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Internal Comm: Are You Making the Wrong Mistake?

Robert W. Sprague
Yogi Berra

It was Yogi Berra who declared, "I don't want to make the wrong mistake."

Is this how you approach internal communications in your organization?  Granted, there are many good reasons to take care.

Internal comms mistakes can make employees angry or fearful.  Laws can be broken, and regulations violated. Dirty laundry can find its way to customers, stakeholders, or the media.  The damage—to morale, productivity, reputation, and market share—can be severe.

But none of that is an excuse for making the "wrongest" mistake of all: failing to communicate effectively and authentically with internal audiences.  What to do?

 

The mistakes.

Fear of mistakes causes too many organizations to impose rigid controls on their internal communications processes and personnel.  Internal communications departments are usually stuffed under HR, PR, or (worst of all) IT.  The staff—cut off from direct access to busy executives and thought leaders—does its best to develop relevant content, which is then watered down by rounds of review.

In an era of omnichannel smartphone communications, these same organizations may communicate via wordy all-staff emails or even (shudder) printed memos.  An occasional in-person town hall meeting may help—but only for employees who work normal hours at headquarters bu. In general, traditional communications fail to meet the employees where they are, which, increasingly, is online.

Most damningly, internal communications still tend to be exclusively one-way.  They are viewed as a way to "tell (employees) what we want them to know" instead of "find out what they want to hear"or “provide them an opportunity to contribute ideas and suggestions.” This makes little sense to employees who are able to link, like, share, swipe, and comment in almost every form of communication available.

Selling social.

Clearly, organizations must find a way to embrace social media as a channel for internal communications.  The same things that make social media flexible, accessible, and participative also make it impossible to control.  But there may no longer be a choice.

New research by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that organizations are missing out on productivity gains of up to 25% that could result from fully implementing social tools for internal communications, collaboration, and knowledge sharing—at least among knowledge or "interaction" workers.   With e-mail consuming an average of 28% of such workers' time, and another 20% spent searching for information or tracking down colleagues, the potential competitive edge from effective use of social technologies is too powerful to ignore.

Internal social networks such as Yammer, Google+, and Slack have been available  for some time, and some organizations have put them to good use. But simply having technology available does little—unless the organization embraces it from bottom to top.  Employees have to feel free to participate. They must find value in using the network. And they must gain a sense of belonging and community from doing so.

So shall we communicate?

Ready to jump?  Willing to risk making a few mistakes to bring your internal communications into the 21st century?  Here are a few cultural shifts you’ll have to make.

Commit to authenticity.

The company's voice must be trustworthy and candid.  Employees who have been burned by "fake news" and online scams will quickly reject insincere or sanitized messages.  And yes, that means that some potentially negative or embarrassing information will leak out.  Your culture must be resilient enough to overcome the occasional slip-up.

Pick a platform and make it universal.  

There can be no "haves" or "have-nots," and there can be no competing networks.  Everyone from the CEO to the "unwired" factory floor or remote front-line staffer must have convenient access at work, at home, and on travel.

Incentivize adoption.

Some employees will take to a social network naturally; others need time, training, and good reasons to participate.  You must develop a strategy where the network is the only place to get some kinds of information, and where there are rewards—from contests to performance measures—for getting up to speed.

Converse, don't disseminate.

Social networks demand an entirely new philosophy for communication.  Employees can and will set the communications agenda, and the company must participate in the conversation instead of "cascading" information down the hierarchy.  There will be frustration, but the end result will be a more knowledgeable and engaged team.

Elevate the function.

Participation cannot be delegated to entry-level associates in a sub-department.  Internal communications must be an integral part of the jobs of all C-suite executives, who must be personal, frequent, and sincere users of the network.

These simple principles represent a huge amount of work—work that runs counter, in many cases, to years of practice and preparation by internal communications, legal, HR, and management professionals.  You may want to consider engaging an outside resource that marries expertise in culture change with intensive experience in social media management.

There will be mistakes.  But with any luck, they will not be the wrong mistakes.  You will have a system of internal communications that allows employees to communicate how, when, and where they choose, and reap the rewards of a more productive, loyal, and enthusiastic workforce.

 

Robert W. Sprague
Robert W. Sprague
President & CEO

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