Paul Holmes 23 Apr 2009 // 11:00PM GMT
In today’s complex, uncertain business environment, we realize that no organization can grow, prosper or even survive, without a knowledgeable, engaged and aware workforce. This includes leadership, management and employees at all levels.
Enlightened organizations also know that change/internal communications is no longer about monthly newsletters, quarterly update videos, intranets, themes, events and employee suggestion boxes. Internal communications is evolving to a new level, where the focus is on accelerating decision making, challenging people’s knowledge and providing information that leaders, managers and employees utilize to frame arguments, illustrate situations, make decisions and launch initiatives. As we move forward, we must ask ourselves, “How can we shape strategic internal communications as a driver for improving organizational effectiveness?”
With all the complexities of today’s society, we are faced with constant clutter and information overload. Even a simple decision to order a fast food meal is complicated with several options.
As communications professionals, we wrestle with similar complexities in our day-to-day roles. In a time when information is abundant, competitive advantage lies in our ability to affect the behaviors, attitudes and actions of our employees through relevant, authentic and contextual information and dialogue. The end result is a workforce that can make decisions quickly, accurately and consistent with the business strategy. More importantly, a workforce that, on the whole believes in the purpose, values and goals of the organization.
As organizations continue to evolve, the true transformation of internal communications—from necessary function to critical organizational priority, and from a disciplined process to a philosophy... is underway.
Put succinctly, organizational effectiveness is defined as an institution’s ability to operate profitably, functionally, socially, strategically, innovatively and humanely. A management model focused on improving organizational effectiveness must bring together the right mix of communications, leadership and team building to create an openness and an exchange that’s fostered by the right technologies and the right skill sets. What’s more, organizational effectiveness is a behavioral-based model, embedded in a belief that sharing the right information with the right people will result in the ability to make decisions for the organization. As communicators, we must serve as the “invisible hand,” guiding employee behavior based on organizational priorities and strategies intertwined with people’s view of reality and need for purpose.
As CEOS continue to elevate internal communications, we, as practitioners, must be able to articulate our priorities and roles to organizational leadership. This involves defining the scope of our roles and responsibilities within our organizations, and how our function will ultimately help improve organizational effectiveness.
In shaping communication as a means for improving organizational effectiveness, we should consider several new tenets for strategic internal communications:
1. The CEO ultimately drives employee behavior and the organization’s culture. In an effective, efficient organization, the CEO must take the role as lead engagement officer. A clear, well-articulated guiding principle (whether about culture, company goals or organizational values) can help focus an organization, align and motivate employees, and guide effective communications internally. Internal communication must help shape and guide CEO actions and decisions so that they are clearly understood and actively engaged.
2. Management and communications must be married: not distant relatives. More and more we realize that management and communication are inextricably linked. Communication must be viewed as an important component of a company’s management model. It can no longer be viewed as a separate and distinct function. This is probably the most important lesson of all and one that continues to elude many organizations.
3. Decision-making must be inclusive and integrated. A perceived lack of involvement in organizational decision-making results in employees who feel disillusioned and disempowered. We must shape communications as a tool for linking employees to business decisions, creating a channel for them to voice opinions and suggestions that ultimately affect outcomes.
4. It’s all about “Purpose.” As with anything worth doing, personal and professional lives tend to intersect at one key juncture: purpose. People are looking for purpose in all they do and leadership must define it and management reinforce/reflect it. Without a meaningful purpose, people cannot become fully engaged in the organization’s success.
5. Make it “Important.” Someone once said, if it’s not important then it’s not worth doing. Half the battle in organizational effectiveness rests with leadership’s ability to be disciplined and committed to its goals, strategies and purpose. Adopt a philosophy for how to manage, how to communicate, how to operate and stick with it.
6. View employees as a public constituency not a captive audience. To date, leaders, managers and communicators have treated employees as a captive audience and to a lesser extent, a necessary burden. The result can often be compared to treating employees as children - spoon feeding them rhetoric and worse, pabulum, in the belief that they would just “eat it up.” Reality: employees are smart, knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children and actively involved in their communities and the world around them. To be effective organizationally, employees must be treated as if they are a public constituency capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and ultimately, organizational success - which they are! This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication.
7. Discover versus sell. The classic mistake most management and communicators make today is the belief that they need to “sell” employees on everything from a new benefits program to the corporate strategy. But people “smell the sell” and turn off to the very thing being endorsed. The right approach is to base communication on a “discover” model - one that allows people to find the answer or truth themselves. This encompasses a new type of thinking and approach. It means a provocative tone, a more authentic method of discussion and debate and a more pragmatic view of human behavior.
8. Communications must be holistic. Internal communication is most effective when coordinated with other communications functions across the organization, including: investor relations, media relations, marketing, and community relations. Further, it should be woven into management, human resources, production, purchasing, etc. Ideally, communications should be viewed as a complex, fluid, two-way function rather than a group of separate, disconnected functions. How can linkages be created with communicators in financial, product, brand and operations to better create a clear organizational story? How can linkages be created with human resources, production, legal, etc., to ensure a seamless approach to affecting policy and behavior? What makes this happen?
9. An employee’s understanding of strategy is “seeing and feeling” patterns of behavior, starting at the top, not listening to “corporate speak.” Through actions, style and decisions, senior leadership can instill the appropriate mindset around the organization’s strategy, set the managerial and operational tone and provide continual focus on the future. How is internal communications directing the organization’s leadership actions to reflect the messages?
10. The marketplace should dominate internal dialogue. The company’s external profile provides context for internal organizational health. From employee publications to employee meetings to internal e-mail, every opportunity must be shaped and used to bring the customer and marketplace inside the company. Competition, trends and industry issues, provide employees with the proper frame of reference to assess their performance and understanding of company decisions. How much of what we do has an internal focus without a direct link to the marketplace?
11. Information must be dynamic versus inert. Effective internal communications drives employees to perform. Everything from data to basic announcements must be translated into information that gives people reasons to take action, strengthen behavior or obtain a frame of reference. Examine the most recent communiqués produced. How much of it was actually needed? Useful? Did it create understanding through context? Did it provide the headline or key message? Or, did it get bogged down in data?
12. Communicators must be businesspeople first as well as problem solvers and behavioral experts. To achieve organizational success, we must link communications to business priorities. Communicators must strive to understand their company’s challenges, priorities and business objectives, competitor/marketplace trends, and as a result, develop strategies and messages accordingly.
13. Have the courage to be subjective. Communicators must be willing to conduct research to look inwardly at its processes, successes and failures. A key component to practicing effective internal communications is relevant, targeted research and analysis. Now more than ever, communicators must discern between problem and symptom as it relates to organizational performance. How much do we rely on research to make decisions? How much do we rely on our real understanding of a situation and audiences? Do we suffer from paralysis from analysis?
14. Corporate initiatives fail because of poor or improper communications. Internal communications must serve as the link between corporate leadership and front-line employees when introducing corporate initiatives, providing context and relevance. Employees will not support a corporate initiative unless they understand its relationship to the organizational strategy, priorities and overall effectiveness. Instead of reacting to a major corporate initiative, how do communicators proactively get a handle on it?
15. Employees must be given a frame of reference. Internal communications begins with why. Information is meaningless unless a frame of reference is established. We must provide an explanation of purpose, context and meaning to the organization and to the individual employee. As communicators, we must evaluate every message by asking, “Why should I (a front-line employee) care?” How often do we ask, “Why?”
16. Connecting versus building relationships. In today’s technology-driven environment, communicators will become more involved in building and strengthening relationships between the organization and employees. This means more time communicating with employees versus at them and experiencing their reality as it relates to the organization and its products/services. Do we know how to build relationships through effective communications? Can we point to specific examples?
17. “Simple” creates interest. The role of internal communications is to help the organization and leadership keep things simple. As the world becomes more complex and information overload threatens to overwhelm employees, the ability to keep things simple remains a true competitive advantage as well as a quality of life staple. We must filter our leadership’s messages and provide information that is clear, relevant and focused. It is here that we as communicators have the greatest opportunity to provide value to organizational culture. How often do we cut through the clutter and help simplify the message?
18. “Where am I?” This is the question on most people’s minds today as they continue to search for meaning and contentment at work and in life. Answer this consistently and respectfully and the results will be significant.
19. Size means nothing. These laws are applicable to small, medium and large, global organizations. The lessons here are not about budgets and resources but rather about philosophy, commitment and discipline.
20. Culture of information versus communications. There is a difference! The former emphasizes quantity of data disseminated while the latter balances information with interaction allowing people to better engage in the business. Very subtle so be aware for what type your organization promotes.
21. Remember, people are working with the “volume off.” Today, the key challenge for most organizations - small and large - is that employees are working “with the volume off.” That is, they are inundated with so much information - (most of it irrelevant and conflicting) that it overwhelms and confuses them. In the end, this creates cynicism instead of enthusiasm, much like watching a sporting event with the volume turned off. Internal communications is challenged with the task of capturing employees’ attention knowing that employees are watching the “action” with the volume turned down. We must identify and impact the systems, programs and policies that affect the decisions causing them to passively watch. In other words, we will not capture employees’ attention by changing what we say, but rather by affecting what they see.
22. An organization’s reputation today is the sum of its communications.
Beginning inside and flowing to its external audiences. As Richard Edelman often states, all companies regardless of product, service, or business model are media companies today. That is, they convey stories that reflect values as much as strategy and brands.
23. Employees are the enterprise’s authentic experts. Regardless of position and tenure, employees are seen as the real “voice” inside organizations. And with technology, this voice has more avenues for expression than ever before. Edelman’s Annual Trust Barometer first identified this insight and our latest data only suggests its continued strength.
A glimpse at the organization of the future reveals that strategic internal communications can and will facilitate a culture of learning, where:
· People share their best (and worst) practices
· Performance appraisals are used to assess learning activities
· Flexibility and risk-taking are rewarded
· People are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, budgets and opportunities.
· Research is used to gain insight not data
· Messages are aligned with actions to provide meaning versus noise
The new frontier represents a brave new world for the internal communications function, presenting us with a unique challenge and opportunity for making the quantum leap from necessary function to critical organizational priority.
Gary F. Grates is president/global managing director of Edelman Change and Employee Engagement, the organizational communications consultancy of Edelman. He was formerly vice president, communications, North America for General Motors Corporation and global leader for internal communications.