Saturday, 19 June 2010

Six months on...

It's been over six month since my last post here, so now seems a good time for an update.  It was not so much a lack of interest in blogging as a feeling that my activity at work was not something I should write about publicly at the time. 

All communicators doubtless understand the need for discretion and to observe the requirement to keep certain business matters confidential.  If we don't then how can our senior stakeholders freely share with us the essential background information we need, with confidence?  We communicators who blog about what we do must always be mindful that we tread a fine line, between sharing our professional experiences appropriately and revealing more about the challenges our companies or organisations are facing than we should.

As with many companies in the current economic climate, my employer has not enjoyed an easy time of things in recent months.  The loss of a major contract in January provided me with sufficient engagement challenges to keep me busy for some time.  In addition to the open and honest internal communication about what this loss meant for the business there were the business-as-usual requirements of supporting HR with the TUPE activity as colleagues transferred to our former client.

Barely had that detailed piece of work come to an end that a difficult restructuring programme commenced.  With the colleague population already feeling bruised and concerned by the loss of our biggest client, it had become necessary to reshape the business.  Regretably this would involve not only transformation on an extensive scale, but redundancies for a number of our colleagues too.  As many communicators who have undertaken this type of activity will confirm, you feel an overwhelming duty of care to your colleagues who are departing and you push yourself to bring your influence to bear to ensure the process is as smooth and considerate as possible.

Now that process is complete the communications plan is focused on re-establishing stability and supporting the growth agenda of the reshaped business.  While it is straightforward to align the engagement activity to the corporate plan it's not an easy task to move colleagues' minds on from what has gone before, but that is where I find myself today. Hopefully circumstances will make it easier to blog more regularly now, so do visit again soon.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Take care to proof before sending

Hello again! I hope you had a Happy New Year and that 2010 brings you success and satisfaction.

Whenever I'm writing a business communication I always ensure at least two people proofread the copy. That's for internal use. When copy is being used in a customer communication or for sales/marketing purposes you would think the company sending it would make doubly sure there are no errors.

The team at my insurance company is either very rushed or has failed to get someone to check the bulk text message it sent to customers this afternoon. That can be the only explanation for this...

Hi from Aviva, your home insurer. Don't turn off your heating if your away from the cold weather to avoid freezing/burst pipes. No more SMS reply 'STOP'
I know text messages only allow 160 characters and are therefore restrictive, but there really isn't any excuse for spelling errors and poor English. The message was a helpful one and it's not the end of the world. But it does suggest a disappointing lack of care and attention and may have caused them a little unnecessary embarrassment.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Merry Christmas to all

Wishing you the joy of Christmas
and hoping this special time is blessed with peace,
health and happiness for you, your family and your loved ones.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Communication is always to blame when things go wrong

So says Steve Jones, a vice president at Broadcast International, who was author of Monday's Today's Tip in the online version of Business Week magazine. Jones says that in business:

"If you’re not communicating effectively, often the margin of error increases and effectiveness and success suffer."
I doubt I will find many communicators who disagree with that analysis. He explains what he sees as good practice, saying he likes to start the communication process by making sure his team can uniformly and consistently answer two key questions:
  • What are we building?
  • Why are we building it?
It's a pretty simple test of effectiveness. But Jones' communications model does look very much like a one way street of top-down message cascade. It looks very delivery centric. Given that, is communication always to blame when things go wrong? Or perhaps, has claiming a failure of communication now become a convenient scapegoat for those numerous occasions when the message lands loud and clear, but people simply do not like or accept the message? For me, if communication is defined in the way Jones is approaching it, all too often it's the latter.

Many great examples of this can regularly be found in the world of politics. Whether it is the UK Labour Government, representatives of the European Union or staffers in the White House, politicians and their spin doctors are repeat offenders when it comes to using communication as a scapegoat for people disliking the messages they receive. Take this stellar example from former Labour minister, Hazel Blears in May this year:
"The second pillar is effective campaigning and communications. Labour ministers have a collective responsibility for the government's lamentable failure to get our message across. All too often we announce new strategies or five-year plans, or launch new documents – often with colossal price tags attached – that are received by the public with incredulity at best and, at worst, with hostility."
Is there a failure to get their message across? Blears' own follow up sentence shows there isn't. It is simply that people do not agree with the proposals put forward, or do not believe what they have been told because previous pledges have been broken. Nevertheless, poor communication is wrongly blamed because the people delivering the message refuse to accept that anyone can disagree with them. That for me is where Jones falls down. It's one thing to understand the message, it's another to agree with it.

Leaders only have themselves to blame if things go wrong because the real communication failure is one that's all too common in politics and business. It is the failure to listen. If a politician or a director want to carry people with them, they need to ensure they themselves understand what is important to those people and what causes them concern.

They can only do that by listening to what people have to say. Communication is more complicated than delivering nicely packaged messages and everyone knowing what the messages say. The message has to be something people are comfortable with and are prepared to buy into. And before that can happen, information needs to travel in both directions and leaders need to listen. In a way communication in the real sense of the word is to blame, but not in the simplistic way Jones seems to be articulating.

Of course there are big differences between politics and business. Regardless, in both fields it is essential to listen to the people on the ground and as much as possible take their views into account. In both fields (but not in all cases) there are examples of real disconnect because not enough leaders understand or accept that communication requires them to listen, or they simply refuse to listen. In such cases the communication failure rests solely with them.

Instead of saying communication is always to blame when things go wrong, it would be more constructive to look at the problem in a different way and remember that by adhering to that most essential component of communication - listening - leaders can dramatically increase the potential for things to go right. Surely that's a far better way of looking at things.

For me, Jones' tip would have been more valuable if he had identified and focused on that. In any case, it's time for the 'catch all' communication delivery scapegoat to be set free and for leaders to acknowledge that when things go wrong it's often because of their failure to open their ears and listen effectively.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Social media: Deliberate before deploying

Recent posts on other blogs, notably those of Liam Fitzpatrick and Jennifer Bull, show that people are still thinking about possible internal communication application of social media tools.

Social media can be very useful in some organisations. For example, blogs and Twitter, to name but two tools, provide the opportunity for people to tell the author what they think about his/her musings, thus furthering essential two-way dialogue. But a number of conversations I've had suggest that too many leaders considering the deployment of social media within an organisation risk putting the tools cart before the communications horse.

The focus is too often on having the social media tool itself, rather than where it fits into the communication mix and how it will add value. Making social media tools available does not necessarily mean communications are certain to improve.

Communicators are all too familiar with the following scenario. A senior leader arrives at your desk or calls you and says they want to send out an all employee email. They haven't yet discussed with you the message they want to share or why there is a need to share it, but in their own mind they have already decided a blanket email is the most appropriate channel. Often it can be the right method, but a lot of the time it isn't. Cart before the horse.

It is often like that when deciding to use social media. The channel or delivery medium is determined before any real consideration has been given to whether there is a more effective or beneficial way of delivering the message. That is not to say the circumstances don't lend themselves to the advantageous use of social media. They often will. But the decision to deploy social media should be made only when it has been identified as the carefully thought through solution to a particular engagement challenge. Otherwise it could become a flop that undermines credibility and leaves people feeling frustrated.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Employee engagement: a matter of justice?

When it comes to employee engagement a question I have heard asked more than once is: "what do we want our engagement to achieve?". Because engagement seems to mean a variety of different things to different people, I came around to accepting the question has some merit - even though I believed the people asking it were approaching the rationale and need for communication from the wrong angle.

Generally speaking, when you break it down, organisations in the US and Europe want to improve employee engagement in order to increase employee performance, as there is evidence that shows an engaged workforce ultimately delivers better results which in turn enhances a company's bottom line. Before today I had not really considered that the desired outcomes from employee engagement in organisations elsewhere in the world might be somewhat different.

But now, having read this op-ed in the Economic Times of India, penned by Tata Executive Director, R Gopalakrishnan, I can see a rather different motivation for a focus on engagement based on the Indian philiosophical concepts of Niti  (bringing about better justice) and Nyaya (preventing injustice). Gopalakrishnan's focus here is squarely on the need to pursue corporate policies humanely. When you think about it, this is deep stuff. I cannot remember ever hearing language like this used by executives:

Prevention of injustice is very different from pursuit of perfect justice. They are two sides of the same coin, but their value perception is different. So far as the Indian legislative framework is concerned, laws pertaining to worker relations have for long needed to be updated. Labour reforms have been widely discussed, but the subject remains on the pending agenda.

However, at the firm level, managers can act on remedying the nyaya perceived by the employees in the employee-employer relation; its practice can be modernised by forward-looking managements. This requires special effort by company leaders.
I wonder if the concept of justice ever overtly crosses the minds of communicators and executives in the west when focusing on employee engagement. It may be that in many organisations the concept of justice is an ever present if unspoken factor in employee engagement.

In seeking ever more innovative ways of engaging with employees, could there be an opportunity here for organisations and communicators to take justice and make it a prominent and visible plank in their engagement strategies? Or would such language and philiosophical depth feel out of place and make people somewhat uncomfortable in our boardrooms and communications departments? Maybe that would be a good thing...

Monday, 7 December 2009

Communicate what employees need to know

The always excellent Liam Fitzpatrick has an insightful post on his blog today about the merits of communicating strategy to employees. This comment really hit the nail on the head:

So my suggestion for communicating strategy? Stop it and get on with introducing the boss to their people and concentrate on explaining what people have to do next week.

Of course you have to paint a vision and describe the journey. But I think you'll get there a lot faster if you work on the authentic human components... and a bit less on the carefully argued powerpoints.

Liam's absolutely right. In many companies too much of what is communicated is irrelevant to many employees. The problem is too few organisations ensure the information they share is put in a local context to make it meaningful for the people receiving the messages.

Business communicators are familiar with this problem. To start correcting it, communicators should be ensuring messages are presented to employees in the form of a narrative that explains the employees' role and the role of their immediate team mates in the success of the business. But we have to go beyond that and also need to reduce the volume of dry and uninspiring information cascade.

There will always be a need to cascade some information. But wherever possible we should be promoting dialogue, real face to face discussion between real people. We should personalise the delivery of messages and seek a response. It is important to communicate in such a manner because it ensures communication is two-way. It also serves to help embed the line manager as a trusted source of information for his team, while allowing employees' ideas and concerns to be raised at decision making level.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

End of the hiatus

For the last month blogging and tweeting has been pushed aside so I could throw myself into the task of finding a new comms role.  Despite contracting as a freelance for the last couple of years I came across a few permanent roles that were of interest to me.

After attending the multi-stage interviews, one company's position in particular stood out.  It is a role developing the internal communications function, which would provide me with some great challenges to tackle, while allowing me to work alongside some very friendly but  professional colleagues.

This morning I heard back from the agency handling the recruitment and was delighted to be offered the job.  I have accepted it without hesitation and I'm now looking forward to receiving the formal offer and agreeing a start date.  So blogging and tweeting will resume again soon.  Meanwhile, I'm taking the wife out to celebrate.

Friday, 2 October 2009

London Evening Standard communication failure?

Today's edition of The Times reports that the London Evening Standard will soon become a free newspaper. The story contains quotes from Alexander Lebedev, the majority owner and chairman of Evening Standard Ltd, and the paper's editor, Geordie Greig. The article is quite detailed in its coverage of the plan and the reasons for it.

However, has the Standard let down its employees by failing to tell them this news before sharing it with other media outlets? This comment below the story suggests at least some of the employees have not been told about this significant change...

Unacceptable politicisation of employee engagement

People Management magazine carries a story about an extraordinary claim, by a co-author of a government commissioned review, that better employee engagement at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) could have prevented the near-collapse of the bank. The substance of the intervention risks making the role of the internal communicator or employee engagement manager more difficult in the future. The story explains:

Nita Clarke, joint author of the MacLeod review, told delegates at a fringe event that while two years ago RBS had “some good things to say about engaging employees”, some senior strategists were far from engaged. “It was a very small group of people at the very top who were not engaged who had hijacked the investment and capital decisions. Perhaps the world would have been a different place if they had [been engaged],” she said.
It is a quite incredible claim. The story also reports that:
Lord Young, parliamentary under-secretary for business, innovation and skills, added that better employee engagement could have stopped “people just pursuing profit without thinking about sustainable growth”.
Nita Clarke may be director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA), but prior to that she spent six years working in 10 Downing Street for Tony Blair as an assistant political secretary advising the PM on trade unions. Before that, Ms Clarke worked for the Unison trade union. She is married to Stephen Benn, eldest son of Labour firebrand, Tony Benn. Ms Clarke's daughter, Emily, is the Labour candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham at the next general election. She is a political animal of the first order and her assertions are politically motivated.

The published comments go way beyond the brief of examining how engagement with staff can improve productivity. They represent an attempt to write a wholly new definition of employee engagement. The commonly understood definitions of employee engagement can be read here.

To follow Ms Clarke and Lord Young's arguments to their logical conclusion, their perception of employee engagement is a dialogue where the senior leaders of an organisation seek approval from employees for the company's strategy, and employees have the opportunity to challenge the direction charted by the leadership. It also presumes the employees would have dissented from a strategy that was intended to increase the performance and profitability of the organisation. It will be interesting to see if the full review provides any evidence for this.

Regardless, it is not any definition of employee engagement that I'm familiar with. It is not about engagement as we know it, but is an unwelcome political intrusion (regardless of the political stripe) into business and an effort to tell companies how they should organise themselves. Therein resides a ticking timebomb for communicators and employee engagement specialists.

Gaining the trust of senior leaders in an organisation can be difficult at the best of times. Work we do to influence and counsel leaders and decision makers, and to facilitate effective two-way communication, will only be made harder if business leaders perceive our efforts to be grounded in a politically motivated plan to weaken the leadership's grip on the strategic direction of the organisation and transfer a portion of control to employees.

Ms Clarke and Lord Young's comments represent an unhelpful attempt to make a workplace an openly party political environment by hijacking employee engagement issues for party political ends. Politicians of all parties, and their proxies in various agencies and organisations, should abandon any designs they have on politicising this essential form of communication. They risk doing more harm than good.


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