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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