Why change management must change in the digital economy

Most companies can no longer manage the constant change coming at them. You have the skills to help, but are you willing to step up?

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It has been said so much that it has become a cliche, ‘we live in a world of constant and rapid change’.

This is not something new. We have been bombarded with rapid innovation and change since the dawn of the industrial revolution. In fact companies are so aware of the changes in the world around us that they have change management processes for dealing with them.

Change management process diagram
Companies try to manage change with complex change management processes.

Unfortunately it would appear that although these processes have served well, they are not adapting to the change brought about by the emergence of the web and mobile. The problem is that the very nature of change is changing.

Change is changing

If you look at the 20th century you will see a huge amount of change. The rise and fall of manufacturing, the birth of the digital economy, there was no shortage of change.

However, if you look closely it was fairly predictable and the economic environment was fairly stable. Change was evolutionary and it didn’t take huge insight to see what was coming over the horizon.

Today things are different. Change is much more volatile. It is harder to predict what will emerge and what you should invest in. Take for example the rise and fall of Adobe Flash. Many organisations had to spend considerable amounts moving away from that technology, not to mention the career impact for the thousands of Flash developers.

Flash logo on iPhone
The sudden decline of Adobe Flash, led to significant costs for many organisations as they sort to support the iPhone.

The success of a new technology or innovation can also be influenced by numerous factors outside of itself, making the landscape all the more complex.

However, most importantly of all, change can no longer be controlled.

Change can no longer be controlled

Most company’s change management approach attempts to control change. They attempt to manage risk, resist change or (if all else fails) control the direction of the change.

This stood them in good stead for a long while. Before the web they could shape markets, define style and taste and tell consumers what to like. They had the budgets and reach to speak to consumers in a way nobody else could.

The web has changed all of that. Everybody has a voice and that means change cannot be controlled and it cannot be resisted.

Take for example how the music industry responded to Napster. Napster showed consumers that they didn’t have to go to stores to buy their music or buy entire albums for the sake of one song they liked.

Of course the music industry resisted this change. It threatened their business model and so they went after and eventually closed down Napster.

The problem was that consumers had seen an alternative. While they may have closed Napster they had not stopped the tide of change. Because they failed to adapt ultimately Apple could step in and launch iTunes. The result was that retail brands like HMV and Tower Records went into receivership.

iTunes
Music retailers succeeded in closing Napster but ultimately succumbed to iTunes because they failed to adapt to the change Napster brought.

Change can no longer be managed, resisted or controlled, but it can be ridden.

Riding the wave of change

When it comes to the rapid and often unpredictable nature of change in the digital realm, a new approach to change management is required.

Instead of trying to ‘manage’ change we need to start riding it. As web professionals we need to help our organisations stop trying to control their environment and help them establish a culture that can quickly adapt to it.

Modern change ‘leadership’ needs to be constantly on the outlook for change and ready to adapt quickly when it comes. It needs to be willing to take risks, accept that mistakes will be made and be quick to recover when they do.

Modern change leadership needs to embrace the chaos, iterate its way through it, experimenting as it goes.

To achieve this you need a certain type of leader.

A change leader

Companies no longer need change management processes. They need change leaders. People comfortable with the new, and happy operating in an environment of uncertainty and chaos. Web professionals are ideally suited to this role.

Web professionals are used to having an eye constantly fixed on the horizon and adapting to new innovations as they become relevant. They are comfortable with identifying what will succeed and fail, but equally happy to adapt quickly when they get it wrong.

However, a change leader has to go further than many web professionals are willing to go. They have to become mavericks in their organisation unsettling the status quo. They need to challenge the way things have always been done because they are confident these processes no longer apply in the new reality. They know that the world has changed and what was once safe ground, no longer is. They understand that how companies are comfortable working no longer suits the world in which we live.

As Leroy Hood wrote:

Bureaucracies are honed by the past and almost never can they deal effectively with the future.

The question is whether you are willing to take the risk? Are you willing to challenge the way things are done in your company, so that it will be ready for the change just around the corner?

Headscape

Boagworld