How to ensure a successful harmonisation process during times of change

Caroline Russell - profile image
By Caroline Russell
Account Director

Harmonisation starts when a business is acquired, or two businesses merge.  It’s an opportunity to inspire employees, excite them about the future, establish a new brand and a new ‘reason for being’ and create new systems and processes that make the harmonised businesses stronger, more efficient and successful.  However, it can also be a time of huge change, destabilisation and confusion for employees and the need for clarity, transparency, positive and inspiring internal communications is essential to gaining the buy-in and support of everyone within the businesses.

It is an all encompassing process that touches every part of both businesses. Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) have such an enormous impact practically, logistically and mentally on everyone working within the businesses, that ensuring effective communication around what’s happening prior, during and post harmonisation, is one of the major contributors to a successful outcome.

What is “harmonisation”?

A complex and sensitive aspect of change management, a merger or acquisition process demands a smooth transition across every element of both businesses.  Harmonisation refers to this seamless act of fusing the following different company systems and procedures:

  • Culture and values
  • Brand alignment
  • Production or services
  • Structural and logistical processes
  • Employee incentivisation, benefits, training and pay policies
  • Employee structure and lines of management
  • Internal and external communications
  • Sales and marketing

As the organisational transformation of a merger & acquisition touches all elements of both businesses, careful and considerate handling of the harmonisation process is key.  This ensures a successful outcome for the new blended business. 

Communication is key

M&As have a significant impact on the working lives of all employees.  Everything is changing and people might feel threatened, or anxious about outcomes.

Companies must constantly communicate effectively and transparently prior, during and post any merger to establish context, manage expectations, and gently and sensitively introduce the new systems and processes. 

A report on the merger of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham by the Inland Revenue Service (2003) stressed that communication, particularly planning the dissemination of information, was vital to the creation of GlaxoSmithKline.

Of the 12 lessons learned during the merger, the company’s Senior Vice‐President for Human Resources, David Jones, said: ‘careful communications planning is the key’ and that companies’ need to be ‘honest and open with people’ (Suff & Riley, 2007).

What is the impact when there isn’t effective communication during harmonisation?

Although every business we have worked with understands the importance of managing change effectively, we often find that the emotional impact of an M&A is a secondary consideration to core HR processes.  

The most difficult aspect of harmonisation is ensuring effective, detailed, considered and sensitive messaging and communication on every level.

According to a study by the University of Sussex’s Institute for Employment Studies (Suff & Riley, 2007), if companies don’t over-communicate throughout this process, employees seek out any information to fill the void, often resulting in misinformation and disengagement. 

Communicating effectively throughout harmonisation is the only way to avoid the immediate risk of losing valuable team members destabilised by the process, as well as the longer term risk of widespread disengagement. It’s easy for a workforce to become disenfranchised in the absence of an effective internal communications strategy.  

Five steps to ensure effective harmonisation

1. Communicate a transparent, bigger picture

The vast majority of M&As take place to ensure a positive outcome for both businesses.  This is often lost on employees who are at the coal face of role titles changing, benefit systems evolving and team structures shifting.

Putting the M&A in context and communicating an inspiring and transparent vision for the future is vital. Accept and be honest about the scale of changes occurring, but always communicate the bigger picture perspective and reasons for the changes.   

2. Personalise your communications

All employees will have concerns about different aspects of the changes taking place.

Take time to segment your audience so communications can be targeted to the right audiences in the right way. 

Make sure employees are given the most relevant information for them. 

3. Consider your communication format

The format of your communication has to be engaging and inspiring too: video content, downloadable PDFs, notice board posters, personal emails from line managers, group presentations, information packs to take home, worksheets on the trays in a canteen… 

Companies must be creative and considerate around what channels work best for each different employee audience.

Messages have to be consistent but the way the messages are delivered and the channels used, have to be targeted and appropriate to the target group or individual.

4. Listen 

Ensure feedback channels for employees are two-way, open and transparent.

And we’re not the only ones who advocate this approach.  Indeed, in a 2019 blog written by Jana Mercereau of REBA (The Rewards & Benefits Association), on top of a tailored approach there should also be a channel for feedback and dialogue, so employees can have conversations, ask questions and feel involved and be part of the journey.  Feedback channels can include live Q&A sessions for employees to ask questions directly to leaders, as well as regular meetings between leaders and employee representatives. Enabling employees to be an intrinsic part of the transformational change will empower and motivate them.

5. Measure, evaluate and evolve

Take time to evaluate the feedback, gauge what the reaction has been, evolve your internal communications strategy accordingly, follow up and continue.

In summary… respect, understand and inspire

M&As can fail without effective harmonisation, and internal communication plays a vital role in the process.  Significant organisational restructures can have a huge impact on the mental and physical welfare of individual employees.  Respecting, understanding, and addressing this is the starting point to successful harmonisation during times of change. 

Looking for communication support with your harmonisation project?  That’s what we’re here for.

Get in touch and let's have a conversation.