Thursday, 31 January 2008

Advanced Internal Comms

Over at CommsOffensive325, Mike Klein joins the debate started by Liam Fitzpatrick over on BlackBeltDojo about "Advanced Internal Comms" and whether there are any revolutions left to come in the field, or is it all about really implementing basics we already know about?

Mike poses the debate as one about concentrating on competency (the Liam suggestion) vs the prospect of "fundamentally reinventing" the field. Mike suggests that:

Liam’s view only really holds water if you accept a view that organisations are fundamentally hierarchical and that internal communication exists to support the smooth functioning of hierarchies. If you accept the notion that organisations are simultaneously hierarchical and networked in nature, then it is worth recognising that very little work has been done in developing an advanced approach to internal communication that harnesses and influences the social networks in and around organisations while supporting what necessary hierarchy is required to drive an organisation towards its strategic or commercial objectives.

While the Holy Grail still eludes us, the emergence of social network tools and social network thinking are likely to play a key role in propelling the Internal Communications profession as we continue on its quest. And with the challenges we are likely to face in the short term as the budget-cutters seek easy targets, I for one think this quest is well worth continuing.

I think I have some overlap with Mike's view but I'd like to take a moment to muse on the philosophical question of "fundamental reinvention."

In the comments on BBD, I mentioned that I felt Liam was having it both ways. I said this because depending on how you cut the definition it's easy to cast something as evolution or revolution.

For example, let's take small group (4 people or so) transport. Let's think of the bullock cart from the Indian village of my grandparents, the mail coach of the Napoleonic London to Portsmouth route, one of Daimler's earliest 4 wheel vehicles, the Honda on my drive and a concept car of tomorrow, environmentally friendly which uses technology to drive itself.

There are lots of axes upon which one can measure some kind of fundamental change, for society. The increase in speed makes a huge difference to what transport can do, we seem to go in a circle about the environment, from animal power to "clean hydrogen" or whatever. And the notion of a car that drives itself has something to it too.

But, from another point of view: 4 wheels, power plant, somewhere to sit, control interface... nothing has changed in 500 years at least...

[Another set of objects for consideration might be: portable gramaphone, boombox, walkman, ipod.]

And so to the debate on IC. I do think that there are large elements of current theory (and some elements of practice) that are not going to go away. There will still be a need for various existing forms of organisation communication. So, you can fast forward 30 years and I think Liam can easily expect to find people doing "the basics" and so it's easy to argue that "fundamental reinvention" just isn't happening.


Of course, I'm not sure that's the right way to look at it, particularly from the point of view of IC professionals, because I think there are changes on the horizon for the typical IC department in the next 30 years. Mark highlights how social media trends mesh with the notion of an organisation as a partly a network (rather than just a hierarchy) could radically change the kinds of communication needed in an organisation.

One analogy for this might be the change from "Managament Information Systems" (MIS) departments to "Information Technology" (IT) departments. In the 60s and 70s, companies had an MIS department, which served to use technology to gather information on those doing the work and present it to managers. In a modern organisation a group of similar people are still there, but their role is (to some degree) now to think much more about how information moves between those doing the work - IT. Of course that role is still evolving, but I think it has something to say about the coming change in Internal Comms, from a management focus to a whole organisation focus.

My own contribution for now would be to suggest that once you move into that "whole organisation focus" it becomes apparent that where "communication" currently stands as a proxy for moving around particular information sets, in the future that has to expand. IC will have to overlap more with IT and think more about all the different aspects of communication. But I'll say more about that another time.


Friday, 25 January 2008

Social Networking in the Business

At the beginning of the month, Ron Shewchuck made some predictions about the year ahead for internal communications, including this section on social networking:

3. Facebook will launch a sister network designed for business (along the lines of Linkedin, but better) that will become extremely popular, but will prompt many companies to install clunky internal social networks in a vain attempt to keep their "walled gardens" closed to the outside world. In a related trend, employees will start bringing their own wirelessly connected personal laptops to work so they can stay hooked up to their social networks during the day. Some will get fired for this, making headlines and inspiring others to follow.

Now, I've been advocating Social Networks as a tool that could be useful in a business sense for promoting innovation networks (as an example) in larger technology companies. And worse, I've been one of those who have been talking in terms of internal solutions that don't violate the "walled garden."

So, I guess I better respond.

1) If Facebook actually develop a business arm, that could be very powerful. One of the flaws of LinkedIn is that there isn't really the same drive (for most people) to keep going back to their profile. It's fun to make contact with people from the past, but if you do have something to talk about, more than likely it's not work, most of the time and you'll end up either in email or on Facebook with them anyway.

I'd say the potential of a Facebook business arm is analogous to the way email used to work (when most people had just one address) or to bringing corporate issues into access through the TV. That is to say, alerts about business stuff can pop up alongside interesting leisure alerts, which could rather improve the likelihood of them being noticed.

As such, Ron is right that this will make internal solutions look much less attractive.

2) However, the quick use case I sketched out in a comment at Black Belt Dojo suggests that the business value of social networking is that it aids the spread of business information around the organisation. The problem is, the kind of business information you need to put on there to get that kind of value is very extensive.

It's easy to say that corporations should be more transparent, but when it comes to project work in firms, the open source model still has a lot of ground to make up. So, internal research projects on the business side of Facebook would seem to be a bit risky. Or to take another example, suppose you want internal feedback on entering a new market area or a new promotional scheme. There's a lot of value in discussing this in-house before you announce it to the world. Yes, you're unlikely to keep the intention a secret from your competitiors, but I do think that opening them to the details of your thinking isn't always wise in the current environment.

Of course, part of the problem is that none of the public sites like Facebook or LinkedIn have a proper privacy structure that allows you to control who sees particular discussions in an easy way. That's why you can't help but feel even if Facebook has a "business arm" the interface makes it likely that information can easily accidentally leak into someone's social circle and from there to the world.

Also, I have to point out that Facebook's design looks a lot like Emmental in security terms. So far, no-one has publicly exploited it, but it's a big risk to take with sensitve information. The problem is, if you restrict it to non-sensitive information, how much value can you really get out of it?

So that's why I think internal social networks, at least in larger corporations, do have a future.

[Just to note, I personally have no problem with employees being on Facebook and playing with it in working hours. If people are distracted and demotivated about their work, Facebook is a symptom, not a cause.]


Friday, 18 January 2008

Howard Rheingold, RSS, Knowledge Work

It appears, searching through the blog, that I haven't talked about Howard Rheingold's new set of video presentations yet. Fortunately, he's only on to his second one so far, so it's easy to catch up. I've linked to the wiki page for him, so I'll just say he's been writing about the culture of work and leisure related to computers since the age of the PC began.

This edition of his vlog is titled "Introduction to RSS" and it is a fairly clear and useful description of why RSS might be useful. There are other good explanations out there however, particularly the video from Common Craft, but the first 3 minutes or so of Rheingold's musings form a very tight description of the concept of "knowledge work" and point to why it is difficult to manage in an industrial fashion. It's not explicitly about that, but in describing how he works, Rheingold points up what it means to be in one of the modern occupations which is all about the processing of diverse sets of information. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in what some parts of the "knowledge economy" look like.


Punching In: Further Thoughts (short)

Getting further into the book, Punching In, which I mentioned in my previous post, I've come across an interesting comparison between two companies: The Container Store and Enterprise Car Rental. Both seek to amplify engagement through a careful hiring process, but in different ways.

From the experiences of the author, Alex Frankel, The Container Store makes very strong efforts to recruit employees who fit the culture of the company, whilst Enterprise focus much more on selecting recruits with the personality that allows them to be moulded into the culture of the organisation.

So which is better? Find people who fit your culture, or train them to become part of your culture? There is no simple answer and one obvious difference is that it is much easier for the relatively small Container Store to winnow through the applicant pool and pick out "our kind of people." Enterprise, perhaps has to work more at finding good people and then "teaching them the culture" because it needs to find so many more employees.

This aspect is perhaps amplified by the different features of the entry-level jobs in question. From Frankel's descriptions, working at The Container Store provides more positive customer feedback and a more obvious sense of job satisfaction than working behind the desk at Enterprise. As such, Enterprise's culture focuses on the company, rather than the work. Whilst the personality traits of "interested in organising things, likes talking to people, bit of a natural salesperson" (for Container Store) can be thought of as naturally occuring, the trait "attached to the goals and style of Enterprise Rent-A-Car" naturally need to be built up in the post-hire training process.

This is of course, more about engagement than communication, but it's important for Internal Communications types to consider. These mechanical details of HR practice set the frame for the IC function. Communications aimed at improving engagement will look very different in the two companies mentioned. Knowing what the HR strategy for engagement is makes for a much more effective IC program.


Saturday, 12 January 2008

Punching In

I've just started the book Punching In by Alex Frankel. It's subtitled "The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee" and it's a typical US-airport-business-book, lots of short chapters and personal anecdotes. However, the central premise is a very interesting one for internal communicators. It may not have the rigour of an academic book, but it is a rare example of someone taking the ethnographic approach to corporate culture. Frankel took front line jobs with some famous service companies (e.g. UPS, Starbucks) and lived the employee experience, attempting to understand the nature and power of the corporate culture and experience the employee engagement.

This is very important to internal communicators who often deal with the internal brand and justify communications programs in terms of employee engagement. We all talk about these things and there are measurements made and descriptions written for management, but I'm not aware of many descriptions of engagement from the point of view of the employee at the coalface.

As such, I would highly recommend this book, although I would point out a few caveats:

1) It's not just an ethnographic story, it's also about the author finding a deeper understanding of himself. He's quite a sympathetic character, but he does seem a bit spoiled in his life up to this point and his reactions to "life at the coalface" can feel a bit banal, especially for those of us who can remember working in such roles.

2) It is an American book about American companies and American people. Engagement isn't the same breed of bird in the UK, but I still think it's interesting.

3) If you read a lot about culture, you'll wish the author spent more time on details. This is a set of quick sketches more than a comprehensive expedition.

4) Frankel is relentlessly positive about culture and service work. It might be wise to balance the "boosterism" with a glance at Hochschild's book, The Managed Heart to remind yourself of the more difficult side to service work.


Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Foolish Blog Memes: Readability

One page doing the rounds of a number of communication oriented blogs is this readability test. You give it a URL and it tells you the "reading level" required to understand the page in question.

On the one hand, perhaps you as readers will be glad to hear that if you're reading this and understanding it, you're reading at "Genius" level.

On the other hand, as the writer (with no comment, most days!) I have to suspect my New Year's Resolution should be to work a lot harder on writing more accessible material for this blog.


Thursday, 3 January 2008

Main Website Update

I've just put up a fairly large update of the main website:

I've been doing a lot of networking lately and tried, in part to use it as a method of "real time market research." The changes to the website are largely a product of that. I've made an effort to explain what we do in a less jargon filled manner and to highlight what we can do for organisations of different sizes in more detail.

The new menu system is no prettier than the original one, but should make it easier to extend/maintain the website in the future.

Finally, I have to own up that the "Industry Focus" section remains "under construction" as it was in version one of the site. I hope to remedy this soon...