History Isn

By Howard Baldwin  |  Posted 08-01-2001 Print Email
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History Isn't Bunk

It's not enough to focus solely on the present. Understanding the company's history and culture is critical to determining whether it's likely to support or hinder change. "What an organization has been through in the past deeply influences how it responds to future efforts," says Helene Uhlfelder, director of the People and Organization practice at Answerthink, a consulting firm in Miami. "If a group has had difficulty making changes, they will have a higher level of resistance. At the same time, past successes will lead them to be more flexible."

Understanding the history of an organization is the hardest part about assessing change readiness, says Kep Vadnais, director of IT benchmarking at Hackett Benchmarking & Research (the research arm of Answerthink). "When we benchmark an IT organization, it's a snapshot of the current state, but it tells us nothing of how the organization got there. Understanding where it's been is how you get to the next destination," he says. If you try to initiate a change that's already been tried and failed, your chances of success are only half of what they would normally be.

Goldwasser recommends a two-step process for coming up with an IT group's history. First, engage people in a dialogue about what worked and what didn't in previous projects. "It only takes about fifteen minutes to get a good list of what got results and what didn't. But the issue is, what's being done about them? In many cases, they're not learning the lessons, so they're reliving the problems over and over." After compiling the results, call a meeting and share the summary in order to check its accuracy. Finally, brainstorm with the staff about how to mitigate the concerns they've aired. But if you find an IT group that thinks it's been stellar at change, Uhlfelder suggests doing a reality check with other parts of the company. "A group will sometimes see itself as more change-ready than the rest of the organization," he says, "and as the CIO, you're going to have to deal with that perception gap."

The culture clashes that emerge during mergers and alliances can provide some of the toughest change-management challenges for CIOs. Find out what kind of an organization you're working with, whether you're acquiring, being acquired or working on a joint IT venture, cautions Pete DeLisi, president of Organizational Synergies, an Alameda, Calif.-based IT consulting firm. "Watch out for situations where the culture is solely reactive. If standing out and taking a risk involves getting hit on the head like it's a Whack-a-Mole game, you're not likely to find people who will like the idea of change."

Unsurprisingly, CIOs and consultants frequently disagree on who should conduct assessment interviews. One consultant derided the variety of CIOs' assessment methods as "snowflakes—no two are alike." Consultants argue that outsiders bring objectivity. Staffers may be more willing to talk to a third party about concerns they have than to their boss. Tom Gmitter, CIO of Cone Mills Corp., a Greensboro, N.C., textile firm, concedes that "most employees feel more comfortable sharing bad news with a third party in a confidential environment than with in-house management." That third party could also be the internal HR organization.

CIOs argue, on the other hand, that first-hand research is crucial, so they need to be their own field researchers. "When you get information through a filter," says Sony's Yaros, "other biases get in the way."

But how can CIOs tell for sure whether they're being told what the employee thinks they want to hear? As in any survey, look for multiple data points and verification. "We'll ask others in the company about previous efforts to get a systemic perspective," says Claudia Saran, director of business consulting for Chicago-based Andersen. "We ask end users to see if they think IT is ready."



 

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