In his new book, The Credible Company: Communicating with Today's Skeptical Workforce, consultant and author Roger D'Aprix, ABC, IABC Fellow, recommends robust communication programs to meet the complex change communication needs of the workforce--particularly now, as the global financial crisis and recession threaten the well-being of companies and employees alike.
The following excerpts from The Credible Company high light points from the book's mare chapters. The first letters of each chapter title spell the acronym INFORMS, and each chapter discusses an area that communication professionals need to address to help their organizations reach employees.
The challenge for the communication profession is to determine how to use and manage information thoughtfully and efficiently and to deliver it properly to a skeptical audience--an audience already drowning in raw information in a time-pressured world where they are often stretched close to the breaking point. We need to be cautious about adding to that deluge of raw information as opposed to information that has been tested for insight, truthfulness, accuracy and value.
Technology, with all of its profound advantages, has opened up a Pandora's box and revolutionized the way we interact in organizations and the ways in which we will do business going forward. It has also raised expectations as well as perplexing questions about the proper role of the internal communication professional in relating to it and to effective information management and delivery.
Perhaps ... the mitigating factor that will allow us to manage both information and technology appropriately will be the business and human needs of its users. That's the real goal we should be pursuing.
Needs of the audience
Whatever else we can say about the communication process in organizations, it's clear that in the final analysis it's all about people and what they need and want to know. That sounds so obvious that it should not need to be pointed out, but it's amazing how often human needs for communication in organizations are ignored.
Truthful and effective communication requires, above all, an understanding of the audience. All communication strategy and tactics should focus on, as a first cause, what information the audience wants and needs....
What's interesting is the commonality in all of [the research on employee communication needs]. Intelligent communication professionals need to study such data and ensure that their counsel and their various strategies are consistent with the well-documented human needs on the job. In particular, that requires careful attention to communication as the holistic and dynamic process it really is in the workplace. It's not simply internal journalism; it's attention to a process that is closely allied with the entire issue of organizational leadership and the requirement to lead people responsibly and effectively if we want results.
It's tempting ... for the professional communicator to presume that effective face-to-face communication is none of her business. Those who define their responsibility as simply the keeper of employee media are especially prone to this view. The trouble is, employees rarely see such media, including the company intranet, as their primary communication sources in the company.
I often run focus groups in which I ask the participants to identify their primary internal and external communication sources for what is going on in the company, as well as company priorities.... It's always instructive that the initial responses all have to do with things like meetings, teams on which they serve, their bosses, coworkers, and other live-and-in-person sources. After several minutes, they may or may not identify the various company media as sources, and when they do it's usually with a dismissive tone.
Credibility, it seems, has much to do with human presence. And face-to-face communication is its most valuable technique....
In still another argument for greater openness in organizations, the technologists loudly proclaim that there is no alternative; that today's robust technology--so common in practically every organization--doesn't just facilitate information sharing, but actually makes it impossible not to share. Couple that, they say, with a generation that has grown up with Google and Yahoo! and the expectation of freely available information, and you're kidding yourself if you think that there's a choice. Or that any organization can maintain a climate of secrecy with its workforce even if it wished to.
Given the need to defuse the suspicions and fears of a skeptical workforce, greater openness could also prove to be a powerful antidote to that skepticism. In the Information Age, everyone in the organization has a need to know.
Organizational leaders tend to be conservative souls. How often have you heard one of them espouse that famous bit of folk wisdom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it?" My response to that homely bromide has always been, "How would you like to fly on an airline that lived by that slogan? 'Take Your Chances Airline--if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
Yet many CEOs and their colleagues would prefer to live by that simplistic slogan when it comes to communicating bad news or even to determining the proper role of the communication team. Some even have the quaint notion that the less said to employees about the business or leadership intentions, the better. Those are the folks who think internal communication should be mostly about service anniversaries, photos of the Christmas party in January, and a few grip-and-grin shots of the boss shaking hands with the latest person he or she wants to recognize....
About the only way that I know of to persuade reluctant senior leaders to face the music of change and dance is to gather the data that show just how serious things are. Times of stress and change offer perfect opportunities to look at communication strategy as well as to consider the proper mission of the communication function and its potential reinvention.
Within organizations it's important for people to connect with the marketplace story if their work is to be more than a routine and monotonous day-to-day experience. No business strategy makes complete sense unless it's told in the context of the marketplace. Historically, we have been fairly proficient in telling the what in organizations: Here is what we need to accomplish. We have made the following decisions. This is how we propose to proceed. We will keep you informed of results as we achieve them. And so on.
Where we have been deficient is in telling the other half of the story--the more important half. Here is why we are pursuing this particular strategy. This is why it is so important to our success. Here's why you should care, and here's what we expect of you if we are to achieve our collective goals. It's the telling and retelling of the what connected with the why that makes the marketplace story and line of sight come alive.
Internal communication strategy in the workplace is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts in the profession. Both corporate leaders and their communication advisors tend to misunderstand what communication strategy is all about. Too often they confuse it with a simple set of communication tactics and channels aimed at organizational problems as they present themselves. The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, writing in 490 BC, had it right: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." Too many organizational communication efforts are literally the noise before the defeat of the effort....
All organizations are superficially alike in a set of shared structural characteristics but vitally different in others, so what works in one place may well be a disaster in another. Also, communication is a complex leadership process that no one person owns or controls, because in the end it's all about individual perceptions. If you want to succeed with any communication strategy, you must be a collaborator with like-minded allies who contribute from their experience and knowledge to inform those perceptions as best they can. And, finally, be realistic in your expectations of success, which--contrary to common belief--is not "they lived happily ever after," but more like "they lived as well as they could with the knowledge that this is a complicated world where things don't always go your way, but at least you understand why things are the way they are."
Now is the time for communication professionals to look for new ways to inform a skeptical audience and to work with their leadership to create the kind of understanding that will make the company credible in a changing world. Organizations are not going to change their fundamental nature: They are private enterprises pursuing a set of goals they perceive as inherent to their survival and self-interest and to the needs of customers and shareholders. What organizational leaders must change is their view that communication "just happens" in a well-run organization. Instead, they must recognize the need to make it a deliberate and accountable system, like all of the other systems and processes in the organization.
Some form and degree of autocracy is likely to be their chosen leadership style in what will probably continue to be power-laden structures, although the survival instinct will inevitably cause them to make modifications and to engage in considerably more power sharing. The world will continue to be both a threatening place and a vital global economy in which they will need to make changes, however uncomfortable they may feel about them--changes that communication professionals need to rationalize and communicate.
The Credible Company will be the one that recognizes all of this, applies the INFORMS principles to get through to that skeptical employee audience, and efficiently moves human energy in pursuit of worthy goals.
by Roger D'Aprix, ABC
Roger D'Aprix, ABC, IABC Fellow, is a vice president of ROI Communication and an internationally known communication consultant, lecturer and author. He is also author of Communicating for Change: Connecting the Workplace with the Marketplace, and the IABC Knowledge Centre toolkits Win Senior Leadership Support and Improve Performance and The Face-to-Face Communication Toolkit: Creating an Engaged Workforce, available at www.iabc.com/knowledge.…