If You Build It, They Still Won’t Read Their Email

Last month, Christine Steger posed an interesting question in the e-Learning group. In her post. “Communications and Change Management Plan for Transitioning to eLearning,” Christine reveals that she’s in charge of developing a Communication and Change Management (CM) Plan. I was struck by just how forward-looking this project is to include this kind of plan. The fact is, it’s rare for a training or learning program to focus on anything other than the training itself. Or if you’re lucky, maybe the technology as well.Communicating the need for the training is often overlooked, with predictable results when behavior on the job remains firmly entrenched. I’ve had first-hand experience with training projects where we incorporated a full-blown communications plan, and I can attest to the difference they can make.

In case you didn’t realize it, the “If You Build It, They Will Come” strategy has been discounted over the years. Learning and training is by definition behavior change. If you do not meaningfully communicate the benefits of behavior change to your audience, they are unlikely to do anything different, no matter how engaging your training or well-designed your PS solution. In this post, I will discuss a tool useful for either training programs or PS tool implementations – the Communications Plan.

We have given it a variety of titles, depending on what resonated with the project team: a Stakeholder Engagement Plan; a Strategic Communications Plan; a Communications Roadmap. Regardless of the actual title, what we’re talking about is a planned set of messages deliberately designed to resonate with the various target audiences. This Plan is intended to answer the all-important “what’s in it for me?” question that adult learners must identify before they open themselves to changing their habits.

Unfortunately, answering this question is often left to the last minute, and a haphazard approach to communicating the need for change is an uphill climb to success. So let’s look at a high-level outline of a Communications Plan and scratch the surface of what a successful plan might contain.

The primary sections of this plan should include:

Core Challenges describe the barriers to change the participants and other related audiences are up against. These barriers must be overcome, and often through personal commitment on the part of the stakeholders. This section lays out both general and specific challenges for each stakeholder group (for instance, consider that messages aimed at Managers need a different angle than those targeted on participants.)

Purpose and Objectives explains why the communications plan exists, relates the goal of the overarching project to the communications, and outlines the objectives of the plan. You might want to build enthusiasm, set expectations, build support, or highlight the importance of the training or tool. Any or all of these could be objectives for the plan. This section is important to keep a narrow scope focus for the Communications Plan. Aim too broad and your messages will be scattered across too many audiences to resonate. Aim too narrow and not enough people will understand why they need to change their behavior.

Target Audiences explains what makes each of these audiences unique, and why they have a stake in the communications. Keep in mind that you can have Primary and Secondary audiences. The primary audiences will get the majority of the effort, but don’t neglect the secondary audiences. For instance, Trainees and their Supervisors are clearly the primary audiences, but secondary audiences may include senior leadership or other departments with which the Trainees interface. These secondary audiences can support the change within the primary audiences if they understand why the change is needed.

Messages are the key ideas specific to each target audience. There should be general messages for both primary and secondary target audiences. Primary target audiences will also receive messaging that is tailored to their unique needs and interests. This is where the rubber hits the road with Communications Plans. The goal here is to open the target audience to change. Skillfully crafted messages will resonate with the target audience – convincing them you know about their pain – and then offer them a better outcome if they attend training or use your PS tool (as defined in the Purpose and Objectives section above!).

Communications Channels communicate the messages. These are the different methods for sending your messages: email, conference calls, communities of practice, newsletters, websites, video broadcasts, word of mouth, etc., etc., etc. This is your chance to be thorough and pick as many different channels as possible (within budget and schedule). Reading one email does not change behavior. People are more likely to internalize and comply with a message if they hear it repeatedly, especially through multiple, distinct channels. And here’s a protip: leverage the channels that your target audiences already use for communication. Keep in mind that each target audience might have a different set of channels they already use, so it pays to know how your target audiences already get their messages.

Of course, this is only the planning – excellence in execution is required here, too. But a communications plan goes a long way to making sure that your hard work in building your training program does not run into the brick wall of habits and cultural resistance to change.

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Tim Bowden

Chris – congrats on your first GovLoop blog! The high level communications plan outline you provide should be a useful tool for folks struggling to think through how to effectively communicate a change. Of course, the key is getting folks to think about communication early and often in the process. For years now transparency has been the buzzword in leadership circles, but being really (and authentically) transparent is probably the key aspect in communicating about change.

I look forward to your next blog adventure!