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The Change-Management Charge

July 11, 2007
Change management is the skill set that future HR leaders most often lack, according to leadership development specialist LouAnn Muir, vice president for consulting at Veritude, a Boston-based talent management firm. And that gap in their résumés portends a problem, she says, because guiding organizations through transitions is becoming an increasingly large part of an HR leader’s job.

    But don’t worry. Change-management acumen, like a good golf swing, is something that can be developed with practice, provided that one pays attention to the fundamentals—in this case, the details of business strategy and how it drives change. And perhaps the most crucial part of learning how to utilize the HR function for change management, she notes, is simply thinking proactively.

    "When it comes to change, it’s drive or be driven," Muir says. "If you’re an HR leader who’s in a passive mode, you’re going to wait to get the business plan handed to you, along with a request for workforce changes or new workforce sourcing. What you want is to be in the active mode, where you respond to business priorities and identify the sort of change initiatives that will give you the workforce to accomplish those priorities in the future."

    Another key element is identifying, mastering—and if necessary, creating from scratch—a consistent methodology of change within an organization, Muir says. In companies where a structured change-management process already has been put in place by management, it’s vital for HR leaders to learn to follow the existing model. But in organizations without a change process, Muir recommends that HR leaders partner with a consulting firm or university to develop one. Without a consistent change process, Muir says, "organizations end up experiencing change as a disconcerting series of one-off initiatives, instead of as a cohesive business strategy that’s being deployed in an organized fashion."

    All change-management methodologies share some common elements, Muir explains. "The classic approach is to link yourself to a strategic initiative," she says. "First, you have to understand why you must change. Then, you develop sponsors within management for the key mandates of change, and create an entire plan that’s appropriate to the corporate culture. That involves assessing the distance between where you are now and where you want to be. You need a robust plan to communicate about change to the workforce, and a training plan to prepare them for it. Finally, you have to set up a monitoring process, to make sure that the change stays in place."

    Muir says it’s also important for HR leaders to learn to leverage HR’s traditional functional expertise for change-management purposes. "When it comes to change, HR brings some important things to the table," Muir says. "A working knowledge of the workforce, expertise in structuring compensation, measuring performance and recruiting—these are skill sets that are less robust for other business leaders who’ve risen up through the ranks of other functions. They usually only understand the total cost of a workforce. They’re less comfortable with the nuances of human capital and how to use it to add value to the organization. That’s a conversation that HR can lead."