Strategic Comms #46: Organizational Talk Starts with Employees

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(This is the 46th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

In today’s knowledge economy, leaders need to be able to leverage the value of their employees.  Therefore, the top-down, command-and-control, one-way communication that prevailed in the industrial age when the demands of employees were limited to rote tasks are no longer sufficient.

Today, most companies depend on the intellectual and creative talents of their employees to succeed. This paradigm shift has necessitated a new way of communicating with employees, one that is characterized a collaborative, two-way conversation.  In their book, Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations, Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind define this new source of organizational power as organizational conversation.  In exploring how some companies have tapped this potential, Groysberg and Slind have identified four elements of organization conversation: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion and intentionality.

Intimacy refers to reducing the institutional and spatial distances between senior executives and their employees.  This is fostered by listening to employees at all levels of the organization and learning what’s happening at the front lines of their companies.  While company intranets and blogs can help narrow this gap, it is best closed by face-to-face communication.  For example, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd., India’s third-largest oil company, utilized vision workshops as an opportunity to engage employees on this level.

Interactivity entails enabling two-way conversation, or dialogue, to occur.  Though dialogue can be aided by technology such as emerging forms of social media, interactivity needs to be reflected in the company’s culture as well.  As a communications company, Cisco integrates many of its products into its operations including TelePresence, the company’s video-conferencing technology and its Integrated Workforce Experience platform, a Facebook-like intranet.  In addition, John Chambers, the company’s CEO, communicates regularly via his blog called On My Mind.

Through inclusion, employees are encouraged to develop content to help the company tells its story.  This can take various forms including blogging and social media, and essentially creates effective brand ambassadors for the company.  At EMC Corporation, the world’s largest computer-storage provider, the company’s internal social networking site called EMC|One serves as a means for employees to communicate and share expertise with each other.  However, the company also encourages its experts to share their expertise both internally and externally through their own personal blogs.

And, intentionality involves directing the flow of communication so that it aligns with a company’s strategic objectives, thereby closing the loop on conversation to keep it from being open-ended.  This requires educating all employees about the company’s strategy and the business reasons behind it.  This also necessitates ensuring that employees are aware of their roles in advancing that agenda and allowing them to contribute to the development of the company’s strategic vision.  Kingfisher PLC, the world’s third-largest chain of home improvement stores, developed a unique type of business conference for its senior leaders whereby they exchanged ideas in a virtual marketplace.  The event was not only intended as an opportunity for leaders to learn from each other but also to introduce them to and align them with the company’s new strategic vision.

Groysberg and Slind state that the promise of talk is that it provides a better way to lead organizations now that the old model no longer works.  They also state that it’s not necessary to dot all four of the I’s to begin powering your organization with this new model.  At Saint Consulting, our leaders try to maintain a start-up culture, where conversation is characterized by all of the four I’s.

To that end, a few of the tools the company employs include an intranet for company news, information and knowledge management; a real-time conversation feed called Chatter through the company’s CRM program Salesforce.com; and a company-wide video-conferencing system.  Further, Mike Saint, our CEO hosts frequent Ask Mike calls, whereby employees can submit direct or anonymous questions for him to answer via video-conference.  Leaders also encourage employees to contribute material to the company’s blog called The Saint Report, publish articles and promote the firm in other forums.

For developers, we recommend incorporating these I’s both so you can lead your organization effectively and so your employees can become your evangelists in the community.  According to Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, a public relations firm, “the average employee is as much as three times more credible than a CEO as a source of information about a company.”

Thus, promoting talk within your organization cannot only build trust internally, it can build trust externally as well.  So, as you start to identify the stakeholders of your development proposal for education and outreach purposes, employees should be first on that list.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email Eagan@tscg.biz

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