The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on "Standards of Communication Among Natural Gas Pipeline Companies and their Customers" (Docket No....
Time was that operating changes drove communications changes, and employee acceptance was a given. The changes now permeating the utility industry, however, require us to think, and operate, differently. Operating and communications changes need to unfold simultaneously. If communications is constantly playing catch up to changing operations, employees begin to lose motivation and effectiveness. Eventually, customers notice and begin to complain. In the worst extreme, regulators take notice!
Regulators want competition to produce a better deal for consumers. To make that happen, utilities must reorganize, reduce operating costs and workforce levels, and redefine jobs. All of these create internal strain.
Since World War II, utility employees have enjoyed either written or unwritten commitments to job security. Today's rapidly deregulated, more competitive environment has nullified any such past "psychological" contracts with employees. Consequently, trust levels are at an all-time low. Instability and uncertainty, accepted in other industries for generations, now have a strong foothold in various parts of the telecommunications, natural gas, and electric utility industries.
Extensive changes are taking place in departments and job classifications. Technology will eventually phase out traditional utility positions, such as meter reading. Staff in "softer" functions such as public relations/public affairs or advertising (em not to mention the ubiquitous staff support analysts (em are increasingly endangered species. For corporate communications, this is a time of challenge.
To accelerate change in his company's 128-year-old culture, the chief executive officer of Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) advises management to "communicate, communicate, and communicate some more." These words underscore a basic fact that other utilities would do well to heed: Your company will never really change until you change the basic ways employees communicate within your organization.
Today, as never before, utility leadership needs to establish a new "tone." Pick one or two new conduits for communications and stick with them. Champ-ion a two-way employee telephone information line, for example. Or sup- port new ways to increase face-to-face communications.
In today's more competitive utility environment (and, presumably, in the future's) success will depend on relationships, rather than positions. Personalities are increasingly important in the new communications mix. In the past, directives were accepted merely because they came from the chief executive or president. The positions themselves conferred the acceptance; it didn't matter who occupied the offices. Today, employees desire a personal connection to their leaders at all levels. They need to trust real people, not intangible positions of authority.
To implement change successfully, a company must recognize this need. Employees will resist change unless they are brought into the loop. To ensure their support, management must communicate with employees at each step in the change process.
SoCalGas learned this lesson when the company moved to consolidate 14 operating divisions into eight larger, more diverse regions. Frontline supervisors, not senior executives, played the key role in that effort. The change hinged on their communications with their employees (em on two-way communication at the level where the change was taking place.
That experience revealed communication as key to the successful functioning of the company. And SoCalGas acted on that revelation. Over the