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This article was first published in the March 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The digital world has brought about wholescale disruption to industries that had been operating in the same way for years. In the past, technological change often targeted the ‘back office’, creating greater efficiencies, slicing costs from internal processes and speeding up time to market. These changes were usually out of sight of the consumer, and it was the retailer or supplier who benefited from higher productivity and profitability. But the effect of the digital changes we see now – on the back of enhanced computing power – are much more widely visible. 

For example, in sectors such as retail, the consumer experience has been completely overhauled, resulting in products and services that are highly personalised. The targeting of these offerings to the customer according to their particular behaviour and preferences is driven by powerful algorithms that link data sets, and that test and validate hypotheses over and again. This is the power of big data.

Analytics and organisational transformation

But the use of big data should not stop at the customer. Leaders can also use its power within the organisation to help their people navigate changes that are being introduced. Employees are simply consumers in a different context and so, in principle, there is no reason why elements of the customer experience can’t be transplanted into an organisational-change setting.

In the same way that the consumer has access to information that’s directly relevant to them, we need to work harder to create a personalised journey for employees through change. When people are delivered generic messages that don’t translate into what a change will mean to them, or when they are put through training or offered support that doesn’t meet their needs, they will simply switch off. And that’s the slippery slope to disengagement, declining morale and changes that don’t stick. By contrast, when employees have relevant information or support when they need it, they move from feeling as though a change is being done to them, to feeling involved in the change. And that’s likely to increase the success of the project.

Personalising employees’ journeys through change will require a range of data – what’s held in HR systems is just the start. Just as the field of customer analytics goes far beyond the collection of demographic data to include sentiment analysis, psychological profiling, membership of social groups and more, leaders need to be as curious about their employees in managing change as they are about their customers. 

Organisations must find ways to collect what their people are thinking and feeling, as well as their age, salary, location, function and so on. And they will have to connect different data sets to create, test and validate hypotheses about the employee experience through change. We need to move on from organisational employee data that delivers historical reporting to be able to configure systems that try to predict how employees may react to future organisational events.

The journey towards change

Applying a customer analytics mindset, we need to encourage leaders to keep collecting information throughout the change journey. After all, the change process is not a one-off event. Whether an office is relocating, a division being merged, or a new organisational structure being designed and implemented, they are all processes that happen over time. To state the obvious, there is a beginning (planning and starting to untangle the current state), a middle (the office move itself, the first day in the new structure) and an end (settling down and reviewing what else needs to adjust to support the primary change). In the course of these phases, employees go through an emotional, practical and intellectual journey. The intellectual journey is about making sense of what’s happening in order to evaluate different options, while the practical journey addresses the skills or new practices required of the employee. 

Often, the emotional journey – people’s fears and hopes, about whether they will still have a job, or what new opportunities might be available – gets forgotten, and it is here that the change process is most often derailed.

When leaders collect information about how employees respond emotionally at different stages of the change journey, they can gain valuable insights into what might cause resistance in the future. Too often, data is collected only at the beginning of a process to inform the change plans, and then ends up being the sole source of (out-of-date) information for the later stages. But if leaders continue to collect information – in the same way that customer behaviour and patterns would normally be collected throughout the duration of the retail experience – trends can be detected. Leaders need to have at their fingertips, on a real-time basis, rich data about what people think, feel and need. Combined with other data sets, the insights gained will help drive change activities that are timely, relevant and helpful, and so drive up engagement.

If it seems a stretch to imagine that most employees would readily give their views to leaders about topics of change, consider this: employees actually expect to have this kind of personalised experience in work because they take it as given in their non-work activities. They expect support to be easy to access, to happen in real time, and to be available when they want it – not just when it’s delivered to them.

Leaders need to push their teams to adopt a customer analytics mindset when it comes to driving change in the organisation. Rich employee data can be used throughout the change process to help measure the effectiveness of communications, inform the level of support required for teams and individuals when they need it, and open channels of information-sharing between employees and leaders to ensure a successful outcome.

Alison Young is a consultant at change management specialist EchoChanges