The Gatehouse Blog

Rising to the challenge of a technical change initiative

The following is an extract from the Journal of Internal Communication. See if you qualify for a free industry subscription at www.internal-communication.com/joic

Communications and Engagement Manager Kay Callaghan discusses the challenges of communicating a technical change programme at Network Rail.

Network Rail is responsible for the UK’s railway network. We run, maintain and develop Britain’s rail tracks, signalling, bridges, tunnels, level crossings and many key stations. Internal communications are complex because of our geographically disperse employee base of 35,000 people across the country.

We’ve launched a change programme called Business Critical Rules to help us better manage our risks. The programme is reviewing of all our standards, processes, systems, and procedures. Our current standards have evolved over 150 years, based mainly on learning from incidents and issues. This has led to some inconsistencies and, most importantly, our standards don’t fully address today’s risks. The programme is meant to predict and better manage key risks in three areas: safety, performance and reputation. It enables those closest to the business to make risk-assessed changes to activities like maintenance regimes. Ultimately, our goal is to embed a structured way of continuously improving.

When I joined, I was faced with a series of challenges. First, the programme had just been restarted after a pause – just a few months after its initial launch, which caused some credibility issues. Second, I didn’t feel that the comms that had been developed previously spoke to our audience. Third, the programme was incredibly complex and it’s been a significant learning curve to get up to speed with its technicalities!

Banishing jargon

The first thing was to try to translate incredibly complex messages into a simpler narrative that would resonate with our internal audiences. Most of the team had been involved in the programme from the beginning and were naturally very technical. This ‘technical’ aspect is what they built the credibility of the programme on, so it can be incredibly hard to convince people that messages need to be simplified.

I inherited an 80 page induction deck and it took a lot of convincing to strip all the irrelevant messages. Frontline people don’t need to understand all the technical details nor the mechanics behind the scenes of how we put the programme together. They want to know is why we are doing this – in very simple terms – and how the programme is going to affect them. It took a lot of time and energy to convince people that communications didn’t need such large amounts of details and diagrams.

I created an elevator pitch, sitting down with the team and trying to articulate the positive impact of the programme on the business – the benefits it was going to bring to individual teams on the front line and to other stakeholders. My personal objective was to provide some context around the programme, to set the scene and pull out key points in an easy to understand way.

Next, I created a series of simple but more visual deliverables, starting with a two-minute animation that goes through different elements of the programme in a way that anyone can understand. It’s cartoony and uses images and situations that resonate with people. I’ve also created a set of infographics that show the situation before and after, highlighting how time and money have been saved through making local changes (they won’t win any design awards but they explain the benefits clearly and didn’t cost me anything!).

Tailoring the messages

I came up with a strategy and I managed to get people to sign up to a few basic principles: we would not ‘bombard’ the whole business simply because it’s an important programme – it’ll affect everyone eventually, but, as communicators, we know that messages don’t sink in until they’re actually relevant. So my strategy was to run a light general awareness campaign on our corporate channels, and target our detailed comms to those affected, telling them what they needed to know when they needed to know it.

Getting our Chief Executive on board was key. He’s very focused on continuous improvement so for him, Business Critical Rules are a no-brainer and he’s been a positive advocate, talking to frontline people to hear how they make a difference.

The programme will continue its roll out over the next three years. Different parts of the railway will be affected but in the short term, our focus has been on the track area. We’ve developed tailored comms for this specific population that have been released via face-to-face briefings (sometimes at night!), e-updates and Yammer.

The one thing that working on this programme has reinforced is that we should never forget that our job as internal communicators is to make change real for people and put our audience at the centre of our message. It can be really hard – there’s often a degree of politics and a perceived need for ‘vanity publishing’. But it’s our job to push back and remember that our audience is the success of the programme – not the boss!Business Critical Rules means of control change - cab riding v2

BIOGRAPHY – KAY CALLAGHAN

Kay Callaghan, like many of us, fell into internal communications by accident over 20 years ago. She held a variety of comms and marketing jobs at the Office for National Statistics, before becoming Head of Internal Communication & Engagement at The Royal British Legion.

Having supported major change programmes in both organisations, she’s now helping implement a once in a generation change to 35,000 people on the railway.