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Thwarting the rumor mill, communicating change

When ERP projects spawn rumors, communication becomes critical.

Paul Newman starred as an irrepressible inmate in a Southern prison in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke. In one scene, Strother Martin, playing the captain of Road Prison 36, shakes his head at the recently captured, leg-ironed prisoner. The captain is baffled by Luke's inability to accept his brutal fate and says, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

This phrase has become synonymous with some of life's more frustrating moments -- those times when you might wish you had the power of an autocratic prison captain who communicates through action rather than words.

IT types often hold the equally erroneous view that communication isn't necessary because end users won't understand what you tell them. Users call the help desk again no matter what you say.

Good project communication lies somewhere between the blunt-object and shrinking-violet approaches. And as we were to learn at my company, good marketing is something more.

Suspicion and stress in the ranks

During the first year of our ERP implementation, we sent out corporate-wide emails as we sought a new business system, and again when we made a selection. We put a lot of care into the content and phrasing and got a thrill as we clicked "Send." So we were mildly surprised when rumors floated to us from the frontlines about everything from layoffs to unwelcome changes in employees' responsibilities.

It's natural to be suspicious of change. And nothing short of bankruptcy or acquisition creates more organizational change and stress than implementing a new ERP system. Stress is understandable when you're worried about losing your job.

Even the term ERP starts to sound fishy. Enterprise resource planning seems shady compared with business system. That's one of the reasons we changed our team's name from the Standard Operating Procedures Development Team to the Business Design Team. Suspecting verbal sleight of hand, some wondered if it wasn't the same old maze and the same old cheese, just a higher-priced rat. (And they're right about the higher prices.)

As it turns out, part of our job is to communicate to front-line users that the cheese is tastier and the maze is new and improved. Part of our job is not just to throw words over the wall but to market change. By merely sending a few emails, what we got here was ... a failure to market.

Marketing is a necessary part of managing change. We learned that more than email was necessary to tell our story. Our vacuum of communication was soon filled by questions from the more vocal employees: "Why are we doing this?" and "Will I be trained?" and "How much will it cost us?" They certainly had no trouble communicating.

Getting down to business

After fits and starts, we finally sat down with a member of our marketing staff and laid out a campaign. We structured the campaign around frequent communication, interactive tools and branding elements. We ensured that content was brief, positive and informative.

All written communication contained senior-executive commitments, recognition of front-line team members or examples of how the new system would make staffers' work lives better. By publishing a biweekly email co-branded with our logo (and that of our ERP partner), and by writing a column in our monthly newsletter, we highlighted the positive outcomes and addressed the front-line concerns.

For major milestones, we sent out printed memoranda. In the age of digitized everything, it's striking how people pay attention to infrequent hard-copy communiqués. The volume of email and instant messaging devalues the perceived importance of the content.

We also used surveys, whose links and results were published in biweekly email newsletters, to get employees involved. We didn't get a large percentage to participate in taking the surveys, but we learned from those who did.

Our co-branding extended to all our communications, Web presentations and gifts. The obligatory shirts, mugs and candies were spread around as rewards until the connection between our company and our ERP partner was inescapable. We'll have enough left over to equip an entire league of coffee-drinking, pre-diabetic bowling teams.

There was plenty of water-cooler commentary as well. Much of it focused on layoffs or laments about changing routines. For example, one of our highly inefficient processes put our accounts payable clerks on the phone with branch buyers daily. Process improvements eliminated the need for these daily updates. Even though the buyers and clerks had never met, it meant the end of a friendship.

Someone had heard about "new efficiencies" and "better profitability," and another rumor developed concerning staff reductions. One such rumor landed in the IT department. My electronic data interchange (EDI) analyst asked me if it was true that we were going to outsource our EDI. I said yes, and then we discussed what he would do instead. He admitted that he didn't like EDI anyway and went away happy.

We have an unwritten policy that no jobs are cut because of technological improvements. We needed to tell people that. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recounts a game that involves selecting two words of the same length and then, by changing one letter at a time, changing the first word into the second. It's an example of fiction imitating life: the transformation of fact into rumor.

Repetition, staying on message, making the unfamiliar familiar: these practices make franchise operations and political campaigns thrive, and they helped us with internal marketing, too. Building our biweekly email newsletter with regular sections such as "Recognition Corner," "Project News," "Survey Says" and "Did You Know?" kept people informed, even after going live with the new system. Linking back to an intranet site that includes screenshots is a great way to prepare for training through repetition.

During training sessions, ensure that fear, uncertainty and doubt are squelched for good. Beginning with our first class, with content honed to address those free-floating rumors and highlight our survey results, we are striving to create evangelists out of the naysayers. We want them to walk away with a story about how the new system will help them do their work.

We also want employees to walk away knowing how IT can help them add to the bottom line. We are beginning to market ourselves and our services under an initiative we call "Do Our (Internal) Customers Know About This?" If it's a change and employees will be affected, we can't have a failure to communicate. If it's big, like a new ERP system, it's worth the marketing effort as well.

I spoke with one longtime employee the other day who said, "In the beginning I thought, 'Our current system is my life! I don't know if can take giving it up.' Then I thought, 'But what about all those things I've learned to live with?' I'm warming up to the idea." We hope to have 550 such success stories, one for each of our employees.

Les Johnson is CIO at North Coast Electric Co., a wholesale electrical distributor in Bellevue, Wash. Write to him at This column originally appeared in the October issue of CIO Decisions magazine.

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