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The importance of change management during digital publishing replatforming projects

The Code Company works with digital publishers and media organisations regularly to go through the process of migrating and replatforming to WordPress. These projects range from smaller data migration projects to those significantly more complex, such as merging several sites and publications from different platforms onto a unified WordPress platform.

It’s become increasingly obvious to us that these projects often occur in the context of broader organisational change. Replatforming is sometimes driven by business needs— resulting from acquisitions or mergers for example—or the technology itself is being used as a vehicle to drive change. 

Principal of The Code Company, Ben May, took the opportunity to talk to Dr Jen Frahm, Founder of Conversations of Change and the Agile Change Leadership Institute about the things we need to consider when managing change. From both the point of view of a publishing company considering technological change and agencies such as The Code Company engaged to undertake them.

Change Management vs Organisational Change

Jen explains that change management usually involves ‘discrete’ changes, such as a replatforming project. In those cases you use change management methodologies and tools to achieve your project outcomes. 

The challenge for many projects is that they occur in the context of broader organisational change which may involve strategic, structural and cultural changes. 

We’re reminded one form of change does not occur in isolation and Jen talks about recognising that process and behavioural change may need to accompany technological change. 

Stakeholder engagement

The importance of consultation, communication and engagement cannot be understated. Jen highlights that organisations need to recognise that those with an interest in a replatforming project (for example) may extend beyond those most obvious. 

She suggests the workforce is often best placed to provide advice about business improvements and should be consulted. 

“Consult early and consult often.”

Jen talks about the importance of transparent and open communication suggesting project milestones might serve as triggers for updating stakeholders about progress. 

One of the secrets of change management Jen advises is to involve stakeholders in co-creating the project.

“You reduce change resistance down the track by bringing them in and giving them a sense of ownership really early.”

Change, business benefits and risk

At WordCamp Publishers 2019 in Columbus Ohio, the panel “The Business of Migrations” discussed replatforming and data migration projects involving digital publishers in varying sizes. They strongly recommended against taking on too much change at once, noting the risk level as well as the stress on all involved may be too great. 

Jen talks about the variables publishers should be considering before embarking on replatforming (or indeed any) projects. 

“We’re worried about the cost of achieving the benefits of doing this versus the cost of it going wrong.” 

Often, just migrating content and data from a sluggish inefficient legacy site to a WordPress CMS will result in a myriad of benefits.

She recommends iterative approaches and suggests moving from legacy systems to WordPress as a proof of concept before moving onto other changes. 

But sometimes ‘like for like’ migration isn’t possible or practical and there are opportunities for functional improvements which offer additional business benefits.

The temptation is, of course, then to attempt redesigns and other changes. And here Jen reminds us that publishers (often relying on advice from agencies such as ours) need to consider that balance between risk (financial, reputational and organisational) and confirmed benefits. 

You can find Dr Jen Frahm on LinkedIn or Twitter or at the Agile Change Leadership Institute.

Interview Transcript

Ben May:

Today. I want to talk with Dr. Jen Frahm, founder of Conversations of Change and the Agile Change Leadership Institute, a world leading organizational change expert. And I’m hoping to talk today about some insights around moving to WordPress and the concept of replatforming or data migrations for publishers and businesses more broadly. And what that looks like, not from just a technical aspect, but how businesses can make the change to a different technology platform, a different technology stack, more seamless and less painful. Over the years at The Code Company we’ve done many number of different replatforming projects in different shapes and sizes for businesses of different shapes and sizes. And often the human aspect of these migrations are some of the most complicated parts of this changing business processes or internal processes.

Ben May:

So Jen, thank you for joining today. And yeah, hopefully we can share some insights today on change management and how we sort of can do better in replatforming projects, both external agencies like ourselves, and internal teams that we work with.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Absolutely. Look forward to chatting with you.

Ben May:

So I mean, something that has been new to me… Well, not new to me, but I guess the actual concept of change management. So you and I have known each other for years and years now. And for quite a long time I probably haven’t really understood what you do, which I know a lot of people would often say that about me. They don’t know… A weird phenomenon. But more recently as we’ve sort of worked on different projects, the concept of change management, and I think more broadly in a business community it’s becoming more of a common phrase, and the adoption is maybe picking up. So I guess at a high level, how do you describe change management to somebody that’s never heard of it? And I guess, is there a difference between organizational change management and change management? Which are two, I don’t know if they’re the same thing, but two terms I hear a lot of.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah. Great questions to kick off with, Ben. So I guess how do I describe change management? So change management for me is the intentional design of a change to a business. And that is everything from how do we design the change, how do we build the change, how do we implement the change in a way that we get the business outcomes that we want to achieve? So you mentioned before, is there a difference between change management and organizational change management? And there is.

Dr Jen Frahm:

So typically when we use the term change management, we’re often referring two very discreet pieces of change, so perhaps project changes. So the example you provided before, in terms of replatforming is a discreet project change, which you would use change management as a process, right? So there are various methodologies and tools, and that’s the type of place where you would come in and use change management to get the outcomes with the replatforming. Now, the challenge for a lot of projects is that they often occur in context of broader organizational change. And so when we speak organizational change management, we’re often thinking about a much bigger platform of change, which might be strategic change, it could be cultural change. And so your technical change is one component of that broader organizational change.

Ben May:

And that’s something I guess, that is often hard to think about so early on because a lot of prospects or people we’ll work with will be so excited by the technology change and the hands on, what can I see and change? And that for a lot of cases is moving off say an old content management system or something that’s being built internally. So the thought of being able to use WordPress in our case, and be able to publish content quicker, or manage their homepage, or send newsletters faster, or welcome page performance and see the SEO benefits and things like that, can often be so appealing that it’s very easy to forget about taking the rest of the business on that change. And that’s where replatforming projects can, I guess come unstuck.

Ben May:

And that’s something we’re trying to have better discussions with clients and prospects about, is how do we make sure that the rest of the business is coming along, and kind of avoiding that tail wagging the dog situation of a very small part of the business wanting to do a change from a technology perspective that has impacts throughout the entire business.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah, it’s really good insight, Ben. And I think often the people who are either the vendors like yourselves, or the people who have ownership of the budget and have made the decision that they want to do the change, can be quite evangelistic with the change, right? Because you’re the ones closest to the power of what it can actually do. But there can often be quite a big chasm between the evangelist and the rest of the business. And if we think about the question you asked prior, the difference between organizational change and change management, if the people that you need to bring along the journey on your particular technology platform are also undergoing change in multiple other areas, they can be quite overwhelmed with what’s happening, and just not see the benefits that you see for the sake of sheer overwhelm of change in the organization.

Ben May:

So often when we start on a replatforming project, there’s often going to be a lot of stakeholders, kind of implicit and explicit. So people who are directly making decisions about a design, or a menu item, or a content structure, or what are the categories on a homepage going to look like? How do you broaden that net to work from a business perspective? And this is something often as a vendor, as a third party agency, we don’t have the privy or that information, but it helps make our projects go more smoothly if a business can go through this process.

Ben May:

So how is a good way to work out those key stakeholders? And also, I guess, weighing that up with businesses that are obviously really busy and short on resources, and there’s always a lot of things going on, which is often the case in publishing, things move very quickly. How do you find the right amount of balance of having enough stakeholders to capture things like that?

Dr Jen Frahm:

That’s a really tough thing to do. And from my perspective, there’s this real clear algorithm, if you like, around effort and benefit. The more effort you put up front in analysis and understanding your context, and who’s who in the zoo, and who’s going to be impacted, the better your outcomes will be. If you skimp on that upfront, then you’re going to be doing reworks, you’re going to be doing remediation, all that kind of stuff further down the process. When effectively the change that you put into play becomes a live impact analysis. Ll of a sudden you switch everything on go, “Oh, I didn’t realize that it did this. I didn’t realize that you do that.”

Dr Jen Frahm:

So back to your question about, how do you know who are the right people to contact? This is the power of having somebody in the organization, and so when I’m thinking about your client organization, who’s really savvy around connecting with people. Companies that have a high use of things like enterprise social networks, so Yammer or Workplace, things like that, and are used to living their work transparently, have a much better chance of having critical stakeholders identified.

Dr Jen Frahm:

So I think really good change managers, if your company has a change manager in there, or it doesn’t have to be a change manager, but someone who does that work, is really good at lifting up rocks and looking at, “Well, if we do this who gets impacted?” Who actually does that and asks those really clever questions? Well, I say clever questions, they’re actually often really simple questions that we forget to ask.

Ben May:

The less obvious ones.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah, yeah. But they need to be asked to understand who are the people who contribute to each of the functions that you’re doing, or are dependent on the outcome of those functions. And so I often say that as long as it’s going to take you to do the build, you probably want to do as much on the analysis to understand context stakeholders impacts.

Ben May:

Because I guess thinking about it in tangible examples from our work, and working in publishing, and replatforming, there’s such a different spectrum of people. So something that happens very often is the amount of ad tech that’s running on a website. And what often happens is it’s incrementally added. And over time, especially at the point of a replatforming, it’s a bit of a cleaning house. And realize, we’re running 52 ad slots on a website. That’s crazy. So I think from that perspective, to change that there are technical decisions that have to make, and that’s something that we can obviously assist with. But there’s design, so how does that fit in with the new design? So someone has to sign off on design side of things.

Ben May:

This commercial impacts because which adds lots of generating the most revenue? Which ones are under performing what the clients want? What do we do if we have one client that wants to spend a lot of money, and they’re the only one who wants that particular ad slot? How do we decide those things? And then ad traffickers, so the people who have to actually load the ads and assign them. And then the editorial team, because they now need to also… Are there any changes to their day to day in terms of tagging content differently, or setting ad templates up differently when they’re producing an article in the backend? So it’s really, how do you make sure that that whole team is across this?

Ben May:

And like you said, the less time you put into it at the beginning, you end up sort of figuring it out by just closing your eyes and sort of touching the wall, and hang on, that was wrong, that was wrong, or we didn’t think that would work. Or worse, it goes live and realizing no one set the ads up for this one client that’s pays us a lot of money for this one unique thing, that everyone just assumed was not used anymore.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah. And I think there’s actually a real opportunity, Ben, right at the beginning of that process. Because whenever we bring in new technology platforms and solutions, it inevitably is an opportunity to streamline processes, right? So it’s a pretty safe bet that any new technology we bring in is better than what we had before, which means-

Ben May:

why we’re doing it. Yeah.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah. That’s right, right? So with that, we can streamline our business processes with that. If you do a piece of work right up front, which employs principles of design thinking, to understand what is the problem we’re trying to solve here? It gives you a more holistic view of saying, “Well, yes, the technology component is one aspect of it. Perhaps there’s a behavioral peace and perhaps there’s a process piece. And how can we make them work together so that we have this really beautiful experience at the end of it?” Rather than going, “Great technology, but gee behaviors have got to change to make this work.”

Ben May:

Yeah. Because the extreme of that is you can’t just switch over a business overnight and the editorial team, or the people who use it on the inside of the business aren’t across those changes, or very minimal, or they’re sort of brought in right at the end and said, “Here’s the new thing. Learn how to use it. It changes next week.”

Ben May:

So looking at different sizes of businesses, and people’s resources, and internal skillset because that obviously varies a lot. How is a good way to sort of think about how much assistance you need? Because I know in really big enterprise organizations the concept of dedicated external change management is something you’ve done a lot of in the past. And I guess that sort of filters back as the smaller the business gets, to that sort of smaller organization where let’s just say it’s five to 10 people, there’s still a change management process that has to happen, there’s still a coordination, and it’s not something that just one person can brief, an external agency, could build something, go change something and then roll it back.

Ben May:

So how do we think about the various levels? If I’m the person who’s leading a project internally in a 10 person business, I know I don’t need a full-time change manager to come internally, is it embracing change thinking along with agile development? Which obviously works very well and they’re very complimentary. So going back to that, yeah, if I’m thinking more from an agile and change management perspective and sort of the various levels as the size of the project and the business complexity because they’re both very related and levers to pull here.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Okay. So you’ve just called out two variables there, as in size of the business and size of the complexity. They’re not the variables we’re worried about. We’re worried about the cost of achieving the benefits of doing this, versus the cost of it going wrong. So if through implementing, whether you have 100 people or 1,000 people. If the cost of implementing your solution and getting it wrong is not particularly high or critical to the business, so reputation, customer, those kinds of things, then I’m going to say that you probably don’t need to invest external change management support. If the cost to your business through either reputation or business benefits, in terms of what you think that you’re going to achieve is significant, then you want to look at part of that budget being dedicated to change management expertise. So that’s where you’ve got to start, not how many people you have or how complex it is. It’s actually, what have you got to lose?

Ben May:

Right. That’s a good way to think about it.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah. Look, change management… And it’s a pragmatic way, right? Because you don’t want to over cook something. Change management isn’t a relatively high priced expertise. There is value in those people who come in and make things work for you. So you’ve got to actually look at that expense to say, “Well, where does this fit in relation to the cost of stuffing this up?” And therefore, is it a good risk mitigation? So for me, change management is risk mitigation in this context. Yeah.

Ben May:

So thinking about risk mitigation, something that’s talked about a little bit is, so in a replatforming project, I guess if you go to the crux of what that means is picking something up and just switching platforms. So essentially maintaining functionality and things like that. There’s always the appetite during a replatforming project to bake in a redesign. So even thinking about a small business website of your own to simply switch from Squarespace to WordPress, or you think about The Washington Post, switching from their system to another system is by definition of replatforming. Parts of that will include data migration and rebuilding certain things. But how do you think in terms of risk mitigation around not embracing or embarking on a redesign as well as a replatforming? So I guess the concept is you sort of recreate what’s there now and not engage in that part of the project. Just get the base built and then go through redesigns.

Dr Jen Frahm:

I guess the answer on that depends on how flexible the platform is that you’re… If we’re just doing an installation of technology, then the question that I’d been interested in then is, how flexible is that down the track, right? But you’re right. If we’re doing a replatforming of any nature, this is the opportunity to rethink what is the business problem that we’re trying to solve, and does it serve us, does it make sense that we do a redesign at the same time, or just prior to, to better support the benefits from this technology?

Dr Jen Frahm:

And so I’m not so sure about how it works in your space, but when we work in anything that’s SaaS based as systems implementation. And so you usually have very little flexibility in how you customize that for clients, right? It’s off the shelf, in a box. Now, that means you must do your redesign before you’re going to get success with that technical product because for some cases you might have 100 different processes running for different parts of the businesses that you’ve got to harmonize into one process to fit into that SaaS platform.

Ben May:

Yeah. I guess another non publishing’s way of thinking about it would be if you were migrating in a… I listened to a few podcasts with people talking about this kind of stuff. It would be moving from a legacy payroll system to a cloud based system. But the actual business is they want to switch from monthly pay to weekly pay. Do you switch the cloud accounting platform first? And then as the second process, then switch the payroll? It’s I guess, a risk mitigation process. And let’s get one change done first, which has a whole bunch of processes that doesn’t actually benefit the actual longterm goal that we’re trying to work towards. And then the second goal is then flicking the switch on the fortnightly, to monthly, or to weekly, whatever that is. But changing that as a second pace, rather than it all go wrong at the same time.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Totally because your first piece then becomes a proof of concept, right? We can actually do this.

Ben May:

Yep. And that’s often, I guess, how you think about a re-platforming, is let’s get off this legacy system. Let’s get to WordPress. We don’t need to think about too much down the line in terms of… We can have ideas about feature development, but the idea of using WordPress as a content management platform is that it will increase agility and experimentation, all these other things, but we don’t want to bake all of that in, otherwise, we run the risk of a project that never ends because the goalposts aren’t really defined on some of those less tangible items.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yep. Yep. And I think the benefit is… How a change manager would look at that kind of challenge is thinking about what is it that we actually need to serve the people who use this or your customers? And because often you’ve got decisions to make about, what’s nice to have versus what’s necessary. And change management is often very good at understanding how people use things and the behavioral use, to go, “Actually, this is necessary. It’s not just nice to have.” So that’s where that lens comes in really useful, in thinking that through.

Ben May:

So what do you say to people who are starting out on a project now? That they’re thinking they’ve got a technology reason they’re wanting to replatform in the next six to 12 months, the current system either is costly or it doesn’t work, or there’s some business reasons behind that. How do you think about that before you engage a technical partner to assist with some of that? We may be brought in to supplement existing teams or to do most of that work in terms of the technical replatforming. But how would you… I guess if your advice to someone who’s owning this project, like the sponsor of this project, to think about what’s the best next step for them in terms of making it a successful replatforming project beyond the technology?

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah. Look, I think consult often, consult early, right? You have so much wisdom in your organization. And often sponsors think that expertise is up in this high levels of the organization. But if you actually go out to all of the organization and say, “Look, this is our intent this year. This is why we think this is a good thing to do. Please come forward, tell us your story, is good or bad around what this is about.” And you might find that the scope of the RFP is very different because you’ve had some real gems have been bought forward by your workforce. So I’m a big fan of transparency. I’m a big fan of having a very large, expensive consultation process because it actually can save you money in the long run.

Ben May:

It’s better to lean into that early than after the fact because they are the people who have these things that will boil up after it’s too late, and the window is now closed. Yeah.

Dr Jen Frahm:

And this is the other secret of change management, when you involve your people in co-creating your solution, and so that means co-creating the RFP, it’s very hard to push back on what comes out of it if you had a part in creating it, right? So you reduce change resistance down the track by bringing them in and giving them a sense of ownership really early.

Ben May:

Great. I guess my final question for today, I guess, is in terms of the tangible replatforming, so tools and products and things changing for your internal organization, so if you’re an ad trafficker who has to set ads to run with articles or categories of content, or you’re a journalist who writes content, how’s the best way to think about, or what are the key things to think about in terms of their life changing through the process? So obviously you might have this project that might run for six months. So you don’t want to bring them in too early to that project and sort of preempt the training or the retraining on tools, and those sort of specifics. But also you don’t want to sort of leave it to the last minute. Is it really just a thing of communication and sort of internal management of really just talking these things through and what’s happening so that people are aware? Rather than that top down, “Here is the proclamation of everything that changes next week, you’ve got one week to adjust to.”?

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah. Yeah. Look, I think so there’s a curve that we talk about in change called the change commitment curve from Daryl Conner’s work. And it starts off with the first stage of the curve, where if we think about taking people on the journey, bit cliche, but we’ll use it. We take them through the phase of awareness first. Once they’re aware, you can move them to understanding why is it that we’re doing it, understanding what does the impact mean for them, understanding how they use it. Once they understand they move to buy in, so they’ll actually use the system, right? So if we think about that as a model of what does change management look like, or introducing this over time, it’s about looking at the milestones of your project. So to your point, if it’s going to take a six month build, starting with awareness and coming back to people on a regular basis, just to give them status updates to say, “Look, in February, we told you, this is what we’re going to do. It’s now March, here’s where we’re at. Nothing particularly exciting happening for you, but we’re all systems go.”

Dr Jen Frahm:

Now, the reason why that’s important is that if you don’t come back to them with interim updates, they will create stories to fill the void. And those stories will not be helpful to you, right?

Ben May:

Counter productive.

Dr Jen Frahm:

That’s it, our brains crave certainty. And so part of that certainty is you give regular updates of how the program or the project is going.

Ben May:

Great. Excellent. Well, thank you for your time today. I know you’ve got a few different courses in training. Where can people find you online if they’re interested in learning more about change management, and the fascinating world that it is?

Dr Jen Frahm:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, connect with me on LinkedIn. Let me know that you saw this. And I think LinkedIn is probably the easiest place to find me. Other than that it’s drjenfrahm.com, or the agilechangeleadershipinstitute.com.au, or Twitter, or Twitter.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Or Twitter.

Dr Jen Frahm:

You can get me on Twitter.

Ben May:

Absolutely. Thanks for your time today, Jen.

Dr Jen Frahm:

Thanks Ben.

Deb Cook

Deb works across the content marketing and project support functions at The Code Company. With a background in government project management and a passion for writing, Deb brings a unique perspective and skillset to the teams she works with.