Tag Archives: best practice

The best and worst developments in employee communication

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Notting Hill

Looking back at the past 5, 10, 20 years, it’s interesting to dissect the forward and backward progression of the employee communication discipline in light of changes in business climate, management strategies and fads, technological advances and the emergence of societal trends at local and global levels.

Each ‘Scrummer will put up their own Top 3 Best and Worst in terms of trends and/or practices and then the games can begin.  So here’s mine:

The Top 3 GREATEST developments in employee communications in the past 10 (or so) years:

1.  The emergence of social media technology and user-generated content.  We all know top-down is not always the best internal communications approach, but it was always challenging to come up with other ways of peer to peer and bottom up that weren’t either too small to be really impactful or too expensive to sustain.  We all know that involving people in change that effects them is the best route to success, that people take ownership of the things that they help shape.  But again, often easier said than done. The rise of  the profile of “social media” has made it a lot easier to create effective alternatives to top-down.  Of course, social communication isn’t reliant on technology – but by Jove it has become a hell of a lot easier to do.

2. Storytelling. I debated about 5 different Top 3s and the recognition of the power of Storytelling won out.  Surprised me, too.  But in my experience, the primal human desire to tell and hear stories — whether in a 3 year old or a 90 year old – was long ignored and remains just as powerful as a mechanism now as it did when certain people were pioneering this 10 or more years ago and being ridiculed for being “Pink and fluffy quasi-psychological theorists.”  Storytelling – truly a best practice, regardless of how it’s implemented?

3.  The emergent revelation that, having cut costs and Six Sigma’d everything to death, communication matters, that internal and external communications are inextricably linked, and that internal is as commercially important as external.  After banging on about “joined up thinking” for years in pitches, work with clients, my book and posts dating back 3+ years, green shoots of evidence that alignment is beginning to happen are coming through everywhere – and not just in traditional “live the brand” and “internal launches” but actual strategic, cross-functional, inside-out alignment.  We still have a long way to go of course… but there is evidence of progress and I believe this is where the next “paradigm shift” (vomit, I hate that term) will happen in our profession.

The Top (bottom?)  3 WORST developments in employee communications in the past 10 (or so) years:

1.  The overshadowing influence of measurement-led approaches to employee engagement. We’ve beaten this to death in previous posts, but measurement seems to be edging back towards a more reasonable sense of priority and scale.  Of course measuring effectiveness and impact – both from an ROI and a risk mitigation perspective – is critical.  But spending equal amounts on measurement as on critical employee communications delivery is absolute madness.

2.  Internal communicators abandoning the strategic high ground and focussing on channel management and allowing the employee engagement space to be “divided and conquered” by HR, Change Management and Marketing. Somewhere along the line internal communications managed to surrender employee engagement to HR and employer brand to marketing or HR in many organisations, with the rationale that their job was packaging, air traffic control and channel management.  Big mistake that has had lasting repercussions and resulted in more messages and more noise, and less impact, in many organisations.

3.  The belief that technology (especially Intranets, most specifically those based on Sharepoint) can solve all their employee communication problems. An interesting foil to point 1 in my Top 3 list, but we have all seen companies where “We’ve communicated – it’s on the intranet” is a very real phenomenon.  Combine this with the marketing might of Microsoft and madness of crowds sheep like behaviour, we now often see “award winning” intranets that are unfit for purpose and failing to remotely deliver on their potential and promise. Echoes of our “best practice” debate apply here just as much as to employee engagement.

Follow up from Lindsay Uittenbogaard in The Hague

GREATEST DEVELOPMENTS:

1. The recognition of (most) leaders that actually, communication is important – even if that notion is still a bit woolly in the minds of many.   Internal communication generally isn’t seen as PR on the inside anymore. I would say that this has been our biggest step forward – caused by…

2. The credibility that communicators have established for their profession, so far – we could have perpetuated the idea that communication is a fluffy addition to real business by doing a crap job.  We should be proud of ourselves, folks.  We have earned our profession a credible place in the overall discussion.

3. The link between communication and knowledge sharing (with social communication and tools like SharePoint) helps connect information transparency with communication and business performance. I don’t think this crosses Kevin’s point that a major flaw of communicating via technology is a tick box mentality.  This is about creating clarity, which for me does not stop at traditional ‘managed media’ communication.  The sources and flows of communication are multiple and we’re on it.

THE TOP 3 WORST DEVELOPMENTS – quickly coming to mind are:

1. The failure of leaders to significantly invest in the development of communication competences in their managers and staff – we are all communicators but we’re not necessarily born that way.  Good communication practices of line managers and staff can arguably add the most value to business of all communication activities.

2. The failure of communicators to properly define the professional internal communication space to all relevant parties, so leaving still hoards of people who don’t really know how to interact with communicators or participate to their own benefit (links with point 1).  This is not exactly the converse of point 2 GREATEST DEVELOPMENTS, above – it is more that we tend only to focus on convincing our sponsors – not our broader stakeholders – what communication can be all about and the relevance of that to all.

3. The failure of leaders to recognize the benefits of a board-level-represented communication function – I echo Kevin’s point 2 WORST DEVELOPMENTS above.  Communication taken from the perspective of another discipline skews its application – in my mind away from the most value.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Place Stephanie/Stephanieplein

THE BEST

1.  Free Association for Internal Communicators

One of the weirdest moments of my career in internal communication took place in 2003, when I had the temerity to attempt to organize a “Lateral Communications Interest Group” under the IABC umbrella, using IABC’s own nascent social media tools.  Rather than support, encouragement, or assistance, I received a six month suspension for spamming and for unenumerated violations of the IABC ethics code, along with some tart sneers about how the chapter level was the “appropriate” place for such activities.

Today, LinkedIn alone has dozens of separate social media (today’s term for lateral communication) networks and dozens of internal communications networks (including our own fast-growing CommScrum group).  It’s no longer a requirement to ask permission from San Francisco to approach IABCers–or other communicators–around the world about shaping a new direction for our industry.

2. The Unthinkable is now Discussable

Even five years ago, even with abundant research saying that cascades and other control-centric communication tools were ineffective or harmful, the idea that communication flowed in anything other than a top-down direction was unthinkable in some quarters, and in others, still undiscussable.

While I think there is too much emphasis on the “media” side of the social communication revolution, that the social and lateral side of communication is  now open for business–and for open discussion with clients–is something worth sustained cheers.

3.  Leadership by Blogging (and Tweeting)

Internal communication is not neurosurgery, to paraphrase a phrase.  The major ideas, the major energies and major veins of activity can be shared well through a combination of leadership, persistence and good old fashioned writing.

That’s why the emergence of a solid internal comms blogosphere in the last couple of years, and the emergence of a tweetosphere willing to receive countless links to new articles and initiatives, has created a strong worldwide community floating and shooting ideas far more quickly than they could in a series of lunches, lectures, pricey conferences and chapter meetings.

WORST

In the aggregate, there is really one “worst”–the last stand of the Status Quo–fighting as hard as it can to deflect or parry the changes being wrought within the industry, and doing its utmost to deny oxygen to emerging leaders and experts.  In three acts:

1. “Employee Engagement” as a Measurement

It is not simply (as stated above) that there is too much measurement focus around “employee engagement”–it’s that measurement has allowed a two-way process (the way employees engage with employers) become a top-down, one-way measure (the extent to which employees are willing to contribute in excess of their compensation and any explicit commitment on the organization’s part).  Aside from creating an unsustainable gap in the cultures of these organizations, the persistence of such an approach to “employee engagement” is further reinforcing the last stand of top-down, one-way internal communication.

2.  “It’s all about MEDIA!!!”

The response of the incumbent IC industry–publishers, associations, agencies in particular–has been to focus on how cool, cheap and indispensible social media can be, particularly as an adjunct to existing top-down communication strategies.  In so doing, they attempt to sweep under the rug how the underlying shift towards social communication renders those strategies (and their supporting structures) obsolete.  They buy some time and fill lots of seats, but throw large numbers of people off track.

3.  Competence over Confidence

Not long ago, there was a huge furore in the industry about whether internal communicators were sufficiently “competent”, or in particular, whether they could complete a common suite of tasks and activities with wagging tails and bones held firmly in jaw.

That talk has seemed to be in abayance, but it’s had an underlying corrosive impact–in that the idea that an internal communicator’s value is derived from a basic level of tactical competence undermines that communicator’s willingness, and perhaps even standing and ability, to challenge  and influence strategic decisions.  Indeed, once the smoke clears from the current upheaval, the best thing the industry can do collectively is focus powerfully on raising and reinforcing the confidence of communication practitioners.

Dan Gray – Doin’ his thang in Riyadh

BEST

1. Erm… what Mike said. I nearly wrote ‘The emergence of the CommScrum’, which sounds way too self-congratulatory by half (in all seriousness, though, I think the community we’re developing here is a really special one and I, for one, have found pearls of wisdom in the comments threads here that I’m not seeing anywhere else). Let’s just say it’s what the CommScrum represents, and Mike’s first point covers that nicely.

2. “It’s all about communication.” One of said pearls of wisdom came from Geoff Barbaro in a comment on a previous post – that there isn’t a single field of human endeavour that doesn’t have communication as a critical component. When I studied at Ashridge (where “It’s all about communication” ranks alongside “It depends” as the ultimate stock answer for MBAs), I genuinely felt for the first time that the empathic skills and audience understanding people like us bring to the table was widely appreciated as a valuable strategic discipline.

3. Recognition of the importance of internal comms to external branding efforts – i.e. that (especially for corporate brands) it’s the proper branding of internal culture that begets a brand its authenticity. As KK mentioned in one of his recent posts on DTIM, we’ve had several clients who’ve had this light bulb go off, and it’s made for some really interesting and challenging work. They’re still in the minority, but it’s a start…

WORST

1. Erm… what Mike said again (Kevin too)! Of course we must demonstrate the value we add, but that does not necessary mean ROI, and it certainly doesn’t mean quantitative measurement of a universal “thing” called engagement. The persistence of the notion that this the only/best way to show ourselves as serious business people is corrosive and the single most significant barrier to the advancement of the profession, because it encourages…

2. Competence over confidence. I can’t argue with Mike’s second point either, and it’s a corollary to Kevin’s point on technology above. The idea that developing functional competence is the key to solving all your communication problems is equally flawed. In an increasingly complex, diverse and unstable world, it’s the ability to understand strategic context – to “join the dots” – that is infinitely more valuable. I still don’t see any of the professional associations grasping the interdisciplinary nettle.

3. The endless debate over definition of terms. I know Mike like’s to say that “with words we define our world”, and he’s right, but sometimes they are inadequate – even for people who communicate for a living. “Engagement” is such a subjective term – different for different individuals, groups and organisations; different even for those same people on different days – that trying to come up with catch-all definitions is to put a straightjacket around a concept that is much richer and more dynamic than words can properly express (a bit like “The Force”). So maybe we should stop trying – or at least concentrate on a more situational approach that defines engagement relevant to a particular set of circumstances.

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Three reasons why your “best practice” very probably isn’t

Dan Gray – CommScrum Riyadh

Kevin and I, in particular, have been engaging in some pretty serious rucking in recent comment threads on the subject of “best practice” and why – by definition – it isn’t. So we figured it was probably worthy of a post in its own right to tackle this thorny issue head-on.

Whilst it’s my turn to bat lead-off, I’m going to start by quoting the esteemed Mr.K, with one of his comments from the last CommScrum post, which gets right to the nub of the matter:

Where does “best practice” come from? Erm… innovation. It didn’t just fall off a tree.

Of course, that’s always been true. But it’s never been truer than now, for several reasons that deserve slightly closer scrutiny. Being a firm believer in the power of the rhetorical rule of three, I’m going to stick to what I see as the three “biggies”, and I’ll leave it to my fellow CommScrummagers, and to you, to add to them, embellish them or cut them down, as you see fit…

1) The pace of change

Quite simply, the shelf-life of any so-called best practice is shrinking as a function of the sheer pace of change. By the time it has become recognised as best practice by the masses, next practice is probably already half-way to superseding it. Today’s newspaper, as they say, is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper.

2) The degree of change

Interconnected with that is the degree of change, best described by reference to Clayten Christensen’s distinction between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovation. Sustaining innovation refers, essentially, to the incremental improvement of existing mainstream approaches, whereas disruptive innovation is the kind of rule-busting stuff that defines new space.

Not to bang the tired drumhead of Design Thinking again, but one of the things giving that movement massive traction is the realisation that we’ve pretty much Six-Sigma’d everything to death, to the point where quality and efficiency are mere table-stakes. Increasingly, next practice – in communications, just as in any other strategic/creative discipline – is not going to be defined by building incrementally on what’s already there, but by seismic shifts in practice.

3) The sources of change

A third interconnected component (and the most important of all, as I see it) is where the inspiration for next practice is coming from. The very existence and popularity of this blog is testimony to the fact that that inspiration is increasingly dependent on an inter-disciplinary orientation, not an intra-disciplinary one.

Again, not to unduly rake over old ground, but comments about the “closed shop” of professional associations – both in terms of defining what communication actually is, and in restricting access to new and different perspectives on how to do it more effectively – indicate that, if you’re only looking inwards for best practice, you’re probably missing out on a lot of really great ideas.

For example: my most enjoyable and successful project ever – one that the client is still raving about over two years on – is an employer brand project I worked on together with Kevin. The critical ideas that drove our approach, and the insights that underpinned the proposition came from three main sources:

Indeed, when I reflect on the books and ideas that have most influenced my thinking and practice over the last few years – any one of Marty Neumeier’s brilliant whiteboard overviews, Tim Brown’s “Change by Design” or James Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds”, among others – one thing becomes very obvious:

You won’t find the words “communication” or “engagement” anywhere in their titles.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Bayswater

Sounding a bit too much like a mutual admiration society for my liking, but thanks just the same.

The way I see it, much of the traction for and against “best practice” and its packaging and deployment comes from one of two prevailing mindsets that we can perhaps track back to the evolving (and we need to revisit this at some stage) Typology of Communicators from an older post:

Camp 1:  “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.”  Best practice is a safe, defensible refuge. I’d rather be 60% right than 100% out on a limb. If it comes from The Association and cost £499, it must be good.  You’ll probably find stacks of business books with engagement and communication in their titles adorning the bookshelves, and membership cards and certificates from one or more professional associations in their wallets and on their walls. Conference attendance is similarly about “employee communication and ______ (insert latest buzzword)” with the usual suspect speakers who are on tour, again, instead of doing actual innovative work in the field.   They tend to favour a certain discipline focus (journalism, human resources, marketing, IT, PR etc.)

Camp 2: “If I can download it from a site for £499 and plug it into an existing challenge, by definition its value is suspect.”  I’ll have a look and then adapt, butcher, or discard as I see fit.  You’ll probably find a lot of books without the word communication in the title on their bookshelves, as well as “past due” invoices from lapsed association memberships in their inbox.  The last conference they attended was “OpenSoho” – where lots of digital people in the UK converged to discuss the latest trends and cool thinking in the digital world.  Before that they were at a seminar on Sustainability presented by Interface Carpeting, Adnams etc. hosted by tomorrow’s company.  They tend to argue with their clients/CEOs, who often think they are expanding the brief beyond “communications”.  They have no loyalty to a discipline and are channel agnostic.

OK, I have a foot in both camps as do many of us.  But innovation is about connecting two (or more) things in a way that weren’t connected before.  “Best Practice” thinking resulted in mankind taking 4,000 years to put wheels on luggage.

But the point is, as Dan says, using “Best Practices” religiously results in zero progress and no new best practices.  This posting from Knowledge@Wharton could never have come from the traditional communication camp, and yet these ideas are brilliant and inspiring – and all about communication – and if 2 or 3 of us try them out, hey they might be tomorrow’s “best practice.”

And there are some “best practices” that probably do stand up to interrogation and scrutiny.  My point is they should be the starting point, not the end solution.

I also recently saw this, a great white paper on best practice vs innovation that is worth a read.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Magret de Canard

Agree with both of you, but I’ll go farther on a number of fronts:

1) Innovation: One of the best definitions of innovation that I’ve heard, so much I’ve forgotten it’s source, is that innovation occurs when successful ideas or concepts are combined from two different areas.

I know this from personal experience (having spent the last ten years in internal communication finding things I could apply from my previous ten years as a political consultant) and also from seeing innovations out in the world.  It’s not about building a better mousetrap–its about a mousetrap-vacuum cleaner that takes housecleaning to a new level.

2) “Best Practice” vs. Next Practice:  While I’ve previously sparred with those promoting “competence” as the key quality of the internal communicator, competence certainly has a place as a baseline.  Execution of “best practice” also falls into the “competence” scope, with perhaps a little creativity connected to choosing which “best practice” to use. But working for clients or bosses who insist on using “best practice” all the time can be a brutal experience–never allowing the space to develop modifications or rethink assumptions or, from artistic standpoint, to allow one to own the solution.

3) Social and Networked communication: given that the social and network dimension of communication is only beginning to be understood and considered acceptable to work with in corporations and on business challenges, there’s damn little best practice out there, and much of that often focuses on specific technology (how to use twitter) vs. the underlying strategy and theory (analyzing how twitter accelerates network growth and the speed of communication within networks).  In that case, reliance on best practice rather than original strategic thinking can lead to serious underperformance.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague

To echo the above, as Kevin says, Best Practice usually means proven, safe and defensible.  Finding Best Practice asks “What have people done before that reduces our risk; what can we do to ensure we’re not just making it up?”    And absolutely Dan, Best Practices age – and following the Best Practices of others can compromise innovation.

My brief tuppence here comes back to the requirement for unique communication approaches because each context to which communication is applied is absolutely unique.   There is no ‘Best Practice communication’ (unless, as Mike says – you are talking about basic competence aspects, like common features of great webpages).   Having an understanding of practices that have worked well in the past can only be advantageous to a new situation if they are viewed as a comparative guideline – a great start for new thinking.

It seems that we’re all on the same scrumming side here for a change 🙂

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