Putting Kotter’s Ideas to the Test: Leading Change Through an Offshoring Effort
After reading Leading Change by John P. Kotter, I decided to put Kotter’s method to the test on a change effort in my department. The change effort is the offshoring of information development activities to India. This analysis discusses the eight stages of change, where we are in the process, and what’s next. But first, a little background.
Last year, I found myself in a work crisis involving change and insecurity. Change was in the form of R&D jobs being offshored to India and long-time employees in the US being laid off. Our small operation in India had grown to about 400 employees in just two years.
What did this mean for the information-development organization? Many people thought that the offshoring of support, development, and quality assurance personnel would not cross over to technical writers. However, the Information Design and Development (ID&D) organization started researching the technical communication profession in India and the possibility of adding information-development jobs at our site in Pune, India.
Setting up even a small staff of information developers in India involved a huge mind shift, not only for the writing organization but also for the many extended team members in the R&D organization. In the US, questions were raised about the writing skills of non-native English speakers, about the availability of educational programs and training for technical communicators in India, and especially about the background and experience of software documentation professionals.
However, our research indicated clear advantages of having some writers in India: significant cost savings, the efficiencies of having writers working side-by-side with remote R&D teams, and the potential of offloading work for an overburdened workforce in the US. Also, we discovered that India indeed had a small but growing force of technical writers and an STC membership of about 400. This article, however, is not about the pros and cons of offshoring that were brought to light by our research. This summary analysis is about the change effort and how ID&D management prepared to lead change. This is where Kotter’s eight-stage process comes in and how it is helping us to drive change, not only within the writing organization, but also with extended R&D teams. So far, the process has proven to be a practical and worthwhile approach to leading change efforts in the offshoring arena.
Stage 1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency
The sense of urgency for us was created by an order from upper management to slash costs and improve operating margins. While other groups were lowering costs with cheaper Indian labor, ID&D found savings by moving writers at higher-cost commercial locations to offices at home, but these measures were not enough. Reducing head-count was not an option, as R&D teams were hiring abroad at a fast pace and we needed information developers to work with those teams. If ID&D management couldn’t find cheaper ways of delivering documentation, writers in the US stood a great chance of being outsourced or laid off. The situation was urgent. We eventually came to the conclusion that by adding some lower-cost labor in India, we could actually save jobs in the US because this tactic lowered our overall expenses for the department.
Stage 2: Creating the Guiding Coalition
Our small team that is leading the offshoring effort includes the ID&D director and senior manager, a lead and senior writer, and an editor. The coalition has expanded to include our new Indian counterparts. This guiding coalition contains the key characteristics that Kotter suggests: ID&D management, with the support of the senior leadership team, has power to guide the change effort. The writers and editor provide expertise and leadership. Involving our Indian peers gives them a stake in the process and lends credibility that the new team will be successful. Along with the urgency established in stage one, having an authoritative, experienced, and credible guiding coalition has helped lower the resistance to change.
Stage 3: Developing a Vision and Strategy
I found this chapter to be one of the most enlightening parts of the book and have applied it judiciously to our offshoring effort. One of the first things the guiding coalition did was to “imagine a picture of the future” (page 72) and write it down. Our guiding coalition knew exactly where we wanted to be in one year and developed a phased quarterly process (strategy) for getting us there. The phased process provides a realistic approach to building a foundation that will support an overseas operation.
Stage 4: Communicating the Change Vision
For our offshoring efforts, communication does not have a set beginning and end. Communications have to occur throughout the offshoring process through regular updates at all-hands meetings, project kick-off meetings, presentations by the guiding coalition at staff meetings, a global ID&D team web site, and newsletter articles. These forums allow for two-way communication to receive feedback from employees about the offshoring process and to address concerns such as maintaining the quality of the documentation, mentoring less experienced writers overseas, and working with remote teams in opposite time zones. Ongoing communications continue to reinforce why we are offshoring and provide information about how we are doing it, who is involved, and what the plan is for success.
Stage 5: Empowering Employees for Broad-Based Action
Employees are empowered by serving as mentors to work with the new Indian writers. The mentors start new projects with remote Indian workers, determine the type of information that must be conveyed, and set expectations with development teams. In addition, the company provides intercultural training classes for both the US and India so that employees at all locations learn about the differences between working with low-context cultures in the US and high-context cultures in India. We also have training for “Virtual Teams” and “Leading from a Distance” to learn best practices of working in a virtual team environment. These actions remove barriers that might stall the change process. For instance, remote team members learn how to build relationships despite the limitations of electronic communications versus face-to-face interaction. As mentors, employees are accountable for ensuring a successful outcome. Working together toward common goals helps to remove the cynicism and doubts about moving some of the R&D operations to lower-cost “competency centers.”
Stage 6: Generating Short-term Wins
Some short-term wins are already happening as writers in India have become successful at completing documentation assignments. They are learning to publish independently without relying on US writers. This is a huge benefit to an already stretched workforce. Through surveys of US and Indian employees, we are finding out where improvements can be made.
Stage 7: Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change
I can’t say we are at this stage yet, but I believe that eventually writers and development team members in all locations will see the benefits of working together in our new global environment. What we’ve seen so far is that most people enjoy working with different cultures and feel fortunate to have these opportunities. Relationships are forming across time zones and oceans. In the US, we’ve been forced out of our shells and grown because of it. That’s not to say that we don’t have some holdouts. Some of us still wonder about the long-term benefits of sending work abroad, but the number of us who do is growing smaller.
Stage 8: Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture
The future holds promising possibilities for enabling us to work together to reduce costs, maintain and improve quality, and stay competitive in a global environment. I believe that the global workforce is here to stay, and that in the very near future, we’ll accept it as the norm. I hope that our ability to compete opens up even more jobs for American workers and that we don’t see degradation in our work life because of it. I think Kotter’s process follows a logical progression for change and cautions us that even after change is implemented during stages four and five, there is still work to be done to ensure that the results of change are instilled in the organization. As my team approaches its one-year anniversary for offshoring, this means more follow-through and continued leadership in the new global environment.