24 August 1998

Open communication and strong leadership are the keys to managing organisational change successfully, according to a University of Queensland study.

Graduate School of Management head Professor Victor Callan and School of Psychology Professor and Academic Board president Cindy Gallois have been studying the impact of organisational change on worker identity for the past four years.

Theirs is one of the few academic teams working with Australian industry in this area - most research surrounding organisational change focuses on the stress caused by the process, rather than on ways of effectively communicating organisational change to workers.

Professor Gallois said that during times of organisational change, staff often felt pressured and threatened and fell back on ?safe' pre-change identities - ways of defining themselves within the particular organisation.

"These identities may be based on their profession, work status such as part-time or full-time, seniority or even gender. Such identities can hinder change by setting up rivalries within work groups in the new structure, distorting information flows and reducing the overall efficiency of the organisation," she said.

"Organisational change is facilitated when workers are encouraged by open communication processes and strong, enthusiastic leaders to develop new identities within a restructured work unit."

Professor Callan said the research showed that strong leaders who communicated change well were integral to creating a new identity within restructured work units. This communication could take the form of regular newsletters, emails or one-on-one briefings informing staff of the change process as well as rewards for and celebrations of achievements along the way, he said.

"The best leaders kept the excitement and the momentum of the change process going and worked hard to create a new common work unit identity. They also created an open communication environment," Professor Callan said.

Their initial study, funded by a three-year, Australian Research Council large grant, focused on the effects of organisational change (down-sizing and restructuring) on around 2500 Australian Army personnel. In this case, the full-time workforce had been cut significantly and replaced by part-time soldiers.

This year, Professor Callan and Gallois have embarked on a study of the effects of organisational change on staff at both the Princess Alexandra Hospital and the Queensland Department of Housing. This study is funded by a Strategic Partnerships with Industry - Research and Training (SPIRT) grant.

Professor Callan said organisational change could involve restructuring work units into multidisciplinary teams or introducing new financial targets or technology.

"For example, hospital staff, once working in homogeneous professional groups, may be rearranged into small working units involving, say doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. Or one profession may take on activities traditionally performed by another," he said.

Their research attracted interest from Middle Eastern peace forces personnel during the recent International Communication Association conference in Israel, Professor Callan said.

"This is a prime example of past worker identities needing to change radically in order for organisational change to work. In that situation you have Israeli and Palestinian soldiers working side-by-side instead of against each other. Open communication and strong leadership is needed to assist the evolution of a new worker identity."

In conducting their studies, Professors Gallois and Callan interview staff to gauge identity issues and whether current communication methods about organisational change are perceived as effective. They then evaluate interventions intended to improve communication and enhance the new identities.

Professor Gallois said the studies showed that the higher the perception of communication effectiveness, the higher the job satisfaction, the lower the staff turnover and the higher the commitment level to the organisation.

"We found that worker identity was the key variable in the organisational change process. For change to be successful, identities must change too, which is facilitated by open communication," she said.

For more information, contact Professor Gallois (telephone 07 3365 1320) or Professor Callan (telephone 07 3365 6225).