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Business headshot of Julie Hodges in red suit in the Business School lounge next to an image of her new book, 'People-centric organizational change'

Julie Hodges, Professor of Management, shares insights from her latest book, "People-Centric Organizational Change: Engaging Employees in Business Transformation," in an exclusive interview with BlueSky Thinking.

Delve into Julie's strategies for fostering employee engagement amidst change...

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new business book? What motivated you to write it?

As the global pandemic ebbs, its impact on the world of work is becoming more evident. Working in an office five days a week from 9am to 5pm – ‘what a way to make a living’ as Dolly Parton once said – looks like it might be over for many people. Hybrid and flexible work arrangements are becom­ing the norm and although there are good reasons why organisations are keen on a mix of in-person and remote working, there are also reasons why this shift is raising concerns, especially when one considers how organisa­tional changes are enacted.

The changes in the workplace, such as the move to hybrid working, are turning how organisational change is done upside-down, and in turn demanding different or new approaches to the traditional linear models of change management, which are long overdue for an over­haul. Indeed, the shift to more flexible working is highlighting how essential it is to democratise how business transformations are conducted and to build a change-capable organisation with the capacity for major changes.

This book considers how change can be delivered with rather than to the people who are part of a transformation process. I attempt to question exist­ing ways of doing business transformations, and to encourage you to think.

In recent conversations with not only senior leaders and managers across the globe but also with frontline staff, I have heard similar concerns being raised about business transformations in the changing workplace. Some of the most important concerns can be grouped under the challenges of;

  • How to engage stakeholders in change
  • Engaging opposing voices;
  • Creating effective communications
  • Positioning change as an opportunity rather than a threat
  • The evolving nature of the role of managers in transformations
  • The impact of change on wellbeing, and
  • Fostering collaboration and inclusivity

This book has emerged from those conversations and focuses specifically on these chal­lenges and how to address them.

In the process, due consideration is given to how adopting a people-centric approach to business transformations is essen­tial, as employees, leaders, managers and organisations navigate the reshaped world of work. The focus of the book is, therefore, on creating change in a people-centric way because the successful achievement of major change neces­sitates not only involving people in conversations about change and idea generation but also in realising and sustaining benefits.

How this is done in changing work environments poses significant issues which this book will examine, and it will also explore some practical solutions. Furthermore, this book is a call to action to cultivate and implement a more people-centric approach to business transformations, to consider different perspectives and, importantly, to make the leap from the rhetoric of ideas to the action of crea­tion and implementation.

I have written this book in a practical way, to support you and your organisation to make that leap with business transfor­mations, because the success of organisational change in a world of increasing volatility, complexity and chaos is highly dependent on the advocacy of people.

What are the key takeaways or main ideas that readers can expect to find in your book?

The book is based on my research, teaching and consultancy work on organisational change over several decades and also conversations with people from many different sectors and countries. As a Professor at Durham University Business School, I have over the years also had the opportunity to hear the perspectives of thousands of students whom I have taught and this experience has helped me to fine-tune my own think­ing and perspectives about organisational change (and I continues to do so). These ideas have been translated into action through my research and writ­ing, culminating in this book on the concept of people-centric change, which focuses on the importance of engaging people within business transforma­tions.

“By putting people at the heart of a business transformation, it enables agility and adapt­ability which are vital for organisations that are having to rejuvenate due to the changing environments in which they operate.”

– Professor Julie Hodges

To help illustrate how people-centric change works in practice I have brought together insights from business people across the globe in a series of ‘business insights’ at the end of each chapter. I hope that readers will consider the questions I have included at the end of each of these, and how the lessons which they highlight might be applied to organisations they are either work­ing in or ones that they are familiar with.

I have also drawn from a range of frameworks that will help readers to bring some structure to how they engage people with change, but importantly, also, how they contribute to and participate in business transformations.

Who is the target audience for your book, and how do you believe it will benefit them?

The book is written for a wide audience. Whether they are a frontline employee or leading and/or managing a team of four people, a business of twenty-five or a multinational company employing thousands of people across the globe, or a student stud­ying organisational change, this book will help you to:

  • Appreciate the importance of the people dynamics of change
  • Be more effective in engaging others and becoming engaged yourself with change in hybrid and remote working contexts
  • Achieve the benefits accrued from sustaining change with other key stake­holders and
  • Apply the practical skills mentioned throughout the book to ensure you and others are a proactive part of a business transformation

What do you think makes this topic particularly relevant or timely in today’s business world, or for the years ahead?

In the post-pandemic world there is a need to rethink not only how change is managed but also how teams and others are engaged equally and inclu­sively with it and inspired to contribute to it.

This is about recognising that any individual in the organisation can influence change and its outcomes, and means everyone has the permission and autonomy to think beyond their job description, is able to look for ways to contribute to the broader organ­isation’s goals, and can help to transform the workplace and the work that they do. This means being able to reshape how business transformations are done by finding ways to engage people with them.

This happened during the crisis of the pandemic when organisations had to rethink what had to change and how this could be done remotely, which resulted in the reshap­ing of organisational change according to a different set of assumptions. Reshaping approaches to organisational change does, however, mean more than just redesigning tasks and activities; it also involves reconfiguring how change is done by leveraging the capabilities that different people can bring to the entire journey of a transformation, from its inception to its sustaina­bility.

A people-centric approach to change is, therefore, inclusive and recognises the need for equality and diversity in how change is enacted.

How does your book add to/expand existing discussions on this topic?

This book stresses that stakeholder participation is a key success factor, no matter what the driving forces are and how the change process is initiated and managed, because only by gaining the commitment of all those concerned, through their full involvement in planned transformational change, will change be successful – a claim that has been supported empiri­cally.

For instance, research suggests that participation is important for building trust in the change process and for creating trust between manage­ment and employees. Furthermore, participation reduces opposition to change through improved information sharing, decision-making and organ­isational commitment. However, this book goes further and posits that individuals and teams should not merely participate but also be responsible for developing solutions, which means involving key stakeholders and stake­holder groups, as early as possible, in identifying what needs to change.

Business transformations should, therefore, whenever it is feasible to do so, be constructed or negotiated with rather than for stakeholders, thereby reflecting the plurality of stakeholder interests. To explore how this can be done, this book breaks fresh ground and sets out frameworks, perspectives, practical approaches and recommendations for successfully engaging people in business transformations. It does this in several ways, including;

  • Providing real-world experiences from individuals across the globe and from different sectors
  • Considering prevalent types of change scenarios such as mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and downsizing, and digital transformations, and
  • Identifying the key capabilities required to engage people with organisa­tional change now and in the future; providing culturally transferable tools, frameworks and practical approaches which can be adapted, depending on the context of the organisation in which you work or are familiar with

Can you provide some practical tips or strategies from your book that readers can immediately apply to improve their business or career?

Too often, the people dimension is only considered after a transformation has started, and in many cases not until the end of the process, which is often too little, too late. This leads to a failure to create the desired changes in working practices, skills, knowledge and behaviour that are needed to deliver the business benefits.

To create a successful transfor­mation, people must feel that they are instrumental in influencing the direction of change, which means that employees and other key stakehold­ers need to be not just participants but also protagonists in business transformations, thus necessitating a shift from the conventional strategies. Traditional change management, often top-down and characterised by linear processes, lengthy timelines and faltering implementations, is no longer adequate and, in an era of disruption and digitisation, is outdated.

Instead of top-down linear strategies, there is a need to consider adopting a people-centric approach that is less prescriptive, more collaborative and involves stakeholders throughout the process, instead of simply telling them what will happen and what they must do.

It is important to pursue a people-centric approach to planned business transformations not as an end in itself but as a means of improving change in organisations and working lives. A people-centric approach to change is not a one-time event or even a process, but goes far beyond the strategies for consultation and participation that most organisations embrace. By putting people at the heart of a business transformation, it enables agility and adapt­ability which are vital for organisations that are having to rejuvenate due to the changing environments in which they operate.

Finally, what book written by another author would you consider essential reading for your audience and why?

  • Designing for Behavior Change: Applying Psychology and Behavioral Economics, by Stephen Wendel 
  •  Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive (Hardcover), by Amy Edmondson 
  • The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown (Hardcover – 19 July 2022), by Nathan Furr  and Susannah Harmon Furr

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