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Accepting the transformation challenge

On 4 February 2021, Deutsche Post issued a special postage stamp “Digital Transformation”. The rationale: “There is hardly a person who has not had to deal in one way or another, whether in everyday life, in private life or in the world of work, with the phenomena that are summarized under the keywords ‘digital change’ and ‘digital transformation’. The developments that go hand in hand with this no longer only permeate technology and the economy, but also many areas of social and public life, for example our communication, politics, and administration.

ACCELERATION OF CHANGE Looking back on what has been going on in the corporate world for the last ten years, many long-established companies are struggling to adapt their structures, processes, and products to emerging new environments. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to be a catalyst for overdue change. The social and economic impact of the pandemic and lockdowns have placed an increasing emphasis on effective communication – internally and with their stakeholders. New ways of of communicating during the crisis have accelerated digitization and will further break down barriers to it.

RISING OF LEADERSHIP It is vital to empower people to act in complex, fast-moving situations. Leaders need to foster the motivation to pursue common goals while navigating through unknown territories. To meet the challenges of the first full-blown pandemic in the age of globalization, societies, and especially their political and economic players, must rise above themselves. This requires true leadership, an important part of which is communication.

CHANGE RESISTANCE We’re seeing increasing change-fatigue in business; partly driven by exhaustion at the pace of change, partly by skepticism that the proposed change will be effective. The missing piece is usually a common and co-owned sense of direction and vision, driven by leadership and adopted throughout the business. This is critical to reduce friction. As a result, workforces are behaving like multi-resistant bacterial populations. They retreat into niches until the change antibiotic has passed, then they continue as before.

THE DILEMMA OF TRANSFORMATION Compared to corporate transformation in the emerging post-pandemic environment, the change programs of the past were easy assignments. By ‘change’ we understand the transition from stable state A to stable state B. Transformation is about stabilizing the company in a permanent process of change that affects the very substance of the organization. The high speed and complexity of these processes create a simultaneity of being, becoming and passing away, which results in tensions and contradictions. Because not everyone who is involved in shaping the future of an organization will participate in it later on.

NEED FOR DIRECTION The digital transformation of companies puts employee’s roles and skills into question. Without a recognizable goal, direction and support, most people find this difficult, challenging and uncomfortable and so they don’t respond well. Leadership through transformation means creating and keeping alive the belief that there is a clear goal and a path forward. Leaders have an impossible task of bridging the challenges of today with the possibilities of tomorrow in order to inspire and motivate a workforce going through fundamental change. This is why purposeful business, executed thoughtfully and with integrity, is crucial to successful transformation. It gives people something bigger to aim for that has meaning to them.

THE ILLUSION OF THE PROMISED LAND Leaders and managers are facing a challenge that cannot be solved with the traditional means of leadership and communication. Whilst they are still expected to lead the company to a defined and certain ‘Promised Land’, the truth is that this certainty doesn’t exist in a world as complex and volatile as today’s. This is why transformation narratives can’t be disseminated through written text anymore: they have to be ‘lived’, brought to life through actions and stories and constantly reenforced.

DWINDLING POWER OF TEXTS Transformation narratives need a recognizable form, but this form must be flexible and leave room for “retelling and adding”. These stories must come to life in a way that the written word cannot achieve. Pictures, films and face-to-face storytelling help people to connect with the future they are being asked to help create, to find their own place in it and to be confident in re-telling the story of it. The more technical or complex a message is, the more visual and experientially the delivery must be, because human imagination has been based on images and metaphors for 200,000 years.

FOSTERING OR PARALYZING MOTIVATION If employees are simply ‘doing a job’ and nothing more, the chances are that they find their job or role unrelated to anything ‘bigger’. We like to feel connected to our work, part of a greater whole, and it is the line manager and leaders who help make that connection as they have the vantage point to see the work of the team and the wider company context. Empathetic leadership became something of a buzzword in 2020 and for good reason: helping employees connect emotionally with their work reaps rewards for individuals and businesses and strong communication should be seen as a core managerial requirement.

JOINT VENTURES OF INTEREST What applies to employees also applies to external stakeholders: creating a community of interest is key in increasing advocacy and support. Analyzing and managing stakeholder perceptions as these change is critical to building effective and positive relationships; groups that feel a sense of community, co-ownership and co-authorship will feel part of the endeavor, not ‘against’ it.

REVAMPING CORPORATE COMMUNICATION In this respect, the pandemic really does present an opportunity for professional communicators: Transformation and social expectations have made corporate communication more relevant than ever. The Covid-19 has intensified and accelerated these trends, while increasing the pressure to save costs. This leaves communicators with a crucial question: How can we create more impact, often with smaller budgets?

THE TRIAD OF RENEWAL There is only one way: With a combination of (1) more digital com-munication, (2) more integration and (3) more data-based plan-ning and control. Why? First, achieving more with less demands to communicate digitally wherever possible and reasonable (to in-crease efficiency). Second, this requires greater integration of the communication disciplines, dissolving silos, thinking in campaigns wherever possible (to increase clout). Third, this involves the stan-dard practice of planning, steering, monitoring and decision-mak-ing on the basis of high-frequency data (to increase speed and precision).

BUILDING A DIFFERENT MACHINE Some companies already reorganized their communication functions accordingly: they fully merge Corporate Communication and Marketing while increasing the focus on digital channels. Or they create a pure-play project organization in which a central digital hub provides tools, platforms, formats and content for all communication disciplines. Sometimes they even empower their employ-ees to create their own content and authorize them to upload it to the hub.

TAKING ON THE CHALLENGE The need for realigning the communication function with both social and technological trends has existed for years. Why not see the current crisis as an opportunity to put current roles to the test and find the optimal range of tasks for everyone in a team approach? Can there be a better way to develop and agree future-oriented roles for everyone in the communication department? Roles that consider both the abilities and preferences of each individual and the interests of the company in the best possible way.

VICTIMS OR CO-CREATORS OF CHANGE For communicators, Covid-19 is both a disrupter of habits and an accelerator of modernization. If they just let things happen, let themselves be driven by the emerging new normality, they become victims of change. If they actively participate in the modernization of our profession, they become co-creators of the next normality. You have the choice. If you don’t take a decision, you nevertheless decide – to take the role of the victim. There is still room for maneuver. The new is still in the making. Now is the time to give up unproductive habits, to take new paths and to acquire new skills – to turn into the transformation catalysts your company needs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR As a Partner in the Tech & Transformation Team of Finsbury Glover Hering in Berlin, Christopher Storck deals with the transformation of companies and the new demands this presents to their communication functions. His consulting activities focus on the formulation and dissemination of strategies, the establishment and protection of economically relevant reputations as well as the reorganization and further development of communication departments across disciplines and organizational borders. Christopher combines practice and science through a professorship for strategy and communications management at Quadriga University Berlin and serving on the scientific advisory board of the German Association of Communicators (BdKom).