Can change management be outsourced?


Many organizations struggle with how to resource the change management function. Typically, the symptoms of this difficulty look something like this:

  • “We’ve hired our technology partner for the new system and their mandate includes change management. But they don’t seem to connect to our culture or really “get” us, beyond the technology piece. They aren’t quite wrapping their heads around the idea that a lot of people are nervous about this great new system they’re implementing, and that is actually making us even more nervous.”
  • “We’re trying to get HR to help support our change project, but it’s a struggle. Their focus is really on staffing, benefits and labour relations, so it’s tough to get their time and attention on our project.”
  • “We have a great communications team and we know we need their help to communicate our change to our people. They want to pitch in, but they’re stretched way too thin, and their focus always seems to be on putting out fires in external communications.

One thing is certain: change is one of the most difficult things for an organization to achieve, and without appropriate, dedicated resources assigned to the critical (yet often invisible) change management function, the project is doomed to fail.

That’s why at one point or another a change leader eventually comes to ask the question: can we outsource our change management function?

As someone who has worked on both the management and the consultant side of change, my answer is yes, and no.

Yes: Some functions can be effectively outsourced

Some of the tasks required in change management lend themselves well to working with an outsourced partner. This is often a practical approach, particularly for clients whose size or budgets would prevent them from having specialized change management talent on staff.

Functions that can work well on an outsourced basis include:

  • Assessment: A consultant can effectively assess the change readiness of an organization. It can be helpful to have an outside, neutral, third party conduct executive and staff interviews to get an accurate reading of the change landscape.
  • Strategic planning: External consultants can do a good job at developing change management plans, especially since organizations often lack the in-house capacity or capability in the specialized area of strategic planning. In addition, an external partner can bring other client experiences to bear, which can be an effective way to build current best practices into your planning process.
  • Communication: Transformation projects require a significant level of effort in communications, which often exceeds an organization’s in-house capacity. An external partner can fill the gap and assist with producing communications products (e.g. presentations, speeches, posters, intranet copy, videos, etc.).
  • Coaching: Leading change is difficult, and many executives and managers are placed in situations in which their change leadership requirements push them beyond their usual comfort zone. A trusted, external change management coach can help change leaders hone the skills and confidence needed for success. This can be particularly important in mitigating the risks of change (i.e. managing issues that come up such as labour disputes, disruptions to business operations, internal misalignments, etc.).
  • Change readiness: Many organizations benefit from holding change readiness sessions for managers and staff. Sessions facilitated by an external expert that provide opportunities to learn strategies for working and leading through change, and to have conversations around the change.

No: Some functions cannot be outsourced

Several functions are core to organizational change, and outsourcing them can be risky. They include:

  • Executive sponsorship: It is well established that the single most important factor to successful change is active, visible executive sponsorship. There has to be a “face” to the change, and that should not be a consultant.
  • Change agent: Organizations in transformation require strong, internal change agency. It includes advocating on behalf of the change at internal meetings, using social capital to advance change through influence (rather than authority), and connecting the change initiative to internal business partners and stakeholders. Some organizations choose to separate the “doing” function of a change agent from the “thinking” part of the role (which they outsource). This is dangerous in the already high-risk game of change and should be avoided.
  • Change champion: To be successful, a large change project needs strong internal champions. These leaders require the legitimacy and credibility that comes from their staff role in order to be effective.
  • Human resources: An organization needs at least some internal HR capacity equipped to manage a transformation. Change projects often require significant HR support in areas such as creating new roles, recruitment, knowledge transfer, and staff reductions, areas most appropriately handled internally.
  • Training: While some elements of training can be done externally (such as curriculum development and leading specialized sessions), there needs to be an internal anchor for the program to be successful. At minimum, an organization has to validate that the training is consistent with overall learning plans/policies, and demonstrate that any externally-led sessions are aligned with internally-approved goals.
  • Budgeting: The risks of outsourcing budgeting decisions to external consultants seem obvious, but surprisingly are often overlooked. Keep this task internal.

In any project, but most especially in change management, our experience has proven that the most effective business model when working with an outsourced firm is for clients to work in true partnership with their consultants. The goal is to secure external expertise and horsepower on an as-needed basis in a way that builds the strength and capacity of your organization.

Some approaches to consider include:

  • Capitalize on the value of an external consultant by including the firm in a Change Management or Transformation Team. By building a change expert’s perspective into day-to-day operations, the client gets cost-effective access to specialized counsel throughout the project lifecycle. This can serve to mitigate change risks, and help build internal capacity in change leadership by setting up a close collaboration between staff and the consultant.
  • Establish an expectation of knowledge transfer and capacity building in the consulting engagement. Avoid the “black box” model of some consulting firms where their approach and methodology remain secret and hidden from the client. An organization should be left stronger after a consulting project, not weaker.
  • Include your consultant in your regular project communication. In this way, you ensure that the consultant is always up-to-date and ready to jump in and contribute without slowing down the process of having to bring them up to speed.

As with most things in change management, there is no easy, black-and-white answer to the question of outsourcing. Instead, a more nuanced and creative approach to resourcing, customized to the particular change assignment at hand, is likely the winning bet.

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