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Q&A: Change agents lead the charge for enterprise software initiatives

In this Q&A, industry expert Steven Phillips explains the role of change agents in business technology initiatives.

As any manufacturing professional knows, change is an inevitable part of business, but it rarely comes easily. Implementing new software systems or ushering in cultural shifts requires effective and flexible leadership. That's where organizational change agents come into play. SearchManufacturingERP Site Editor Brenda Cole spoke with ERP and supply chain implementation expert, blogger and book author Steven Phillips about what it means -- and the skills that it takes -- to be a successful change agent in a manufacturing organization. Phillips is also a member of the site's expert advisory board and has served as a leader for software implementation projects at several manufacturing organizations.

What exactly is a change agent? Is it just someone responsible for implementing a technological or cultural change at an organization, or is there more to it?

Steve Phillips

Steven Phillips: I believe a person is a change agent primarily by nature. It is the type of person that wants to be a catalyst of business improvement and has developed the knowledge, skills and credibility within the organization to do it. One often associates change agents with some major project initiative, but most change agents are constantly looking for better ways to do things as part of their normal job.

Are there any common misconceptions about the role of a change agent in the area of business technology?

Phillips: Being a change agent is more than just about selling solutions. I think that's where the biggest challenge in fulfilling that role is -- that a lot of people think a change agent is just someone saying, "Hey, we got a new package -- isn't this better than what we do now?" That's a misperception and that's why a lot of projects fail, because people really don't understand exactly how to successfully implement that role.

What are the main goals of a change agent when it comes to implementing new business applications or other technology-based changes?

Phillips: There are basically two things you've got to do. Number one, you're not just selling solutions: You have to have solutions that are better and actually work in the real world, while also working for the people who are using them. Those people ultimately have to own that solution, whatever that is. A lot of times, the solutions are more or less pushed upon people with the assumption that since it's in the [new software] package, it must be better.

Secondly, [for a successful software implementation], you've got to build trust and credibility with not just upper management, but you also have to have credibility with the people whom this change is going to affect. You have to get them to own it.

What sort of technical expertise do business software change agents need to possess to be effective?

Phillips: One of the most important skill sets needed to be a change agent [in business technology] is strong business analysis skills. The business analysis side of it is so important because that's how you understand the business processes. After all, systems are designed to support business processes and you need to know how to improve those. It's a lot of problem solving, working with people and collaboration. Additionally, application consulting skills are also important [for a change agent] to be able to explain how these applications really work.

Are there any unique challenges facing change agents working in manufacturing environments?

Phillips: Not for the most part. However, in a manufacturing setting there tends to be a more diverse set of employees in terms of skills and background. Not to draw generalities, but, for example, the people working in the front office might have to be engaged differently from those working on the shop floor. I think this heightens the need for a change agent to be able to build trust with all groups of employees in order to be effective.

What are some pitfalls or mistakes that change agents should be careful to avoid?

Phillips: First, in order to implement any major change, the change agent requires the support of management. This is because in many cases, the change agent is not the process owner.

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Second, in the business world, change for the sake of change is not always good. Do not fall into the trap of advocating solutions just because everyone else seems to be doing it. The change has to address real world problems in order to be supported by the employees.

Finally, don't forget to develop people skills. Some [change agents] try to implement positive changes but fail because they alienate employees in the process. You cannot be a bull in a china shop if you want to be successful.

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