MIT SMR Series

Using Digital Communication to Drive Digital Change

It’s tough to have one without the other.

Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a new MIT SMR series about communication strategies for digital transformation.

Leaders trying to get their organizations to adopt new technologies or new ways of thinking tend to kick things off with big, inspirational speeches. “When we’re finished,” they like to say, “we’re going to be the Apple of [insert niche industry here]!” This gets everyone fired up about the change.

And then ... silence.

My colleagues and I have seen this happen many times in our consulting work. Communication grinds to a halt until the company’s leaders define the next level of detail in the strategy or reach a massive milestone. Meanwhile, employees wait, wonder, and want to know how they can help. The absence of information leads to doubt, cynicism, and anxiety — which quickly become obstacles to change.

What if, rather than going quiet after kickoff, leaders model the behaviors they want to see by using digital tools to deliver a steady stream of messages to their employees and continually gather and respond to their feedback? It sounds quite basic — and really, it is.

If you’re planning a digital transformation, try the following techniques to embrace the spirit of change and guide your team through the process.

Push Information Out Quickly

A social media company we work with decided to launch a new internal performance-management platform in preparation for a major shift in the business’s compensation model. But HR leaders knew adopting the system could be challenging and emotionally fraught for employees. They also knew it wouldn’t be ready until close to the date when people would need to start using it.

To reduce resistance, the company’s internal communications team crafted a series of emails explaining the new system to everyone: why the organization was switching to it, what skills people would need to learn to use it, and what the change process would be like. The first emails targeted senior managers to prepare them for the rollout and provide guidance on responding to employee questions or concerns that were likely to come up.

The next emails were sent to employees. These messages unpacked the core skills people would need and emphasized how developing those skills (with the organization’s support) would benefit employees not just in their current roles but throughout their careers. The series also featured a frank, one-on-one interview between the head of HR and a trusted leader employees looked up to. In the interview, that leader voiced common objections and got HR to answer those concerns head-on.

Information has a way of quieting the nerves. A series of regular messages will keep your people in the loop about the change they’re expected to implement. It can also allow for a faster, more efficient adoption process, especially when time is of the essence. Your communication tools don’t need to be fancy. Email is about as simple as it gets, and that worked for the social media company. But if the change you’re espousing involves using unfamiliar technology, it may make sense to make that the vehicle for your information sharing. That way, people can gradually get comfortable with it, through passive exposure — and the senior team can lead by doing, which builds trust.

Incorporate Listening Mechanisms

It’s easy to forget that communicating change isn’t a one-way street. You may feel pressure to get your new program rolling and broadcast your message, but then fail to check in to see how the information landed. Throughout the transformation process, make sure your team is on board and morale is high by keeping a virtual “open door.”

The same social media company that moved to a new performance-management platform also uses a simple, app-based pulse survey to gather “emotional” feedback during periods of organizational change. Employees respond to a few quick questions about how they’re feeling about work, and the app collects responses in the aggregate to protect anonymity. This helps uncover potential job satisfaction issues and other obstacles to change. You can ask employees how they feel about your company overall, the job they’re doing, and the people they work with. The responses will help you gauge employee sentiment while also giving team members an outlet for expression.

Yet, listening isn’t enough; to reassure people that you’ve actually heard them, you need to respond, both by reporting out and reporting back. Report a summary of the feedback so it’s clear that you processed what employees had to say — and then, to show that the feedback made a difference, report back on progress as you implement changes and address issues that matter to them.

Provide an Online Learning Space

Change programs tend to focus more on processes than on people, but if you want your organization to meet the challenge of change, your team members need to undergo a personal transformation as well.

You can dampen doubt, combat cynicism, and reinforce commitment to the process by educating people throughout the transformation. Online training, in particular, can equip everyone involved in your process with insights and tools that will help them practice the change.

We once worked with a global industrial company that was attempting to digitize every aspect of its operations across the business. It started by using the lean startup methodology to develop new products but soon sought to transform everyday processes in each business unit. To smooth the bumps during the change, the company created an online training platform filled with resources about the change plans and new behaviors required of each person. All employees could access it, no matter their position, and it included presentations, videos, exercises, and tools that could be downloaded so that people could learn and practice the new systems in their daily work.

Using an online training program to educate people makes sense: If you’re going to be adopting new digital techniques, you should offer a digital space for learning them.

Help Managers Reinforce Desired Behaviors

Developing new mindsets and behaviors in an organization requires practice, so it’s important to provide on-the-job experiences that make the change realistic for everyone. In the midst of a transformation, every interaction has the potential to become a useful teaching moment — especially when you give your managers tools to overcome resistance and reinforce desired behaviors.

For instance, a small flash-storage startup we worked with was preparing for an upcoming initial public offering. The newly appointed CEO believed that everyone in the company needed to adopt a new set of core values to navigate the transition and position the organization for long-term growth. In collaboration with the CEO and the executive team, we crafted new values statements and prepared a campaign to teach employees how to live them. Online training helped people learn the nuts and bolts, but the company’s leaders realized the process would be smoother if they incorporated personalized learning opportunities, too. It wouldn’t be easy, though, because long-term employees were strongly attached to the old values, while newer employees who had joined through a recent acquisition were championing their original company’s ways. Their managers would have to help bridge the divide with individual coaching that considered both perspectives — newbie and old guard alike.

The startup planned one-on-one employee learning sessions and check-ins with managers as part of the change. It created a series of scripts that managers could rely on to coach team members as they used new programs and to help them navigate any difficulties they encountered when adopting new processes. The scripts enabled managers to reinforce learning in the moment, which helped people move past their initial opposition. Because the sessions were conducted one-on-one, they provided a degree of psychological safety and multiple opportunities for frustrated or hesitant employees to feel heard and validated.

Use Collaboration Tools to Align Teams

If people stop feeling connected to your mission during your change effort, they’re more likely to start resisting. Online collaboration can keep teams aligned while also modeling new ways of working.

We recently worked with an airline that was trying to make a wholesale shift to digital processes across the business. It was a huge endeavor to automate labor-intensive operations and create entirely new kinds of services for customers, including online travel planning, inflight entertainment, and pre- and post-travel experiences. The first obstacle, though, was to begin using technology in the most basic ways internally, like getting knowledge workers to post files online rather than sharing them over email or circulating old-school printouts. To make the transition easier, the company started using Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Teams to collaborate on projects in real time. The tools also allowed employees to chat with one another or with an AI assistant who was trained to answer specific kinds of questions.

Using collaboration tools like these to harness peer-to-peer communication allows you to tap into the “hive mind” so that your employees can support one another as they learn and adapt. This can build momentum — perhaps better than any other technique. In a transformation that’s focused on technology, leaders must foster connections between humans and their digital tools, of course, but it’s equally critical to bring humans closer to the people they work with. That’s how change becomes the new normal.