Don’t Let Poor Communication Foil Your Technology Implementation

By Mark Webster

Your organization has decided to implement a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform, and the blue suits put the project in your able hands. The entire leadership team supports the strategy; after all, it will standardize processes, provide better data and streamline maintenance. The technology folks are on board with your choice of vendor; your project schedule has been vetted and deemed reasonable. Everything seems to be smooth sailing. Is this a recipe for success?

Maybe – it depends on how you choose to communicate this change initiative. Unless you can make this change palatable and understandable to end-users, it will probably fail. Communication that is reactive, passive, or overly technical has killed many ERP installations. Incorporating some strategic communication components into your change strategy is one of the best ways to improve your chances of success.

More than traditional communication

Strategic communication goes well beyond traditional communication activities like inventorying communication vehicles, identifying milestones and scheduling communication activities. Strategic communication allows change leaders to bridge strategy and implementation through a process of alignment, by linking employees’ interests with the success of the strategy. Employees will not change, even if they are unhappy with the current state, unless they believe that change is possible and benefits them. If done well, strategic communication can motivate employees, overcome resistance, prepare people for change and give them a personal stake in the strategy implementation.

Communicate to achieve alignment

So how do we harness employee energy and gain their commitment to change? In practice, several factors need to be in place to set the stage for strategic communication. Begin this process after agreeing on the strategy, but before communicating the change to the workforce. Ask yourself the following ten questions. The right answers will help guide your communication strategy to achieve alignment.

1. Have you boiled down the strategy?

Take your well-crafted strategy and boil it down to digestible chunks. A 20-page document or 45-slide PowerPoint outlining your strategy is cumbersome. Five major points highlighting why you are doing what you are doing provides communicators with something they can work with to create a coherent message and vision.

2. Do you know what you stand for?

Everyone knows the company’s mission statement, corporate values and vision. Or do they? Review them and have them in your hip pocket – it might help reinforce the message of your project.

3. Have you acknowledged the elephants in the room?

Chances are, there are major incidents in the past, personality clashes, prior failures, etc. that could sabotage your ERP implementation. Acknowledge them. Knowing all the downsides, history and negative water cooler talk is vital to pre-empt possible negative reactions to your initiative.

4. Who are we?

Do you understand the culture of the organization? Most failed change initiatives are traced back to a misalignment between strategy and culture. Understanding organizational culture and how the workforce sees itself will help craft appropriate language and messages. Our groundbreaking cultural assessment tool, developed by the University of Maryland’s Dr. Carol Pearson (see article on Org Culture) can help.

5. Who is your target audience?

Many strategies fail because change champions talk only to themselves or speak in terms only a change champion could love. Find out who is going to be impacted by the change, who can defeat it by their inaction or lack of enthusiasm and then identify a target demographic.

Try not to preach to the choir or win over the ardent naysayers. These are generally the outliers. Most folks are indifferent or only mildly supportive – it’s their support you need. Find out what demographic they fit. Are they at headquarters or in the field? Are they new hires or the old guard? Are they front line managers or warehouse employees? Having a target audience in mind, even anecdotally, helps craft the right message to convey your strategy.

6. What exactly is going on here?

What exactly is changing? Do not wait until the folks in training develop a nifty process map, training tools and job aids. Get ahead of the curve: document the processes that will change and let people know what they will have to do differently in order for the change to succeed. Given that people generally fear change, it helps to be specific to preempt the rumors. This does not mean you cannot talk generally about the coming change, but buttressing the argument for change with real-world examples reinforces the message you will create below.

7. What are the real benefits to end users?

Your boil-down strategy is all about corporate objectives. But what are the benefits to those who will actually have to change how they do something? Is it quicker or more transparent? Dig deep to find facts, such as easier access to information or total time savings. From our experience, end users understand and can appreciate corporate objectives, but corporate objectives are abstract. End users can accept change more easily if they can identify benefits to them.

8. Can you say it in 30 seconds or less?

Message is the mother’s milk of all communication. It is imperative to create a solid message that succinctly captures your project’s benefits, incorporates your company vision and project strategy, and reflects your company culture in three or four main message point. A coherent message is a cheat sheet that can be repeated in a short elevator ride. It can serve as a safe harbor, providing a foundation for all communication. It also accounts for those elephants in the room.

9. Do you have an identity?

Brands are the visual, emotional representation of the message. Simple branding of your internal project can reinforce your message by stressing modernity, unity or any other message your project needs to convey to your target audience. More than a logo, a strong brand has the ability to connect to our emotions and illicit a gut reaction. Branding an internal project need not be over-engineered, but it should strengthen the message you need to convey.

10. Are we all on the same page here?

Just because they signed off on the strategy does not mean project stakeholders are on board each step of the way. Alignment is hard to win and easy to lose, so incorporating stakeholders in the above nine steps serves dual purposes. Whether it is in a message workshop or getting input on organizational culture, engaging major players in the process makes sense. It reinforces a real sense of ownership. It also helps stakeholders incorporate coherent and consistent messages into their daily activities. At the very least, let stakeholders know the results of culture, message or branding work – don’t wait for the launch of your revised website or project go-live date to share the news of these important change management steps.

Be strategic about your communication

Face it – change is scary and ERPs are especially frightening to your workforce. Whether it is for your supply chain, data warehouse, or travel/expense forms, ERPs change how people in your organization go about their daily life. At the same time this upheaval hits them, communication about this change usually comes from some well-intentioned IT or financial person, most likely in a webpage with technical FAQs. Don’t let that happen – be strategic about your communication. Ensure you include strategic communication in the entire change initiative – from training end-users to engaging executive sponsors.

Some responsible for ERP change initiatives start communicating immediately after getting sign off on strategy, while others wait far too long and let water cooler talk poison the atmosphere for change. Saying nothing or focusing on project objectives and strategy, not on how it will benefit end users, are both recipes for disaster. Boiling down strategy, understanding culture and developing a message that resonates with a target audience will help ensure ERP projects succeed. Every change initiative has unforeseen challenges and landmines. Strategic communication can help identify, understand and mitigate them.

Mark Webster is former Emerson Human Capital’s Strategic Communications expert with over 20 years of experience.