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Going back to basics with employee communications

19Mar Posted by Maria Shopova

One of the things I remember from my first-year MBA classes at London Business School is what my Developing Effective Managers and Organisations professor used to say: “To get extraordinary results over the long-term, you have to build a workforce that is extraordinary in a way that customers care about.” He would then continue on to develop a strong argument around this, based on his book “Change to Strange.” His argument went something like this:

  • Most organisations claim that their people are their competitive advantage
  • But at the same time most of them invest in copying best practices and treating their employees like their competition does
  • Therefore, there is nothing particularly distinctive about most organisations’ workforces from a customer standpoint
  • In fact, most organisations try to invest as little as possible in people practices (but at the same time want to define their people as a competitive advantage)
  • To have a competitive advantage today, firms should be conducting some strange practices across some of the elements of their workforce practices, and although costly, these will be worth it when they deliver the behaviours and results that an organisations is looking for
  • As a result, competitors will be stunned – they will want the results but they won’t be willing or able to do what it takes to get them

My professor would then enumerate a number of companies who have successfully put this framework in practice and differentiated themselves in the marketplace – Rolls Royce, 3M, Google…

This stuck with me, but also made me think about what could help organisations have the courage to stop following the known best practices and set their own rules of engaging employees and making their work more meaningful.

Obviously, this is quite a large topic to discuss, involving many elements – from finding the “strange” practices to focus on and how they provide value to customers, to actually engaging your employees with them in the right way, to putting the right metrics in place to be able to measure and benchmark your organisation’s performance and hire strategically.

These are all important elements to consider, but what I want to focus on is communication. Communicating to employees is key across all of the elements mentioned above, and at the same time is one of the areas where organisations love to follow best practices the most. There is a formula or a five-step approach to pretty much every communication tool imaginable, being it the company’s Intranet, vision, mission, website, etc. While comforting and helpful from a framework point of view, best practices like these have pretty much obliterated the creative process in writing for employees. Corporate communications therefore has become full of jargon, dry, long, and usually hard to understand. Most of all, however, it has severed the human link between organisations and their employees.

So what can be done to bring back the spark of corporate communications as more and more organisations may need its powers to truly engage with their workforce? I think the first step is to get back to the basics – make corporate communications accessible again. Leave the jargons out and truly focus on what your employees, as people, want to consume in terms of information. It’s common sense, but we tend to lose ourselves in the best practice world and forget that at the end of the day our companies are made up of people who, like us, enjoy reading language that is not overwhelming and easy to understand.

In their search for growth today, organisations will be doing a lot of “soul searching” and evaluation of what is or can become their competitive advantage. In this process of change, they should try and remember that their success in doing this depends on their employees, and getting to them with the right communication is half the battle!

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Comments (2)

Jordan posted 19th March 2012
Great post, Maria. I definitely agree with both what your professor said and your points. It seems to me that getting back to going back to basics with employee communication would have a tremendous impact on employee engagement and motivation, which will inevitably be reflected in client relationships and quality of work. You mentioned Google as an example and I think it's a valid one. As far as I know Google has an employee forum where employees can submit, discuss and rate ideas in an easy-to-understand language. Other companies go down a similar route. Some develop internal social networks as a mean to engage employees and communicate complex topics in a much more creative way. The only question to me is: how creative and how formal can you get?
Maria Shopova posted 20th March 2012
Jordan - good and complex question. Here is my attempt at a concise, but comprehensive, answer. Beyond setting clear objectives for the engagement effort, I think a framework of corporate compliance is a must and useful to have, as well as appropriate employee training and guidance on engaging with social networks on behald of the company externally and internally. However, in terms of true employee engagement, boundaries on creativity and formality should be limited to an extent that is in line with the culture of the company and in a way that prioritises inclusion. Doing otherwise, will only have an opposite effect and position the company's efforts as more of a burden to employees, rather than as an engagement tool.

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