Communicate or Fail ~ Part 1

Communicate or Fail!

Communicate or Fail may sound a little extreme. It’s not. Organisations and individuals can succeed or fail on the effectiveness of their communications. Communicate or Fail is a two-part post focussing on communications at an organisational level and on a personal level. Part 1 will focus on organisational communication.

Good organisational communication can help an organisation increase market share and competitiveness, improve customer service and satisfaction, and keep employees motivated and engaged. Poor or no communication, on the other hand, can be extremely destructive.

The communication landscape is more complex than ever before. We have a myriad of different channels at our disposal; audiences are more selective in how they use and react to these channels, and it is almost impossible to quantify the number of messages that compete for the attention of those audiences.

People learn and process information in many different ways. Research tells us that we retain 10% of what we read; 20% of what we hear; 30% of what we see; 50% of what we see and hear; 70% of what we discuss; 80% of what we experience; and 95% of what we share and communicate to others. On this basis, sending an email to engage an audience is probably not going to set the world on fire in its own right!

In considering organisational communication it is important to distinguish between formal and informal communication.  The most common form of formal communication within an organisation is communication downward (vertically) through the hierarchical structure of the organisation arising from top management level.

Many organisations attempt to facilitate upward communication within organisations through measures such as staff surveys and suggestion schemes.  Staff surveys are often used to help the organisation identify actions that will improve performance. But this in itself often presents its own potential problems and leads to misleading information being supplied to management.

By managing the proper integration across this mix of activities, a communicating organisation ensures that information not only flows up and down within the organisation but also flows across functional teams and between itself and external stakeholders, including its customers and suppliers.

So what forms of communication should you be thinking about for your internal communications?

Key Themes for Effective Internal Communication

1. A Shared Vision

“If you don’t care where you’re going, then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

If your people don’t understand where they’re going, why they’re going there and what happens for them on the journey and more importantly when they get there – guess what, you don’t have motivated, engaged and passionate employees. If they don’t care where they’re going, you’ve got a much bigger problem!

Communicating the vision of an organisation, a team or a new direction is an opportunity to invigorate the work force, explain the challenges ahead, and tell your story. It is an opportunity lost if it does not enroll the workforce in a call to action and stir people’s passions. So many times in my career, have I seen company vision statements that have been developed by senior managers or an agency and delivered via posters and mouse mats, and then management wonder why their people don’t immediately change their behaviours and get behind it?

Ideally you should work with your people to shape your vision. If your organisation is small enough, use everyone and get their input. If you work in a larger business use a good cross-section of people from all levels and departments. Where possible use your ‘rising stars’ that are passionate about, not only the organisation, but also driving change and influencing others.

I can thoroughly recommend Full Steam Ahead by Ken Blanchard and Jesse Lyn Stoner if you want to learn more around creating a shared vision for your business.

2. Senior Leadership Involvement

Visible buy‐in and engagement at the top is essential. Ensure that the head of your organisation is fully briefed on internal communications, has an opportunity to shape the strategy and is fully involved in key internal communications.  This is important not only as the CEO is a key communications channel, but also because his or her behaviour will help set expectations for transparency and authenticity. Consider opportunities to demonstrate a real commitment to information sharing, in order to illustrate that information hoarding is not acceptable within your organisation’s performance or culture.

It’s also important that the wider senior leadership team are bought into whatever you are communicating. At best they won’t be reinforcing the messages you are trying to get across. At worst, they could be sabotaging your efforts.

3. Understand Your Audience

Understanding your audience is crucial to building a successful communications plan; the bigger the message and impact on the organisation, the more important the analysis.

Before you communicate with your people, there is some basic information you need to discover about them. Ask them how they feel about the current level of internal communication. Discern whether they feel informed about changes, if they feel comfortable sharing their opinions, and how they would like to see communication improve.

Ask the hard questions. See if they would be willing to share specific examples of when they felt out of the loop or ignored. Try not to be defensive when they share; listen with an open mind.

Identify how employees like to receive information: email, newsletter, face-to-face, or other options. Ask if the method depends on what information is shared. For example, a weekly announcement can be communicated via email, but a major staff change needs to be shared in person.

4. Employee Engagement

There is nothing worse than being preached to or what I call communicating ‘at’. Your people will not get behind this kind of communication. Make sure that communication is two-way and you build in mechanisms to capture feedback, tweak your messages to your audience and keep reinforcing your message. Marketers often get bored if they have to do a ‘campaign’ more than once or twice.  The rule of 7 is a traditional marketing practice that suggests people must see a marketing message 7 times before they take action.  When communicating messages, whether to internal or external customers, the concepts remain the same.  Think of on-going communication with your teams; communicate it often and through various delivery methods.

What’s In It for Me? Employees will internalise any message communicated. How will this affect me?  What does this mean to me?  Will it make my job harder?  These questions are natural. The more relevant our messaging, the more our employee will be comfortable with the message.

Paint a picture of what this may look like: use examples representative of your audience. This kind of communication engages and excites employees, promotes teamwork and aligns everyone toward achieving company goals.

5. Line Manager Reinforcement

It’s no secret that the relationship between a line manager/team leader and their team has the most direct impact on engagement. Focus on the behaviour change and require managers to report results on actions they’ve taken to impact engagement in their teams. This should be weighted as an indication of performance when someone manages others directly.

Regular team briefings with managers can improve relationships and help your people feel involved and informed about developments that affect them. Cascade team briefings can quickly disseminate key messages throughout the organisation. This method is also very effective at quashing grapevine rumours.

The team environment means that no one is overlooked and it reinforces group motivation. Team briefings should not replace regular team meetings with the staff’s line manager – which is the most popular form of communication – but the brief can be given at the start of the team meeting.

A system for feeding back and responding to questions from staff should also be built in to the process. You need to monitor the system regularly to ensure that it is operating effectively across the organisation.

6. Multi-channel Communication Tools

  • Face to Face Communication – Wherever possible and practical, employee communication should take place face‐to‐face. In‐person exchanges are the most effective and trusted forms of internal communication. What’s more, that direct conversation can also unravel otherwise effective communications activities such as newsletters and intranet content if the spokesperson fails to establish trust or authenticity. Design communication strategies and tactics around meaningful opportunities for face‐to‐face exchange. If distance is a challenge, explore the use of web conferences as a means of bridging that geographical gap rather than relying on the passive and cold medium of email.
  • ‘Live Meetings’ – with the advent of applications like Microsoft Lync you can reach large numbers of people quickly, effectively and across the globe with multimedia interactive broadcasts to get your message across. These meetings can be extremely interactive if planned well and more personal than email or a conference call.
  • Enterprise Social Media – It’s no secret that social media is transforming the way people communicate in the workplace. As more and more companies are realising the value of engaging their employees online, social media is quickly becoming a preferred way of increasing knowledge sharing, encouraging teamwork and collaboration and adding value to the employee experience. To this effect, many businesses and organisations are using social media tools, like forums, blogs and social networks, to enable their staff and stakeholders to converse, collaborate and connect – Chatter via Salesforce.com and Yammer being two fast-growing enterprise-wide examples.Using social media as part of your internal communications plan has a number of benefits. For one, companies are able to have real-time, authentic conversations with employees. Plus the very nature of social media means that anyone can participate in discussions, allowing communication to flow from the top down, bottom up, and even from side to side. If you are part of a national or global company it also means you can connect with people all over the world on a more involved level than just email and phone.
  • Blogging – Blogs are a better communication tool when you want to get information out to people, and want to enable feedback, but keep the original text intact. Internal blogging is frequently used to communicate  activities like product development, support issues, product releases, planning events and conferences, providing informal updates on miscellaneous issues. Blogs usually encourage readers to comment, provide feedback open dialogue and exchange ideas in an informal context.
  • Intranet – Unless heavily adopted and promoted in your organisation, intranets are not the best place to ‘engage’ employees. They’re great to store information, get someone’s mobile number, read policies, log a fault on your PC and catch up on things when you have time. They’re not great by themselves to enrol your people in your message!
  • Email – Email is a good system for keeping track of conversations and saves on time and energy. You can email large groups of people and ensure that they were aware of the discussion because there is a common expectation of reading emails regularly. However emails are impersonal if used to large groups, prone to all types of mistakes and often ignored if used regularly.

7. Continuously Measure Effectiveness

Measurement is always an important part of any form of communication strategy, but it is especially relevant in the case of employee communication. Setting up clear indicators of performance will be vital in calibrating the strategy and tactics with appropriate precision. Internal communication may be deployed to track against outcomes such as morale, retention, recruitment, productivity, job satisfaction and/or employee safety. Being clear about “what success looks like,” and establishing internal alignment around that end state is instrumental to having high impact employee communication programs that deliver results.

Would love to get your feedback on this post. I know I’m only scratching the surface of this topic. Part two of Communicate or Fail coming soon!

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Teams and Teamwork 2.0

Team 2.0

Teams and Teamwork have changed

The make-up and nature of teams have changed significantly in recent years. Organisations have become more distributed across geography and across industries. Closer relationships between people inside an organisation and those previously considered outside (customers, suppliers, partners and other stakeholders) have become more important. Organisations have discovered the value of collaborative work and with the advent of new tools and technology, the ability to work more efficiently, effectively and more competitively is a reality. There is a new emphasis on knowledge management – harvesting the learning of the experience of members of the organisation so that it is available to the whole organisation, quickly and easily. Used effectively across a business this knowledge and information flow can add a real competitive advantage to your business and create a better experience for customers.

All these changes in organisations over the last decade have changed how teams are formed and how they operate.

Teams have morphed over time:

  • From fixed team membership to flexible and temporary team members
  • From all team members drawn from within the organisation to team members that can include people from outside the organisation (customers, suppliers, partners)
  • From team members that are dedicated 100% to the team to most people are members of multiple teams
  • From team members that are co-located organisationally and geographically to team members are distributed organisationally and geographically
  • From teams that have a fixed starting and ending point to teams form and reform continuously
  • From teams that are managed by a single manager to teams have multiple reporting relationships with different parts of the organisation at different times

Although the technology that supports these new teams gets most of the attention when we talk about virtual teams, it’s really the changes in the nature of teams – not their use of technology – that creates new challenges for team managers and members. Most “virtual” teams operate in multiple modes including having face-to-face meetings when possible. Managing a virtual team means managing the whole spectrum of communication strategies and project management techniques as well as human and social processes in ways that support the team.

Managers of small and large organisations have known the importance of communication and facilitation for successful team process, but few people have really grappled with the issues of trying to manage teams that are connected by distance in space and time.

While there are some obvious problems and disadvantages of distributed teams, these teams also provide some advantages such as:

  • Developing and spreading better practices faster
  • Connecting “islands of knowledge” into self-organizing, knowledge sharing networks of professional communities
  • Fostering cross-functional and cross-divisional collaboration
  • Increasing ability to initiate and contribute to projects across organisational boundaries

Certain things need to happen in order for organisations to make effective use of virtual teams:

  • Processes for team management and development have to be designed, defined, piloted, tested, refined
  • Team managers have to be trained in new team management strategies
  • Team members have to be trained in new ways of working, understand your vision and how they contribute
  • The culture of the organisation has to be reshaped to support new structures and processes
  • Organisational structures have to be modified to reflect new team dynamics
  • Rewards systems have to be updated to reflect new team structures
  • New information technology (IT) systems have to be built to support teams
  • New management, measurement and control systems have to be designed

New technology requires us to rethink these dynamics because we don’t have the option to use familiar approaches. It gives us an opening to change the way we manage the people and work process in general. The critical part of the question, “How can we manage teams operating at a distance?” is really “How do we effectively support the collaborative work of teams? Managing virtual teams is not about taking our old management techniques and transposing them for delivery using new media. Rather, it’s about expanding our available tools to create new dynamics aligned with the best thinking about supporting collaborative work.

Virtual Team

A New Management Mindset

There are some critical aspects of a virtual team manager’s mindset that must shift in order to be effective in the modern workplace:

Different kinds of environments can support high quality interaction. What matters is how you use them.

  • Collaboration happens in an ongoing, no-boundaries way.
  • Using technology in a people-oriented way is possible, desirable, effective and efficient
  • When the communication process breaks down, evaluate our management and interaction strategies, not just the technical tool.
  • Learning to manage virtual teams is about understanding more about teams and the collaboration process

 Some of the key ideas to keep in mind to make sure a virtual team works effectively include:

  • Teamwork is fundamentally social
  • Knowledge is integrated in the life of teams and needs to be made explicit
  • It’s important to create ways for team members to experience membership
  • Knowledge depends on engagement in practice, people gain knowledge from observation and participation
  • Engagement is inseparable from empowerment
  • “Failure” to perform is often the result of exclusion from the process

Strategies for Supporting Virtual Teams

Virtual teams form and share knowledge on the basis of information pull from individual members, not a centralized push. Knowledge based strategies must not be centred around collecting and disseminating information but rather on creating a mechanism for practitioners to reach out and communicate to other practitioners.

The goal is to find ways that support the transformation of individuals’ personal knowledge into organisational knowledge. That goal requires designing environments where all the individuals feel comfortable (and have incentives) to share what they know. It’s important that this activity not feel like a burdensome “overhead” task, which is why doing it in the process of what feels like informal conversation works well.

In order to have productive conversations among members of virtual teams, you need to create some kind of common cognitive ground for the group. Even teams from the same organisation can have a hard time developing conversations deep enough to be significant without some kind of specific context as a beginning frame. Contexts can be created by guest speakers, training courses, requests for input to a specific project/question or special events.

Managers of virtual teams can support their teams by:

  • Recognising them and their importance
  • Encouraging members to explore questions that matter including questions about how they are working together
  • Supporting the creation of some kind of shared space (the feeling that there is an infrastructure where people are working together)
  • Facilitating the coordination of the technology, work processes, and the formal organisation
  • Recognising reflection as action and as legitimate work (getting the infrastructure of the organisation to support the learning process)
  • Supporting activities which make the informal network visible

Technology for Virtual Teams

Different communication technologies can be used to support different purposes and participants.

New technologies are being launched every day to enhance the way we work. At KC we use and sell Microsoft Lync integrated with our Intranet, MS Outlook and SharePoint together with Salesforce.com and integrated tools. These tools not only have transformed the way we work and collaborate but have saved huge amounts on travel and hotel bills!

Too often, technology is introduced to organisations as a solution looking for a problem.

DON’T:

  • Try to introduce collaboration tool as a strategy to re-engineer your organisation
  • Expect to open the box and roll it out – it’s not always plug and play
  • Start by choosing a particular type of technology and then trying to find a problem where you can use it
  • Just put SharePoint or CRM into the organisation and expect users to learn it on their own
  • Mandate the use of technology and punish people who don’t cooperate
  • Try to use software tools to change the politics of your organisation

DO:

  • Start by changing the culture, and then use the technology to support the change
  • Change the reward system and measure people on their teamwork and sharing of information
  • Encourage bottom-up, grassroots efforts
  • Make sure the software fits your processes
  • Start collaboration with face-to-face meetings when possible
  • Use role modelling for spreading the use of technologyTeam
  • Virtual Teams as Building Blocks for Organisational Learning

One of the primary reasons leaders set up virtual teams is to facilitate change in their organisation. The driver for real organisational change is organisational learning. Today’s organisation interested in tomorrow’s success will run on its ability to create and use knowledge, its ability to learn.

The emphasis on learning has two powerful implications for the design of communications environments to support organisational teams that can have a significant impact on the organisation:

Dialogues, not just databases

Until recently, organisations relied on large amounts of explicit knowledge available to them through huge databases. Quantifiable facts, formulas, and procedures were, and still are, available to anyone in most organisations. In contrast, today’s “knowledge” or learning organisations create environments where experiential knowledge is shared through dialogue and interaction. Communication technologies are needed which support this interaction.

Learning and change are facilitated rather than managed

For a business or a non-profit institution to become a learning organisation, a different environment needs to be created. This environment should stimulate and nurture the complex network of interpersonal relationships and interactions that are a part of an effective management communications and decision-making process. People must be allowed to make choices about whom they need to communicate with without regard to traditional organisational boundaries, distance and time. A collaboration infrastructure provides the advantage and flexibility of forming and reforming groups and teams as requirements develop and change. This entire process must be facilitated rather than controlled by providing easy ways for team members to be introduced to each other.

What’s Next?

Virtual teams are fast becoming more the rule than the exception in organisations. It’s time to stop thinking of them as a special case and start developing strategies for dealing with the new challenges they create. Virtual teams need the same things all teams need – a clear vision and mission, an explicit statement of roles and responsibilities, communications options which serve its different needs, opportunities to learn and change direction as well as clear measurement.

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