People & Change

Change Management strategies for literacy challenges

While any major programme can often pose complex challenge for change practitioners, its also true that some of the biggest barriers to change can also be the simplest. Employees that struggle with basic literacy are often left behind in deployments that favour lengthy written assets, email or web-centric communications, and an approach that is built around corporate ways of working. In this article we explore real experiences – both problems and solutions – to help address the gaps.

The Problem

The impact of rapid technology and business change on employees with literacy hurdles is often not well considered nor managed effectively. Experience tells us that staff with literacy challenges often face real and sometimes embarassing difficulties in reading lengthy change or training documentation, and they will quietly self-select out of activities, work around and learn from others, or will even become blockers.

Technology deployments happen rapidly at the tail end of implementation and most projects build or leverage documentation extensively – whether in procedures, product learnings, lessons or wiki’s, policies, etc. The ability to read and comprehend written information is more critical than ever.

But what happens when a significant percentage of the workers face challenges with basic literacy, making it difficult for them to access and understand vital information? This scenario is not uncommon in many sectors and is a very real workforce dynamic.

We see issues in the pace of change, the adoption quality and in benefits realisation – all driven from a lack of strategies and tactics to address literacy gaps.

Some Solutions

Addressing illiteracy in the workplace is a multifaceted challenge. It requires a comprehensive change strategy that aims to model varying levels of literacy, and seeks to accommodate those employees at all literacy levels with a focus on empowering them. This approach is certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ model.

From the outset, the mission requires a tailored training model with learning pathways that cater to employees with varying literacy levels. Some of these pathways targeting low literacy staff should prioritise practical, hands-on and interpersonal learning as opposed to CBT or documentation-based learning. It is vital that all individuals can grasp essential skills and information through multiple channels and styles. It is key that communication use plain language, visual aids, and audio resources to ensure that crucial information reaches all employees, irrespective of their literacy level. 

Based on our experience in complex change delivery, tactis that have worked include daily stand-ups to replace and improve the work of emails, hands-on demonstration on a ‘hot seat’ (shared locations) for tangible, visible learning, large and more readible settings for on-screen content (supporting those with accessbility issues which can sometimes go hand-in-hand with literacy challenges), the liberal use of video and particularly bulk SMS, as well as utilising existing channels (team meetings, forums etc) to deliver communications rather than additional and unfamiliar channels.

In Practice

Three short examples below provide insights into real scenarios faced in our experience, and how the change leaders in Exent responded to the literacy challenges specifically.

Mining Industry  

Scenario:  Implementing fleet management dispatch consoles in heavy earthmoving equipment cabs, enabling operators to handle start-of-shift checks, dispatch notices, breaks, refuelling instructions, and key data. The challenges included low digital literacy, unionised workforce, technology resistance, and privacy concerns. 

Response: The project team utilised their regular daily start-ups to ensure communication occurred face-to-face with hands-on demonstrations within the operator cabs and regular communication. The change manager got to know the people on a personal level through regular interaction to build trust, emphasising a focus on safety management and operational efficiency rather than employee monitoring.  

Government Utility  

Scenario: Delivering the Ci Anywhere Field application to tradespersons in the field with the challenges of high levels of illiteracy, many remote sites and lack of connection to the internet. Resistance was demonstrated in ‘accidentally’ losing devices, claiming the fonts were too small to read, and that the sun glare made them unusable. Meetings were continually missed with the excuse of high-priority maintenance tasks. 

Response: The Organisational Change Manager consulted in the field to understand their unique challenges in a safe environment.  The project implemented larger devices and font settings, with icon buttons to address literacy, and glare guards for outdoor use. We worked side-by-side while training (rather than in a typical classroom) to avoid embarrassment in cases where literacy was an issue.  

Aged Care 

Scenario: Delivering Multi-Factor Authentication in a 4000-employee population in the aged care sector. The challenge here was less about literacy and more about reaching employees performing physical roles on the road, such as nurses, therapists, and carers.  

Response: The change manager devised alternative approaches, as email usage was infrequent in this workforce. A multi-pronged approach was adopted, encompassing a CEO video, bulk SMS, engagement with Service Managers to follow up with designated employees, banners on service desks, email block reminders, calendar notifications, and virtual posters in offices.  

In summary, it is worth change leaders, programme managers and executives alike considering the issues at the coalface of change when it comes to workers with literacy challenges. The right approaches, informed with expertise and strong frameworks for change, will ensure a smooth transition through those challenges.