Communication is vital
In any organisation undergoing significant change, communication is key in ensuring the commitment of the workforce to the change. Only if employees understand the planned change and recognise its importance, can they be expected to strive toward its success. In order to broadcast messages of change, corporate communication reaches employees through the usual channels, including speeches, newsletters, the intranet, meetings, or trainings. While employees can learn what the change is about through these channels, it is often not sufficient to secure their buy in and full support. Providing information and sharing expectations is important but it does not necessarily win over hearts and minds.
One important communication channel that is often neglected in change management is the social network within the organisation – the web of informal relationships between employees. Informal relationships such as friendship ties span across organisational structures and hierarchies. While the organisational chart tells us how communication should flow within the organisation, the social network tells us how it actually flows. Even more importantly, through informal ties, such as friendships, employees influence each other’s perceptions and attitudes toward the change. Organisational researchers have long documented how employees’ perceptions and values converge within their social networks. But while many companies have started to discover the social networks of their consumers as an important communication channel, only few pay attention to their own employee networks.
How can change communication be leveraged through employee networks? Techniques of social network analysis (SNA) reveal the specific patterns of communication within units or the overall organisation. Based on the results of the SNA, companies can design specific interventions to leverage the network for the change communication. But even without these advanced techniques, some suggestions can be made:
Nurture a positive employee network
High connectivity is the basis for leveraging employee networks for change communication. The more ties exist, the more employees share information freely and converge in their perceptions and opinions on change. An organisational climate of trust and collaboration certainly fosters the creation of informal ties. But also opportunities to connect to colleagues informally through off-campus events, parties, community services etc. help to foster the employee network.
Of particular importance are cross-unit ties, as they prevent that particular unit within the organisation from becoming siloed and cut-off from the information flow. In siloed units, distorted information and negative attitudes toward change are more likely to sprout. Close ties to employees outside of the unit make the boundaries of the unit more permeable and the shared perceptions and attitudes toward change fit more in line with the rest of the organisation.
Identify the central players
People who have many close relationships within the organisation and thus have wide access and strong influence can potentially be ideal allies for spreading a positive change message. Note that their central position in the network may not be aligned with their job title or level in the formal hierarchy. Some people naturally connect to others and become rapidly popular without any job-related necessity. People can also become central through informal leadership roles within the organisation (e.g., organisers of popular events, club presidents etc.).
Make a your central players your allies
People central in the employee network are good candidates for taking up leading roles in the change effort (e.g., as agents for change, members of change committees etc.). Before enlisting them they need to be undoubtedly on board with the change, otherwise they can do more harm than good.
One should also consider the type of centrality they have in the employee network; some people are very well connected within their particular teams or units (communal leaders). Others might have only a few strong ties within their own units but many ties to various teams or units throughout the organisation (boundary spanners). Communal leaders are instrumental in creating strong consensus about the change but within the boundaries of their teams or units. In contrast, boundary spanners have a far reach throughout the organization but their influence is weaker and restricted.