Mastering the Winds of Change

Of all the winds of change buffeting the Australian workforce, none have blown fiercer that those raging through the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). In 1996 FACS emerged from the ashes of the 26,000-strong Department of Social Services (disbanded by the Howard government early in its first term) as a Canberra-based policy-setting department of a mere 750 people. Then just 18 months and a Cabinet reshuffle later, FACS was transformed once again, regaining its decentralised structure, netting an additional 1000-odd staff from the Department of Health - some of whom had only just left - and being required to take on new community services and health functions. All this turbulence hit a workforce already bowed by the force of crucial public sector-wide human relations and financial reforms designed to bring the public service closer to commercial private sector practices.

In fact, the veritable whirlwind of change had pushed FACS' change-fatigued staff to a precipice. Any more upheaval was likely to push themover the edge towards a point of either stubborn resistance or total confusion. Yet with neither a branch nor IT infrastructure in place, further change was inevitable if the newly restructured department was to function at all. And so FACS embarked on a reshaping of its entire corporate infrastructure under the IMPACT project, designed to integrate its management of people, accounting and corporate IT functions. With change-fatigue so rife, this was one project that would clearly have to be most sensitively handled.

As a tiny Canberra-based policy department it had made perfect sense for FACS to act as if it were a branch of Centrelink for infrastructure purposes, says the project director with FACS' Corporate Systems Redevelopment Project, Mathew Sylvester. Eighteen months later that suddenly seemed like a poor decision indeed. "We didn't have an IT infrastructure, we didn't have a corporate infrastructure," Sylvester says. "We couldn't rely on the ex-Health infrastructure, because of Y2K and various other issues; and we couldn't rely on Centrelink, because purely and simply we were a very small stakeholder in their business, and we couldn't actually meet our business requirements by doing that."

And that's how Mathew Sylvester was presented with one of the biggest trials of his life. "I was told: 'Here's a challenge, Mathew, you take it on. We want a corporate infrastructure in place in six months and we want everybody to be happy about it'," Sylvester says.

Pragmatism Rules - Okay?

Faced with a ridiculously tight timetable but armed with extensive change management experience in both the public and private sector, Sylvester started by adopting a pragmatic approach to the change. For one thing that meant scrapping any notion of undergoing a tender process. Centrelink was using SAP, Health had just done an evaluation and chosen SAP, and so SAP would just have to be good enough for FACS.

But there was resentment in government circles about the Australian government template incorporated within SAP, which had been developed too hastily by SAP locally without the approval of its German headquarters and which contained some "glaring errors". "It didn't work, basically . . . SAP tried to put something through quickly to show that they were forward-thinking and capable of doing it, and the end result was in general fine but there were a couple of the idiosyncrasies that didn't quite work," Sylvester says.

The ensuing problems with prior service, long service leave, higher duties allowance and the travel system had to spell trouble, as Sylvester realised as soon as he started to write down the project plan. It was bad enough asking people to accept a new system which would fundamentally change business processes and devolve responsibility, but FACS would have to ask them to accept what was in parts a not particularly user-friendly system to boot. "It really became a case of asking how this was going to impact John Citizen out there. Here's our network; we're asking them to take on a new role, new responsibilities, and we're giving them new tools to work on, all at the same time," Sylvester says.

Open View

The Howard government came to office determined to drastically shrink the public service and to make it look and act much more like its private sector counterparts. As a result the commonwealth public sector has gained so much experience in change management over recent years that analysts largely agree it has moved well ahead of the private sector in mastering the subtleties of effectively managing change.

Overseeing FACS' change management was departmental secretary Dr David Rosalky, who used to work in the old Department of Industrial Relations (now Workplace Relations and Small Business) and who has extensive experience with change, particularly in the industrial relations area. Under his stewardship the Corporate Facilities and Services branch already had a People Development and Change division set up to oversee and facilitate change. Its charter was to develop a closer focus on employee relations and to oversee a change management team.

Rosalky also set up a change agent's network: effectively a committee of change agents headed up by one of the people development change managers. The network meets monthly to assist with the dissemination of information, and gather early warnings on problems. "They're in there, they're working with people," Sylvester says. "If there are problems, if there are perceptions of problems, it gives a forum where they have a fair bit of internal power. They can come together, they can discuss issues that are happening in their branch or happening with their customers, and how that needs to be addressed in the corporate picture."

Better still, their reports go all the way up the line to board level, and include "volumes" of detail about employee perceptions of change, the exact impact of those changes and the problems being experienced by staff. Under that new regime, supervisors suddenly found themselves having to consider the impact of change as an important new driver, and whether any planned changes were going to expose the department to risk.

They also had to start to really listen to the people who would be most affected by changes. "Within the public sector during the 80s as a supervisor I was basically able to say: 'Yep, heard that, but we're going to do it my way'," Sylvester says. "Now we have to listen and work out whether there is any credibility to their remarks. It really opened up and forced managers to look at keeping that consultation and communication gateway open, and it did put into place two-way communication."

And to really get the communication moving Rosalky, along with deputy secretaries Wayne Jackson and Jeff Whalan, began holding an open meeting once a fortnight to explain the change program to any and all staff and to get people on side. Here, too, staff members had a chance to bypass their branch heads and make their problems with changes known to those with the power to really make a difference. "Suddenly, that whole middle management area could be bypassed in an informal environment where there wasn't any fear or retribution; and suddenly you did have a lot of the employees take that step to stand up and make their comments heard," Sylvester says.

There were also other initiatives, designed to ensure that managers and supervisors who ignored staff concerns about the impact of change would end up with some public egg on their faces. And the system was equally designed to ensure managers had to justify changes - not only to executives, but also to the staff those changes would most likely affect.

Big Bang

Sylvester says knowing they are being heard is one of the best ways to make staff favourably inclined to embrace changes, just as long as someone is able to justify that change to them in the first place. "A classic example was with the IMPACT project, where we wanted to put in the HR system, the finance system and the travel module all at once as we always do under the Big Bang theory," he says. "It meant such a big change, particularly on the branch administrative support people, that a couple of them went to their branch reps and said: 'We can't cope. We don't understand what this is; it's no more efficient than how we currently do it, and it's not providing us with any benefit. We don't want to do it'."

There were particular problems with the SAP government overlay to the Travel module, where public service requirements for allowances and entitlements did not comfortably fit with what was basically a commercial system for reimbursement of costs after travel. The overlay could hold the information, but it was never going to be an easy, intuitive system for administration staff to use. On the other hand, it would introduce efficiencies: where there used to be seven people involved in the business process for travel, it would now become a three-step process.

Under the old process the executive assistant or travel clerk used to perform about 20 per cent of the entire end-to-end process. Now they would have the equivalent of 35 per cent of the old process, which would amount to about 90 per cent of the new process, Sylvester says. That left accounts and personnel staff out of the travel equation altogether. "So we were pushing it through from the point of view that this is benefiting everybody, because we're getting the efficiency out of it. But we forgot to look at the point that one particular component of it was being asked to do twice the amount of work."

To overcome that staff resentment the project team held a workshop where travel clerks were invited to give their views. What they said was enlightening. It wasn't the new system that was upsetting them so much as the fact that no one had consulted with them, or bothered to explain the impact. Like similar workshops held throughout the project this day-long workshop started with a SWAT session where staff detailed their perceptions of the system's weaknesses and strengths. Sylvester and his crew then explained the project goals and told staff what benefits they expected from the new system and how it would work. Then in the afternoon the team addressed the SWAT analyses, making what minor changes to the system were possible and explaining why major changes were not.

By the end of the session staff had agreed the system was the best that could be delivered with the tool available. Better still, they were now willing to trial the system and provide feedback, on the proviso that they had someone to whom they could hand over problems in full confidence these would be addressed. "So the change that has happened is people are willing to put their hand up and say: 'We're not happy, but we're prepared to be. Just consult with us a little further, communicate what you're trying to achieve. If we can see that you've done the best you can do to achieve it, we're happy to swallow it'," Sylvester says. "That compromise was exactly what we were trying to achieve. That was a very classic example; but this has happened right throughout the project and it's happened over the last two years, in my experience."

To further ease resistance, Sylvester's team linked into the Change Agents network, staffed by people from all levels of the organisation, in order to pick up potential problems early. Another initiative saw it identifying change champions in every area to be affected in order to find ways to help smooth the change.

Change Calendar

One crucial tool for assessing the impact of changes is the FACS Change Calendar, which is posted on the organisation's intranet to keep everyone fully informed about plans, schedules and progress. Any manager seeking to get a change through has to post his plans on the change calendar, specifying the resources required and the time scales involved. The calendar makes it easy for the board to identify any conflicts between the change plans of individual branches, as well as identifying areas where change plans will adversely affect resources.

"It is a basis for discussion at the board level," Sylvester says. "They can pull up that change calendar and say: 'Well, okay, there's 37 things on here, all of them we're trying to achieve before the end of the financial year, and everyone of them which needs at least nine months and 1500 people's worth of work. We're not going to do it, guys; how are we going to prioritise this?'" Once plans are posted on the calendar the board can call for more detail from those proposing changes, demand greater justification for particular changes, and determine how they will fit in with other proposed changes and impact the organisation as a whole.

"And once again, because everybody can see it and there is enough detail in there, people can actually see where changes are going to impact on themselves or their own area," Sylvester says. "They can say: 'Hang on, five of these 37 changes actually are going to end up impacting my role, can I cope with that?' It gives them an opportunity to pass back up that concern through their change agent network or through their supervisors or through the manager, or through the auditorium -any of our different channels - and know it will at least be taken into account."

As a result, before any change plans are finalised their impact is fully understood, something which represents a significant departure for the public service. Better still, that impact assessment includes full consideration of the value of keeping a staff member happy and productive. It has all worked to make staff much more willing to accept the radical change being thrust upon them. "Morale is far stronger now, there's a far better balanced team approach to things, and improved internal communications," Sylvester says.

A Training Win-Win

Compared to other places Sylvester has worked, FACS staff had an unusually high requirement for face-to-face training which could help them fully appreciate the business impact of the changes in question. To meet their training needs he called in DA Consulting Group and Catalyst Interactive as training partners to help meet that demand. But while the training they devised was excellent, Sylvester says the best thing to come out of the partnership with DA Consulting happened when it set out to write the training documentation.

Few people are willing to admit their ignorance in front of a group of their peers. In fact, most will quietly accept any amount of jargon and cant without question, if it will avoid showing their ignorance to their fellow workers.

Fortunately, during application design sessions involving people from HR, systems and finance, the DA Consulting person tasked to write the document, as an outsider, was prepared to display his ignorance when others were not. "The trainer, who wasn't a HR expert, wasn't an accounting expert, wasn't a systems expert, actually asked some of the really, really basic questions that everybody wanted to ask, but nobody wanted to embarrass themselves by asking," Sylvester says.

"The trainer was actually able to say: 'I've got to document this guys, I don't know what you're talking about', with no shame or embarrassment. And everybody else at that meeting got the advantage of understanding the concepts a little bit better," he says. "That would be the thing that I would be emphasising: You should put a neutral person in there [with the trainees]; someone who is prepared to be naïve. Because the amount of air that cleared, the ice that broke - to get people thinking on the same wavelength - that was just great."