviors, the transition during which new behaviors are adopted, and the refreezing of the new behavior into habit. In fact, Ford and Ford (1995) claim that change does not occur except in that it is mediated by communication; in other words, communication is the context within which change occurs.
They describe four types of conversations that move the change process through its successive phases: initiative conversations, that begin the change process by focusing the participants’ attention on what needs to be done; conversations of understanding, during which the participants seek to make sense of the problem and start generating methods of addressing it; conversations of performance, which concentrate on producing the intended result; and conversations for closure, during which the change process is determined to be complete. This model of change as mediated by the conversations that instigate and guide it differs from previous thought in which communication about the change is presented as a single stage in the change process, although it expands upon Kotter’s (1995) call for communication regarding change to occur in as many contexts as possible within an organization. The model also helps to conceptualize the role of communication during the stages of unfreezing (instigation), change (understanding and performance), and refreezing (closure). Current thinking in organizational change and communication
The work by Lewin (Evans, Ward, & Rugaas, 2000), Kotter (1995), Ford and Ford (1995), and other earlier researchers in the field lays an important foundation for current work in the use of communication to effectively promote change within an organization. Deborah Barrett (2002) developed the Strategic Employee Communication model as a tool for organizations to use in assessing the effectiveness of their own communication channels when confronted with the necessity of organizational change. The model breaks down effective employee communication into four components which interact in well-functioning companies to reinforce strategic objectives. One important component is a top and middle level management that is committed to fostering communications “up, down, and across the organization” (Barrett, 2002). The second component is the communications themselves: messages that are both tailored to the audience they are intended for to maximize relevance, and that are consistent with each other and with the overall strategic objectives of the organization.
The third component is the mode of communication; it should rely on a variety of media but should take place primarily in person. The final component is a communications team or staff that is positioned in such a way as to be privy to the thinking behind the company’s strategic objectives so that the messages they produce reflect an understanding of the change. In companies that have effective communication networks, these four components are continually assessed against the background of progress towards the company’s strategic objectives. Barrett (2002) makes specific recommendations regarding how the effectiveness of employee communications during times of organizational change may be evaluated, giving an example of a survey instrument to assess perceptions of the current state of communication, suggestions for the development of ‘cascading workshops’ to spread the message of change throughout the organization, and methods of monitoring how well the message of change has spread and been internalized throughout the organization.
The influence of Lewin’s (Evans, Ward, & Rugaas, 2000) unfreezing – changing – refreezing model of change can be seen in Van der Waldt’s (2004) depiction of change communication as occurring in three phases. During the first phase of change, individuals within organizations face the loss of old ways of doing things, and should be supported in the initial phases of the change by communication that acknowledges this loss and that recognizes the difficulty that some individuals may have in letting go of the past. During the second phase of change, staff may face confusion and uncertainty as they try to adopt the new way of doing things. Van der Waldt characterizes this as a ‘neutral zone’: a way-station between the old and the new, and notes that communication during this phase should recognize and attempt to assuage the isolation that may ensue from this confusion. The setting of short term, easily measurable and attainable goals will aid employee morale during this time. The third phase of change occurs as staff begin to internalize the change and move forward, and communication at this time should be characterized by an acknowledgement of what individuals in the company have accomplished thus far and an understanding of the role the individual plays within the new system. A current topic in this area of research is the use of narrative techniques in communication about change.
Organizational change is disruptive by nature, and involves the uprooting of old norms that have enabled a company to succeed (or at least survive) thus far, and the adoption of as-yet-untried practices (Denning, 2005). In order for the change to succeed, management and staff must voluntarily and enthusiastically severely disrupt their own established work habits and consent to move into the unknown. Stephen Denning, one of the champions of the use of narrative in change communication, argues that in these situations, the organization’s leaders must employ extraordinary communication techniques to achieve the level of buy-in necessary to make change work. The use of storytelling to bring reality and substance to a leader’s vision is one way in which change can be made real to management and staff. Denning (2006) describes eight different narrative techniques that can be employed in different stages of organizational change. An example of one of these techniques is the use of ‘springboard stories’, which may be used to spark action and help muster enthusiasm for the change.
Stories used in these situations should be simple and straightforward in content, the goal being to spark the listeners’ imaginations and to get them imagining stories of their own in reference to the change being introduced. Stories may also be used as devices to deflect or defuse rumors, and as preparation for the future after the change is implemented. The overall purpose of the narratives is to change the listener’s behavior in such a way that it is aligned with the leader’s objectives. Denning (2006) warns of the danger of becoming so involved with the crafting and telling of stories that the goal of the narrative is lost. Storytelling can also be a way to get employees talking and thinking about what organizational change means to them and how change can be enacted.
A small regional hospital in New Mexico employed an interactive narrative technique in which employees were presented with a role-playing scenario that likened the transformation of the hospital’s mission to an Indiana Jones-style journey that was titled ‘Raiders of the Lost Art’ (Adamson, Pine, Van Steenhoven, & Kroupa, 2006). Within the structure of the game’s narrative, staff were presented with data regarding themselves, the community within which they worked, and their patients, and in this context were given scenarios about which they were encouraged to present ideas and feedback. By using this approach, hospital administrators were able to solicit employee feedback, involve staff in the development of strategic goals and objectives in support of the new mission, and gain buy-in by making employees a part of the change process. Change, communication, and information organizations
Libraries and other information organizations are faced every day with the challenges that come from adapting to a rapidly changing external environment. Information organizations that are able to proactively incorporate change into their strategic planning will be in a better position to keep pace with the evolving demands of customers than organizations that merely struggle to catch up as change overwhelms them. Farley, Broady-Preston, & Hayward (1998) identify four primary areas of change that affect academic libraries in particular: economics, technology, higher education, and organization. The rising costs of materials, combined with widespread reductions in funding, compounded by the additional financial burden imposed by the need to introduce new technologies, create an environment in which libraries must change in order to survive.
The increasing sophistication of technological tools used by librarians has, in some larger institutions especially, created a need for staff reorganization to incorporate greater collaboration with technical support staff (Farley, et al., 1998). Given this environment, effective communication with staff regarding change is essential to the success of libraries and other information organizations. Horenstein found that communication with library staff about the implementation of change is also important in fostering high levels of job satisfaction amongst library staff (as cited in Farley, et al., 1998).
Yet, although there is a substantial body of literature dealing with change management in information organizations (Farley et al.), little has been written about the specific application of communication research to the needs of information organizations facing change. For instance, a literature review conducted in conjunction with a study described below (Chalmers, Liedtka, & Bednar, 2006) uncovered no literature published specifically on library communications assessment since the 1980s.
In a review for librarians of change management literature from the business world, Smith (2006) addresses communicating in times of change by developing a series of rules of effective communication drawn from the literature. One of these rules states that managers should recognize that not all organizations, and not all individuals within organizations, will react to change the same way, and that communications should be geared accordingly, echoing the above-described communication model that incorporates targeted messages (Barrett, 2002). Another of Smith’s rules emphasizes the importance of making communication about change a two-way process incorporating a variety of communication methods including written, verbal, large and small group meetings and one-on-one encounters, and formal and informal venues, applying Kotter’s (1995) message about incorporating change communication whenever there is opportunity to do so.
Though Smith’s article is directed towards library professionals and, since it is published in the journal Library Management, is a useful vehicle for introducing concepts change communication research that librarians may not otherwise be exposed to, Smith does little more than review current literature and does not attempt to draw lessons from the literature to apply specifically to information organizations. On the other hand, Chalmers, et al. (2006) apply lessons from the literature of business communications to develop a survey that identifies the primary communication channels within the staff of a large academic library and assesses staff satisfaction with communication processes. They then provide recommendations based upon their experiences regarding how such an audit may be conducted in other similar organizations.
The communications audit was conducted at California State University, Fullerton’s Pollak Library, in response to a perception of diminished morale and increased staff isolation in response to rapid changes in management philosophy, staffing, and the introduction of new technologies. Library staff reported a relatively high rate (76%) of satisfaction with their level of informedness about changes within their own department, but indicated that they were less satisfied (46% satisfaction rate) with the degree to which they received information about the long range planning and goals of the library as a whole. Staff received their information both through formal library communications (newsletters, website, etc.; 80-98%) and informal channels (91%). Chalmers et al. describe how the survey instrument developed could be used to establish baseline data about intra-organization communication channels and identify areas of staff dissatisfaction with communication within the library.
Although there is a significant body of work in the business management field that deals with effective intra-organizational communication in times of change, little of this work has been applied in a way that is specific to the needs of information organizations. Given that information organizations have been and are facing a period of rapid and intensive change, work that applies the change management lessons learned in the business world to the needs of libraries would be especially timely. In particular, case studies of information organizations that have implemented communication strategies and are monitoring the effectiveness of these strategies in facilitating change would be useful starting points for other information organizations facing change. In addition, the adaptation of existing theoretical models of intra-organizational communication to information organizations may provide a useful starting point for the development of communication strategies, goals, and objectives.
In the greater body of business management literature regarding change communication, the primary focus of most research has been on top-down communication: methods by which leaders may effectively promote their vision amongst employees (Jones, Watson, Gardner, & Gallois, 2004). Although several workers (Adamson, 2006; Chalmers et al. 2006; LeTourneau, 2004; Smith, 2006) emphasize the importance of feedback from employees to management, and communication between employees, there is little material that deals with methods to assess the importance of or to actively cultivate these types of communications within an organization (Jones, et al., 2004).
Additionally, communication and coordination between departments may become increasingly important during times of change; for instance, in libraries the introduction of new technology may necessitate greater collaboration between IT departments and reference, circulation, or other services. Further investigation into means of facilitating collaboration between formerly non-interacting departments during times of change would be a helpful addition to the current literature on this topic.
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