Module 9: Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change - Communication, Accountability and Innovation

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Communication Systems

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Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change

Communication, Accountability and Innovation

Communication Systems

Communication Challenges in Modern Organizations

All communication involves the transmission of a message from a sender to a receiver.

Communication is central to organizational effectiveness and survival because the essence of organizations is cooperation, and no cooperation is possible without effective communication. [1]

While communicating effectively has never been easy to do, there are challenges to communication in today’s organizations.

Electronic communication is impersonal and not as powerful as traditional methods!

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Every organization must solve the problem of what pattern of communication shall be instituted, and what information shall be directed to what offices.

One issue in establishing such a pattern is information overload. There are limits to the amount of communication that can be received, coded, and effectively handled by any one individual. [2]

Organizational Communication and Change

Due to the aforementioned reasons, as well more traditional problems, change initiatives often fail to meet their objectives.

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Unfortunately, there is much more written about how communication fails to support change than what works.

Communication is essential for organizational change as a leadership expert states:

Transformation is impossible unless hundreds of thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible. Without credible communication, and a lot of it, the hearts and minds of the troops are never captured. [6]


For instance, John Kotter flatly states that ineffective communication of the change vision is one of the primary causes of failed organizational change. [3]

T. J. Larkin and Sandar Larkin, assert that change-oriented communications are too often lofty, vague, and impersonal so the message is never really understood and therefore change initiatives founder. [4]

And Goffee and Jones observe that most change communication lacks authenticity, so the rest of the organization doesn’t trust what is being said and consequently the change effort stalls or goes in unintended directions. [5]

Using the Communication System to Bring About Change

One of the primary reasons why communication within organizations tends to be fragmented is that the organizational leaders think of it as a collection of tools rather than an overall system. [7]

Robust organizational communication systems are essential for bringing about organizational change. The following section discusses each aspect of the communication system.

The Change Message

When communicating with others, it is important to consider the nature of the message in order to make sure that it is heard.

For example, downsizing and layoff messages evoke strong and often powerful emotions within organizations. The timing and medium of that message should be tailored to address the delicate nature of the information intended.

Similarly, the message must be clear and direct if there isn’t much time to make the change.

And if the message is complicated, such as the need to replace an old technology with an entirely new one, then the communication system must take this into consideration. [8]

Take time to consider how you will deliver your message - it will make a difference in how it is perceived

Change Leader Attributes

If the change leader is perceived to be honest and authentic, then the message is likely to be heard-no small task in our information overload world.

Authentic leader(s) display their true selves throughout the changes of context that require them to play a variety of roles.

Authentic leaders also nurture their relationship with followers by highlighting their strengths, while revealing human weaknesses; they maintain their individuality while conforming enough to hold the organization together, and they establish intimacy with followers while keeping enough distance to command respect. [9]

Followers’ Readiness to Change

Employees within an organization vary in their readiness to change.

Some individuals just don’t like any change, while others will leap at the opportunity to try something new. Most individuals vary between these two poles of readiness depending on the perceived costs and benefits of a particular proposed change.

In other words, if the employee perceives a change as relatively easy to adopt (i.e., low cost), and the change brings about many advantages or solves existing problems (i.e., high benefit), then the employee will be relatively open to the change. [10]

Employees will always perceive change differently – it is up to management to present it in a positive manner!

Channels of Communication

There are a wide variety of communication channels within organizations. Communication channels involve both formal and informal mediums of information exchange.

While most organizations tend to prefer using certain communication channels in all situations, the selection of the channel should be based on the specific change.

The reason for this is that communication channels vary in their efficiency and information richness. Rich communication channels are typically interactive and face-to-face, and they provide an abundance of contextualized information.

In general, the more complicated and emotionally charged the change initiative, the more communication channels will be needed, and they need to be information rich, particularly in the beginning of the change program.

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Formal mediums include such things as town hall meetings, newsletters, workshops, videos, e- mail, bulletin boards, manuals, roadshows, and progress reports. [11]

Informal mediums include such things as hallway discussions, one-on-one meetings, departmental briefings, and having senior leaders
walking the talk. In both cases, the invisible social network within the organization plays a powerful role in interpreting the message. [12]

Practice 1: Hire, Develop, and Retain Effective Communicators

In a 1998 survey of 480 companies and public organizations by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, communication abilities are ranked number one among personal qualities of college graduates sought by employers. Work experience and motivation are second and third. [13]

Clearly, one of the reasons why communication skills are so important is that these skills are essential for facilitating organizational change.

A less obvious reason why good communicators are essential is that these individuals understand how to design and enhance the communication systems within an organization so that information flows more effectively.

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For example, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones argue that effective leaders “communicate with care.”

Communicating with care means that the leaders choose their channels of communication strategically, tailor their message to the aims of the change initiative, authentically disclose intimate details when appropriate, and are very sensitive to the pace and timing of their communications. [14]

Practice 2: Talk the Walk and Walk the Talk

When the behavior from prominent people within an organization is inconsistent with the change vision, then all other forms of communication are disregarded. [15]

In short, “walking the talk” is an essential part of the communication system within an organization.

This process begins with the chief executive of the firm modeling the behavior being sought by the change vision.

Change leaders are in a fish bowl, and they must be as if not more willing than the rest of the organization to change their behaviors. As Mahatma Gandhi stated, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Practice 3: Use Stories, Metaphors, Analogies, and Pictures as Much as Possible

Stories, metaphors, and analogies are powerful ways to communicate complex information in compelling ways.

John Kotter emphasizes that this is important for communicating the change vision. He restates the truism that “a verbal picture is worth a thousand words.”[16]

Organizational change, by definition, requires employees to try something new and move into the unknown.

Communication systems that rely on stories, metaphors, and analogies can make the unknown future state more attractive and understandable.

Be creative in how you present change - it can make in a difference in how it is perceived by staff!

Practice 4: Repeat the Message Many Times in Many Forums, but Keep It Fresh

It is common for change leaders to announce a new change program and pull out all the stops to communicate it to the rest of the organization in the early part of the change initiative, only to move onto other pressing issues after it has been launched

This is a mistake, and leads to the change cynicism seen in many organizations.

The change message must be repeated many ways in many different contexts using multiple communication channels. [17]

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However, this does not mean that daily e-mails with the same message need to be sent out to the entire organization. It does mean that creative and different versions of the same message need to be distributed periodically in various channels.

For example, the change vision could be communicated to large and small groups in formal and informal ways at the launch of a major change program.

Practice 5: Seek to Discuss the Undiscussable

In every organization, there are undiscussable issues. An undiscussable issue is a taboo subject, something people in an open forum don’t talk about in order to avoid an emotionally charged discussion.

These issues are undiscussable because people are fearful of releasing “negative” emotions that could jeopardize working relationships.

Organizational change is complicated and there are often inconsistencies when moving from one organizational state to another. If the communication system does not address these inconsistencies, then the credibility of the entire change initiative is called into question. [18]

Furthermore, it is much more honest and productive to discuss undiscussables. [19]

Practice 6: Leverage Informal Social Networks

A social network is “the structure of personal and professional relationships you have with others. Social capital are the resources you are able to access through your social networks.” [20]

It is a mistake to communicate only through the formal organizational structure. Indeed, Peter Drucker observed that in more than 600 years, no society has ever had as many competing centers of power as today.

In addition, he noted that as we move to a more knowledge-based economy, informal social networks are increasingly important to organizational success and survival. [21]

Do not neglect informal social networks – they can greatly develop your communication system!

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Social networks and capital exist inside and outside of the organization, but the internal organizational networks can be most powerful in dealing with organizational issues.

Informal social networks consisting of simple things like friendships outside of work or regular lunch gatherings during work can have a major influence on change implementation success. Unlike the formal organizational structure, the informal social network is nonhierarchical.

The informal social network complements the formal organizational structure of an organization.


[1] Barnard (1938). The functions of the executive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Katz and Kahn (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York, NY: Wiley.

[3] Kotter (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[4] Larkin and Larkin (1994). Communicating change: Winning employee support for new business goals. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[5] Goffee and Jones (2006). Why should anyone be led by you? What it takes to be an authentic leader. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[6] Kotter (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail.Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59-67.

[7] Katz and Kahn (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York, NY: Wiley.

[8] Kotter (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[9] Goffee and Jones (2006). Why should anyone be led by you? What it takes to be an authentic leader. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[10] Armenakis, Harris, & Mossholder (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681-703.

[11] Balogun and Hailey (2008). Exploring strategic change (3rd ed.). London, England: Prentice-Hall.

[12] Farmer, (2008). The invisible organization: How informal networks can lead organizational change. London, England: Ashgate.

[13] Bennett (2000). Leading the edge of change: Building individual and organizational capacity for the evolving nature of change. Mooresville, NC: Paw Print Press.

[14] Goffee and Jones (2006). Why should anyone be led by you? What it takes to be an authentic leader. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[15] Kotter (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[16] Kotter (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[17] Kotter (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[18] Kotter (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[19] O’Toole and Bennis (2009). What’s needed next: A culture of candor.Harvard Business Review, 87(6), 54-61.

[20] Carpenter (2009). An executive’s primer on the strategy of social networks. New York, NY: Business Expert Press.

[21] Drucker (1992). The new society of organizations.Harvard Business Review, 70(5), 95-105.


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