Change management is as big a concern now as it was 30 years ago. What steps can chief information officers take to effectively navigate change? Here are four suggestions.

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

July 13, 2022

4 Min Read
Origami paper ships, change business concept
Thitaree Sarmkasat via Alamy Stock

“The average CIO lasts about two years -- hardly enough time to assess the potential for the business to grow, create a strategy, oversee delivery, and assess the business benefits,” said Cathy Holly, a professional CIO recruiter, in a Tech Monitor article from last year. “No other C-level function has such a short shelf-life.”

Holly cites one reason that CIOs get fired: an inability to be a business team player as well as the CIO.

I’m going to add another reason: an inability to effectively manage change.

Companies change through mergers and acquisitions, through introducing new products and brand focuses, etc. But the most visible form of change for day-to-day employees and managers is the change that is brought about by system and business process redesign.

Unfortunately, what hasn't changed is humans’ fundamental dislike of change.

Why do people hate change? For most, it’s a fear of the unknown, an uncertainty of how they will perform in a new workflow or environment, and a fear that they will lose control.

These are just some of the reasons why organizational change management is a road that must carefully be navigated by CIOs, who often aren’t aware of impending changes until someone who has decided to split off part of the organization or start a new business line tells them to “change the system.”

What makes CIOs vulnerable is the way that most employees and their managers feel change. They don’t feel it through some distant executive decision. Rather, they experience it through the reworking of business and system flows that impact how they do work. When a new system or workflow impacts productivity and employees and managers feel the heat, they can be quick to blame IT -- and the CIO can suddenly find himself or herself in a career-threatening position.

What steps can CIOs take to effectively navigate change? Here are four suggestions:

1. Communicate and collaborate

The more CIOs get out into the business, proactively communicating with the CEO, the board and other C-level executives, the more they will be able to foresee business changes that are in the making and how these changes will impact systems and work.

One collaboration that is frequently underexploited is the relationship between the CIO and the CHRO (chief human resources officer). If IT and human resources can get together when change is first anticipated, and develop system/process changes, but also training and support for employees and managers, they can create a more orderly (and less anxious) workflow and system transformation.

It's equally important to meet with employees and managers who are affected by the change, engaging them up front in the business redesign process whenever possible. This gives them a sense of ownership and participation in the process. It also enables employees to see what their roles in the new process or system will be, and that they are still valued contributors. This relieves anxiety.

2. Try to avoid doing too much at once

Change is best managed one piece at a time.

While there are situations where “big bang” system swap-outs are unavoidable, communicating (and even over-communicating) with employees before change occurs, giving them a vision of the change roadmap and how they will fit within it, and introducing change at a rate that gives employees time to adjust, are preferred.

3. Be authentic

If a new process or system isn’t working, stop the project so it can get on course. If employees are nervous about a new process or system, be transparent with them, especially if the new change could dramatically affect (or eliminate) their jobs.

One of the most successful system automation efforts I ever witnessed involved the layoff of 30 employees who lost their jobs because of the automation.

The company (including the CIO) was forthright in communicating with the employees. Many of them were redeployed to other jobs within the company. Those whom the company could not redeploy we given coaching, resume development support, and placement support from HR. Just as importantly, employees who didn't lose their jobs, witnessed how well the company treated their co-workers.

4. Take accountability

If a system change isn't going well, and it was due to a decision that you made, accept responsibility, and take steps to correct it.

I once was consulting to an IT staff that was in fear of its CIO. “It doesn't matter what I do,” confided one staff member. “If I do it right, he’ll take the credit and if I do it wrong, he’ll throw me under the bus.”

Having to undergo major change can be tough enough. By being authentic and transparent with your staff and with those in the business, and by setting an example that begins with holding yourself accountable, you can build an environment of trust and goodwill in the face of change that will move the business forward.

What to Read Next:

Interim CIOs Favored as Organizations Seek Digitalization Push

The Evolution of the CIO

The Restructuring CIO: Transforming How IT Works

About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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