Thursday, 27 December 2007

Intranets: the tech-head perspective

This interesting post over at 37signals is effectively the company polling its universe of customers and friends over possibilities in the intranet software market. That's an interesting communications exercise in itself, but I link to it because it suggests (in line with a previous post here) that the concept of "an intranet" is not in good shape.

What comes out of the "tech-head" perspective is that no-one has come out with an earth-shaking software product as yet, but Microsoft Sharepoint seems to be edging into an industry lead.

Sharepoint's special value is in facilitating collaboration over documents (through the integration with MS Office apps.) It also includes things like RSS and blogs.

To me, the lessons for IC types are:

1) People will choose and stick with communication channels that make their life easier. There's a lot of talk about the possibilities around "new social media" in IC, but that will inevitably involve technology choices. The right medium is one that people will get some value (for them) out of using.

2) Point One highlights the potential for IC professionals to gain extra traction if they work to understand and influence the information management policies in their organisations. People are happy to find that Sharepoint has blogs and many become enthusiastic users of them, but the system lives or dies by it's usefulness in "information management" rather than "internal communication" per se. (That might not be a fun fact, but it is a financial reality at a lot of companies.) As such, it's important to make sure that these two agendas complement each other rather than conflict. That means both an interest in the widgets IT is buying to solve intranet problems and a wider interest in the connections between "information management" and "internal communication overall.


Wednesday, 19 December 2007

More pre-EuroComm blogging

Over on the EuroComm 2008 blog, Ulrike Bleistein gives us a little sense of what she will be presenting to us:


Why IT needs communications

by Ulrike Bleistein

When they think of IT most people think of computer geeks who sit around in dark rooms, isolated from the rest of the world passionately investigating the inner landscape of computers. Of course, this is not the case. Today, Informatics in a pharmaceutical company is about the clever application of technology to business. Relationships with customers and understanding their needs are key. Communications has moved up the ranks and is today considered a critical capability for this new generation of IT professionals. However, coming from a technology environment, communications does not always come easily to them. As a former scientist with a strong interest in technology, I can bridge the gap. That’s where my job starts.

On joining Roche Pharma Informatics, I did an analysis to find out where communications are most needed to support the business effectively, where the biggest issues are, and I then decided on a step-wise approach as resources were limited.

I won't post more, go and read it all!

It's a nice, succinct description of the benefits of a communications department for a "back-office" division who might not naturally get the communications attention that more "external customer facing" divisions naturally receive.


Saturday, 15 December 2007

The two worlds of business communication

A newsletter from Mindjet (who make the excellent MindManager mind map software) reminds me again of the two ways people tend to talk about "communication" in business and my own uncertainties about where they join up:

1) There are those known as "Internal Communication" professionals and they focus largely on what might be termed "community communications issues." This ranges from the hardnosed business case models around communicating "brand values" in the organisation to created "engagement" to potentially softer strategies around more journalistic exercises which create and reinforce a sense of community and well-being within the organisation.

I've spent a fair amount of time writing about these aspects recently.

2) The other people who tend to work with "communication" are IT consultants and Business Process Re-engineers, who (like the Mindjet people) largely talk about communication in terms of the needed exchange of information to make a business process happen. If you're designing a new widget, then there has to be an exchange of information regarding costs, design parameters, market needs, etc.

It is my feeling that these two worlds, which have largely been long separate are now starting to touch at the edges. Two major reasons why spring to mind right now:

a) The rise of the "knowledge worker." This deserves a post on it's own, but in short, industries are changing. Service industries are often all about manipulating information and even traditional manufacturing industries are finding that competitive advantage depends more and more on how they do things and the design of the things they make. As a result, the "knowledge" of various businesses now sits more than ever with the people. Where processes used to assume that people were interchangeable parts who existed to facilitate the process, we're gradually learning that in real "knowledge roles" the process isn't so easy to institutionalise. As such, the technological/process imperative is now more about enabling communication than specifying it.

This has parallels with:

b) The rise of social media. It is social media technologies, as much as anything that have produced an awareness in internal communications types (not to mention marketing departments too) that "message management" is a dying proposition. Where previously IC might have felt it was the medium of community information exchange in a company, it's clear now that people can talk to each other in myriad ways. Forward thinking IC professionals recognise this and seek to work with it, and thus they are also looking more at enabling communication than specifying it.

Where I think a crucial confluence exists is that the existence of communication technologies does not mean that necessary communications are taking place.

As such, in knowledge work, there is a need to bring the two perspectives together. From the BPR angle there is an expertise about incentives and formal rules for promoting specific information exchange and from the IC side there's a much greater understanding about the human issues around communication, which becomes ever more critical as the information we seek to communicate becomes more human (less numeric, less precise, less quantifiable) as the task involved becomes more abstract and more creative.

Add that together and that's some sense of my gut feeling of how the two worlds can help each other a little.


Monday, 10 December 2007

Intranets in trouble


Over at a shel of my former self, Shel Holtz has a post called Intranets in Trouble which references a study by the Irish Computer Society.

As someone who concentrates on the people side of communication, I tend to be the one asking sceptical questions about technological solutions, but even so, the key results are rather disappointing:

  • Nearly half say they don’t use the intranet to support their everyday work
  • Nearly one in three say the intranet does not help with daily work
  • Half find their intranets’ search engines to be ineffective and 80% think both navigation and search need to be improved
  • 35% of respondents cannot access the information they need on their company intranet
  • Fixing these problems won't solve all your communication problems, but if a third of workers can't get the information they need through the company intranet, then that's a serious performance issue.

    To me, the results highlight a couple of things:

    1) Too often, "the intranet" is purchased in the manner of a telephone system. No-one is given the responsibility (or indeed the resources) to ensure that existing content is kept up to date and that new information is chased down and documented online.

    2) One oddity of the internet is that it puts cutting edge tools in our hands for free. As a result, people develop a reliance on tools like Google for navigating complex information landscapes. If you have a lot of information on your intranet, you either need to invest in replicating these tools or if you have a bespoke tool, you have to train people to use it.

    Failing to address these issues simply means you won't get much out of your initial investment in the intranet. Of course, some people don't see the business value in better information and communication. It's true that if your main business is an automated widget production facility, the intranet might not be all that important. If your business relies on people working with information, collaborating with each other and keeping track of complex projects, then the quality of information exchange may be the difference between success and failure.

    Tuesday, 4 December 2007


    Sprechen vous Globish? asks Ian Andersen on the EuroComm 2008 Blog.

    He mentions the primal urge driving the phenomenon:

    All of us working in communications on an international level dream of the Holy Grail of campaigning: the one-size-fits-all messaging that plays equally well in Karlstad and Kuala Lumpur, the universal slogan that will bring in the punters from Shannon to Chamonix – and yet we are all stumped by culture, by habits, by mores and meaning, by ways of life. And so we adapt, we localise… The products as well as the selling.

    And the downside (speaking from the context of his role with the EU):

    It’s all very well that the Lithuanians discuss banking regulations or consumer protection in Lithuanian – with themselves, and that the Italians or the Finns do the same – with themselves, but that is not what we really think we need. How can we be one political entity if we are not able to say: we have one audience? And if we do not have that one audience, how can we go about creating it? And in what language? Do we have to accept that the true European language is what former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene dubbed “Le Bad English”? Or is there another solution – and I am not talking about Esperanto!

    My reactions:

    1) I eagerly await his presentation at EuroComm, I want to know what he thinks "another solution" might be.

    2) I first came across the word "Globish" in an IHT article a couple of years ago (2005 in fact.) I really liked the concept, because in a lot of ways it expresses  how I get by (sometimes even with good results!) despite not being fully au fait with all the languages of people I work with.

    To me one of the valuable things about "Globish" is that it isn't reductive, it isn't there to standardise everyone on a single understanding of the world, but it's a way to begin to communicate the different understandings between people. Too often, straight translation services effectively associate concepts in different cultures that are similar but not the same, creating subtle (and not so subtle!) misunderstandings. Globish, simplistic as it can be, helps people explore some differences from a common starting point. The affordance from throwing words from different languages together and then discussing the meaning is very powerful. That discussion is particularly valuable because it has the potential to highlight some of the cultural assumptions, which are often the real points of difference between people from different places.

    Away from conversation, however, I still weigh in on the side of translation. I can understand the political imperatives for the EU, after all how can you have a democracy split into 23 parts who cannot communicate with each other?

    All the same, if you're producing one-way communication artefacts (leaflets, posters, TV spots, etc.) then you are spreading a message to everyone and Globish is far from spread enough to be a medium for that in most countries.

    Tuesday, 27 November 2007

    IABC Event

    Well I'm in London today, so I'll be off to the IABC event this evening. Liam from Black Belt Dojo will be lecturing us on their work on generic competencies for internal communicators.

    You can download a PDF summary here. I'm blogging this in advance to force myself to read their summary in advance. Having done so I have to say it's a very thorough piece of work and very valuable to anyone having to define the competencies for IC roles in their organisation (and of course the training and dev. work that needs to be done too.)

    You can also download a summary article about the work that appeared in Strategic Communication Management magazine. That's also interesting, but when it moves on to organisational roles I think that's where you have to really stop and think about how IC operates in your firm.

    I'm looking forward to the talk and meeting up with some communicators to chat. My work being consulting I don't get to talk shop very often and the IABC events are great for me from that point of view.

    Addition 03/12/07:

    Been busy, but I wanted to update this post because we had a great discussion on the evening and it's very clear that Liam is fully aware of the diversity of roles in IC and when he talks it's clear that he's put a lot of thought into how the competency framework adjusts around the different situations out there.

    Monday, 19 November 2007

    Melcrum Blog: Is I.C merely a cog in the propaganda wheel?


    As usual, I'm late on reading my RSS feeds, so I'm a few days behind the zeitgeist in noticing this post over at The Melcrum Blog:

    Is I.C merely a cog in the propaganda wheel?


    Key quote:

    “People will always see the internal communication function as an internal propaganda machine”. This was a comment made at the recent CIPR Inside event held at Hill & Knowlton in London.


    This point alone could no doubt have stimulated enough discussion for a whole other event. It certainly prompted me to think about the role of the internal comms function and the struggle that practitioners often face in getting employees to fully understand and appreciate the point of their existence beyond the cliché of arranging parties and writing newsletters. But is there any truth in what Katharina’s ex-colleague said? Is the struggle for authenticity ultimately futile? And is the internal comms department the place where truth can be sought or is it better to listen to news as it materializes on the company grapevine? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


    My reaction:

    Obviously, it depends. Generalising about the perception of the IC function in "a company" is like generalising about the culture of "a company" - there's so much variation there will always be counter-examples.

    However, it does dovetail with some of the questions I've been asking on this blog and I think the quote points at a kernel of truth which needs thinking about.

    The kernel of truth is that many IC professionals have made it their "business case" to "deliver employee engagement"; interpreted to be moving employees to a finer appreciation of the strategies, tactics and requirements of top management.

    If you analyse such an undertaking from the point of view of an employee whose interests do not match perfectly with those of top management, it's hard not to see those aims as having some element of propaganda attached. Throw in the way that many corporate exercises seem to be much better at sending information out to employees than gathering it in and it should be easy to see how employees can feel harangued. Add the way that the legal department gets the last word over what may be revealed about an awful lot of important issues affecting people on the ground and you can see how IC starts to look like the "Ministry of Truth."

    So, is authenticity doomed?

    I'd say there is still hope on the horizon:

    1) Talented communicators manage to bridge these and many other gaps, wherever they work. There may be contradictions inside corporate life, but personal integrity and honesty about the times when you're in a difficult position can help people's view of IC a lot.

    2) In some organisations, company culture is better than this and where it isn't IC can be a hugely positive influence in working towards a better state of affairs. Trust might be in short supply at times in the transition period, but if communicators set out to be reliable, honest and committed to improving communication in both directions within the organisation, success will bring trust.

    3) As I've been posting here, I do think that there are spaces for the IC function to position themselves in which do not rest so closely on "engagement" which to my mind is where the "propaganda feeling" starts to creep in. One possibility is to explore a focus on more process related communication questions, along with coaching people to communicate better, rather than being a "motivation unit." If your role in communication is to "do it better" rather than "do it with the aim of improving X Y Z" you've more chance of being trusted and are less likely to be asked to spin.

    Of course, in all of these outlined situations, if company culture is not by nature transparent, then it has to be admitted that the grapevine will probably let employees know about "secrets" long before IC is allowed to do. If IC in turn bows to pressure from management to "massage" the news, then the battle is truly lost. However, where truthfulness is maintained, then accuracy at least will put you one step over the grapevine.

    Is all this dilemma filled? Unfortunately yes, which is why I'm seeking to create a case for IC that doesn't make performance rest on the kind of metrics that propaganda was designed to address. It's the only sustainable way forward...


    Friday, 9 November 2007

    Social Media, Facebook and Privacy

    This topic has been around a while and will doubtless rumble on for at least a generation. What brought it to mind recently was this post by David Murray over at Shades of Gray.

    First of all, in the context of a "professional community webboard" then there's the obvious case for some kind of anonymity if you want to provide people an area for discussing ideas or difficulties related to potentially sensitive commercial matters. In the age of google, it's only a short step from a real name and a description of an episode from working life to full identification of the person and their employer.

    Especially in an arena like communications, that kind of risk means that if you fully ID online postings, you won't get much discussion of real events from people who work in-house. It's the only safe approach for them. So it really is a practical issue of what kind of community discussion you hope to create.

    The spammy, thread-jacking and obnoxious behaviour of some anonymous posters is of course a genuine problem in the same practical vein. One approach is to moderate anonymous comments, which can be onerous. Another is to have "anonymous registration" where you can only post if you register a pseudonym, but that discussion is also protected from anonymous readers and google. I've seen this second approach work in real online communities, but I don't know how well it stands up if everyone is working in the same field (which provides more clues to identity.) It does however allow people to be anonymous and yet have a "reputation" and thus a consistent community identity.

    Moving on from the practical to the philosophical. I'm part of a generation who (thanks to my geeky past) grew up with online communications and has been typing to people across the other side of the world long before some excited communications consultant discovered AIM, let alone Facebook or Twitter.

    One side effect of that is that I've accumulated a bunch of online identities almost by accident. Not all of them were kept intentionally separate, sometimes it was just an accident of technology. However, since it's been a natural development for me, I rather suspect lots of other people exist in that world too. Now that's not to say that you couldn't (with google and some hackery) connect up all my online identities and reveal all my secrets, of course you could. But, there are some clear divisions which I'd guess a random HR researcher would not cross. That's not because I have something particular to hide, as much as accidents of history of online technology, but I don't think it's all bad when it comes to letting me decide who I introduce from my personal network to my business one and vice versa.

    It sometimes seems to me that the people who most breathlessly wish for absolute transparency and connection of business and personal networking online are those who've pretty much come to online activities through their business interests. As such, they've not really developed any personal connections online that didn't have them asking themselves "Am I happy for people at work to see this?"

    That is of course, pretty farsighted of them, but:

    1) It makes me a bit cynical about when they get on a high horse about "I've nothing to hide and neither should you have." [Not to mention that many of them, like myself are self-employed and thus a bit insulated from the whims of corporate bosses.]

    2) I do wonder about the day they make an inevitable mistake in self-censorship. It's easy to talk about accepting consequences for your actions and views, but it gets more complicated as the memory and span of things like google allow a picture to be built up of you that goes far beyond what anyone outside spy land would have done in the past. I do think that it's true that newer generations will alter the boundaries of acceptability, but it's going to be slow and painful going. For now, corporate blackballing and retaliation is a reality and it is part of why privacy needs to be thought about seriously.

    3) It's also observable that many of these commentators don't really use the internet in a private capacity or they do so in ways which have not yet easily leaked out for searching. I don't think there's anything to hide in my list of purchases, but it might not be fun discussing them all with a corporate client. For now, along with my google search history, these items are not easily available. But they will be one day and that's part of why privacy as a principle still has resonance.

    3 a ) On that theme of private conversations, there are mediums like IM which might yet leak details out. Flirty conversations between single people have no moral or commercial relevance to a job opportunity. But once they leak out, how much fun is going to be to discuss them every time?

    4) The critical implicit worry is that the more transparent your current online identities are, the easier it will be to connect them to information which should have remained private (due to contractual or personal obligations from the other party) but which technology and the increasing size of the surveillance society bring out into the open.

    An extra example might be the question of private areas within a Facebook account. You might reserve an area for only friends to see photos, but if your Facebook account is connected to your boss, they may well end up seeing it one day. Now photos of you drunk at a Halloween party might not be the end of the world, but the possibility of your boss (and every future boss) seeing them is a quantum leap forward in accountability.

    I suspect younger generations will wear this kind of embarrassment more easily and that's how they will deal with the problem. However, until that approach reaches critical mass, the rest of us are left with some difficulties. One can of course attempt to constrict the personal, by seeking blandness to avoid embarrassment, but that is a frighteningly anodyne life, especially when one considers just how disapproving some employers are. As such, perhaps our only option is to, like the young ones, be loud and proud and crusade, refusing to care about lost opportunities with those who hold unreasonable attitudes about various lifestyles.

    I've been a pioneer a lot of my life, so I can't say I'm terrified to take that approach, but it's usually quite hard work. We're going to see a lot of opportunities fall into the laps of "bland suits" and it's not going to be fun to watch.

    My personal advice on "personal" and "business" would be, put some effort into keeping them separate. Don't use your own name on myspace for recording fun times and weird bands. Sure it's a little extra effort to have a couple more email addresses and you have to stop and think sometimes about whether someone fits in the "personal" or "business" box, but the value is that you get to choose the pace of integration, rather than having google force it upon you. And isn't that choice a good thing?


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    Saturday, 3 November 2007

    Communication and Innovation - Small Business

    Some notes from a recent presentation:

    Innovation can be thought of on 4 levels (see Hamel – The Future of Management - a good book which I'll talk about more next week):

    - Management innovation

    - Strategic innovation

    - Operational innovation

    - Product/service innovation


    These notes focus on product innovation, the principles all apply to the other kinds, you just have to juggle the category definitions around a bit.

    From the point of view of communication, it makes sense (as will become clear) to break the process down into two parts:

    1) Creativity – Finding the innovative idea.

    2) Assessment/Implementation – turning the idea into a product.



    Where do ideas come from? Some ideas come out of the head of a talented designer, but most innovations come from people who have a direct experience of the product:

    a) Users of the product and those who interact with them – so directly from customers, but also from those who get some sight of the buyer’s experiences: sales people and maintenance engineers (for example.)

    b) People connected to the production of the item – designers, production workers – esp. the tinkerers who may be the people you least expect.

    These are all people who might have ideas, or germs of ideas for changes to an existing product, or a new product that fits into the things the company does now.

    Aspects of communication in creativity:

    Who needs to hear the idea?

    • e.g. Designer, Marketing Director, R&D Dept.
      • Does someone have a responsibility to collate ideas and then take action?
      • Are there open communication channels for people to bring these ideas to them?

    How will they get to hear about it?

    • Direct survey, either mediated (paper/email/etc.) or face to face.
    • Chain of communication; e.g. Customer tells sales rep, who then tells...
      • What are the incentives in place for this to happen?
      • Do people know who is next in the chain to tell?

    Of course, if someone has the germ of an idea it might need some developing or extra information from someone else in the chain. The key process here is the same as in the next stage, so let’s move on:



    Once there’s a steady stream of ideas coming in, they need sorting and assessing.

    There can be all sorts of formal criteria and prototyping stages involved, but the key aspect from a communication point of view is that it’s at this point you need to start getting multi-disciplinary co-operation.

    At a minimum, any innovation will have to satisfy three constituencies:

    1) Production – is it practical to make this new product, is it within the company’s capabilities?

    2) Sales – will the product actually solve customer problems well enough to persuade them to buy it?

    3) Finance – Can the above occur in a way that makes enough money to be worth investing in?

    Of course, all of those questions are actually interlinked; e.g. you can make anything if the money is available, etc.

    So, you have to get everyone together to discuss it, which typically occurs in a meeting.

    Now there’s hundreds of resources about “how to run a better meeting” so I won’t bang on about that too much.

    What I would draw attention to is that assessing an idea is a delicate thing. Just about anyone in the room can kill it off, by declaring that their part in it just isn’t practical. So it’s an area where misunderstandings can jinx the whole process.

    People from different parts of the business tend to communicate in different ways. There’s lots of stereotypes about aggressive salesmen, detail-obsessed engineers and tight financiers. Added to that, the more complex a product is, the more information will have to flow outside (before and after) the meetings. Some people respond better to verbal communication, others like things on paper.

    Points to consider:

    - Is there a central point for information about the project?

    - Can the information be provided in different formats for different constituents?

    - Do some people dominate the process (esp. at meetings) by virtue of their communication skills/tactics?

    - If projects are never getting approved, or the wrong projects keep getting the go ahead, are various parties around the room really understanding all the information provided to them? If not, can ways be found to improve that communication?


    Monday, 29 October 2007

    Cultural adaptation

    Over at IABC Café, Julie Freeman remarks on the amazing adaptations that cartoon characters undergo to compete in new cultural markets.

    Fictional characters are of course more pliable than corporate identities, but at the same time, companies like Disney and Marvel have a very strong sense of the core values of their characters. Those values cannot be thrown away for commercial convenience in a particular market because of the potential damage to the worldwide brand (e.g. Spiderman or Mickey Mouse.)

    The lesson for those of us involved in "cultural translation"?

    Look carefully at what the core message is, very often we cling to particular forms of expression or outward formulas too strongly. The behaviours and attitudes that the message create in the audience are more important (day to day) than creating a monolithic "image identity."


    Monday, 22 October 2007


    It's a little while ago now, but Liam from Black Belt Dojo asked Who really is measuring? He particularly wonders if "whether there is a silent majority out there that is in denial about the need to measure at all."

    I would suggest that there is of course, a (sometimes) silent minority who are in denial about the need to measure. After all, communications is classically one of the fields where you can be comfortable if you don't like numbers (as opposed to engineering or finance, for example). Thus, we've all been part of conversations in the field where someone's visceral dislike of numbers shows through into a disdain of measurement.

    However, I don't see this as a majority per se. What forms the majority is a coalition of these people with those who are wary of measurement for some other reasons, which in my view often stem from the fact that (if you'll allow the mangling of von Clausewitz):

    Measurement is often a continuation of politics by other means.

    That is to say, in the corporate setting, measurement is often as much about legitimation as real feedback. Measurement of communication is an exercise of putting numbers on human behaviours. That's not impossible, but there are a number of pitfalls. How well do your numbers represent a good summary of the behaviours in question? How well does your model of interpretation turn those numbers into meaningful conclusions?

    This is of course not unique to communications, similar questions apply in process engineering too. But, the margins of error are clearly greater in communications and the body of knowledge is just a bit less developed. A lot of survey based techniques have flaws that we're all aware of (particularly in conditions where "organisational silence" is playing a part) but we don't discuss a lot. That's not to send us down a postmodernist rabbit hole about "objective reality" but if people don't believe that the measurement really works, then they won't be comfortable with it. I think that's also a big point for development in the profession as it plays into unease with identity that's already present.

    One rule of politics is that you don't ask questions that you don't already know the answer to. As such I see a lot of reluctance to take on measurement of communications because communicators don't have confidence in the measurement process. If you don't think it's going to help your case, it's sometimes felt to be wise not to generate the numbers. If you generate the numbers it can be particularly hard to discuss their accuracy. Especially when that then puts you on the turf of arguing about numbers with the Finance Director. I also wonder in the light of my previous post if there isn't an identity based reluctance to seeing oneself in that role for a lot of communicators.

    Likewise, if you don't feel that the measurement system is provably reliable, how wise is it to use as a feedback tool for improving your actions? We've all seen multiple cases where using numbers as feedback improves the numbers month on month, but doesn't actually get the job done. My work around the NHS has reminded me of that to a great degree.

    Does all this amount to being "in denial about the need to measure at all"? I'm not sure. I think these subtle problems are real ones that are yet to be fully solved across the field and that is both disappointing and an opportunity to make some real improvements.


    Sunday, 21 October 2007

    More on Identity

    Over at Shades of Gray, David Murray has an post about a new film, Helvetica which has started an interesting discussion in the comments about the craft of communication and the relationship of various commenters to "management" and "strategy." It's a great conversation because you can see some of the tensions in identity that a move into management puts creative people through, right there in people's comments.

    There's also an interesting tangent in the comments about "measurement" which I will talk about more in my next post.



    Thursday, 18 October 2007

    Corporate Communicators, Management and Identity

    As part of my travels this week I was privileged to get a small insight into a recent (not yet published study) of corporate communications managers that examined their actions in unexpected crisis situations. I won't identify any people or situations too closely because it would be unfair to preempt the study too much, but it did include managers at the top of the corporate communications tree in a number of prominent businesses, many in the FTSE100.

    The fascinating part for me was a pattern of "regression under fire" where people who are very definitely managers, whose position is far above "copywriter" or "PR representative" slipped away from strategic thinking into what might be termed "chasing the message cycle." Of course, the message cycle shouldn't be ignored in a crisis, but presumably these people have whole departments to help them with that. Surely, their role is to think in a strategic manner and help the board look for opportunities to address the underlying issues, rather than engage unduly with day by day press and communications tasks.

    I don't say this as a criticism, I think we've all turned in bad performances in a crisis at some point. If you haven't, then you probably haven't been in that many crises or you're failing to admit that someone else saved your bacon at one point. Rather, I see is as saying something about the state of the corporate and internal communications field. There's a deep seated insecurity about the value of the discipline and it seems to me that combines with the relative newness of these professions to leave some uncertainty of identity. In a crisis, we have a tendency to fall back on "what we're good at" which is, reasonably enough for people from that background the basics of crafting and disseminating a message.

    However, these people are at the top of a management tree, they have been managers for a long time. Is it really appropriate that they react as craftsmen and craftswomen? And what does it say about "management" in the field?

    It's perhaps unfair to overgeneralise from an unpublished study, but I think there are some important issues here. One is the question of how well communicators are relating to strategic, rather than tactical concerns. There are narratives of "communications strategy" alive and well within the profession, but it seems that we don't really have full confidence in them as yet. Another issue is the question of management. Communications is very definitely "knowledge work" and as such doesn't fit easily into the industrial traditions that shape a lot of "managment." All the same, it sometimes feels that there isn't a clear sense of what it means to be a manager in a communications function and certainly I think there are opportunities to improve the training and development of people who ascend into these communications management positions.


    Saturday, 13 October 2007

    IABC "Speedexperiencing" Event - Tues 9th Oct

    Just a few words about my first IABC event. Everyone was very friendly and the setup was interesting, with the opportunity to take part in three of five discussion groups.

    I wanted to be in all five, but ended up choosing the group on engagement run by Kevin Keohane first. It was nice to meet someone in person that I've only had "blog contact" with in the past. He had some pointed questions to ask about the alignment of the "employee brand" with the aspirations of current and potential employees, but I won't attempt to reproduce his nifty diagram here. I felt this discussion was just getting going as the hooter went to move us on to the next one. I hope we at least laid some groundwork for the next group.

    Nick Grant asked us "Can internal and external communication ever be aligned?" Again, time caught up with us, but (being the IABC) there was of course some consensus that they two perspectives have to be aligned overall, otherwise the mixed messages can cause serious problems.

    Alas, I cannot recall the name of the final discussion leader, but the topic of "Can change be managed?" and the notion that it rather had to be "led," than "managed" made me think today once again about our approach to internal communications.

    In particular, one idea in the "change leadership" discussion was that most people are most likely to change for a direct manager who they know and trust. It's largely only someone who they work with regularly, who understands their working life who has the credibility/trust to ask someone to undertake radical working change.

    For me, there was a strong parallel with how internal communications "should" work. Statements from the top, or even just far flung regions of the company are unlikely to have as much credibility or trust as those from direct supervisors and colleagues. We instinctively know this, I think, but often give up on it because it's very hard to make practical use of. Rather, many people view "middle management" as the "big sponge" that soaks up all the information, but never passes it along.

    As a result, we've invested in circumventing the traditional channels of communication. That has some exciting possibilities, especially in connection with new "social media," but at the same time (hobby horse alert!) I feel it has pushed "internal communications" into a "mass communications" or "marketing/advertising" mould, where the purpose and expertise of internal communicators is to create communications strategies and implement them.

    What I see is that there is an important role for "internal communications" in helping people communicate, helping "the sponge" of middle management actually pass more information along. In effect, doing less communication and spending more time on helping people communicate, both by innovating technology/processes and the hard work of teaching people extra skills. Why? Because in the end, they will tend to have credibility that a distant communicator will struggle to have. Social media allows a narrowing of that kind of distance, but even there I think that "social business communication" is going to need a lot of experience and even training to get the best out of it and existing trust relationships will continue to dominate.


    Sunday, 7 October 2007

    Everything is Communication?

    In my last post, I mentioned that in some ways, every act is an act of communication and as such, there is a real need for a communications viewpoint at the very top management table.

    I also said I'm not sure how that should be implemented in reality, so I thought I'd begin by explaining the issue and justifying my statement a little.

    Imagine a company which announces a renegotiated share options plan for the CEO at the same time as a pay and hiring freeze for ground-floor staff. There is a certain commercial logic to the action. The CEO is given greater incentive to improve the performance of the company and the pay and hiring freeze is part of a cost-cutting plan. Of course, anyone reading it laid out like this can immediately see what it says to ground-floor staff:

    a) "Your contribution isn't valuable to the company."

    b) "The CEO's contribution is."

    c) "Despite this you will be expected to do increasing amounts of work for no extra reward."

    d) "Any success this generates will help make the CEO rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

    I'm not the first person to observe that this might explain why the many companies who have undertaken this kind of action have found employee performance reducing and problems getting worse, not better.

    Still, it remains a popular course of action and whilst that is in part due to the powerful financial logic that drives it, it seems also to be in part because the fact of what the action is communicating is not recognised by decision makers.

    Another example from an organisation I have worked with involved research scientists and managers who were payed roughly similar amounts. Seeing increasing competition for talented researchers, the company responded by increasing the pay of scientists. The predictable result was that over time, the best managers started leaving the company and without these managers the quality of research began to suffer.

    Once again, this is not to suggest that financial and commercial logic should come below communication, just that a little more thought about what was communicated could have resulted in a different policy that didn't have as many side-effects.

    My contention then is that while we assume that top managers have a grasp of the communications impact of their actions, the evidence is that in some organisations this is just not the case. As a result, all sorts of policies get handed down that communicate things which contradict the explicit communications statements made to employees.

    It seems to me that within the typical hierarchy of many organisations, one way Internal Communications issues and the communications impact of various actions will be recognised is for IC to have a seat at the top table. But, that seems neither likely or even politically astute, so I'm definitely open to suggestions.


    Tuesday, 2 October 2007

    Internal Communications: The Big Ideas


    2007 seems to be a year when people are asking questions about the direction of internal communications. My take on things first developed during 2005 in an MBA Marketing Communications class discussion of "current trends in corporate communications."

    In the time it's taken me to get around to actually writing about it, a lot of other people have independently produced similar ideas, either directly about internal communications (e.g. Kevin Keohane) or more abstractly about organisation (e.g. James Surowiecki - Wisdom of Crowds) and marketing (e.g. Mark Earls - Herd.) At the same time, I've already linked recently to people like Sue Dewhurst at Black Belt Dojo and Ron Shewchuk who are posting interesting tidbits in this area on a regular basis.

    Given that there are similar ideas around, it would be silly not to talk about them. To that end I'm going to quote quite a bit from  Kevin Keohane's blog postings not because he's the only one posting, but because he's condensed his thoughts into three convenient posts...


    In "Internal Marketing is..." Kevin starts by saying:

    "The concept of internal marketing is based on a false premise that one can treat employees like external customers.

    “Internal marketing” is back as an employee communication approach. The concept is simple: use basic marketing approaches to communicate to employees in the same way that these methods can raise awareness, interest, intent and action with consumers."

    To me, however, "internal marketing" isn't "back" it never really went away. There are pockets of good practice and experimentation where different approaches have been adopted, but my experience in contact with a range of typical organisations of various sizes is that "internal marketing" logic remained the dominant mode of action, even as IC professionals like Kevin moved on to new and better approaches with those clients who had the required imagination.

    Kevin continues:

    "The explanation for the revival of internal marketing is also simple. Marketing Directors are increasingly delivering a range of internal communication tasks. The logic is that if an organisation is trying to deliver a differentiating customer experience, then who better to get employees lined up than the people responsible for defining the customer experience? The fact that the Marketing function often has greater influence than does Internal Communications adds weight to the idea. With the importance and power of brand rising rapidly on the corporate agenda, the case is compelling on its face."

    I would add that there is an underlying structural issue that has kept "marketing techniques" in pole position in a lot of IC departments. The discipline of marketing was founded (if you'll forgive the stereotype) around the needs of the Marketing Department at a company like Proctor and Gamble. You have 50 to 100 people who need to explain the value of a new product to millions of current and potential customers. It's a process of very few to very many communication, or in shorthand a "one to many" process. Likewise, in many IC departments, you have a very small staff, expected to produce results that affect a very much larger number of employees in the rest of the organisation. It's a very natural step to look to the techniques of "mass communication" from the marketing discipline to make that happen.

    I think this is important, because while Kevin goes on to identify that:

    "... there’s a basic problem with the whole idea. The nature of the employment relationship is essentially different from a consumer relationship."


    "Most marketing practice is based on crafting a message, packaging it and delivering it to an audience — and then gauging what happens and modifying the next round of activity accordingly. Internal communication, at its best, goes beyond so-called “two-way” communication models, and creates an ongoing dialogue that both reflects and shapes the place where this conversation occurs.

    there's a basic pressure (as in every part of life) to do more with less. And less staff and less resources pushes you back towards "one to many" communication, which in my opinion always tends to look more like "two-way communication" than genuine dialogue.

    Perhaps most importantly, if I was to identify one reason why so many organisations still indulge in "internal marketing" it would be that most people involved in "internal communications" have a background in Marketing or PR. We need to consider carefully the skills we prioritise in IC if we want the field to progress.

    Having said this, it's important to remember that it's not all a bad thing. Sue Dewhurst corrected me on this in reply to one of my earlier posts and Kevin puts it well:

    This is not to say that some of the methods, practices and tools that prove valuable in marketing don’t have an important place in an effective internal communication effort. In fact, internal communication people can learn a lot from marketing approaches such as developing “the big idea,” defining the essence of a brand or value proposition, identifying, prioritising and segmenting stakeholders, and being more creative and inspirational in their overall approach.


    Finally, Kevin says that:

    While internal marketing may well be based on a false premise, the emerging truth is that no organisational silo – marketing, human resources, internal communications or IT — owns the whole solution. Best practice engagement is about making sure that these disciplines work together in a complementary manner to deliver the right result for the organisation.

    For me, of course, this is where things get really interesting. If there is going to be more to IC than "internal marketing" then maybe we need to think carefully what "internal communications" can do for an organisation. Is it all about creating a dialogue between the top of a company and the rest? Or is there more?

    My answer is that there is more. If you're going to talk about "internal communications" then you should be involved in every aspect of people communicating with each other. That means not only dialogue between "leaders and followers" but also between "followers" and not just discussions around values and community, but also the kind of communications people need to get things done, day to day.


    So, onto Kevin's post "The end of internal communications."

    This is getting long, so I'm going to "quote and paste" less of Kevin's work. Go and read it (or re-read it, if that's the case) as it's really worthwhile.

    First, he sets the scene:

    "There have been the rumblings of a seismic shift in the employee engagement and internal communications arena for several years now. Digital technologies are expanding our opportunities, consumer power and influence grows apace, and traditional organisational structures and hierarchies creak under the strain of 21st century business velocities. The contract among employers, employees, investors, stakeholders and customers is being re-written."

    He moves on to point out that whilst in the past "internal communications" has bounced around the corporation, sometimes being sited as part of HR, sometimes part of "corporate communications," sometimes an adjunct to PR and marketing, it has been managing relatively well understood and stable needs and relationships. However, with the "seismic shifts" from changes in technology and society, this is no longer the case.

    He goes on to list all the people involved in different aspects of the "customer experience" and note that everyone is responsible and if you don't get organised, your competitors will.

    I'll let Kevin's words make the key point:

    "What does all this have to do with internal communications? And why is it “dead”?

    Many functional internal communication leaders today have come from a publishing, journalism, or PR background (and increasingly from Marketing disciplines). And in general, internal communication functions have been managed – and often managed very effectively – as information and knowledge publishers. Of course, most internal communication operations are very good at managing “two way communication,” ensuring that employee surveys track how things are going and what drives the right results to the bottom line; supporting senior leaders and line managers in their communication roles; providing opportunities for the employee to be heard. “Best Practice” is well and truly bedded in, and blogs, wikis, and ‘MySpace for the corporation’ are all adding new approaches to the mix.

    But internal communication people need to stop thinking about ourselves as internal communicators. Because we’re simply not anymore. And we shouldn’t be. Internal communicators should see themselves as business people with a specific communication, involvement and engagement business process focus."

    Kevin carries on with more detail and following his natural style ends up with what sounds like a call for Internal Communications to be at the center of everything:

    "But if we are truly to thrive and face the challenges of 2007 and beyond, as internal communicators, we need to become part management consultant, part HR professional, part IT consultant, part brand manager, part organisational psychologist, part executive coach, part media relations expert … and part accountant.

    We need to get outside our box, without apology, and stick our noses into other peoples’ business. Because everybody in the organisation, and many of our stakeholders who aren’t necessarily on our distribution lists, helps us deliver our customer experience and our “brand” — which is, after all, our reputation."

    Finally, in his third post on this topic Kevin assesses what this drive to be at the centre of everything in the organisation means for the average IC professional. It's not a completely optimistic picture, but it reinforces the notion that it has to be more than just the traditional skillset.

    So what does all this mean to me?

    First, I see that if Internal Communications is going to develop in this way, it needs to change a lot. The skillset has to broaden and critically, the focus has to broaden, from being "publishers of information" to "facilitators of dialogue." In time, this really means that IC professionals shouldn't really be writing so much at all.

    What then should they be doing?

    1) To pursue Kevin's grand vision, IC has to work it's way into the very fabric of corporate management. If you don't have contact with and credibility with all the people who contribute to the "customer experience" you're in trouble. And since every act, be it the institution of a new bonus system, or new rules for cost control in production is an act of communication (which often speak louder than all the traditional forums and dialogues) communicators need to be at least involved in the discussions before these decisions are made.

    (N.B. I still see a role for a split between "internal" (workers, partners) and "external" (customers, regulators, media) specialisms, however.)

    I think this is a long term project and I'm unsure how to put it into action at this stage. Thus for now, I'm concentrating on the second part of the equation.

    2) It's time for IC to start taking on a real process focus. In particular, it needs to develop skills in process, rather than content, as I mention above.

    The way I've chosen for my consultancy is to focus on lateral communications.

    In my opinion, a key issue is to improve the quality of communication between various groups within the organisation. If we take the notions of the "Wisdom of Crowds" to heart, then enabling the "crowd" to solve problems themselves, without unduly putting a burden on the rest of the organisation has to be a good way to improve the quality of action.

    As such, my aim is to offer problem solving in urgent cases and diagnosis and assessment to avoid problems for organisations under less stress. My expertise is all about getting different cultures to talk to each other, so I'm focusing on international situations and national ones that involve distinctive groups (e.g. engineering, production and marketing.)

    One of my challenges is to prove that this specialisation is worth investing in, alongside more generic exercises in improving the quality of dialogue and information flow in the organisation.

    The other is to develop more services in that more generic area.

    And that will be some of the topics for future posts.


    Wednesday, 26 September 2007

    Black Belt Dojo: Nasty questions

    It seems like the way I'm justifying not quite writing that big post on  "Life, the Universe and Internal Communications" is to keep reading Black Belt Dojo, and blogging about the interesting things there. At least it's not Sue this time. Liam Fitzpatrick posts Nasty questions that IC managers nominate as the ones they would least like to face:

    I thought I'd share with you some of the recent suggestions - they are quite chilling...

    • What measurements do you have to show how you add value?
    • Why do we need an internal communication team when we can just buy in a toolkit and some training for our managers to be communicators?
    • Can you actually prove that you’re contributing to business revenues?
    • How does your communication plan fit into the business strategy?
    • Why do we need an in-house team?
    • If I chose a member of staff at random and asked them last year’s revenue figures, would they know?
    • How much money do you spend on internal communication?
    • How can you justify the cost? What’s your return on investment (ROI)?

    And my favourite...

    • What would happen to the company if we shut down the internal communications department? Would anyone notice?



    It's a good post to help get one thinking about the "business case" for Internal Communications.  Largely of course, there are answers for these questions, but some of them are not easy answers, particularly those that focus on quantitative measures. The value of improved internal communication can be measured, but not always easily in accounting terms.

    That of course does not mean we should give up on all this intangible work, but I do suspect there is a case for adding some more tangible strings to the internal communications bow. I'll write some more about this next time...


    Saturday, 22 September 2007

    In the words of Ezra Klein...

    "My commenter(s) are smarter than me."

    Sue from Black Belt Dojo replies to my post on strategy:

    Just wanted to say that I do think we should think more like marketing in the way that they really know their audience - i.e. they do the research to build up a decent demographic and attitudinal profile so they know who they're talking to.

    But I'm not advocating the sell/persuade approach. These people know what it's really like to work in the business, so hyperbolic fluff fools nobody. I'm talking about real, practical communication about subjects that actually affect them everyday.

    I'll leave it there or my comment will be even longer than your post! But just to say that I agree with your thoughts later about involving people and not over-selling what we can do. In our role plays on the Black Belt programme we've managed to lure people into promising to work miracles with sales results, attrition, motivation ... you name it.

    A number of important issues here:

    1) As Sue notes, whatever it's faults may be, the discipline of Marketing is far more developed than that of internal communications. As a result, my banging on about their failures can seem a bit rich, because we still have lots to learn from them, especially in "identifying the audience."

    2) I have my own problems "identifying the audience."

    - My views come out of my experiences working in "other departments" in various organisations and are coloured by those experiences.

    - In a lot of ways I'm writing to try and move the people who created those experiences of "internal communications" on to better ways of doing things.

    - In reality however, the people most likely to actually read my blog are "enlightened practitioners" like Sue, who are already doing the right things, advocating good approaches.

    - So to Sue and any others out there, I may be talking to you, but understand I'm not talking about you. I'm talking about the still existing organisations where things just haven't progressed much in the last 10 years. We all know there are plenty out there.

    - Finally, I'm still finding a blogging voice, but in my hubris I do hope to tie my ideas to the good things people are doing and contribute to a better developed philosophy of internal communications, as I think that's another area (along with tools like audience analysis) where we lag more established disciplines like marketing. We don't yet have a consistent, coherent and solidly plausible narrative for the things we can do.

    Sunday, 16 September 2007

    Facebook/Social Networking

    Just recently there seems to have been a rash of posts (1,2,3) about Facebook/Social Networking.

    So far I've steered away from getting involved in discussions of particular technologies, because as one of the posters (Valdis Krebs) says:

    "IMHO, just putting social web technology into a strong culture, averse to sharing and connecting, will not change how things get done. MySpace and Facebook worked because the were dropped into cultures eager to connect. The IC needs to get the sociology right before they support a new culture with new technology."

    Or, more briefly, if the human situation isn't good, technology can't save it, you need to work at the human level first.

    But, as the drum beat goes on, I should talk about social networking a bit as I'm dedicated to promoting lateral communication and these technologies are largely about enabling this very concept.

    Some quick thoughts on pros and cons then:

    Pro: The technologies are largely based on letting the user choose their own connections. That's a welcome change from some of the control-freakery sometimes displayed in corporate environment.

    Con: A lot of the links that will be created will be enforced by the culture of the company. Everyone will be signed up to be connected to the CEO's "publicity account" and cross connected to the department head and all the other people who work in the same room as them. (That's not all bad, but it's enough to make many people just stop at that point.)

    Pro: It opens another channel for communication between people in disparate parts of the organisation.

    Con: That channel may be insecure (e.g. public sites like Facebook) or potentially unwieldy (internal networking site that has no connection with the outside world.)

    The list of course can go on and on. I would draw attention to the myriad issues around mixing personal and organisational networking tools on the internet, because I think too many "comms gurus" haven't thought all the privacy issues through, but that's a post for another day.

    Overall, I'm well disposed to this technology, but I think the devil resides in the details. In particular, if you want people to connect more, are you giving them not just the technology, but also the time and space to do so? I don't think the business case for social networking is impossible to write, but it's not as clear cut as some commentators are making out. Generic increases in productivity and innovation through "connectedness" can be real, but they depend on very good implementations and socio-cultural grounding of the technology in the organisation. Without this, you'd be better off working on less complex and more focused programs to improve lateral communication in the organisation.

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    Thursday, 13 September 2007

    Why just repeating the strategy doesn't work...

    Sue Dewhurst posting over at Black Belt Dojo has a pithy summary of some of the problems in internal communications today:

    Then I asked people to imagine the sales assistant had joined in to persuade them to hand over the credit card. Here's what the sales assistant says: "We're operating in a very competitive environment right now and our revenues are under pressure, so we really need you to buy the jacket to help us increase sales." Not convinced yet? How about "We need to improve our cashflow, and we have to show quarter on quarter improvements to the markets. If you buy this jacket, you'll really help us improve our profits."

    Ever heard a sales assistant try and persuade you to buy that way? Me neither. They go for the things they know you'll care about. But quite often inside organisations, we try to persuade people to buy in by talking about what's in it for the company - not what's in it for them. It's easy to throw together key messages. But if you really think about the people you're trying to connect with and try and look for an angle they'll actually care about, it gets a lot more tricky.

    I agree with what Sue says, as far as it goes, but predictably I don't think it goes far enough. After all, she's really saying that internal communicators need to think more like marketers. There is the corporate strategy, but you need to sell it to the employees, you have to wow them a little, make a personal connection, show the link with their lives and aspirations.

    The problem is, the audience is changing. Every new generation of workers has been bombarded with marketing from an ever earlier age. It's still possible to wow them on occasion and make things personal for them, especially in person, but in "mass communications" (which remain the staple of internal communications in many organisations) it's working less and less well.

    Now Sue is on record with progressive views about employee involvement in strategy formulation and that's an important part of the story. It's a lot easier to talk to and inform someone if they have had a stake in creating what you are talking about. That's definitely progress.

    However, in a lot of organisations, especially larger ones, this kind involvement remains limited. One answer is for internal communicators to campaign more aggressively for greater involvement for everyone in the co-creation of strategy.

    There are organisations, unfortunately, where that just isn't going to happen soon and I think in those places in particular, internal communicators need to look long and hard at the business case they promote for themselves. I think the traditional approach of "we'll deliver employee engagement with your strategy" is a very dangerous way to sell the business case for internal communications, because it promises more than the tools can deliver.

    Instead, I believe internal communicators need to look again at their role in communication, particularly communication from the bottom of the organisation to the top, and from side to side (lateral communication.) This is an approach that requires a greater engagement with the actual processes of the business. It's less about exercising individual creative communication on a daily basis and more about enabling others to communicate.

    And now I'm largely caught up with my RSS feed of internal communicators, I hope to move from laying out the case for moving to a different approach to talking more about that approach itself in future posts.

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    Monday, 10 September 2007

    Making internal communications relevant...

    Ron Shewchuk points us to an article by Barry Nelson on "The case for "workplace journalism."

    It's a well argued piece that I'd recommend you all read. The critical point is that if all your output (and I would argue, communications channels too) are focused on content that directly addresses the usual business case for internal communications, you are not likely to get many eyeballs:

    The result, though, is that employees looking at their internal media see a monotonous parade of stories with the same underlying message: what it takes to make the company a financial winner.

    Nelson makes the case for restoring a traditional balance:

    What’s the lesson?

    For communicators, it ought to be to keep helpful information on these issues flowing, as a lubricant, to help our more strategic messages get through. It should be to balance our coverage with empathetic workplace journalism – dialing down, just a little, the volume of our call to battle stations, and giving at least some prominence to our employees’ human concerns (e.g., how and why to get along with the boss, make friends on the job, cope with stress, live the brand, be a good teammate, and other aspects of a satisfactory work life).

    I'm in complete agreement that if you want people to engage with your internal publication you have to provide a balance of content. If none of it is relevant to their daily lives, they are unlikely to make time for it. Also, there is an engagement question at work:

    An excellent review of decades of studies on this point appeared in the August, 2002, issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. Its conclusion: Employees tend to see their organizations in human terms, so they interpret evidence of more-than-minimal support for their well-being as a sign that the organization cares. And they respond in kind.

    Employers they perceive as strongly caring earn strong commitment, including support for company success, and a desire to stay, even when the money looks better elsewhere. By contrast, companies that seem obsessed with their own financial security mostly inspire workers to be likewise, about theirs. Loyalty fragments, and trust is lost.

    To bring things back to my hobby horse, I would draw attention to the newer media. A paper newsletter does rather push you towards "workplace journalism" if you seek an antidote to being "Pravda of the Executive Board." As the company invests in newer forms of communication, a number of avenues open up for employees to talk amongst themselves. A critical element in gaining credibility for the "internal communications department" is facilitating that peer-to-peer talk, rather than trying to lock things down and keep people "on message."

    Likewise, a communications channel or technology is most valuable to people when it helps them in their daily lives and that means it helps them communicate with the people in the organisation that they need to, to get their job done. Generic tips on common problems are nice, but a channel is most useful when it connects people to the help and support they need as individual employees. Then people will use it every day and just maybe read some of the other stuff there, now and then.

    The critical question from a lateral communications angle is: how much of the internal communications business case should be about "selling strategy in the first place?" It's a necessary top-down function, but we ignore the role of lateral communication in successfully implementing strategy at our peril.

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    Friday, 7 September 2007

    Employee loyalty

    Over at For Your Approval, Ron Schewchuk points to some recent statistics on employee loyalty. This is evidence in line with my instinct that commitment is at an all time low.

    As he says:

    I think for the next few years these stats are going to continue to show a decline in loyalty as employers struggle to redefine their relationship with workers. It's a sobering reminder of the importance of our role as communicators in helping organizations make meaningful connections with their people.

    In my recent posts I've been critical of some of the usual approaches to making the business case for internal communications and it's important to clarify that internal communications can make a vital difference in areas like employee commitment and loyalty.

    My spin on the issue, of course, is that (to take the example of ethics, Ron mentions) you won't convince employees that you're an ethical organisation with a well crafted article on the intranet, or even a personal statement in a form letter from the CEO to every individual.

    Why? Because we live in an age where trust needs to be earned. People are exposed to the marketing and PR of a hundred organisations every week. They have learned to treat official statements and explanations with scepticism. It is necessary to make people aware of the good (in this case ethical) things that the company does, but it is not sufficient.

    People believe the evidence of their experiences and the experiences of those around them. If you want to persuade them you are an ethical organisation, you have to treat them in an ethical manner. Internal communicators cannot force the HR function and others to clean up their act, but they can approach any issues in a manner that will build trust. This includes breaking away (where possible) from just pushing a "management line" and creating the conditions for real dialogue. Aiding the transit of messages from the bottom to the top is vital.

    Finally, to bring things around to my hobby-horse (lateral communications) acting as a neutral conduit of discussion between peers without undue censorship is a good way to start bringing credibility (and an ethical face) to the internal communications function.

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    Monday, 3 September 2007

    Communications: Top down vs reality

    Catching up on the RSS feeds, Steve Crescenzo (what a great name) has written a post; Replacing "corporate" with "creative" on his blog Corporate Hallucinations (another great name, btw.)

    He starts:

    Is "corporate communication" an oxymoron?
    It's easy to believe that when you see as many employee publications and press releases as I do.
    They all look the same. Generic headlines, horrific leads, cliched photographs, boilerplate copy, acronyms and buzzwords galore, and terrible quotes.

    later suggesting that:

    So we concentrate on making deadlines and creating content that won't raise any red flags with executives, lawyers, sources, or anyone else who is going to see it before it goes "live."

    And you know what? We win those battles. We make our deadlines (usually); stuff eventually gets through the approval process--scarred and changed, perhaps, but it gets through.

    So we win those two battles . . . and by doing so we lose the war for readership. We create safe, sterile, generic "corporate" content that employees, reporters, and other audiences immediately dismiss, if they notice it at all.

    But it doesn't have to be that way! There are communicators out there who are swimming upstream, fighting the good fight, raging against the corporate machine . . . and replacing the "corporate" in corporate communication with "creative."

    They're challenging the "approvers." They're using techniques that work in the real world. They're throwing out the stuff that doesn't work and finding creative ways of reaching their audiences.

    In my notably not very humble opinion, this whole battle is all about the conflict between a belief in the "top down" approach and the reality of how our organisations work.

    I do have to concede that in our current world we'll never get rid of the lawyers, if you're writing things the public may possibly see then in the litigious society we've created we can't avoid having the legal department check things over.

    Still, the big sterilising influence on communications is the desire for control from the top, the pressure to rewrite descriptions of the reality "on the ground" to fit desired strategic narratives. This fails on two counts:

    1) People trust the evidence of their own experiences and like the citizens of the Soviet Union just start to completely ignore communications that seek to gloss over all the problems.

    2) Clear, honest lateral communication about the problems and challenges in the organisation between various parties who need to co-operate is vital to implementing the strategic vision. Sacrificing this to a culture of "keeping everybody on message" is a route to slow and painful failure.

    Is there still a place for top down communications? Of course! People need to be informed and engaged about the strategy of the organisation, but:

    a) As soon as you drift away from an honest statement of realities, you've lost the chance to inform and engage.

    b) Top down isn't enough. If you don't give equal time for lateral communication you're missing out on a vital element for internal communications success.

    And yes, this message is as much for top management as for internal communications professionals, but it will fall to all of us in the internal communications field to really make the case with top management. Otherwise, as creative as you get in working around "the approvers" you're still just holding back the tide.

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