Understanding the challenges of “The New Workplace”

Image credit: zackography.com

Image credit: zackography.com

In my previous blog I talk about the problems faced by leaders in trying to motivate a multi-generational workforce with widely differing personal goals and career aspirations.  The generational differences were well illustrated in episode 1 of Radio 4’s new series The New Workplace. If you didn’t catch it this week, I highly recommend tracking it down on BBC iPlayer: (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0656f2d).

The question the series explores is: Can the relatively low paid, low skilled jobs the UK’s famously flexible labour market has generated in abundance deliver the productivity and growth needed for future prosperity?

The soundbites about the UK’s work environment at the start of the programme paints a depressing picture:

“…low productivity, well below its potential…”
“…unpaid internships; zero hours contracts…”
“…high skilled jobs shrinking; low skilled jobs increasing…”
“..a lack of key skills at all levels..”
“..the skills of our 16-24 year olds are no better than our 55-64 year olds…”

Presenter Michael Robinson looks for answers to the above question within the Whitbread business empire. It is easy to see Whitbread as a microcosm of the UK economy – their roots in manufacturing (brewing), but now exclusively in the hospitality and services industry, owning brands such as Costa Coffee, Premier Inn and Beefeater Restaurants. Whitbread, with a global workforce of 45,000 managed by a leadership team of just 60, effectively illustrates the impact that technology has had on the size and shape of large organisations, with junior employees taking on more and more responsibility, but at much lower pay than their middle management predecessors, which appears to be a dying breed.

People expect far less from their employers than they did a generation ago”, says Ewart Keep, professor of education, training and skills at Oxford University.  Older employees have learnt this from bitter experience. The younger have never known to expect more. It’s no wonder that employee engagement is such a hot topic for so many employers, and for Whitbread in particular, who are keen to reduce the 50% staff turnover that is such a drain on a business’s productivity and performance.

Listening to this programme, it’s clear that the businesses that will succeed in this challenging and fast evolving environment will need to be agile, open-minded and pragmatic. Support functions such as HR and Internal Communications have an increasingly pivotal role to play in achieving alignment between corporate and individual goals and aspirations.

Read Michael Robinson’s article about episode 1 of The New Workplace.

Posted in 21st century workplace, career opportunities, Change, Employee Engagement | Tagged , | Leave a comment

‘Tell me’ versus ‘show me’ – overcoming the limitations of the spoken word.

Image credit: Mauro Parra-Miranda

Image credit: Mauro Parra-Miranda

Sally Magnusson’s book Where Memories Go is the story of her mother’s fight to retain her grip on her articulate self. Mamie Baird Magnusson was regarded as one of the finest journalists of her generation. Her daughter’s book combines an evocative and deeply personal memoir with a manifesto and a call to arms against a disease (dementia) which is fast becoming the scourge of the 21st century.

In her book, Sally Magnusson seeks insights from a range of experts and sources to illustrate society’s response to how we treat older people, how we can face one of the greatest social, medical, economic and moral challenges of our times, and what it means to be human.

One literary reference is a description of how memory can be seen to influence all aspects of an individual’s life from Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children: “(memory) selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

This idea of memories as a lens through which current events are filtered played into another stream of thought that was preoccupying me: the seeming impossibility of a leader’s ability to inspire and motivate an entire workforce.

Without doubt, internal communications practitioners today spend a fraction of the time they used to crafting speeches, emails, newsletters to be delivered in the leadership’s name to the entire workforce.  However, Accredited Business Communicator Shel Holtz claims employees still want/need to hear from their senior leaders and a huge investment is still made by organisations in events to enable this.

As IC practitioners  work with the leadership to develop the format and messaging for these ‘events’, we are increasingly aware of the wide number of factors that will influence how people hear and respond to such communications:

  • People are motivated by their own personal values set which may differ in significant aspects to the corporate values being referenced, either overtly or subliminally.
  • Career aspirations / expectations of different generations and, indeed, of different groups within generations, vary enormously.
  • People are more or less trusting, more or less cynical depending on their own career path / experience of the organisation.

Plus this one as highlighted by Salman Rushdie:

  • People interpret based on their own contextual experience.

Consequently, it appears to me that the only realistic objectives for any widely disseminated corporate messaging should be limited to:

  • providing clarity of direction
  • instilling confidence in the organisation’s ability to achieve/progress towards a stated goal
  • creating a springboard for others across the organisation to build on

The effectiveness of a leader’s written or even spoken words is limited by external factors (attention span, ‘noisy’ environment, choice of delivery channel) as well as the internal characteristics outlined above.

However, when a leader’s behaviour continuously reflects and reinforces the messaging, (s)he can move beyond the realm of providing clarity and confidence, into the realm of motivation and inspiration. Which is, presumably, where most leaders aspire to operate.

Posted in Authentic communication, Business Leadership, communication channels, Corporate Communications, Corporate Values, Employee Engagement, Internal communications, Leadership Behaviours, People management / motivation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Four things internal comms and marketing comms can learn from each other

The more we share, the more we haveIn my previous post The Yin and Yang of Corporate Messaging, I referenced Shel Holtz’s article that listed 11 good reasons to keep employee communications as a distinct function, separate from external communication functions.  In this follow-on post, I highlight four areas where internal comms can learn from marketing comms to gain more credibility with the C-suite, and four areas where marketing comms can and should be tapping into internal comms particular areas of expertise.

What internal comms (IC) can learn from marketing comms (MC):

  1. Data analysis and audience segmentation
    Years before IC recognised the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all approach to employee comms, data analysis and audience segmentation were the bread and butter of marketers. Their awareness of and response to the customer insights that could be gained from the explosion of data as the world turned digital are key drivers behind organisations’ desire to get to grips with the big data phenomenon.
  2. Return on investment (ROI)/research-based measurement
    While a C-suite’s obsession with ROI can be counter-productive, this is an area where, for too long, IC assigned it to the “too difficult” box. IC’s reluctance to get to grips with the complexities and subtleties of measuring hard-to-define outcomes such as employee engagement and change readiness is understandable.  There’s no doubt, however, that the lack of hard metrics on how IC is helping the business to achieve strategic goals has impacted the function’s ability to move from the ‘nice-to-have’, into the ‘essential function’ category.
  3. The language of business
    Most of a marketing department’s activity is assessed and evaluated in terminology used every day around the C-suite – brand exposure, product sales, profitability etc. The C-suite fully understands how marketing contributes to the success of the business. For too long IC’s objectives and contribution were insufficiently linked to the strategic objectives of the business. The same argument is happening all over again as HR and IC try to quantify the value of employee engagement in terms that the C-suite will buy into.
  4. Accreditation
    None of the IC training programmes has the stature and credibility of the Chartered Institute of Marketing or Professional Certified Marketer. It’s rare that the JD of a senior marketing role will not require a relevant qualification, whereas equivalent roles in IC do not yet have any globally recognised certifications. Even fairly senior IC roles are still being recruited from non IC backgrounds. New training programmes such as the IoIC Accreditation Framework are a big step in the right direction, but it’s going to take years to gain the professional status and stature of the CIM.

What marketing comms (MC) can learn from internal comms (IC):

  1. Employee engagement
    Holtz correctly says that employees still want/need to hear from their senior leaders. IC practitioners know however that, without line managers’ support in a communication cascade, successfully aligning the workforce behind any strategic initiative is going to be almost impossible.  Engaged employees are a company’s best advocates. The converse is also true and it’s the line managers who can turn a corporate message into a relevant, persuasive dialogue that will engage team members and also inform the direction of travel for a better outcome for all.
  2. Authenticity
    Employees’ knowledge of the business and of the personalities and reputation of their leaders means that they recognise spin and subtext even before a sentence has been completed. They are the hardest audience in the world because the expectations and pressures of today’s workplace have never been higher so the least they can expect from their leaders is honesty. IC practitioners know this and need to be able to hold the leaders to account.
  3. Substance over style
    IC may be the one function where a communication that looks too ‘designed’ can work against the message. In times of headcount reductions and pressure to make savings, employees can resent any hint of time and money being spent needlessly. For IC, the message, the channel and the timing are all infinitely more important than the smart-looking design.
  4. Employees as brand advocates
    IC practitioners are both members of the workforce and a touchstone for engaging the rest of the workforce. Day in and day out, the IC function is accessing and interrogating formal and informal networks and channels across the organisation to assess attitudes and responses to latest developments. It is IC who is best placed to mobilise the workforce as brand advocates, and it is IC who will first detect if there is anything going on that is constraining employee advocacy.

These are my four crossover learning opportunities between the internal and external comms functions. What do you think?

Posted in Authentic communication, communication channels, Corporate Communications, employee advocacy, Employee Engagement, Internal communications | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Marketing and internal communications – the yin & yang of corporate messaging

Image credit: DonkeyHotey

Image credit: DonkeyHotey

In this blog I have previously written extensively about the future of internal communications and where it should sit within an organisation for maximum effectiveness.  (See The Future of Internal Comms. Is there one? and Internal comms – Poor relation no more? among others.)

I found myself revisiting this debate recently from a slightly different angle as I tried to articulate the differences between marketing communications and internal communications as technical specialisms. In Poor relation no more? I anticipated that “…there is going to be an ever greater blurring of the lines between internal and external comms…” and that the success of an organisation will increasingly depend on the advocacy of its employees so “ … it is more critical than ever to ensure that internal and external messaging is aligned and consistent…”.

Despite this blurring and need for close alignment, I am not predicting that one specialism will be subsumed by the other any time soon. In February, Accredited Business Communicator Shel Holtz explained his belief that “no organizational communication is as important as employee communication.”  Holtz’s article listed 11 good reasons to keep employee communications as a distinct function, separate from external communication functions. These were:

  1. Employees almost always become a second-class audience when PR is responsible for communicating to them
  2. Employees are an equal audience to other, with distinct communication needs
  3. The models and metrics for employee communications are different
  4. While the annual Edelman Trust Barometer consistently confirms that CEOs are among the least credible spokesperson outside the organisation, employees do actually want to hear from their business leader
  5. Employee communicators are best suited to facilitate multi-directional communication
  6. It’s usually not a good idea for employees to learn company news from secondary sources
  7. Establishing channels for employee knowledge and information sharing is not an external communicator’s strong point
  8. Most external communicators are unfamiliar with a lot of internal communication channels and tactics
  9. Companies that communicate effectively with employees are four times more likely to have higher engagement levels
  10. Strategic employee communications accounts for multiple internal networks and channels that are not even on the PR function’s radar
  11. Internal communications is the organisational central nervous system; when it works well, it makes the external communications job easier.

Holtz most convincingly articulates the case for maintaining a discrete internal comms function.  The truth is, you can always tell when an external comms specialist has written an internal comms piece and vice versa. The skill sets may be similar but the mind sets are very different and it’s one of those situations where you just can’t fake the real thing.

Obviously, close collaboration between all comms functions is essential to ensure that the messaging is aligned and consistent and that both internal and external functions are achieving optimal results. In addition to the desirable day-to-day collaboration, there are undoubtedly areas where internal comms can learn from marketing comms to gain more credibility with the C-suite. Likewise, there are other areas where marketing comms can and should be tapping into internal comms’ particular areas of expertise.  In my follow-on post I’ll be suggesting four areas where internal and marketing comms can learn from each other.

Posted in Business Leadership, communication channels, Corporate Communications, employee advocacy, Internal communications | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Everyone’s talking digital transformation, but what does that really mean?

digital-388075_1280There are those who find the digital revolution-in-the-making the most exciting opportunity to shake the world of commerce since the invention of the internet. There are others who find it scary, overwhelming and/or mystifying. And (many?) others who find it all a complete turn-off.

A better way of defining the camps might be to say that there are those that get it, and those that don’t.  And despite, or more probably because of, all the noise and focus on the subject, I would hazard that the only ones who really get it are already digital aficionados. The people who need to be convinced, converted, engaged, have largely given up even trying to understand how digital might impact them/their jobs.

There is a number of reasons for this apathy. You only have to look at the sea of recruitment ads seeking Digital Transformation leaders or subject matter experts to realize that there is no common definition of what is digital. Additionally, the job descriptions, as you would expect, all position the role of digital as the great white hope of the future. But what does that imply about the value and future of the non-digital model, in which the majority of the workforce currently operates?

It may be that the future operating model of many businesses will become increasingly driven by digital capabilities, however research conducted in late 2013 by MIT Sloan Management Review and Capgemini Consulting revealed that “a mere 7% of executives said that their company’s digital initiatives were helping them to launch new businesses. And only 15% said digital was helping them to create new business model.”  For business leaders wanting to engage their employees and customers in their digital aspirations, the moral of this story seems to be “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

As background to the subject of this blog, I’ve found some very good articles about the role and positioning of digital.

The article by Manchester-based consultancy Discerning Digital entitled What’s the difference between IT and Technology used a simple but effective analogy to help the layman understand the relationship between the two and provides a good, basic introduction to the whole subject.

An HBR article published in January this year entitled The Best Digital Business Models Put Evolution Before Revolution was a much less excitable, more balanced and therefore more engaging article than 90% of those written about the opportunity of digital.

I have recently moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands where I need a license before I can ply my trade as a communications practitioner. While I wait to find out if my application for a license has been successful, I’ve been reading up on the “Digital Jersey” initiative. The stated purpose of Digital Jersey is:

“….to act as an accelerator for the digital economy and as an accelerator
for a digitally enabled society. The digital economy includes the digital sector
itself and the application of technology across all sectors

As a communicator and someone who has been involved in a number of digital initiatives over the past few years, I have re-read this Purpose Statement and dipped in and out of their dedicated website but have no real understanding of the Digital Jersey vision and their route map to achieving the vision. Maybe if I get my license, I can help address this!

I’ve mentioned a couple of articles I found helpful. An article in techie e-magazine ZDNet called Everyone is ‘going digital,’ but just what does that mean? appeared to be good background reading for this blog. The best bits came at the beginning and the end. In the opening paragraph, the author references a useful acronym created by business and technology services conglomerate Cognizant as their definition of digital: SMAC – Social, Media, Analytics and Cloud. Evidently needing to add his insights rather than simply plagiarise the Cognizant definition, the author spoils it with the proposed addition of two more aspects – Consumerisation of IT and big data – big, made-up sounding word and more jargon = big turn-off. However, the bit of the article that particularly resonated with me was his conclusion:

To understand digital, you have to understand the “why.”

For anyone involved in launching, promoting or even considering a digital initiative, this is a good point to keep in mind.

Posted in business jargon, Corporate Communications, digital, digital transformation, Employee Engagement, Future trends, People management / motivation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Being innovative is not limited to innovators.

Created by Libby Levi for opensource.com

This is a slight reinvention of an idea proposed in a book I have just finished reading: “Without Their permission” (subtitle: “How the 21st Century will be Made not Managed”) by Alexis Ohanian – co-founder of Reddit.com. 16 months after graduating from the University of Virginia, with the sale of Reddit.com to Conde Nast, Alexis was a millionaire at the age of 23. Now 32, Alexis has influenced and inspired more people than I have throughout my 25+ years as an internal communications professional … and that includes roles at the heart of global organisations with over 200K employees.

What Alexis actually said was “Being entrepreneurial is not limited to entrepreneurs”. He wrote the book as “a blueprint for startuppers and a manifesto for the potential of the internet to empower individual entrepreneurs and reshape the economy without traditional gatekeepers” (Todd Bishop on GeekWire.com). In Alexis’ own words the point of all internet-related activity, including his book, should “…aim to make world suck less” (sic). It is an accessible, potentially life-changing, certainly opinion-changing read for just about anyone. Even me – a self-confessed technophobe and Luddite.

A previous blog of mine lauded author Andrew Keen who is described on Amazon as “…the anti-Christ of Silicon Valley…a dot com apostate” and who was scathing in the role played by sites such as Reddit on the decimation of traditional news media.  Like the Kirkus Review of “Without their Permission” I too find Ohanian’s arguments concerning intellectual property rights unconvincing and side with Keen on the hidden dangers posed by what he has called “The Cult of the Amateur”.

However, despite having never had the slightest wish to be an internet entrepreneur, I found Ohanian’s book a riveting read and, while so doing, had a revelation about why so many businesses fail in their ambition to instil a culture of innovation throughout their organisation.

Innovation is the aspiration of so many businesses that I daresay you’d struggle to find a set of value statements that doesn’t mention it in some form or other. Many organisations, in my experience, seem to define innovation as a state of mind that needs to developed and nurtured through the creation of an innovation-friendly environment. Even Google’s 20% rule implied (before they killed it off) that innovation is something that occurs outside your day-to-day job.

The realisation I came to when reading Without Their Permission is that, just as the internet gives everyone with access to a computer the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, the ability to be innovative is equally democratic.

I certainly don’t see myself as an innovator. However, I’ve been involved in internal communication for nearly 3 decades, I love what I do and I’ve never stopped relishing the constant variety of challenge and change. I’ve worked in a large number of industries and sectors and have been privy to seeing firsthand how a wide range of leadership teams think and function. As a result of my experience and interest I’ve regularly been the driving force behind introducing new channels and different ways of presenting strategic initiatives to different audience groups.

The majority of innovation is not the single, life-changing idea, but the series of small changes and challenges continuously clambering over old boundaries into new territory. Innovation comes from anywhere; from naïve questions that reveal the futility of yesterday’s modus operandi, to the lightbulb moments of subject matter experts.

As Ohanian puts it “The future of innovation will be made, not managed.”

Posted in Corporate Values, Culture, Future trends, Innovation, Internal communications, Social media | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is honesty always the best policy?

i_cannot_tell_a_lieAnyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I’m a firm advocate of honesty in the workplace. I think honesty is the least we should expect from our leaders and, to be frank, in these days of hyper-transparency, the chances are that any lies, fabrication or spin will, sooner or later, come back to haunt you.

Does honesty require a “full disclosure” approach or is that not just unrealistic but potentially damaging? For example, how honest (or not) is it to focus on the opportunity that a change represents for the many, without referencing the unfortunate consequences for the few?

I’ve been challenged on this more than once with arguments such as:
there’s been too much doom and gloom ….
morale is at an all-time low ….
we need to do something to reassure our high performers that there’s light at the end of the tunnel ….
if we talk about the investment story rather than the cut and burn, people will feel it’s worth hanging on for

You can sense the desperation, at all levels in the organisation, for an unambiguously good news story.

The conundrum is that, on the one hand, employees are less inclined to believe a message of hope and optimism if there is no reference to their current reality, plus a convincing explanation of how the business can make the transition from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

On the other hand, if you admit to the current, less-than-rosy reality, how will the marketplace react when (not if) these messages leak outside the organisation? Will investors reward or punish such honesty?

A cursory investigation into the rumour and speculation that is already ‘out there’ is likely to be very liberating. True, there’s a world of difference between industry speculation vs attributed quotes, but it’s empowering to decide to take control of the messaging and acknowledge that the current state of affairs will be your springboard towards a better tomorrow.

I recently read a short feature referencing research published by Wharton Business School with the title: Why honesty is not always the best policy at work. The opening comments contained the following claims:

Telling the naked truth to your employees can result in panic, stress and spite. … Lying in the right circumstances can be ethical, helps breed trust in difficult times and can help boost morale.

I was so disheartened by the article that I couldn’t bring myself to read the full research as it seemed to be referencing a bygone era, characterised by a parent/child relationship between employer and employee.

The employer/employee contract has changed a lot since the 50s and 60s. Job security is practically non-existent. The pressure to do more with less is ubiquitous, and the phrase “our people are our most valuable asset” has, in many organisations, become a risible cliché. The one thing employees should be able to expect from their leaders is honesty.

Posted in Authentic communication, Business Leadership, Culture, Employee Engagement, Internal communications, Leadership Behaviours, People management / motivation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment