When Eckler principal Paul Harrietha worked with the Auto Sector Retirees Health Care Trust on benefits packages at General Motors of Canada and Chrysler Canada during the companies’ reorganization efforts in 2010, managing the significant changes in the works was a key consideration despite the obvious urgency of the situation.
Among the pressures as the companies struggled to avoid bankruptcy was the notion that they could no longer sustain their existing retirement packages. But instead of dictating what the changes would entail, Harrietha suggested a systematic approach to address the members, lay out the situation and seek their input into a process aimed at designing a new plan.
“Very early on, before you even decide what your benefit revision might look like, you engage [the opinion leaders in the group],” says Gord Graham, executive director of the trust. By meeting and working with those directly affected by the change, Graham and Harrietha tried to see the situation through the perspective of the retirees in arriving at a solution.
They talked about pharmaceutical markups, therapeutic alternatives to some of the drugs and adjustments to other benefits to get the cost of GM’s package down by about 20 per cent and Chrysler’s by nine per cent. After working on the final solution and with the support of the retirees’ leaders, Graham’s group presented the results to the entire group and was happily surprised to receive a positive response.
Although Graham has never heard of a change management specialist, he can see the important role such a person can play in the workplace. And with change management an increasingly growing challenge for companies, the role of such a specialist is starting to appear in job ads across Canada.
Melanie Peacock, associate professor of human resources management at Mount Royal University’s Bissett school of business, sees it as an important position. “That role is starting to evolve. Some organizations are having areas with an entire department,” she says.
Whether it’s small or profound, companies need to institute change in a strategic way, says Peacock, who designed the university’s transition management course to respond to the growing demand. That requires making use of tools such as a change management formula, communication approaches and planning.
The process begins by creating a culture within the organization to search for improvements on a daily basis, says Harrietha, who serves as head of the communications and engagement practice at Eckler. In many ways, the role of the change management specialist is to encourage people to find better ways to do things without pushback or reticence. “If we always do things because that’s the way we’ve always done them, then in six months we’ll be obsolete,” he says.
“That’s got to be cultural. You don’t just sit down and say to people, ‘Hey, go create a better interface.’ They’re doing it because it makes sense.”
But while many companies say they have a framework to allow for change, the reality is most of them don’t, says Harrietha. “And that’s why this position is starting to gain traction because there is an understanding that with dramatic social, political, economic change . . . if we’re going to compete on a meaningful and global basis, we have to fundamentally reinvent ourselves over and over and over again.”
Marg. Bruineman is a freelance writer based in Barrie, Ont.
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