On transformation and change (part 1)

Scanning job ads is a fascinating insight into the solutions companies think they need for their pressing challenges. Packaged up into a job description the answer comes in the form of a new hire, whose role becomes reactive, to fix, change or improve something, or proactive, to invent, build or take a opportunity for something. In other words, they are required to work on something that exists and that isn’t optimised, or to work on something new and bring it into being. Perhaps it involves a bit of both. All too often, though, the focus is on the former and is driven by finance, HR and IT. 

I say all this because, particularly within the public sector, and more widely within consultancy-land, ‘transformation and change’ are synonyms for ‘IT and HR’. Indeed, most roles that fit under this umbrella are usually hosted organisationally in one of the three places no genuine and self-respecting person working on transformation/change (T/C) wants to ever be found: accountancy, HR and IT. 

Why is this? Historically, T/C was about digitisation – bringing in new IT systems, upgrading legacy ones, web 2.0, you name it. Usually a tech task in and of itself with no consideration to the needs of, and usability for, those it might need to serve. One thing user-centered / UX / service design has brought to this table is the need to start from the user and track their journey through the system to optimise the processes involved. If this was the focus you’d be sat in a team of techies. 

T/C was also about change management, alternatively (provocatively) interpreted as ‘instructing staff to get with the programme’, as though a desire not to change was a wilful disregard of instruction and management. Generally this viewpoint flows from the idea that people are inherently lazy and unmotivated and require close supervision and oversight to perform; motivation has to be extrinsically-applied to assure compliance. The usual array of training, performance reviews, motivational posters, improvement plans and the like are the tools of HR- (people) based T/C. Organisational Design sits here, too.

Indeed, the HR professional body CIPD states “people professionals and HR functions are among those best placed to drive effective change” (as an aside, given we human beings are a social animal, the idea of a ‘people professional’ as in some way a specialist human seems to me bizarre in the least. This is why I tend to think of HR as a specialist risk management function instead). 

Since austerity hit the public sector T/C has become shorthand for budget cuts, under the guise of efficiency gains. The task of the T/C lead is therefore to oversee a portfolio of work that seeks to ‘squeeze out the efficiencies’ from every process and service. Whilst most are aware that ‘efficiency programme’ is seen as a positive spin on the budget cuts promulgated by central government on local government, it is still work that has to be done. Unfortunately the immediacy of these pressures does not enable a more sustainable long-term view to be taken and so we are forced to make in-year cuts and reductions to meet smaller and smaller funding settlements. This leads in turn – as I have covered before – to rising demand, build-up of long-term pressures in the system (often generational) and increased vulnerability/reduced resilience to shock. Because the focus is finance you’ll be sat with accountants and auditors to do this work. 

If you escape the clutches of these departments you may be in a Programme Management Office. The tools of such work frequently remain Gantts and linear project plans, budgets and PRINCE2, or perhaps Agile and design-led methods. Familiarity with (and demonstrable qualification in) methods such as Prosci ADKAR and Kotter’s eight steps are often required or expected. 

How, instead, might we think of T/C if it is not seen as in some way a ‘deficit’ discipline, a fix to broken IT systems, broken employee motivation or broken resourcing strategies? 

In part two I offer some ideas. 

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