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Oh the times, they have a-changed


In today’s chaotic business landscape, change is the new constant. Organisations that want to flourish need adaptability in their DNA. But what does successful organisational change actually look like… and what role does HR have to play?

It must have been a bewildering experience working at Marks & Spencer at the turn of the millennium. 1998 saw the retailer post profits in excess of £1bn for the first time. Within three short years, those profits had slumped to £145 million.

The hit wasn’t merely financial. As Martin Clarkson, Co-founder and Chairman of change consultancy The Storytellers, puts it: “[I’d spent] 35 years with a company that people enjoy and adore and believe should have been running the world, and then suddenly overnight the world turns against them. In the space of three years we lost half our profit and two thirds of our turnover and we acquired a new chairman.”

Soon Martin was faced with a question that would be pivotal to M&S’s future. “[The new chairman asked me], ‘How many people work here Martin?’ and I said, ‘65,000.’ He said, ‘Then you need a story that 65,000 people can understand, so that 65,000 people can realise there’s a role in them helping the recovery of this business.’

The journey of change
Here is the crux of a celebrated tale of 21st century business transformation. It wasn’t a ‘business transformation’ at all – no mere dry reboot of systems and processes, begrudgingly carried out by an un-consulted and suspicious workforce. M&S’s reinvention was a collective journey, mapped out by leaders but supported by everyone in the company.

The results have been extraordinary but one element of M&S’s story is quite typical. From the chairman down, the leadership team was able to bring crystal-clear strategic vision and purpose to its transformation.

There is a wealth of CIPD research into transformational change. One of the key factors we’ve observed is the rise of a generation of business leaders who seem more instinctively clued-up than their predecessors on how to land transformational change in their organisation. This includes understanding the need for:

A long-term approach

Sequencing of interventions

Leading by example

Investment in softer interventions beyond structures and systems

Pushing new strategies down to the front line

Translating corporate rhetoric into tangibles.

HR: the expert facilitator
Interestingly, just as CEOs and business leaders have become more sophisticated in how they land change programmes, so HR has stepped up in the support it provides. Senior HR leaders are enhancing their expertise in the design of change techniques and deploying this knowledge more adeptly at all workforce levels to embed change deeply and sustainably.

The role performed by senior HR managers in successful organisational change is one we call the expert facilitator. In practice, this means directing the change rather than leading it. Typically, we see successful expert facilitators not feeling driven to be centre stage as a leading actor, instead wanting recognition of their substantial backstage contribution.

In this analogy, HR leaders become stage directors of change: willing to work as the ‘hidden hand’ of change, not highly visible but highly relevant to its success, closely allied to business leaders and appreciated by all involved in putting on the production.

Knowledge is the key
As the name implies, the expert facilitator must be able to support the business leadership with critical knowledge and skills in the field of organisation design and development. These could be techniques to communicate, inform and embed change, so that it translates into effective new behaviours and processes. But equally important is the understanding that if you want change to stick, it takes time.

To revamp an old cliché, organisational change doesn’t happen overnight. For M&S, it was a full decade before profits returned to 1998 levels.

The point is that organisational change is no longer the stuff of lip service and long grass, and business leaders are actively embracing it.

If you aren’t among their number, you’re already playing catch-up.

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