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Change management skills and experience are ‘must have’ qualities for many senior jobs.

If you want to progress to the top, you’ll need to tick this box.

Job advertisers misuse the term. A advertisement using the term change management might mean a willingness to sack people.

Others use it as a nice way of describing aggressive or even bullying management. I’ve also seen it used where the recruiter meant ‘an ability to get things done’.

When an employer genuinely asks for change management skills they are looking for someone to steer a team, department or organisation through business change.

Business change

Business change takes one of two basic forms.

The first happens when an organisation decides to remake itself. This could be part of a merger, demerger or management buyout. It could be when a company changes focus. Under Lou Gerstner IBM moved from a hardware orientation to consulting services. Or when Apple switched from computers to making music players and mobile phones.

In theory this kind of change is orderly. You’d start with a master plan and make considered changes.

Any change will lie mainly within the bounds of the organisation and controlled by the organisation.

In this case change management is like looking at a map and saying to yourself ‘we’re are now at point A, what is the best route to get to point B?’ When things blow off course, you can always go back to the map and find a new course.

Change due to external forces

If only things were always so simple. The other type of change happens when external pressures drive organisations to reconfigure.

This may happen because of a new piece of legislation or government regulation.

An example might be the changes required within accounting businesses when governments introduce new tax rules. To understand how complex this can become imagine what processes might have taken place if the US government had broken up Microsoft.

Government led change may be negotiable and comes with plenty of warning.

Other external forces driving change are less predictable. For example: social upheaval, radical technological advances, economic upsets, competitor action, accidents, war and so on.

Some change is merely the rough and tumble of market forces – nobody would deny Cisco has been through periods of unforeseen change over the years.

Although there are exceptions, few companies can expect to have much influence over these external forces and even where there is an opportunity to influence external change, things might not happen the way you expect.

Types of change

It’s worth making a clear distinction between the two different ways of dealing with external change.

Usually external changes push companies into reactive responses. These can be knee-jerk responses or more measured approaches. The key is going through the change and dealing with problems as they arise. When change is sudden and unforeseen, there is no option but to react this way.

Alternatively, companies can attempt to anticipate change and prepare for it. This doesn’t necessarily need a crystal ball. All it requires is keeping well-informed. For example, agricultural companies already know the climate is changing; some will be making plans as evidence of global warming emerges.

Software developers can look at the road maps for future product development issued by companies such as Intel, Google and Microsoft. Carmakers know some jurisdictions will require zero emissions by as set date.

Role play

Multinational oil companies like BP and Shell have role-play exercises coaching executives through dummy external shocks. For example they might look at how a military coup in a major oil-producing country might affect their business. This is an important way of preparing for radical external change. It enables executives to build teams and learn how things get done when the everyday rules of business change.

Companies in other industries engage in similar speculative activities or have informal think tanks to work through various scenarios. You may apply a simplified version of some of these techniques to your own situation.

Preparation, planning and research are important keys to dealing with change in any area of activity. But no amount of planning can adequately prepare you for some events. Companies at the World Trade Centre might have had plans to deal with computer failure, or even a large-scale disaster. They may have work-shopped a whole range of ideas. I doubt if many expected the bulk of their employees to die in a single morning. Yet, companies looking at other possibilities would have had a starting point for dealing with the crisis.

You may think dealing with a terrorist attack has little to do with change management. The connection is slim. Yet, airlines faced with plummeting ticket sales and security companies faced with increased demand went through their own change management processes after the terror attacks.

Most of the change management you will need to deal with will be on a smaller scale and less dramatic. We’ll look more closely at the issues for change managers in another post.

Software is a work in progress.

Just as you’ve mastered an application and found ways to work around its quirks, an upgrade fixes the problems.

Developers add new features; introducing new quirks and new workarounds. And just to complicate matters there are regular security updates and patches.

Desktop PC applications evolve at a breakneck speed but web-based applications change even faster. The main difference between the two types of software is that you can easily choose not to update a PC application you’ve fine-tuned to perfection; with web-based software you are force marched to the updated version. This is good.

One of my favourite productivity applications updated last night. When I launched Remember the Milk this morning it told me I was now looking at the Smart Add edition.

In simple terms, Remember the Milk is an on-line to-do list manager. That’s like describing Microsoft Excel as a calculator.

Remember the Milk uses plain English

Smart Add allows you to enter new to-do list items in plain English. It works similar to the way you enter information on Google Calendar. But the software removes any doubts you may have about the exact meaning of your entries. This comes into its own when you use the program from a mobile device. There’s a full explanation of how Smart Add works at the Remember the Milk blog.

Because it is online, the software allows you to integrate your to-do list items with maps, pictures, digital calendars, personal information managers, mobile phones and just about everything else that’s web-enabled.

You also share lists with colleagues and slice or dice the information to meet your ever-changing needs.

The basic version of Australian-developed application remains free, but there’s now a US$25 pro version which comes with priority support and the ability to synch to mobile devices including the Apple iPhone and iPod touch, Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices. You also get priority support – though I’ve only needed to contact support once in the three years or so I’ve used Remember the Milk – and I had the answer I needed within hours.

Remember the Milk now integrates with Gmail, Google Calendars and Twitter. You can also install an iGoogle Remember the Milk gadget if you use Google’s home page. There’s a list of official and third-party add-ons at the Remember the Milk site.

Eight office extras every small business needs:

Broadband

Even if your business is in a backwater left behind by the telecommunications revolution there’s no excuse not to swap your dial-up connection for a fast link to the Internet. You’ll probably need an ADSL or Cable modem. These are usually included in the start-up kits offered by ISPs.

If you can’t get conventional broadband choose a wireless, satellite service or a 3G mobile phone.

Security software

The moment your computer connects to the Internet, it is open to attack by viruses, hackers and other online nasties. Buy an all-in-one suite of security software that includes antivirus tools and a firewall.

Some packages also have spam filtering software and other security applications. There are free packages, but they can be troublesome.

See also:

Computer security primer
Computer security: What are the main threats?
Computer security: Defensive software
Computer security: How to buy security tools
Computer security: What to buy or download for free

Small business web presence

If you sell products or services in the real world, even a modest web site will help you sell online – create an online brochure to promote your business. You don’t need to be a technical expert to set up a simple site, some ISPs include free Internet hosting with their accounts. Otherwise, you can choose one of the free online web hosts to get started.

Phone answering

A missed call is a missed opportunity – avoid losing business by installing a phone answering machine or signing up for voicemail. Alternatively, forward your business calls to your mobile or home number when the office is empty. You do have a mobile phone, don’t you?

Book-keeping or accounting software

Don’t wait until you visit the accountant to know whether you’re making a dollar. There are low-cost packages from companies like MYOB and Quicken that will allow you to create invoices, fill out tax forms and track the flow of money through your business – some are even simple to use. Alternatively, choose an online service like Xero.

Reliable power supply

While mains electricity is usually reliable and safe, there are times when it can damage sensitive electronic equipment. Invest in anti-surge devices that prevent power spikes from wrecking your hardware. Better still, get an uninterrupted power supply so you can save important files and conduct an orderly computer shut down when there’s a power outage.

Backup important data and store it off-line

Sooner or later your computers will fail. So make regular copies of all important documents and keep them away from your office in case of fire. It may also pay to have two or three external hard drives to keep multiple back-ups. Make sure you get decent software to automate your back-ups.

Paper Shredder

A lot of important documents arrive at your business on sheets of paper. Eventually, you’ll want to get rid of some of them, but crooks have been known to dive through waste bins in the hope of gleaning valuable information to help them commit fraud. Get a shredder and destroy every document before throwing them out.

Better still, get a scanner and make electronic copies of every document that comes through your business.