Twenty years ago, in 1997, Irving Fang published a book on the history of mass communication. He described six ‘information revolutions’, each one changing the way that we communicate and interact with the world.
Six information revolutions
The first, which he called the Writing Revolution, was in the eighth century BC in Greece. We now take writing for granted, but consider the impact of a change that moved us from a culture of ‘knowing what we could remember’ to one where memory was no longer a constraint. The second revolution was the arrival of printing in the 15th century. Suddenly, information could spread wider and was available to more people. However, the era of mass communication did not arrive until the mid-19th century, when newspapers and magazines reached ordinary people, and not just the elite.
At the end of the 19th century, information became entertainment. With the arrival of recording equipment, films and music could be shared as well as the printed word. This was exciting enough, but the fifth information revolution, in the mid-20th century, brought communication equipment—telephones, broadcasting, improvements in print—into the home. Finally, the sixth information revolution, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, brought the information superhighway.
The accelerating pace of change
What is likely to strike many people reading about those six revolutions is the accelerating pace of change. The gap between the first and second was almost 2000 years. Between the second and third, 400 years. Between the third and fourth, and fourth and fifth, just 50 years. The sixth arrived barely 30 to 40 years later. It is also possible to argue that in the last 20 years, since Fang’s book was published, we have perhaps seen another information revolution, with the arrival of the smart phone and the era of ‘always on’ connectivity.
Change, and rapid change at that, has become almost a constant in our lives. The old change models like Lewin’s Unfreeze—Act—Refreeze do not really apply any more. There is no longer the opportunity to ‘refreeze’ after change. Instead, we talk about ‘agile’, and we prize the ability to react quickly and efficiently to changes in the environment.
The problem with that is that we have not really evolved at the same pace as technology. The vast majority of people, if we are honest, find constant change threatening rather than stimulating. We don’t want to live in ‘interesting times’—at least not all the time.
Understanding and managing change
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s change curve is a way of understanding how people react to change. It has four stages of denial/shock—anger/fear—acceptance—commitment. Energy levels generally start high in denial, dip considerably through anger, and then rise again as individuals and organisations come to accept and then commit to the change. The real thing to remember with the change curve is that it takes time. As a wise man once said ‘If you find your team is full of energy when you think you’re halfway through a change process, they’re probably still in denial. You’ll need to go back a stage or two for them’.
There is a very real danger that organisations and individuals will not move through the change cycle. It is entirely possible to get stuck at the denial and/or anger stages for quite a long time. Indeed, with organisational change, it is possible to get stuck there for so long that it becomes the ‘new normal’.
Moving through the change curve with communication
There is a way that change leaders and managers can help people to move through the change cycle: communication. It has been said many times, but it is almost impossible to over-communicate change. Six revolutions of information? Sometimes—no, often—you need six revolutions of communication. Let’s say that again: in any change process, saying things once is not enough. Nor is twice. You need to keep saying it, over and over. Not necessarily exactly the same words, but the same messages: the importance of the change, the reasons for it, and the effect it will have. You also need to address the ‘bad stuff’: the threats to jobs, prestige and skills.
Over time, your messages will change and evolve, as the process progresses, and as people move through the change curve. The message will become more focused on addressing particular issues to help people move through anger and fear to acceptance. Only once you are sure that people have reached that stage, however, can you start to focus on the benefits.