The Changing Role of Change Managers: A Guide for the Digital Age

Today, the roles and responsibilities of change managers are evolving alongside the digital economy.

The core function of change management, of course, remains the same:

  • Assess and mitigate the risks of organizational change
  • Project the benefits and advantages of change
  • Manage change at the individual level
  • Minimizing obstacles to change, such as employee resistance and cultural inertia

However, thanks to the disruptive effect of technology, change managers must also incorporate digital methods and concepts into their methods.

Today’s change manager must:

  • Understand digital transformation, digital adoption, and other digitally-driven changes
  • Learn how to create digital, data-driven cultures
  • Use digital technology, data, and analytics to improve their change efforts
  • Understand and keep pace with the changing needs of the digital workplace

In this guide for the digital change manager, we’ll explore these issues and more.

However, we should start from scratch – after all, different generations will have different perspectives. Some professionals may know a great deal about change management, but not enough about digital technology. 

Others may start with a better understanding of digital practices, but with only a basic grasp of change management.

So we will start with the most fundamental concepts related to change management, then move into more advanced territory.

Change Management and Change Managers – The Basics

Below are a few important definitions and concepts that explain what change managers do and why this discipline is so important … especially in today’s constantly changing workplace.

Change Management: A Definition

Change management, as mentioned, has not fundamentally changed since its inception. 

It can be defined as:

  • The process, tools and techniques to manage the people side of change to achieve a required business outcome. –Prosci
  • A collective term for all approaches to prepare, support, and help individuals, teams, and organizations in making organizational change. –Wikipedia
  • Change management is a structured approach to moving an organisation from the current state to the desired future state. –Association for Project Management

Change management tends to focus on managing the people side of change, as we will discover below.

What Drives Organizational Change

A number of factors can drive organizational change, such as:

  • Digital disruption
  • The pursuit of growth opportunities
  • Competitive pressure
  • Customer demand
  • Marketplace evolution
  • Mergers and acquisitions

Or, in many cases, a number of factors will combine to push an organization to change.

In today’s digital environment, many changes are driven by the advancement of digital technology.

For that reason, change managers’ role is gradually expanding, requiring them to understand and make use of that technology.

What Change Managers Do

Change managers perform many of the tasks mentioned at the outset of this guide, namely:

  • Assessing and managing risk. All change carries risk. For instance, if change managers don’t develop an effective communication strategy, employees may lose trust in them. Or if the entire project is mishandled, it may fail completely, which can be very costly indeed.
  • Addressing and minimizing obstacles to change. There are countless obstacles that can prevent a change program from succeeding, such as employee resistance, lack of executive support, technical obstacles, budget constraints, and so on. Change managers are tasked with avoiding these risks in order to ensure project success.
  • Coordinating the execution of change projects. Change managers organize, manage, and guide change projects – or even entire organizational transformations. Since change projects have so many moving parts, such a management function is critical for change programs to succeed.
  • Motivating and encouraging employees. Most people prefer to avoid change, which is why employee resistance is so common. Earning support requires strong people skills and a solid communications strategy, among other things. Change managers are tasked with engaging workers and minimizing the factors that can lead to resistance.
  • Providing workers with the skills and tools they need to succeed. Employee training is one of the most important aspects of an organizational change program. After all, it does no good to implement new software if employees cannot use it. To maximize employee productivity, change managers must onboard employees quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

The role of managers, in other words, encompasses a broad range of areas, from people skills to project management skills.

And today, those skill requirements are expanding to encompass digital skills and data skills.

Change Managers’ Role in the Digital Age

The digital change manager must learn to be agile and flexible in today’s digital workplace.

To stay relevant and effective, change managers must:

  • Use digital technology to manage their own change programs
  • Onboard and train new workers, especially during digital adoption and digital transformation programs
  • Optimize their change efforts through the use of data-driven technology and methods
  • Understand and enhance digital workflows, the digital employee experience, the digital workplace, and more

Naturally, no change manager is expected to keep up with all the latest developments in technology. 

However, with the right tools and expertise, change managers can keep up with the changing times and drastically improve their change management efforts.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the Role of Change Managers in the Digital Age

To better understand what change managers do and how their practices are evolving, let’s look at answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about change managers and change management.

How does digital disruption drive organizational change and transformation?

Innovative technology can radically transform a marketplace.

A new technology can, for instance:

  • Enable new business practices and processes
  • Make current business models obsolete
  • Massively increase the efficiency of business functions 
  • Open up entirely new markets and frontiers

These types of changes can naturally propel a variety of organizational changes.

The most important of these types of organizational changes is digital transformation.

Digital transformation involves change such as:

  • Upgrading an organization’s tools, technology, and IT infrastructure
  • Cultivating a modern corporate culture that is digital, agile, and customer-centered
  • Leveraging technology in new ways to enhance business practices and even overhaul business models
  • Innovate with technology in order to gain a competitive advantage or pursue growth opportunities

There are, of course, many other ways an organization can undergo digital transformation.

Regardless of exactly how a business transforms, though, change managers’ role will stay the same – manage that change, maximize project outcomes, and minimize risk.

What role does the workforce play in organizational change and digital transformation?

In organizational change, employee productivity is a major concern.

After all, workers drive change. If they lack the appropriate skills, then they will not be able to enact an organizational change.

Skills are a very important part of the transformation equation (see the next question), but there are other elements that impact the effectiveness of change programs.

For instance:

  • Employee engagement affects how interested and proactive employees are, which affects their output and productivity
  • Negative sentiments, confusion, and frustration can have significantly negative impacts on employee productivity and performance
  • Tools and technology directly affect the workforce’s overall capabilities 
  • The corporate culture can affect behavior, attitudes, mindsets, and more

In order to streamline organizational change efforts, change managers concern themselves with these types of factors.

As we will see below, change management frameworks focus on many of these areas. 

What role does employee onboarding and training play in organizational change?

One of the best ways to improve the employee experience and increase output is by developing a structured onboarding and training program.

Particularly useful during the digital adoption phase of digital transformation, an onboarding and training program:

  • Introduces employees to a process or product, such as a new software tool
  • Helps employees understand the value promise of that product, through product tours, for instance
  • Trains employees on practical workflows, in order to maximize competency and productivity in as short a time as possible

Effective onboarding and training, in short, are critical components of any organizational change program … especially during digital adoption and transformation.

What is the best culture to have in the modern digital workplace?

While there is no such thing as a “best culture,” some cultural traits are more desirable than others.

Since the modern organization is digital-first and continually changing, the following attributes can offer advantages:

  • Digital-first thinking, a mindset that focuses on leveraging technology in every aspect of the workplace – not only to innovate, but also in routine day-to-day work tasks
  • Pro-learning, an attitude that is ideally suited for the digital age, when change and digital technology have become the norm
  • Customer-centricity, a mindset that puts the customer experience and customer needs first – which almost automatically improves business results
  • Agility and openness to change, a behavior that helps employees and organizations stay adaptable in today’s continually changing economy

In other words, a corporate culture should evolve to meet the changing demands of the digital marketplace.

Every business culture is unique – and it should remain unique – but cultivating traits such as those listed above can help organizations become more lean, adaptable, and efficient.

How can change managers help streamline digital transformations?

Change managers are in an ideal position to coordinate and guide organizational change projects.

Their efforts become especially valuable when it comes to highly complex organizational changes, such as digital transformation initiatives.

To improve these programs’ effectiveness and efficiency, change managers adopt a number of approaches:

  • Strategic communication, to ensure that employees are on board and supportive of change efforts
  • Data-driven analysis, which can offer insight into many aspects of a digital transformation effort, from employee engagement to overall profitability
  • Employee onboarding and training, two components of the digital adoption process that are essential for successful transformation
  • Cultural change, which can be useful for aligning a workforce with a new corporate vision
  • Project management and optimization, from planning and strategy to the delegation of responsibilities and the allocation of resources

Given the complexity and scale of most digital transformation initiatives, these activities are not only beneficial, they are a necessity. 

Next, we will learn a step-by-step process for managing and guiding such endeavors.

How Change Managers Can Guide Digital Change: A Step-by-Step Process

The following steps, drawn from popular change management frameworks and models, can be customized to meet the needs of many change management efforts.

1. Assessment and Strategy

Assessment is the very first step in any business process, since it lays the foundation for strategies and roadmaps.

The deeper the assessment, the more insight organizations can gain and the more value a change program will be able to deliver.

Naturally, the types and numbers of assessments will vary depending on the circumstances, but there are several common areas to consider assessing.

These include:

  • Change readiness
  • Risk 
  • Potential costs and benefits
  • Change impact
  • Digital maturity
  • Organizational culture

More in-depth and involved digital change efforts should include more in-depth analyses and assessments. 

The information gained, after all, can greatly mitigate risk while improving the chances of successful change.

2. Awareness and Engagement

In many change management frameworks, such as the ADKAR model, building awareness is one of the first steps in implementing change.

That is:

  • Explain the purpose of the change effort to employees
  • Ensure that they understand the reason for the change and how it will impact them
  • Clearly outline the project schedule and responsibilities

In short, before requesting that employees begin executing an organizational change, they must know that the change exists.

Then they must become engaged with the program in order to actually drive it forward.

  • Sell employees on the personal benefits of the change program
  • Invite total participation from employees, so that workers feel heard
  • Improve the employee experience wherever possible, to decrease friction and frustration
  • Simplify training efforts, to reduce confusion and boost competency

Motivating employees can be a tricky business, especially during times of transformative change, which is exactly why change managers need a range of soft skills.

However, as we will soon discover, the modern change manager should complement those people skills with “harder” skills such as data skills and digital skills.

In the modern enterprise, this combination can prove very effective when it comes to effectively executing change programs.

3. Knowledge, Skills, and Tools for Employees

Another crucial step – which also remains focused on employees – is providing the workforce with the skills and tools they need to enact change.

In other words, change managers should:

  • Identify and invest in the digital tools needed to implement organizational change
  • Ensure that the tools being implemented will give employees the ability to effectively implement the change program
  • Onboard software users quickly and efficiently, fueling productivity from the very first day
  • Identify the needed skills and provide those to employees
  • Offer training solutions that minimize time-to-competency and maximize the utilization of new digital tools

Unless employees are provided with the proper skills, they will be unable to drive a change forward successfully.

For instance, an organization that is transforming its marketing approach may choose to rebuild its marketing technology stack.

That investment could mean a new CRM platform, new analytics tools, new advertising partnerships, and much more.

And in order to learn these tools, employees would naturally need to understand how to use these tools.

Employees, though, are not the only ones who need to use digital tools to implement organizational changes.

4. Change Management Tools and Technology

Change managers and leaders must also take advantage of the latest technology if they wish to drive change effectively.

There are a number of tools that can assist change managers, including:

  • Digital adoption platforms (DAPs)
  • HR platforms and HCM platforms
  • ERP platforms
  • Project management tools
  • Workplace collaboration tools

Different platforms are geared towards different business sizes, needs, and industries, so it pays to research the options extensively before making an investment.

5. Planning and Action

Once the aforementioned foundations have been laid, it is time to develop a roadmap and move forward.

Roadmaps will vary in complexity, based on the sophistication of the organizational change.

Like any other journey map or project schedule, a change roadmap should:

  • Articulate goals that are achievable and measurable
  • Clearly define a timeline and deadlines
  • Describe roles, responsibilities, and expectations

Implementation should then follow this plan of action as much as possible.

However, agility and flexibility are extremely important. 

Circumstances can change rapidly and predictions can turn out to be wrong, so it is important to be responsive and adaptable.

An agile mindset means:

  • Letting real-world circumstances, user input, and data drive decision-making – rather than preconceived notions or predetermined plans
  • Collaborating frequently with all stakeholders, in order to keep teams in sync and stay aware of current conditions
  • Being ready to change strategies and tactics if the circumstances warrant it

Agile change management (covered below) is a good area to research, since this modern change management approach is built around the points just mentioned.

6. Optimization

To extract the most value from a change management program, optimization is a must.

Optimization involves:

  • Regular data collection and analysis
  • Learning from those analyses
  • Making strategic or tactical adjustments based on what was learned

Over time, continual optimization such as this can result in significant increases to the efficiency and the performance of the program.

One business approach built around continual optimization is the lean methodology

Unlike the “waterfall” approach to business processes and product development, it focuses on user input and constant incremental improvements. An approach such as this can greatly reduce risks and cost, while simultaneously keeping the program outcomes more relevant and impactful.

7. Institutionalize and Reinforce

Finally, it is necessary to deliberately make a program’s changes permanent.

Many organizations fail to reinforce change, simply because there are too many other tasks to worry about … such as the next change project.

However, if this step isn’t carried out, then employees can easily slip back into old habits. As a result, change programs can rapidly lose ground or even fail completely.

There are several ways to reinforce change, according to Prosci, such as:

  • Celebrations
  • Rewards and recognition
  • Feedback
  • Accountability and corrective mechanisms

The underlying point is that in order to fully institutionalize and cement a change, maintenance is required.

For a certain period of time, at least, change managers should regularly survey employees, monitor behavior, and solicit feedback.

After all, the costs of reinforcing a change are far less than the cost of losing that change completely.

7 Best Practices and Tips for Becoming a Better Change Manager

Next, we will look at a set of tips, principles, and best practices that can help change managers extract even more value from their change efforts.

1. Earn buy-in from the start

According to a study by Google, a lack of executive buy-in is one of the top factors that can cause change programs to fail.

Obtaining executive buy-in – not to mention buy-in from employees and other stakeholders – should be a top priority from the very beginning of a project.

One of the best ways to earn that support is by convincing stakeholders that change is in their best interest.

This can be accomplished by honestly and logically communicating…

  • The purpose of the change program
  • How the change program benefits the individual in question
  • How the change will benefit the organization as a whole

In short, it is necessary to make an airtight case for the business value of a change program. And by understanding how a program benefits a specific stakeholder, it will be easier to connect to that individual and earn their support.

2. Develop a strategic, measurable communications program

Communication in change management is critical.

In fact, communication itself can measurably impact the outcomes of a program, from employee productivity to the program’s overall outcomes.

It is important to develop a communications strategy that is measurable and goal-oriented.

This means:

  • Understanding employee sentiment, through employee surveys and other data collection mechanisms
  • Setting specific targets to influence, such as how open employees are to a particular type of change
  • Developing a systematic communications effort designed to improve that area
  • Periodically assessing the target metric to measure progress
  • Adjusting the communications strategy as necessary

Here are a few ways to improve communication during times of change:

  • Create a change story, a narrative that communicates the underlying point of the change concisely and clearly
  • Help people feel the problem, which will increase empathy and the likelihood that employees will support a change
  • Employ change advocates at the local level, who can act as liaisons and representatives for change
  • Ensure that change leaders are leading by example, driving change from the ground
  • Continually monitoring employee data, such as sentiment and behavior, in order to tailor communications to employees’ wants and needs

Following these tips can dramatically improve the results of the communications strategy, which, in turn, will have a significantly positive impact on the change program itself.

3. Data-Driven Management Practices

In the digital age, change managers should become more digitally literate and data-driven.

The right technology can vastly improve a project’s outcomes, increase efficiency, decrease errors, and more.

Here are a few examples of ways to leverage data in change management:

  • Data and analytics can monitor metrics and KPIs, comparing that information against targets and prior performance
  • Predictive modeling can inform decisions and predict the outcomes of possible actions
  • Psychological profiles of employees can predict team synergies and improve the chances that certain groups of people will work well together
  • Software analytics can provide insight into user behavior during digital training, which can then be used to improve training effectiveness

As mentioned earlier, change management is changing. 

The more modern the techniques a change manager uses in their workflows, the greater the advantage they will have and the better the results they will produce.

Also, since the speed of change continues to accelerate – and the demands placed on change managers continues to mount – data-driven technology is becoming more and more necessary to meet business leaders’ expectations.

4. User-Centered Design

User-centered design is a design practice that heavily incorporates user data, feedback, and input in the design process.

There are a few key phases during the user-centered design process:

  • Specify the usage context, or who will use the design, why, how, and so forth
  • Specify requirements, such as business goals and user requirements
  • Create design solutions, from rough stages through the complete, final product
  • Evaluate designs, by testing products and learning from that data

This approach sets its sights upon the users, which means that its designs will stay more relevant and useful.

When combined with other business methods, such as lean or agile, then the outcomes of this process will be even more relevant.

5. Agile Change Management

Agile change management, briefly mentioned above, is an excellent way to stay responsive and adaptable during organizational changes.

Like agile software development, agile change management focuses on areas such as:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Working products and processes
  • Responsiveness

The same processes used in agile software development can also be applied in agile change management, such as user stories.

Naturally, the context differs, so they should instead be viewed as change management stories, focusing on stakeholder in the change process.

An agile approach can certainly not transform an organization’s change management function completely, but it can help the process from becoming siloed and disconnected from employees, stakeholders, and the enterprise at large.

6. An Advanced Enterprise Change Management Function

Change managers are only effective if they have the resources, structure, and skills to back up their efforts.

This is why it is so important to develop robust enterprise change management within the organization.

While change management refers to change management as a discipline, enterprise change management refers to the actual business unit or business function.

Organizations can gauge their enterprise change management by assessing their change maturity.

Different sources have different models of enterprise change maturity, but they all cover the same spectrum.

Prosci’s scale has five levels:

  • Organizational competency. The most mature point on the scale, when an organization evidences change management throughout all levels of the business.
  • Organizational standards. Standards are implemented across the organization when implementing and leading change.
  • Multiple projects. When a robust change management approach is applied to multiple change projects simultaneously.
  • Isolated projects. Change management may be applied sporadically in individual projects.
  • Ad hoc or absent. The lowest level on the change maturity scale, when organizations rarely or never apply change management.

To improve the enterprise change management function, change managers should carefully assess their current state, then develop and implement a change initiative designed to improve it.

7. Continual Improvement

Change managers should never stop learning or improving.

This is especially true today, in the digital era – change continues to accelerate unabated, with no signs of slowing.

In the coming years, change management will undoubtedly continue to evolve, which is why every change manager should continue to change along with the discipline itself.

Continually learning new things can benefit change managers in a number of ways, such as:

  • Improving the results of their change programs
  • Increasing marketability and career potential
  • Helping change managers meet the expectations of changing business environments

A change manager that wants to see such gains should invest in not one, but several types of learning opportunities, including:

  • Change management certification
  • Mentorship programs
  • Networking, workshops, and change management events
  • Online courses
  • Independent research, via journals, reviews, and industry publications

At times, it can even pay to hire specialists, such as digital transformation consultants, who can help with a project while shedding light on certain types of training practices.

Conclusion: Change Managers’ Roles Are Changing

Though the fundamental function of change management remains the same, change managers must evolve their methods in order to stay relevant.

Primarily, this means learning about digital technology, using data-driven business practices, and understanding other aspects of the digital revolution.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of information about change management – and modern change management practices – online.

There are a great many blogs, articles, journals, and other resources that offer insight into this evolving field.

For more information on change management in the digital age, be sure to visit our change management blog or the main WalkMe blog.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.