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How to Handle Change Management for System Upgrades


As part of Quest Experience Week (QXW) 2019, Anita Paye, Director of Finance Compass Support at Emory University, spoke about how the university handled change management to ensure the success of its new ERP system upgrade in 2014 after a failed attempt in 2009. She covered four change management pillars, the reasons people resist change, and practical ways to help them move forward.

What Is Change Management?

Change management applies to system changes, but Paye advises keeping an open mind as her approach to change management can apply to process changes, organizational changes in companies, and even changes within families. Change management includes both the strategy and the actionable activities designed to ensure the system and users cross the implementation finish line simultaneously.

The Stages of Change Management

Paye divides change management into stages:

  • Pre-work
  • High-level strategy
  • Stakeholder engagement approach
  • Resistors
  • Quick wins

According to Paye, the pre-work stage of change management is the time for brutal self-awareness. The pre-work stage also is an opportunity for a self-check, listening tour, leadership buy-in, and a pulse check.

Paye provided a list of key questions for organizations to answer for pre-work and help with the brutal honesty the team needs:

  • For this project, what defines success?
  • Are you being honest with yourself about the strengths and weaknesses prior to embarking on the project?
  • Do you accept that failure can be part of your success?
  • Are you ready to learn from mistakes?

Learning from Change Management Mistakes from a Previous System Upgrade

Paye gave an example from her own experience of learning from mistakes. During a previous system upgrade, the company where she worked did not provide adequate training. In fact, users and leadership were not required to participate in training at all. The company inadvertently created an “us vs. them mentality” and did not engage others.

Paye shared what she learned from the previous experience and points to these lessons as necessary pre-work:

  • Chronicle lessons learned
  • Make change management intentional in preparing the people
  • Bring in consultants if needed
  • Ask for and listen to feedback

Emory University’s Change Management Strategy

Change Management: Pre-Work

When the project team at Emory began the change management process for the system upgrade, they started by conducting a listening tour. Through the listening tour, the Emory team was able to improve or meet more than 76 percent of the requests encountered on the listening tour.

As part of pre-work for a system upgrade, implementation teams will also want to engage leadership and get leadership buy-in. Leaders want facts and data surrounding ideas. They need options and counsel about the options. They need a plan and what the return on investment (ROI) is. Additionally, they need advice on how to quantify success. Paye explained that these steps are among the most critical of a system upgrade.

For the “pulse check,” Paye provided a list of questions to help get buy-in from users community:

  • How often do you use the system? And how do you use the system?
  • What is your outlook on the upgrade? Are you looking forward to it? Are you nervous?
  • Do you have any thoughts about the system you want to share? Has it been easy to use?
  • What is your preferred method of communication?
  • What is your preferred training style?

The data from this survey informs the change management strategy for the system upgrade. Users want to see their input heard and used. Paye proposes synthesizing data and using it to create a gap analysis, which you can see an example of below.


Pre-work is the responsibility of many. The central support team includes communications support resources, HR learning and organizational development, the training manager for financial systems, instructional designers and trainers. A leadership team consists of executive committee members, steering committee members, project managers, etc. The transition user network will include peer experts, an advisory council for communication and training operating review, executive leaders, and transition sponsors.

Change Management: High-Level Strategy + Stakeholder Engagement

For change management levers to drive readiness and adoption, a strong foundation must be built in all areas with vision, goals, and context. Paye outlines each of the key pieces:

  • Communication
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Training
  • Performance support


Communication is the lifeline of change management as it demonstrates executive sponsorship, drives awareness, provides information, and shows what users can expect.

Paye provides a list of guiding principles and best practices for communication:

  • Clearly define and communicate benefits.
  • Speak with one voice and use consistent messaging.
  • Be transparent and honest. Communicate only information that is stable.
  • Don’t waste time with fluff. Being specific and targeted in communications builds credibility.
  • Be honest but don’t oversell.
  • Plan and plot communication activities.
  • Plan for different levels and different audiences.
  • Provide a single source of truth. Providing people information makes that possible.

Stakeholder Engagement

The approach to stakeholder engagement requires stakeholders to be involved early on and engaged as partners throughout the entire project lifestyle. Paye reminds those who are leading change management for a system upgrade to make sure the exchange of information is reciprocal.

Paye recommends creating a transition network of peer experts and a communication counsel. This transition network can deliver messages to users in their divisions and business units to keep them informed. This team can also equip the users with tools and resources to deliver effective communications to their groups.

In addition, engagement activities for stakeholders need to be planned and implemented.


During training should not be the first time that users experience a new interface or system. Ideas for engagement activities for stakeholders include emails and responses, interactive business tool/app “Yammer,” leadership briefs, booths at employee events, outreach sessions, website launch, posters, user surveys, and giveaways.

Paye offered guiding principles and best practices for training:

  • Create a positive learning experience that transcends beyond the classroom.
  • Maintain consistency with room for flexibility to meet diverse needs.
  • Ensure specialized groups are trained adequately with support.
  • Minimize business disruption and maximize relevance.
  • Focus on what is the same and what is changing.
  • Ensure business processes are fully baked and trained first.
  • Use relevant real-world scenarios to support effective learning.
  • Use a variety of training methods to support adult learning principles.
  • Use the peer network to increase the sense of ownership.
  • Make training continuous.
  • Allocate adequate time for the creation of training and support materials.

Paye provided a “bird’s eye view” of training opportunities at Emory. She listed interactive labs, webinar recordings, and self-paced e-learning as some of the training opportunities. Emory offers different training opportunities for smaller audiences as it offers opportunities for customization, of course. Regardless of the type of training, the leadership at Emory requires training for all users. In order to get transactional access, users must be trained. All new employees must also get training before being given access to the system.

Performance Support

Paye also talked about the need for performance support. All strategies need to be continued even after the launch. Post-go-live support can include open labs, continuous feedback mechanism client support, scheduled calls with leaders immediately following go-live, additional training opportunities, and stabilization. She recommended a six-month stabilization period to give users a reminder that the system is not complete, and that feedback is desired.

Change Management: Resistors

For people resistant to change, Paye recommended exercising empathy. Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.

Paye recommended using the SHIFT method for managing resistors:

  • Surface the resistance by making it safe to express. Listen carefully and be certain that you understand the route.
  • Honor the resistance by affirming the person’s right to resist. Reassure them that you understand and thank them for their insight.
  • Identify the kind of rude resistance. Differentiate between current resistance and former grudges, resentment, or a need for attention.
  • Find out what the resistor would prefer in order to begin to work toward a common objective.
  • Thank the person and move on. You will not be able to eliminate all resistance although this shift process often works.

Change Management: Quick Wins

Paye shared a table for a quick wins action plan. These steps can be done immediately. She breaks the steps into five areas:

  1. Leadership
  2. Communications
  3. Stakeholder engagement
  4. Training
  5. Performance support

Leadership Quick Wins

Under leadership, the quick wins she suggests are:

  • Decide to be intentional.
  • Decide who will be responsible for your change management work.
  • Employ the help of top leadership involved with the change.
  • Make a list of the groups of people who will be impacted by this change.

Communication Quick Wins

Communication quick wins included:

  • Make a list of existing communication channels that you can tap.
  • Create a template for all communication channels.

Stakeholder Engagement Quick Wins

For quick wins regarding stakeholder engagement, Paye made two suggestions:

  • Make a list of stakeholders and ask them to document how this change will impact their operations.
  • Reach out to super users who may be able to assist with communicating the change.

Training Quick Wins

For training, Paye recommended that organizations determine whether the change is big enough to require training. If it is, she recommended deciding on training modalities. She noted that webinars are low-cost and effective.

Performance Support Quick Wins

For performance support, Paye recommended that organizations determine how to support users after the upgrade.

Key Takeaways + Tips for Others

  • Fear of Change: The word change evokes emotions. Many are associated with fear, disruption, and interruption. Encourage people to be mindful of the opportunities for innovation that change makes possible.
  • Where to Start: You might find yourself asking where change management for the system upgrade should begin in the organization. With leadership? Middle management? Staff? Paye explains that the answer is with everyone. Change management is everybody’s business, and everyone is responsible.
  • Handling Resistors: Resistors are the people who push back on change. They are concerned about the loss of control. Most people, though, want to go to work, according to Paye, do the best job they can and go home. Still, change management needs to be prepared for a few resistors in any project requiring change.
  • Engaging Staff and Leadership: If you want leadership and users to support change, engage them. Ask them for feedback. Involve people in the decision-making process whenever possible. Integrate their feedback into future processes and let them know you are taking action.
  • Communication: Communication is paramount. Plan for communication. Speak with one voice, clearly, consistently, and repeatedly so that you ultimately build trust.
  • Training: What’s wrong with this sentence: “Offer super users training before a system upgrade”? The answer is that you shouldn’t just offer training, you should require it. Don’t limit training to users. Make sure all levels of your team – including leadership – are trained. Additionally, training opportunities should be held even after a system upgrade.

Additional Resources

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How to Handle Change Management for System Upgrades