Management: Voice of reason can speed change: Companies need better channels of communication to bed down new strategies

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THE widespread view that Britain's middle managers act as a reactionary block to change in the manufacturing industry is seriously challenged by a report published this weekend.

Creating Confidence: Communication, Planning and Successful Change, the fifth annual survey of the manufacturing industry by the consultants Ingersoll Engineers, finds an 'uncanny similarity of view' between managing directors and their subordinates about all but one important dimension of change. The exception is communication, which middle managers believe is the real issue.

Noting that it is often ineffective and unprofessional, 94 per cent rate it the 'highest priority' in successful programmes of change. Many attribute failures on this score to a lack of formal communications training; others blame low educational standards in written and verbal skills.

Ingersoll believes this communication problem is at least partly responsible for the managing directors' view that middle and junior managers are the principal points of resistance for the change programmes they are seeking to introduce.

There is a 'grey area of mutual misunderstanding' over change strategy - in particular, the meaning of the word 'strategy' itself. Although there is general agreement that responsibility for creating the vision and determining the initial strategy lies with managing directors and practical implementation with managers, this situation creates confusion over the timing of manager involvement and subsequent control of strategy development.

Brian Small, managing director of Ingersoll Engineers, said: 'As a result, what MDs take to be (in their own words) a lack of perceived commitment is for managers the result of uncertain communication. By so clearly eliminating other factors and highlighting this issue alone, the report suggests that a focus on the professional practice of communications and planning in UK industry will remove what may be the last significant roadblock to its advance.'

But for all this confusion, both groups see communication and commitment as crucial to the management of change.

There is also substantial agreement on how to communicate. The only significantly different rating is given to 'open project rooms' - where staff can find out what is going on. Managers - who are after all in charge of implementation - advocate that they should be used much more widely than at present.

However, there is suspicion about what is actually communicated and how. It appears from the responses that, too often, changes are announced or initiated with information that is either insufficient or too incomplete for others to understand. In addition, while downward communication is often strong, the upward side can be lacking - in the words of a manager, 'falling on deaf ears'.

That aside, Mr Small is encouraged by the general level of agreement, which he said 'marked a dramatic, encouraging shift from the polarised attitudes of as little as a decade ago'.