Communication is often an underutilized asset in academic change projects. Most change agents are enthusiastic about the project they are working on, the new vision they are casting, and the technical details they might encounter during the project. While these are valid issues for all of us to focus attention on, communicating our ideas and process beyond our immediate change team is key to success. In fact, effective communication from the start of the project can often be the difference between success or failure in a change initiative. Successful change depends on how the outside world perceives it. When a project is announced and gets started, many people on campus—faculty, students, staff—are curious about the project, wondering how the effort will impact them. Their desire for information is natural, since the project may require changes in the tasks they must complete for their own jobs.
My experience with change projects has shown me that change agents are quite enthusiastic about beginning their project but are averse to sharing information during the ideation phase of a project. The lack of information can be damaging. In the absence of information flowing from the change team, rumors, misleading information, and damaging inaccuracies rise to prominence. Stakeholders outside the change e team can get the wrong vision or perception of the project. For that point on, the change team is fighting an uphill battle to make their project a reality.
The solution then is to start any new change project with a communication strategy. An effective communication strategy can create awareness about the project early on and facilitate understanding about the project during the later stages of change implementation. This can help persuade stakeholders, improve buy-in, and create commitment to the change idea. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has produced a roadmap for creating an effective communication strategy. This strategy identifies that “Good communication should never be an afterthought, but rather a significant part of the program’’ . PMI has identified the following key ideas behind a good communication strategy:
- Clearly communicate the change vision early
- Outline the benefits and importance of change
- Ensure that the leaders actively communicate throughout the change process
- Use multiple methods and channels to communicate
- Provide opportunities for dialogue and true representation
- Repeat the change message often
- Monitor and measure the effectiveness of the communication
Although this strategy can be time intensive it engages the stakeholders repeatedly, articulates how the project impacts them in a meaningful way, and helps them develop a sense of ownership. Furthermore, the use of multiple channels increases the probability that the vision and the change message will be understood. As PMI points out, “it is rare that people hear exactly what is intended in a message first time. Repeating and monitoring provides an opportunity to determine the stakeholder’s level of awareness, address misinformation, identify and address ongoing issues, and tailor the information to suit the needs of the audience” 
The authors Ronald Mitchell, Bradley Agle, and Donna Wood also suggest that the change team must integrate a communication strategy as a part of their stakeholder analysis . For each stakeholder, it is important to identify the following:
- Objective behind the communication – What needs to be communicated? Is it just the status of the project or the rationale behind a decision etc.
- Frequency of Communication – Should it be weekly, monthly or ongoing?
- Channel for Communication – How will the message be delivered? Will it be face-face, video conference, a report, email etc.
- Messenger and timing – Who will deliver the message? The choice of team member who will deliver the message to a stakeholder has to take into account prior relationships, rapport, and trust that a team member might have developed with the stakeholder.
Academic organizations often have a fairly structured process for the implementation of a change project. The process might require you to engage with and win approval of a particular set of stakeholders at any given time. While there is a natural tendency to focus on the immediate set of stakeholders and worry about developing communication strategies to get their approval first, an effective communication strategy will keep an eye on stakeholders who are further down the approval path. Effective change teams will have developed and be in the midst of executing a communication plan for these stakeholders as well. Effective communication strategies will allow change teams to maximize the probability of successful implementation by engaging all stakeholders actively through tailored communication.
- Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide. Published by the Project Management Institute – https://www.pmi.org/pmbok-guide-standards/practice-guides/change
- Ronald K. Mitchell, Bradley Agle, and Donna J. Wood – Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts – The Academy of Management Review – https://www.jstor.org/stable/259247