Tag Archives: internal communication

Time to Say Good Night to “Employee Engagement”?

Commscrum Belgium–Mike Klein

To be sure, the intentions behind the “employee engagement” movement of recent years were more-or-less honorable, to create working environments where employee participation was appreciated, and to ensure organizations used language that didn’t discourage such participation out of hand.

But as time went on, a prevailing definition for “employee engagement” came to indicate “the discretionary effort contributed by employees,” (as if there was such a thing as “non-discretionary effort” in organizations that benefit neither from slavery nor sleepwalking). Moreover, many in the internal communication industry leapt in as offering “employee engagement solutions” that could help generate extra-special-discretionary effort well beyond that warranted by what their clients were willing to reciprocate with.

Such efforts, in turn failed to protect many from outsourcing and recession.  The frequency with which I’ve heard ‘I was engaged, but I got fired’ from my fellow unemployed internal comms pros, indicates evidence of a perverse one-sided inversion of the original intent of “employee engagement”, one not lost on those who’ve survived those troubles.  And yet, not only is this deemed acceptable in some quarters, but the route suggested by many traditionally-minded folks in our industry (and in HR, to be fair) to move organizations beyond the layoffs, outsourcings and upheaval of recent years is, guess what, “more focus on ‘employee engagement’”.

No way.  Indeed, it’s time to kill the term “employee engagement” and spread its ashes all over Iceland.  To our industry, it’s become no less toxic than the term “sub-prime mortgage” in the finance world.

Don’t get me wrong. We need engagement all right.

Internally, we need “two-way, cards on the table, let’s come to grips with the new world of business’ engagement”.  We need a kind of internal engagement that openly addresses employee expectations about transparency and the viability of business strategies—and facilitates mutual recognition that employees are representatives of their businesses inside and outside working hours and need to conduct themselves accordingly.    And, for organizations to win, they need to create a kind of engagement that aligns the best things those organizations have to offer with the best things that employees (and other stakeholders) have to contribute.

We also need a kind of engagement that respects (and where apt, incentivizes) different kinds and degrees of engagement—so that if the goal isn’t to turn everyone into a smiling 20-year service award winner, but perhaps into innovators, change agents or even competent but temporary staff, the tone and policies of the an organization appropriately reflect this.

I’m not saying “disengage”—indeed, it’s time to engage.  Not capitulate, not self-flagellate, but really, deeply and powerfully engage. In as many directions as required.  And not hide behind a sweet-smelling but easy-to-see-through fig leaf called “employee engagement”.

Dan Gray – Commscrum Riyadh

For once, let me see if I can get in ahead of KK with a few views that I know we share…

Above all, there’s one line in this post that cannot be emphasised enough – “We need a kind of engagement that respects (and where necessary incentivises) different kinds and degrees of engagement…”

Amen to that. Context is everything!

There’s a reason that Treacy & Wiersema’s “value disciplines” continually top the unofficial Gray-Keohane (or is that Keohane-Gray?!) index of top management models. It’s that, in nailing a company’s colours to the mast of operational excellence, product leadership or customer intimacy, it forces the organisation to consider how they structure themselves accordingly.

The underlying dynamics, systems and processes – including those related to communication – are, or at least ought to be, completely different, depending on that choice. (It’s why one of Indy’s earlier comments about creating a seamless offering across comms and organisational consulting is absolutely spot on.)

Likewise, there’s a reason we repeatedly return to the subject of situational leadership. It ought to be self-explanatory that the kinds and degrees of engagement necessary vary dramatically between, say, a team or organisation in crisis mode versus one that is already highly-motivated and working well.

Anyone who peddles the myth that there is a universally applicable set of engagement drivers and “solutions” for improving business performance is, frankly, talking out of their hole!

Engagement is far less a process than it is a state of mind. It is, by definition, subjective and different for each individual and collections thereof. Some get their kicks from the freedom and opportunity to be geniunely creative; others are just stoked when their numbers add up!

One final thought – if we truly believe in the power of diversity (as all HR departments and organisations profess that they do these days), then it is also, by definition, in a constant state of flux. If we truly respect and value difference, then the group dynamic is redefined by each new member.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague

As Mike says, the original intentions were good – my understanding is that employee engagement was originally a way of involving staff in organizational developments so that they could contribute to and share ownership of the journey and the results.    Call me naive, but I don’t think there was ever any perverse thinking that purposefully twisted that good intention to squeeze the last energy out of people.  I just think employee engagement is difficult to implement and even more difficult to find sponsorship for.  A lot of people who try it haven’t seen best practice, don’t have the experience, warp their plans through compromise and simply mess up.

Engaging employees successfully is tricky because firstly, most big organizational decisions do not benefit from being discussed en mass, so its critical to identify the more detailed parts of strategic decisions that can benefit from the input of multiple perspectives and ideas.   Based on this then, secondly, once an employee engagement has programme been well designed (assuming for the sake of this discussion it is for a specific purpose, rather than as an ongoing mindset), it is even more difficult to implement that plan because staff and leaders alike are riddled with biases, political pursuits, motivations or criticisms that can color their views on what should change, could change, and how.   Their schedules are also a force to be reckoned with because at least the beginning of any engagement exercise has to be face to face.  Finally, if you can get your leaders fully behind this so that you have the resource and support that you need, and you’re coming close to a miracle.

I would guess that because so many well-meant attempts to engage employees have led to less than positive experiences and outcomes, the meaning of employee engagement has taken a negative spin.  Maybe we should be blogging about what works and how to get it right rather than about changing the name.

Dan writes about the importance of context and it has always struck me that, just like how the Myers Briggs Type Indicator tool breaks down personality characteristics into 16 traits, there must be a similar way of classifying communication contexts.  It would be great to see proven approaches to different communication challenges set out based on their various contextual differences.   Employee engagement would be one of those challenges well worth investing that prep time in – it is one of the more inspired strings to the communication bow, after all.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London

Nothing gets my back up quicker than someone coming in and challenging the definition of what “engagement” is: there’s a guy on the conference circuit who always begins his presentations with “It isn’t about engagement – it’s about involvement.”  As if involvement is somehow absent from everyone else’s definition.  So I agree with Lindsay, let’s not waste our time or anyone else’s splitting hairs about the definition.  I think we know what we are talking about here.

To me, as Mike says, engagement got slightly perverted by two issues.  The first was a belief that, thanks in no small part to the Measurement Mad, suddenly it was about moving numbers on reports up – if the “drivers of employee engagement” were identified, and actioned, and the numbers went up, people were therefore engaged.  The second was the continuing lack of joined-up/cross-silo cooperation among internal functions — so “engagement” from the HR perspective tended to be all about The Gallup Q12 and making sure the employee experience was positive; while from the Brand and Marketing side of things it was all about wthere you had Brand Champions, Sideliners, Mavericks, or Major Losers (you know, the 4-quadrant model of who was and wasn’t engaged in living the brand and delivering the right experience to the customer).  Seldom did the ‘twain meet.  That ties into Mike’s point:  most of the benefits are pointed inward (the business benefits of employees liking coming to work) or outward (the business benefits of employees focussed on customers), all of which benefits the organisation … but also ends up looking like a  Mexican standoff.

I don’t think the focus on business benefits is a bad thing at all; it’s how you get resource released to do what we do.  What needs to happen is a more holistic view and a disciplined (that’s right Dan: a Value-Disciplined) approach to it that all points inexhorably to one thing.  What that thing is depends on what the business is trying to achieve and how it is going to get there (and more often than not you’ll need your people to get there so why on earth would you separate them?).

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Commscrum and “Free Associations”—A Conversation

In this posting, the men and the woman of CommScrum discuss their short history, their commitment to free discussion, and the reactions they have received from unexpected places…with real-time conversation from the ethers of Skypechat:


Mike: Here’s how I’d like to start:  So, we’re into our fourth month of CommScrum–where we promised to break some taboos and challenge conventional wisdom–how do we think we’re doing?

Lindsay:  I think we’ve produced some good stuff and had some fun doing it.  The format’s been easy and the interaction we get is great so I can see this going for a while.

Kevin:  I like that we have brought out some sacred cows and if not slaughtered them then at least grilled and seasoned them a bit.  But we could still be more challenging.  I don’t want to become too polite or we’ll turn into what we are trying to distance ourselves from.

Dan: We have established a core of engaged folk (Sean Trainor, Sean Williams, Debbie Hinton et al) on both sides of the pond who like what we have to say, and are happy to chime in on a regular basis. Now its a question of how we widen the net further, in my book.

Mike: To be fair, we’ve clearly drawn blood a bit though, which I think we should acknowledge ourselves for.  We have one core principle guiding us, which a belief that there is nothing or no one in the communication world whom we can’t challenge, so long as we challenge on substantive grounds.

Kevin: And I don’t think drawing blood is an objective in itself.  It’s just an outcome of focusing on things that need to change in our profession if we are to remain relevant and innovative.

Mike:  One thing we’ve identified that’s crucial—is that there seems to be all-pervasive element of our profession’s culture that’s holding us back–a belief not only in hierarchy for its own sake, but that those in hierarchies hold their positions by right, making it wrong, impolite and even treacherous to challenge them publicly.

Kevin: Indeed.  We are at a sort of crossroads in terms of professionalism and how we associate – with an unprecedented range of options available to us. In the UK alone we have CIPD, CIPR, CiB, as well as EACD and IABC internationally.  As our profession has specialised, so has it fragmented.  It’s actually becoming hard to decide where to commit your time and energy in terms of best practices, next practices, networking and so on.

Mike:  Even though Commscrum is in its infancy, I think we have carved out a place in this fragmented world where comms pros who think the industry needs an ideological shakeup can connect with like-minded pros.

Kevin: Agree.  I’m getting lots of positive feedback that CommScrum is a place to have open conversations, rather than polite inwardly-focused chats behind closed doors.  I have had the opposite experience from IABC however and sort of drifted away – partly because of work pressures but because I felt it had become insular.

Lindsay:  Lets not forget that the IABC is a resource that offers a lot more where there is a critical mass of local and regional members that can float beneficial events and offer great networking opportunities. – i.e. North America.  Over there, it’s basically a big club for communicators complete with staff, accreditation and annual conferences – take it or leave it.

Dan:  Where I see myself getting value from any one of these sources is in uncovering alternative perspectives that encourage me to think differently, though. I certainly don’t get that from IABC these days.  In fact, I’ve encountered the opposite, because of the views we have expressed about IABC on Commscrum before.

Mike:  Are you talking about the email you received from a regional IABC officer expressing dissatisfaction with previous mentions of IABC in Commscrum postings?

Dan:  Yep – I’m headed out to Saudi next week for a 9-month contract, and I’d asked him if he knew anyone out there – a pretty simple and innocent request. Not only did he make it very clear he was unimpressed with my “recently expressed views”, he said he’d only help me network with IABC members in the Middle East if I renewed my membership. He even said – and I quote – “hey, nothing’s free these days.” Unbelievable!

Kevin: Wow. Yeah … I think sometimes people forget they are volunteers on these “boards.”  I was one of them!  I mean, it’s not like the elections are ever opposed and people are clamouring for roles.  Quite the opposite in my experience.

Mike:  But ironically, IABC’s own “Code of Ethics” calls for professional communicators to understand and support the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas, and to act accordingly.

Lindsay:   No denying that.  We Commscrummers – and anyone else who wants to share their professional views should be able to do that without reprimand.  I like being part of Commscrum because it stands for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and we don’t pretend to always be right.  We float ideas so our readers can shoot ’em down.

Dan: It’s a difference between an “instructional/right answer” focus (IABC) and a “thought leadership/chew on this” focus (Commscrum)

Mike:  IABC doesn’t have a monopoly on ‘right answers’, and I’m afraid it is missing the boat on the biggest issues facing us all right now.  IABC has some massive choices to make as we move into the social communication era–where democracy will confront hierarchy like never before, internally, in the industry, and in the business and organizational worlds as a whole.  To be sure, IABC fills a great social role in North America where communicators are dispersed, but it’s not needed for that in Europe. Germany in particular is getting along fine without any IABC involvement whatsoever.

Kevin: To be fair, I think IABC Chair Mark Schumann is spiritually “one of us” – he gets all this.  His challenge, and his successor’s, will be overcoming IABC’s propensities toward introspection and inertia.  And you can’t generally overcome inertia without some disruption.  There’s the rub. The thinking that got us here is not the thinking that will get us out of here.

Mike: What I see–IABC has great members–everywhere, Europe, NA, Asia.  It has some smart leaders, some real lions (like my buddy Ned Lundquist in particular), and does some good stuff.  It needs to keep doing the good stuff that informs and strengthens us as practitioners.

Lindsay: Absolutely.  Let’s keep things in perspective.  Some people get a lot out of it – but looking at it another way, the more introspective IABC becomes, the more people will seek information and truth from other sources – like Commscrum.  We’re all players in this evolution.

Kevin:  Let’s go to another example though.  IABC flew Mark Schumann over to Europe talk about employer brands.  That’s great, but, um, we happen to have some employer brand experts in Europe, thank you very much.  And as good as Mark is, there’s no blue water between him and say Simon Barrow.  Why didn’t they invite Simon? Certainly his perspective and experience is more relevant to a European audience.  Even I did employer branding for Coca-Cola and BP.  We aren’t exactly lightweights over here.  But I “left the IABC flock”, so it seems am persona non grata.  And my employer doesn’t sponsor IABC either. Yet my practice is officially launching in India next month, three offices of employee communications pros, then China.  And I don’t see IABC there at all.  It’s a real problem.

Lindsay:  What do you mean?  It’s a problem that they haven’t grown to cover the entire planet?  They have 14,000 members…

Kevin: But that’s mathematical – 50 states plus say an equivalent 5 in Canada, event with 100 people per region you hit 5,500 pretty quickly. The you get some large densities et voila.  It’s a problem that they claim “international” yet 90% of the members are on one continent.  Many of them presenting on cross-cultural, international communication issues when in truth their experience is working within a North American MNC.  As a long-term expat I have real problems with that.  It’s like being named the “World Champions” in American Football…

Dan: And emerging markets can, and do, leapfrog a lot of the incremental-competence-improving stuff that holds back the profession.

Kevin: I think we can’t over-emphasise this issue.  The equivalent is people in India and China who have gone from no phone to iPhone – never had a land line or a cruddy old brick.  That is the shift we are looking at.  Social media isn’t a channel; not something you learn about at a conference; you just do it.

Mike: Or, in Germany’s case, going from “newsletters and posters” to white-hot social media without getting mired in “employee engagement.”

Kevin: Precisely.

Mike: Nevertheless, IABC (and certainly its loyal members) don’t want to find themselves on the losing side.  Competent, confident ideological neutrality—that’s where IABC needs to position itself if it’s to thrive in the new environment.

Kevin: Is there a role for the “professional communicator” in 5 years time?  Assuming so, how should we organize ourselves?

Mike: That raises a further question–is IABC worth reshaping, or does it need replacing?  For example, in terms of industry infrastructure,  the IC group in Germany, IK_Community has 1000 members, no dues, and is totally organized through social media.  Melcrum and Ragan have followings in the tens of thousands for online and offline offerings alike.

Dan: As for ideological content, where we fit into the business picture is grounds for lots of discussions—for example, the words ‘brand’, ‘communication’, and ‘business’ put in front of the word ‘strategy’ are actually the same thing.

Kevin:  Agree, and I won’t bang on about multispecialism again here.  Another question – does IABC become a market shaper or a market maker?  I suspect the latter or fade into irrelevance.  I mean CIPR and CIPD are already making pretty strong inroads in the UK as well.  But IABC isn’t going to fade, it has such a strong North American footprint.  And again it has so much that is positive about it.  It just frustrates me, I guess… in my heart I feel it could be dominant if it could only shift its gaze from its own navel…

Mike: Maybe there’s a need for a “matrix” approach—we keep the “associations” as support infrastructure (skills training, accreditation, access to other members etc.), but the thought and commercial leadership moves to “movements” and “tribes” of like minds,  and small networks–perhaps even acting and competing as virtual firms.

Not fragmentation, tribalisation!

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