From Messages to Conversations; From Awareness to Action
This pandemic has upended virtually every part of our work and personal lives. We immediately had to adjust and adapt to new and different ways to interact, connect, share, and collaborate to maintain and create relationships. Through all of this upheaval and change, we discovered a number of truths regarding our resilience and perseverance, including:
- Technology is a Bridge – Moving voices, ideas, engagements, from one place to another
- Silos are no Longer a Barrier – We’ve discovered working virtually has almost eliminated company silos
- Empathy Transcends Medium – We are very aware of the tone, cadence, and frequency of our interactions to respect emotions
- Information is Ubiquitous – There are virtually no time barriers or restrictions as the world works as one, and the thirst for information is never satisfied
- It’s Personal – Communications have moved from segments and audiences to personal engagement
From an organizational standpoint, employee communications have become an on-going dialogue – pervasive, persistent, and personalized. There are no editorial calendars or predetermined topics, channels, or timing. It’s an intuitive effort driven by leadership and informed by employees focused on relevant information generated by a central theme. It is about ensuring people are informed, educated, intrigued, nourished, and comfortable in discussion and debate.
“Always On” employee communications is a myriad of passions, interests, data, perspectives against a corporate strategy and narrative that run fluidly across channels and platforms. In that regard, four distinct strategies buttressed by a data/analytics studio for ensuring an agile and inclusive engagement profile for employees in a digital age create a new method for employee communications.
Data/Analytics Studio: A centralized resource that engages in assessing the employee journey and its touchpoints looking for usage, sentiment, voice, frequency, tonality, and access to information to form insights that impact content, programming, channel, and timing. From this core center, four actions follow – all of them infused with data, analysis, and insight:
- Employee Communications Strategic Roadmap – Digital planning framework done on a weekly or even daily basis. Flexible. Iterative. Metric Driven.
- Central Organizational Story (Themes, Conversation Streams) – Core narrative. Story cubes reflecting the entire business influenced by data and insight.
- Multiple Platforms (Managers; Hub; Apps; Podcasts, Videos) – Synchronized system for omnichannel storytelling of messengers and channels easily accessible to all employees with feedback built-in. The Hub is a collection of all content found on the portal and updated frequently.
- Action Not Awareness – specific activities or programs reflecting key business milestones or efforts , highlighted throughout the year that drive action – behaviors, mindset, involvement, collaboration, ideation.
The style for employee communications in a social and digital environment is all about Discover vs. Sell. People must discover and engage on their terms vs. being sold and told. This dictates a different approach and tone (somewhat provocative) to gain interest.
Leaders have found this pandemic raised the importance and critical nature of an informed, confident, and smart workforce. As such, employee communications must be viewed as a strategic priority for the enterprise and be given the resources, attention, and commitment necessary to effectively reach, connect and motivate people in a challenging time and against a digital reality.
Organizational success is about performance. Efficient. Productive. Consistent. Sustainable. It is grounded in a workforce that is clear about the direction of the business. Knowledgeable about their roles and responsibilities. Confident in their understanding and perspectives. Open to ideas and different points of view. Smart about the future. Respectful of their colleagues and peers.
Now is the time to get real about employee (internal) communications and ratchet up the sophistication and elegance expected and essential to your workforce to have the potential to succeed in a tumultuous and unpredictable environment.
Ask yourself: “How smart do you want your employees to be?”
W2O’s additional COVID-19 coverage
Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages
COVID-19 has accelerated a race to the middle for technology, engagement, connectivity and strategy, changing business forever
One of the unforeseen benefits of this pandemic is an accelerated adoption of digital as an operating model for organizations and a behavioral mindset for customers and employees. From the elimination of silos to the seamless transference of work and ideation, we’re experiencing a more efficient system of productivity and excellence. Organizations are moving from transactional to sustainable relationships, utilizing technology and data to forge greater engagement and connectivity based on knowledge and newfound insight.
For communicators and marketers, this intersection is defining a new reality for:
- Brands – Digital is translating static brands to dynamic lifestyles.
- Innovation – Companies no longer own innovation. Rather, customers are dictating what comes next, sharing new ideas that defy the status quo.
- Knowledge acquisition – Digital accelerates the entire concept of idea creation and solutions, pushing companies and employees to new heights of value creation.
- Organizational culture – The way we work, interact, organize, recruit, develop and collaborate takes on new meaning as attitudes and values are shaped by a more focused view of purpose over profit.
- Trust and relevance – These will be the bedrock of company existence but ever-shifting as the marketplace and customers become more confident and able to better discern given the plethora of information and context available.
Given this upheaval, leaders are looking to devote time and capital to redesigning their approaches to marketing and communications, specifically employee communications and engagement, content and new technologies to understand influence, opinion, relevance and customer preferences. Less time and activity is being given to such legacy processes as long-term strategic planning, product development and employee satisfaction. Digital is rendering such time-consuming and limited activities obsolete. Agility and speed are now the north star for organizational success.
“Probably the most difficult decision a CEO makes is to disrupt a business model that once worked.”
However, there is one other area that is being dealt with as part of this seismic change: business design. That is, how an organization is organized and designed for optimum value to its stakeholders. Probably the most difficult decision a CEO makes is to disrupt a business model that once worked. Doing so means the very core of the enterprise is shaken. New pieces come into view. Priorities shift. Contradictions happen for a time. People’s lives are turned upside down. Losses may happen for a time. The company’s narrative may be lost.
But through it all, staying the course and redefining the business model in a digital world is ultimately what saves a company or brand from future demise.
The Digital Intersection is happening right before our eyes. To navigate through this landscape, we suggest you consider the following reference points:
- Signal the Change – Be upfront about what’s taking place and what it means.
- Adopt Technology – Don’t protect yesterday; forge ahead to what’s next.
- Follow the Data – Insight will determine the direction.
- Start New Conversations – Do this specifically with employees; be provocative; be contextual; be empathetic.
- Recognize It Won’t be Clean – People won’t necessarily understand right away; keep moving forward.
- Focus on Relevance – This is the balance of what you want to say and what stakeholders hear.
- Be Forthright – Never waver in your journey. Ever.
COVID-19 continues to impact our lives and will for some time. Assimilating the changes we’ve experienced and enacted means developing a whole new playbook from which to operate.
Coming through the other side with our integrity and our efficacy intact albeit with a whole new worldview is the goal.
W2O’s additional COVID-19 coverage
Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages
W2O study uncovers sentiment of internal dynamics and perceptions shaping organizational confidence in U.S.
“Just tell me what’s next?”
If you can sum up the sentiment from today’s employees regarding COVID-19, then providing answers to that question is a start. W2O undertook a comprehensive study on U.S. employee attitudes and perspectives toward COVID-19 in order to understand overall perceptions of the pandemic from an employee standpoint including concerns, interests and beliefs. The study also examined how companies are addressing these issues and how they are shifting over time as society and business moves to the next phase of this public health crisis.
“Employee relationships and engagement have become front and center during COVID-19 as leaders discern the right balance of providing clarity, recognizing effort, maintaining performance and ensuring safety, said Gary F. Grates, Principal, W2O and a leading authority on organizational communications and change management. “Our deep-rooted analytics expertise allowed us to explore the multiple dimensions of employee attitudes and behaviors and how companies should recalibrate and design effective solutions to adequately respond to this new reality.”
View full study results can be found here.
Highlights from the study, conducted with more than 1,000 employees representing various business segments from the overall U.S. population, include the following:
Addressing Employee Concerns and Needs Improves Organizational Confidence
Projecting a strong, vibrant persona as a business is critical to stakeholder belief and confidence. Virtual working models, while efficient, raise issues of isolation and myopic thinking that, if not addressed, can negatively impact brand relevance.
Communication that is Empathetic and Clear Impacts Attitude, Behavior
Improving and continuing communication of company plans and relevant information around the COVID-19 pandemic is important. Companies must establish expectations around working from home and provide daily/weekly updates from the CEO and higher level management. They must create awareness efforts surrounding plans to reopen, strategies to ensure safety, and updates about employees who have contracted the virus.
Clean and Safe Policies Are Expected Before Individual Decisions Are Made
Taking a number of actions that identify the needs and wants of employees and recognizing each individual concern over returning to an in-person working environment is necessary. Companies must utilize sanitation services and provide PPE to make employees feel comfortable returning to work.
Putting Employees First Garners Loyalty
Employees admire employers who set standards and a plan of action to move the company forward. Commitment to employees reassures them that their job is secure and ensures confidence.
Flexible Work Schedules Will Become the Norm
Flexible scheduling gives employees better options to balance home and work responsibilities. Employees want various options to adjust their schedule. They also want the ability to work from home whenever they want or have the option to go into the office when needed.
“We found numerous levels and dimensions of employee perceptions that define the character of organizations. These are extremely important to how employees think and operate, said Dave Johnson, Managing Director, Integrated Intelligence, W2O. “This foundation provides a basis for new and different approaches to policies, decision-making and communications during the pandemic to maintain or exceed employee expectations. As the pandemic continues to unfold, these findings and insights will prove to be more valuable than ever to leaders and communicators alike.”
Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Corporate Communications is quickly transitioning from Programming to Precision
Corporate Communications plays a vital role in influencing and maintaining organizational health, setting priorities, establishing a clear direction for strategy execution, managing reputational efficacy, impacting decision-making, telling the business story, and directing competitive positioning.
Under this construct, Corporate Communications’ efforts drive demand for products and services, attract and retain talent, and build comprehension around purpose, mission, and values, thereby enhancing financial valuation, softening barriers to market entry, building critical relationship capital, easing governmental and NGO relations, and nurturing and growing stakeholder trust. Consequently, the Corporate Communications function spans an entire organization while simultaneously being tasked with bridging various agendas, priorities, and egos between and among other functions. This can be a daunting task for any Corporate Communications team, whether housed in a large, medium or small organization.
And now COVID-19 and the current racial unrest occurring worldwide are changing the purpose and effectiveness of Corporate Communications. Social awareness is high, cultural nuance is more acute, competition is intense, consolidation continues, media has become fragmented, customer skepticism is rising, and information dissemination is happening faster than ever. Against this backdrop, an individual’s belief in a company or institution is likely to decline. A corporation’s ability to present a sustainable, meaningful and authentic corporate reputation to consumers, customers, employees, shareholders, and other key stakeholders is critical. In the fiercely competitive global marketplace, marketing products, services, or consumer-facing brands alone is insufficient. Stakeholders, particularly customers and employees, want and need to know about the company behind the brand, including how it connects to the greater whole.
Organizations are migrating their Corporate Communications function from a programming mindset to a precision focus on building stronger relationships with individual groups and positioning messages to cater to their specific needs and/or interests. This is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the use of analytics to assess the situation as a means to address stakeholder concerns and needs better. One way to increase involvement with stakeholders is to utilize the plethora of data tools and platforms available today to unearth insights and translate them into supportive actions, decisions, attitudes, behaviors, and positive word of mouth.
For example, employees want to work for companies that “promote trust,” “empower,” and “inspire pride.” Given that, Corporate Communications should discern information, including contextual needs, for employees to understand and perform at a level necessary for success. From a customer standpoint, corporate relevance is critical to believing in and interacting with the company, products, and services at a brand or business level in a manner that makes sense to that customer. It signifies that the company behind the brand is doing the right thing from an ethical, moral, and operating standpoint. Given the social nature of business, communication should be tailored to reach individuals, not masses.
Critical Path for Corporate Communications – Uncovering the Machinations of Stakeholder Behavior, Preference
Over the last several months, W2O has uncovered a number of important and consistent themes regarding how the Corporate Communications function can best optimize its efforts to deliver stronger ROI to its organization as we enter the next phase of the pandemic.
The major truth to better aligning Corporate Communications with company performance lies in ensuring that this function is well-defined internally, specifically as it relates to realizing that its mission has organizational connectors.
All organizations should constantly strive to make Corporate Communications a fully realized and integrated function. This can be difficult to achieve as it demands relatively universal organizational support. The hallmark of a successful Corporate Communications function is the team’s transition from simply occupying a “serving” role to that of “leading.”
This entails having a say in wider organizational decision-making and the clout to dictate strategy. To accomplish this, Corporate Communications must work to become a proactive catalyst, assert its own priorities, and leverage new technologies (such as analytics) to inform decisions. When Corporate Communications embraces these roles, it is more likely to result in substantial ROI, a more engaged workforce, and a leaner and more dynamic function. With this approach, Corporate Communications must have a deep understanding of employee and leadership opinion, brand narrative, current strategy, and a vision for the future. The result is a de-emphasis on programming and outbound activity and a concentrated focus on information gathering and insight to direct relationship-building.
What Are You Chasing? Undoing Programs for Stronger Connections
For organizational communications professionals, the answer to “what are you chasing?” is a critical element in securing a viable solution to myriad workforce realities. The subtle but deadly outcome for not determining the specific goal or state you are aiming to accomplish is chasing symptoms that give the illusion of achievement through activity.
Following are some of the ways Corporate Communications can transition its purpose and effectiveness to reflect the new reality:
If an organization’s Corporate Communications strategy and function are not directed toward the business strategy, then it is not of any value – period.
An important area to explore via analytics is where the organization has the best chance to succeed. The strategy and tactics developed must elicit specific outcomes, or your approach needs to be rethought.
Find out what’s behind stakeholder perceptions, concerns, interests, actions. Determine if there is an impetus for certain behaviors.
Precision is at the heart of addressing the ultimate goal or cause of your effort. Analytics now affords the opportunity to focus, clearly comprehending the priority at hand and establishing a reality check.
- People (Behavior), Process, Perception
Bottom line: what you are chasing tends to fall in one of these three areas. Either you’re trying to change behavior (purchase a product, gain a new skill), improve a process (streamline customer service), or perception (reputation, brand).
In the end, “What are you chasing?” is about ensuring that the means lead you to the end result.
So, before you finalize your next program, ask yourself exactly what it is you’re chasing….you may be surprised!
The new Corporate Communications function consists of three levels:
- Insights on employee, customer and influencer behavior (in addition to media)
- Comprehension of how brands, products, policies, and leaders are being discussed and shaped
- Connection with story drivers inside the company to convey holistic solutions and a clear narrative
In this regard, the Chief Communications Officer’s value is wrapped around a directional view of the organization as opposed to a current state perspective reinforced by tactical activities. The implication is that Corporate Communications is evolving to address the new realities of the organization’s business, reputation management, marketing, and communications in order to be an accepted and trusted advisor and resource. To get there, you must consider several factors:
- Environment: Comprehending the competitive and customer environment you are operating in
- Communities and Stakeholders: Company shareholders, customers, community and employees are adjusting to the “new normal,” needing more real-time, high-touch communications
- Organization: Respecting the management model and organizational structure
- Positioning: What are your market positioning and communications challenges? What is your trajectory for growth/loss?
- Operations: Balancing roles that have changed and those that have not
- Rapid Change: Ongoing change in the market forces the need for new communications practices and procedures, highlighting areas for continuous improvement
COVID-19 has disrupted our lives in myriad ways. But for many professionals and organizations, the pandemic is a time to rethink, recalibrate, and relearn what it takes to provide value in a shifting world. Taking advantage of analytics and data to discern insight and address new expectations is the pathway to a new and better future.
In this regard, precision is the new programming.
W2O’s additional COVID-19 coverage
Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages
Regardless of circumstance, change in all forms takes time but the results are game-changing….so why not continue?
The numbers are sobering. Over 70% of change efforts within organizations fail. The reasons are many. But recently, a troubling number of change or transformation initiatives that have gained momentum or traction among employees have stopped. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic and racial tensions enveloping society to organizational exhaustion, leaders have pulled the plug, so to speak, on change efforts. They have resorted to business as usual, leaving people, process, and purpose in a state of uncertainty.
The non-stop shifts that occur in the external world continually challenge businesses, posing multiple threats and opportunities, often without warning. The imperatives that result impose a sense of urgency internally for leaders who must accommodate and address them in a comprehensive way. We know the importance of new strategies in driving organizations – meaning people – toward the future as well as the sobering reality of how few do it right. Corporate change today and the strategy that underpins it cannot be as dry as dust or it will be a good prescription for insomnia. In order for a change strategy to be effective and executed successfully, the people within the organization must grasp it and be able to digest its components in a manner that shapes their roles and responsibilities.
In other words, employees must be able to draw a direct line of sight between themselves and the future that the strategy envisions. They must be able to see clearly how their actions can help assure the successful implementation of the strategy to drive the company forward. But why would leaders stop such efforts when they are seeing progress or even achievement? How do we communicate corporate change in such a compelling way that both leaders and employees are hesitant to end such efforts? We are finding that the answer to this frustrating question lies in two areas. First, change or transformation takes incredible energy and engagement throughout the enterprise. This means commitment must be rock solid at the highest levels of the company. Second, companies believe that people don’t want to change, and if you push them too much, the business will break. Let’s start with the latter point. Employees change if the rationale, approach, process, end state and purpose make sense. However, they often express change exhaustion because so many transformation efforts are the opposite.
From a communications standpoint, animating the change strategy is critical. This means making it memorable through meaningful and appropriate anecdotes and metaphors that help personalize, illuminate and bring it to life. This makes it “stick” in the memory, linking the strategy to the hearts and minds of individual employees. Put simply, making the strategy stick means putting people first, seeing the implicit change through their eyes. It means that communicating corporate strategy is not about PowerPoint decks, colorful posters, cute themes, e-newsletters, blog posts or highly scripted management meetings.
Change During COVID-19 and Societal Tensions over Race
The COVID-19 pandemic has completely upended our lives. As a result, leaders have had to balance the tension between and among employees, customers, patients, government and suppliers. (See W2O Relevance Quotient COVID-19 Report #4). Stopping or pausing transformation efforts during such a time would appear prudent. But what better time to continue a change effort than when people are already in the midst of rethinking their methods, behaviors, attitudes, and actions?
Among the insights we’ve learned thus far is that working virtually has broken down silos, encouraged more collaboration, increased productivity in some areas, and forged a tighter belief network internally. With little effort, people are pulling together to seek information and solutions in order to accelerate a return to some normalcy. So why impede such growth? The changes harnessed through this difficult time can give rise to a new operating or business model – one that focuses on societal purpose – and better manage complexity. On a macro scale, organizations can better communicate about their strategy and direction to guide managers and employees alike in how to run their businesses, how to invest in their businesses, what is possible, and what people need to focus on to drive it toward that ultimate goal. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has said, this is a time of rethinking and learning. Everybody does it differently and approaches it in ways unique to their own personal style. Conviction, energy, passion, consistency and alignment are more important than the “right” message. The keys are to own it and make it part of how you change the business. To stop such efforts only places the organization and its employees at a disadvantage.
While there is no magic answer in all this, viewing transformation through a lens of learning allows you to begin seeing the organization in a new light – guiding it to define, describe and convey both externally and internally, the true meaning of its purpose.
The tension around racial inequity and social justice is a real example of change albeit a different type of change. Individuals and organizations are examining their conscience to ascertain beliefs, truths, bias and intent. It is here in the deepest part of one’s soul where purpose can be found. Diversity and Inclusion has always been a cornerstone of real change and efficacy. It means operating without blinders, taking in all around you and sharing knowledge, fears, concerns and interests to get to a better place.
Holding a Mirror to Your Heart and Head
Corporate change forces people and companies to literally hold a mirror to themselves and the business to see what is actually going on. COVID-19 and the tensions emanating here in the United States and abroad have initiated real inspection of not just operating practices but basic tenets and principles. What’s behind the mirror? If there were ever a time to open your eyes and ears to the real impetus of your organization and discover its meaning with a focus on redesigning and reshaping its purpose, that time is now.
Harmonizing Your Story and Your Actions
People are naturally curious. They don’t just want to know the end point, the decision. In the case of change that drives an organization through and beyond the issues and challenges impacting that organization, people want to know more than messages. They are looking for the story, the meaning, the “why” – everything that went into the decisions that shaped the strategy and what people are doing to support it. If we can share with people, through anecdotes, examples, lessons, the inside story, we can help them see, hear, experience, learn and, ultimately, discover on their own. In extending messages to stories, managers and communicators alike should begin asking themselves questions to help shape their stories:
- What do your people see?
- What are they experiencing?
- How do they respond to organizational initiatives?
- What are you trying to solve? What challenges does your strategy seek to address?
- What have people done in similar situations, either inside the company or from another industry?
- What can or does success look like?
- Are there personal examples to draw from that illuminate the premise?
Change is difficult. Particularly in a time of such disruption. As of three months ago, there is no rule book. There is a new playing field. A new way to manage, lead and engage people. A new set of customer expectations. New platforms. New ecosystems.
It is the right time to continue pursuing true change, not stop it or pause it!
Read our latest report, “Corporate Relevance in the Age of Social Unrest”
Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages
Coming out of COVID-19, organizations, brands must redefine, clarify themselves to establish relevance
One of the biggest, most important outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic will be how organizations and brands redefine, reposition and describe themselves. For both companies and individuals, the last three months have been a myriad of experiences with everyone fixated on the virus and its implications. Lost in this haze of uncertainty and fear has been clarity around the purpose, direction, value and meaning that organizations provide to the marketplace and society at large.
Reintroducing your company and brand(s) provides a pathway back to relevance and trust, propelling efficacy in the minds and actions of key stakeholders. It’s a bridge from nowhere to making a great first impression…again! Like everything else, it’s never about the “what.” But in this case the “how.” It all starts with a new story that captures the business as it looks forward, retaining what it has learned.
To prepare for a new prism through which to view your organization, take note of the following considerations to inspire and engage a more motivated set of behaviors and actions:
- It’s all Digital Now…COVID has made the digital experience and digital technologies commonplace in enhancing the customer and employee journey.
- Always Start Inside…The most affected group during this time has been your employees. Involving them in the process of reimagining the business is essential to authenticity and sustainability, not to mention retention and recruitment.
- Never Make It About You…Reframing your organization must start with your stakeholders. How has their reality changed? What are you doing to support, change or mitigate it?
- Base Your Narrative on One Thing…Giving people the chance to comprehend and digest your story begins with presenting one key element of your purpose and value proposition. Attempting to tell everything only confuses and obfuscates the organization’s promise.
- Make Sure You’re Empathetic…When you empathize with your stakeholders, you create trust and belief.
- Rediscover Your Stakeholders…Now is the time to truly uncover what motivates those important to you. Data and analytics provide deep insight and direction.
- Determine Their Relevance…Knowing what concerns, interests, needs and wants drive people and marrying it with your strategy, value and purpose puts in focus relevance. Relevance is the new Reputation as it enables engagement.
What we have been dealing with is unprecedented. Over the course of a few weeks, the entire world stopped. Personal safety became job #1. Company goals, objectives and imperatives blurred. Brands were pushed to the back of one’s mind. A sense of unity and kinship prevailed. As we find our way back, it is imperative that organizations once again stimulate innovation, empower employees, and address expectations.
The first step is recognizing the climate they are returning to…and provide a fresh face from which to be seen, heard and known.
“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
W2O’s additional COVID-19 coverage
Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages
For a copy of the W2O COVID-19 Relevance Analysis, click here.
It seems like we’re coming out of the dark. That the curve is largely flattened and we’re now on the road to recovery. Some Governors are easing restrictions to reopen the economy in phases. Yet many of us are not venturing out even with masks.
All this creates tension.
Tension – both of the challenging and productive sort – is defining the differences stakeholders are addressing with regard to government and private sector response initiatives.
At the intersection of how companies are behaving and what stakeholders expect in the midst of COVID, is where Relevance resides. Approximately eight weeks ago, our firm refocused its Relevance Framework and Model to better discern how companies are maintaining a connection to an engagement with key stakeholders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The result is a strong covenant of data that shows company responses to COVID-19 and the evolution over time as the pandemic continues to unfold and our knowledge becomes more acute. Among the most interesting findings are the tensions resulting from maintaining relevance:
Relevance Peaked Two Week Ago
The data indicates that relevance peaked two weeks ago and appears to be plateauing as fewer articles are being written on the subject and people are sharing less. We’re finding that relevant companies are embracing the following tensions not as diametrically opposite but something to be balanced.
National vs. Local
Relevant organizations are recognizing and engaging within the tension between national, state, and city-level leadership. They are doing so by providing a point-of-view on the resulting differences and engaging especially employees in a discussion. Trust has shifted away from the federal government and toward state leadership and local media.
Public Health vs. The Economy
Relevant organizations are mindful of the tension between public health and the economy and civil liberties by indicating their policies for returning to work and protecting jobs during this time.
Societal Good vs. Long-Term Business Sustainability
Relevant organizations are stepping up providing goods and services for free or at significantly reduced prices for the common good and, thinking ahead about the long-term sustainability of their operations. These efforts are being down without much fanfare.
New Type of Marketing
Relevant organizations continue to empathize with and support stakeholders more than marketing to them. Some organizations have significantly curtailed or completely suspended advertising. Some have donated their ad space to small businesses. Consumers seem to be indicating that it’s OK to market to them on something outside of the virus. In fact, 90% of ads on Google are non-COVID-19 related and performing well.
The New Normal vs. the Next Normal
COVID-19 has put a magnifying glass on pre-existing macro trends such as organizational digital transformation and innovation. It’s accelerating those macro trends. Organizations that are seeing a relevance bump as a result of accelerated transformation are thinking about how to sustain it post-COVID-19.
It’s taken some time for stakeholders and organizations to embrace these tensions as an ‘AND’ not an ‘OR.’ As we observe that consumers are engaging with less news on COVID-19, it’s ever-more important that companies continue to recognize that:
- Empathy is key
- Actions speak louder than words
- Response initiatives must account for all stakeholders and be long-term-centric
- Transparency is a not optional
- Partnerships drive faster innovation
- Agility is essential
- Stability is expected
Maintaining Relevance in a time of uncertainty is incredibly difficult as stakeholders are more demanding holding organizations, brands, governments, leaders accountable for action. We will continue to refresh the W2O Relevance Index and Model to identify new trends, determine how these trends evolve, and uncover key themes related to moving forward beyond COVID-19.
In the meantime, stay safe and healthy.
Contributions to this content were made by Gary Grates, Chuck Hemann, Stephen Yoon, Marianne Gollub, Katy Hagert, Becky Vonsiatsky, Barbara Pinto, and Justin Harris, of W2O.
Interested in additional COVID-19 content? Sign up to receive updates directly to your inbox or check out our full COVID-19 coverage on the blog.
In this time of COVID-19, there is a real chance to separate the pretenders from the contenders and ask yourself what’s really important.
It’s the moment to change your reality. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that right now is a moment of truth.
If you want a voice in Washington or Westminster, engage! If you want to improve your performance, engage! If you want a better relationship with customers, patients or employees, engage! If you want to know your organization’s vision, purpose, efficacy, engage! If you want a more meaningful experience at work, engage!
Not long ago, the way we conducted business was still fairly linear. All of that has changed. Today, you have to be more mindful than ever of the immediacy of information. Information sharing and analysis today is not only immediate, it’s also democratic in the sense that everyone can be an “expert” with the “right” to provide assessments. That’s both exhilarating and, admittedly, a bit disconcerting. We are using new technologies and platforms to access, respond, share and inform ourselves and our stakeholders.
However, in some very meaningful ways, if we don’t take this content and use it to bolster our confidence, we won’t truly engage in solving the issues and challenges before us. What will happen is that we either become apathetic to the situation or, worse, a victim of its impact. The bottom line is this: we have a wealth of information at our fingertips, so there is no excuse for not becoming involved and making a difference.
Re-consider your purpose…
As a student council president, an entrepreneur and now a CEO of a global firm, I’ve always looked at the world “glass half full.” This attitude is reflected in addressing challenges head on and engaging full throttle to achieve the right result. It all begins with purpose. What are you here for? What do you believe in? What are you willing to fall on your sword for? How are you going to work together to achieve it?
There’s no rulebook to rely on here. It’s in your heart. And in your hands.
The key to engaging rests with speed. The faster you get involved to solve problems, take a stand, offer new ideas, close a gap, and make a difference, the more successful your actions.
It’s about what you Do, not what you Say…
The need for action has never been more critical for business sustainability and societal impact. People who go full in and engage will be viewed as essential – not waiting for hand-holding or a push but, rather, driving the business forward.
Cause vs. symptom…
In the end, it’s about offering solutions that attack the cause and not merely providing a bunch of activities meant to address only the symptoms. It means moving beyond the message right into the types of actions or decisions necessary to achieve the desired outcome.
Despite everything we’ve learned about organizational and individual behavior, COVID-19 is rewriting how business and government operates in a time of crisis. If there was ever a time for all of us to stand up and engage fully in shaping the future in a positive manner, it’s now. There is no room for complaining. No room for indifference.
“The future belongs to those who believe in their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
And, I might add, who are willing to make them happen!
Stay safe and healthy!
W2O’s additional COVID-19 coverage
Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.
As we look to shift from the here and now to coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic in a measured way, we predict two themes will dominate not only the way we think of marketing communications, but also business overall: (1) COVID-19 will accelerate and intensify the “digital transformation” of the healthcare industry and (2) we will see a significant swing toward all things local. Let’s look at both predictions in more detail and assess what they may mean for our future work.
Digital Transformation is Finally Here
Without a doubt, the need for digitalization has never been more acute. Medical meetings cannot be staged in their traditional format and are moving to virtual platforms. Dozens of companies have advised their sales teams to suspend physician visits and use virtual technologies instead. Video conferencing is replacing face-to-face activities, and research indicates a rise in the use of telemedicine. This is bigger than healthcare, as many consumers embrace online shopping while stores are closed, connect with their families via videochats, and celebrate religious holidays (e.g., Passover, Easter and Ramadan) virtually. Yet, even in the current situation, we witness a digital divide. Not every job, not every event, and not every interaction can be made virtual. And like with many significant events, we all notice a desire for meaningful, human connection in this crisis.
The Resurgence of Local Connections
This is where the second prediction comes in: Behavioral science suggests that, in times of crisis, people will turn inward to their immediate social group and their environment. What’s close and familiar provides a sense of reassurance. Many people, especially in big cities, have been able to get to know their neighbors for the first time, while in lockdown. Shared experience has become more important, as well as meaningful, and we expect that people will continue to engage in and volunteer for their community. And with supply chains seriously impacted by current constraints, interest in locally sourced and produced products has grown and is going to stay high in the future. Travel restrictions and the loss of income will also have an impact on holiday plans, with people deciding to stay local rather than exploring other countries.
Going Digital and Local at the Same Time
What does this duality mean for marketing communications professionals? We believe that the current situation has accelerated the duality we’ve observed for some time: Stakeholders will embrace both – a strong acceptance of digitalization coupled with a sustained focus on a shared reality and experience. We need to go digital and local at the same time. While digital might imply that everything is going global, it actually provides the opportunity to tailor and hyper-target our content to smaller and more defined audience segments.
For our work, this means that organizations need to be fully immersed and comfortable in a digital environment. The digital experiences we offer need to take into account insights about our audiences and their behaviors, preferred formats, content and channels. This will make virtual interactions truly valuable to our stakeholders. The information we provide needs to be hyper-targeted where possible and reflect local preferences and differences. At the same time, personal interaction will not be replaced by digital experiences. People will continue to need human connections and to be interested in what’s familiar and close to them. Both channels, digital and live communications, will complement each other and, while we all see right now how incredibly successful virtual communications can be, we need to become more skilled in determining when a meeting can be virtual and when our audiences will prefer a face-to-face. As we transition into a post-COVID-19 world, we need to plan the appropriate balance between digital and live experiences and rethink when and how we “go live” to make it truly meaningful for our stakeholders.
It All Starts with Knowing our Audiences
This begins with genuinely understanding our audiences and their experiences and what matters to them as individuals and as members of their group. This also involves learning how their mindsets have shifted and are continuing to shift and determining what is relevant to them and how we can make a positive impact as we enter into the next normal.
If you’d like to hear more about how we’re combining our experience in insight-led strategic planning and solutions to help clients make sense of the quickly-changing environment and their audience needs, please get in touch!
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How COVID-19 is forcing CEOs to rethink the importance of internal communications
A subtle but very important outcome thus far from this horrible pandemic is just how critical employee behavior, trust and engagement are not only to organizations and business but to society in general. Maintaining a level of confidence in the workforce is essential to productivity, innovation and balance. Unfortunately, for decades, the strategic mechanism designed to influence and drive operational success has been internal communications.
In the past, internal communications mainly consisted of newsletters, summer picnics and Friday casual days. It was a C-Suite level function intertwined with corporate decision-making to hold together the organization from an employer brand, culture and overall health standpoint. In today’s COVID-19 reality, CEOs are now dealing with the consequences of antiquated internal systems, irrelevant content, cumbersome models, and disengaged people.
The pandemic is leading executives to realize that companies can’t grow, prosper or even survive without a knowledgeable, engaged and aware workforce. We are finding that internal communications is evolving to a new level, where the focus is accelerating decision making, challenging people’s knowledge, and providing information that leaders, managers and employees utilize to frame arguments, illustrate situations, make decisions and launch initiatives. Working in a virtual environment is opening up avenues of innovation, ideation and more interesting managerial techniques. However, it is also causing anxiety, fear and loneliness. In this unprecedented time, internal communications systems, methods, content, cadence, feedback, tone and frequency can make a difference.
With all the complexities of today’s society, we are faced with constant clutter and information overload. As communications professionals, we wrestle with similar complexities in our day-to-day roles. In a time when information is abundant, competitive advantage lies in our ability to affect the behaviors, attitudes and actions of our employees through relevant, authentic and contextual information and dialogue. The end result is a workforce that can make decisions quickly, accurately and consistent with the business strategy – a workforce that, on the whole, believes in the purpose, values and goals of the organization.
As organizations evolve quickly due to COVID-19, the true transformation of internal communications, from necessary function to critical organizational priority, and from a disciplined process to a philosophy, is underway. Put succinctly, organizational effectiveness is defined as an institution’s ability to operate profitably, functionally, socially, strategically, innovatively and humanely. A management model focused on improving organizational effectiveness must bring together the right mix of communications, leadership and team-building to create an openness and an exchange that is fostered by the right technologies and the right skill sets. What’s more, organizational effectiveness is a behavioral-based model, embedded in a belief that sharing the right information with the right people will result in the ability to make decisions for the organization. As communicators, we must serve as the “invisible hand,” guiding employee behavior based on organizational priorities and strategies intertwined with people’s view of reality and need for purpose.
As CEOs continue to elevate internal communications, we, as practitioners, must be able to articulate our priorities and roles to organizational leadership. This involves defining the scope of our roles and responsibilities within our organizations, and how our function will ultimately help improve organizational effectiveness.
We have observed the following as it relates to internal communications, organizational confidence, and CEO enlightenment as a result of COVID-19:
- Although the CEO ultimately drives organizational stability and culture, internal communications must help shape and guide CEO actions and decisions so that they are clearly understood, actively engaged, properly discussed and debated.
- Internal communications must be funded, led and measured like any other corporate function…management and communication are inextricably linked. Communication must be viewed as an important component of a company’s management model. It can no longer be viewed as a separate and distinct function.
- Internal communications must consist of facts and empathy…this isn’t about balance. It’s about sensing how the workforce is feeling and operating at any given moment and providing the proper narrative that respects the need for information and context, prudence and sensitivity.
- It’s a game of analysis and insight…data now pervades business including marketing and communications.From an internal perspective, understanding employee information habits, concerns, interests and perceptions is important to ensuring relevance and meaning.
- In a virtual working environment, connectivity is the glue that bonds emotions and attitudes. From video, webcasts, conference calls and phone calls, reaching out and conversing with people trumps social and digital. Never substitute social for personal!
- Make it “important.”Someone once said if it’s not important then it’s not worth doing. Half the battle in organizational effectiveness rests with leadership’s ability to be disciplined and committed to its goals, strategies and purpose. Adopt a philosophy for how to manage, how to communicate, and how to operate and stick with it.
- View employees as a public constituency, not a captive audience. We are seeing some leaders still treating employees as a captive audience and, to a lesser extent, a necessary activity. The result can often be compared to viewing employees as the least common denominator − spoon feeding them information vs. engaging them in the facts and potential decisions to generate a strong dialogue, discussion and debate. Other leaders are involving employees in the facts being provided by experts, recognizing that employees are smart, knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children and being actively involved in their communities and the world around them. The latter tend to be organizations with strategic internal communications processes operating with a workforce that is seen as a public constituency capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and, ultimately, organizational success. This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication.
- Discover versus sell. The classic mistake most management and communicators make today is the belief that they need to “sell” employees on everything – from a new benefits program to the corporate strategy. But people “smell the sell” and turn off to the very thing that is being endorsed. The right approach is to base communication on a “discover” model − one that allows people to find the answer or truth themselves. In the era of COVID-19, leaders have embraced this new type of thinking and approach. It means a provocative tone, a more authentic method of discussion and debate, and a more pragmatic view of human behavior.
- Time to re-invest. Leaders recognize they need to reinvest in internal communications and provide their businesses with the most effective risk mitigation solution in their business model.
- “When am I going back?” “What will it look like?” “What’s my value?”…These are the questions on employee’s minds today as they continue to search for meaning and contentment amid a new reality. Keep these questions in mind in your management and internal communications efforts consistently and respectfully and the results will be significant.
A New Frontier
A glimpse at a post-COVID-19 future reveals that strategic internal communications can and will facilitate a culture of learning, where:
- Internal platforms are more important than external channels
- Budgets reflect the complexity of human interaction and performance
- Agility and flexibility become the dominant outcomes of a highly engaged workforce
- Data and insight drives decisions
- Content is based on fact and emotion – not rhetoric and themes
This new frontier represents a brave new world for the internal communications function, presenting us with a unique challenge and opportunity to make the quantum leap from necessary function to critical organizational priority.
COVID-19 has been a powerful and sad experience for all of us. The loss of life and impact on society continues to be unimaginable. Perhaps what we can glean from this experience is a deeper and more enlightened comprehension of the human condition and, with it, the means to prevent and overcome what may come ahead.
Stay safe and healthy!
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Seven tips to adapt internal communications in a time of crisis
As the world continues to grasp how the global COVID-19 pandemic is changing our reality, it’s fascinating and inspiring to see how organizations are pivoting and adapting their usual ways of operating. So many companies are finding innovative approaches to support the fight against the novel coronavirus, keep their communities ticking, or simply ensure business continuity.
Similarly, communications functions and professionals are being challenged to adapt their ways of working in this new environment. Internal communications professionals, in particular, are now confronted with an extraordinary situation – with the majority of the workforce required to work from home for an indefinite period of time, one of the most important internal communications channels has now gone quiet: face-to-face conversations.
In small and large organizations alike, a simple chat at the coffee machine, in the corridor or in the canteen can be highly valuable to get a sense of the mood within the wider workforce, to learn what aspects of the current business strategy employees are embracing wholeheartedly, and to understand what staff is struggling with. With these informal conversations missing from the daily routine, a critical piece of intelligence about employee perceptions is no longer informing management and communications decisions.
So how can internal communications functions compensate for the sudden shortfall of personal interaction among the workforce? Here are seven tips to keep in mind when navigating this new environment:
1. Follow the loudest voice data: In a crisis, it’s tempting to follow the voice that shouts the loudest. Instead, it’s always wise to follow the numbers. Take a look at how your employees’ use of internal communications channels has changed over the last few weeks. Are they opening all-employee emails more often than before? Is the HR hotline ringing non-stop? Can you observe a change in which topics generate the most interest on the intranet?
Use this data to see how employees’ preferences for types of information and where and how they want to find it has changed. In unusual times, certain topics or channels do not generate as much interest as they did historically.
2. Find alternative ways to listen: As much as I believe in numbers, data can never tell you the whole picture. In the absence of face-to-face communications, make an effort to identify the connectors in your organization and find out what they know.
Has your colleague in finance, while discussing invoicing, picked up on concerns people have? Have people managers or HR colleagues noticed a rising interest in topics that your internal communications content is not covering? Speak to your connectors and consider creating informal focus groups around them to uncover additional nuances.
3. Ask the audience: No one knows better what employees think than employees themselves. Now that your organization has had an opportunity to get used to working from home, consider asking your staff directly how they would like you to adapt internal communications, how often they would like to hear from the company, and what topics they are most interested in during these unusual times.
4. Change your routine: This isn’t a time for routine approaches, so be open to changes. If employees don’t seem to connect with the topics you deem most important or don’t favor the channel that always worked in the past, accept that and adapt your content and channels approach.
5. Make it personal: Working from home has introduced a curious phenomenon where formal business culture has somehow been relaxed. We all know each other’s make-shift home offices (a.k.a. living rooms), our employees’ partners, families, and pets! We’re starting to see our colleagues in a new dimension.
In these times, in particular, people want to see that their leaders are humans. This begins with putting your company’s leadership at the center of your communications and having them share updates in a personal, human and authentic tone.
6. Tell me about it: Because the COVID-19 pandemic affects us all, we cannot devise internal communications as a one-way street. The topic is overwhelming to society as a whole and to individuals. So why would we expect the internal communications function to know it all?
Encourage your employees to share their personal stories about how they are coping with the new situation. Ask them to be honest and vulnerable. Are they struggling with the “always-on” mentality that working from home seems to encourage? How are they juggling family life and work? What new routines work best for them in these bizarre circumstances? Ask people to share their perspectives – it will make employees feel more involved, create content that others will find relatable, and provide practical advice to drive employee satisfaction and productivity.
7. Listen and adapt. Listen and adapt. Don’t stop: One of the most impressive things about the coronavirus crisis is how quickly things have changed and continue to change at a rapid pace. As communicators, we can only be encouraged by this. Let’s be open to change.
Let’s listen to what our audiences, in this case employees, are interested in or concerned about and pivot accordingly. If one thing is certain, it’s that the crisis will evolve and, with it, people’s behavior and interests will change. Don’t stop listening and adapting – it’s a basic communications rule but has never been truer than in this rapidly changing crisis.
Let’s learn from one another and tackle this extraordinary situation together – as a unified collective, we will overcome this crisis.
Stay safe and stay healthy and let us know how you are adapting your internal communications!
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Why do leaders often fail to see the actual reason that corporate initiatives either succeed or fail, specifically in change management efforts? If you ask them, they will likely say that they just followed the facts. The facts pointed them in a direction that suggested the right result would ensue.
Unfortunately, in change, facts do not tell the whole story.
In a change environment, the telltale signs that illuminate shifts in behavior can be found in the nuance of relationships and activities. While the facts may indicate that you have communicated effectively, the reality may tell a completely different story. Why? Misinterpretation of signals. Focus on optics over action. Lack of focus. Little sense of urgency.
All of these can be masked by facts leading to the wrong conclusion. While facts are important, it’s much better to pay attention to and look for the following:
Questions: What type of questions are employees asking? This is a great indicator for how engaged and informed they are.
Connections: Who are employees looking to and working with? This provides a clue in how they are interpreting and operating against a change effort.
Attitudes: Are people’s attitudes different – either positive or negative – regarding the business or initiative?
Language: What words or phrases are being used in the organization that reflect its direction?
Purpose: How people find purpose in their lives and in their work is a barometer for performance and comprehension of strategy.
Facts are utilized to achieve a number of things in business not the least of which is to clarify uncertainty. But paying attention to the areas above provides a more agile and steerable resilience to change, informing communications to take a proactive approach. It gives you a point of view about the things that may not be clear yet, such as how people are assimilating the need to rethink the business.
Becoming a resilient organization able to withstand the vagaries of an ever-shifting mosaic is forcing leaders to change entire business models, transforming customers, financial and operational goals. Being astute about employee patterns and belief systems creates new opportunities for engagement and education. Coupled with data and insight, exploring and interpreting organizational rhythms of daily practices illuminates the root cause of dysfunction opening up new possibilities for change.
Change management is ultimately about creating new core competencies both as a business and as individuals.
Finding and leveraging people’s ability to adopt new skills, new thinking, and new behaviors can be found in the cracks so to speak, giving leaders and communicators the nuggets necessary to move forward.
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This is the time of year where much is written and said about what’s ahead in the new year. Prognostications abound detailing trends, truths and tribulations. Rather than looking ahead, though, it often makes sense to reflect on what we learned over the past year and glean important lessons that we can carry forward.
In that spirit, here are the key things I learned in 2019:
- Digital means an appreciation for connectivity– With all the fuss around digital transformation, the core idea centers on universal connectivity. With everything and everyone connected, data quickly translates into insight, creating value for brands and customers alike. Connectivity provides deeper and more lasting interactions based on information and behavior.
- Relevance is all about engagement– In a social/digital reality, relevance is the new reputation. Relevance is based on engagement with stakeholders via digital, social, traditional and face-to-face interaction. The level of engagement determines the ultimate relevance to audiences essential to the organization.
- Communications is effective when arguments are enlightened –Raising the level and the depth of interactions both internally and externally signals a more intellectual and respectful discussion, resulting in greater trust. When communications is effective, it ensures that people are confident, clear and properly informed.
- Strategy is a day one occurrence –The truth is that strategy works initially, and then real- time analysis and assessment dictates what comes next. Preparing for what’s next in strategy is no different than a football player who makes in-game changes once he/she understands what the competition is doing.
- Management is about focusing on the little things first –Knowing people’s strengths and respecting their concerns is important to directing resources and implementing initiatives. Managers who understand their reports beyond the job can better impact how they contribute to the business.
- Leadership must be sustained by action –A true leader must be able to act and decide. When a leader declares a new strategy or direction, he/she must execute actions and decisions that reinforce the go-forward plan.
- Bad strategy at the beginning sabotages the entire effort– When goals or objectives are substituted for strategy, which usually happens at the outset of a plan, program or initiative, the entire effort is sabotaged as critical issues are ignored.
At this time of year, taking a deep breath to collect your thoughts and discern insights from your actions is extremely helpful to succeeding in the year ahead. The lessons I’ve recapped above are meant to trigger your thinking, and they may even align with your own experiences.
Either way, here’s to a happy, healthy holiday season and a productive, successful new year!
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The Progression of Change (circa 1990-2020)
Change 1.0 – Business Process > changing how we do things
Change 2.0 – Business Strategy > changing what we do
Change 3.0 – Internal Alignment > engaging people to own each new day
Change 4.0 – The Digital Imperative
The Evolution of Change Management/Communications
In a white paper titled “Ten Tumultuous Years: Examining a Decade of Change,” I examined – some years ago – the concept of change management through the lens of strategic internal communications, exploring the implications for leaders and communicators alike. The premise reflected the current thinking as it related to organizational evolution in that change became a necessary ingredient in avoiding marginalization and maintaining competitiveness.
But that was then. What we have experienced since that time is an incredible journey of self-discovery – as leaders, managers, employees, consumers. In looking back, we would argue that the concept of organizational change is now in its fourth generation or phase – what we now call Change 4.0.
In Change 1.0, leaders placed “change” in a box, separating it from the very business it was meant to improve. When introducing a change initiative to their organization, leaders and management consultants would focus on communicating process, forming integration teams, and presenting workflow charts on a PowerPoint slide. While these efforts kept consultants employed and certain managers busy, none of them actually connected with the workforce or addressed how the business was going to ultimately improve. In fact, few early “reengineering” efforts actually addressed whether the process being improved was still relevant!
In Change 2.0, leaders, frustrated at the lack of success, turned their attention to the business’ strategy and direction. What business are we actually in? Who are our competitors? Do we have a discernable value to customers? Are we exploiting our core competencies or strengths for competitive advantage? Are we making the right investments including acquisitions to bolster our position?
Today, we are seeing the continued evolution of this thing called “change.”
Change 3.0 was about leaders recognizing that, unless and until employees (managers, supervisors, production, administration) see, believe and experience the totality of the business’ reality and assimilate its meaning to their individual reality, it doesn’t matter if the strategy or processes are improved, the company will not achieve the necessary results for sustained success.
In Change 4.0, we are in the midst of a digital revolution – meaning that connectivity, real-time learning, and continuous acceptance are overwhelming the transformation landscape, raising expectations and challenges.
The one constant through all this is how the organization responds and adapts to change. The oft quoted “change fatigue” is actually a misnomer as employees are less bothered by change but more concerned about what the change actually is and how it will impact their jobs and future.
The Digital Age
Today, technology is enabling and encouraging people to have a voice and an opinion. Unlike in the past, when a company could enforce its will on constituents, today, employees, consumers and customers all demand the right to be heard. This shift in expectations, combined with the challenges posed by an evolving economic landscape, has created an unprecedented sense of urgency for companies large and small to continuously examine their business model, purpose values and management approach to survive. “Change or die” has never been truer.
Change, then, is an all-encompassing description for any necessary shift in attitude, mind-set, behavior, approach, performance and measurement that is either in response to or ahead of internal/external forces.
What does this new reality mean for the practice of change management and, more specifically, change-oriented communications?
As leaders, we are challenged to seek new ways to engage employees during the journey of organizational change. We must optimize new technologies to involve our people through both an emotional and intellectual appeal. In the past decade, we have learned that we cannot effectively sustain interest by focusing on just the rational reasons behind a particular change in strategy, priority, system, process or product.
We have seen that when it comes to organizational change, people are likely to experience fear about their future, anxiety about their role and capability, skepticism based on previous unsuccessful efforts including a lack of institutional learning, and concern about the fate of their colleagues. This highly emotional response requires us as leaders to rethink the way we interact, manage and communicate with our people, as a rational explanation of the business needs for a particular change will be largely ineffective.
Data and analytics allow us to delve deeper into behavior and mindset as it relates to change. From determining what people truly understand, to where and how they need to receive information, to actions and performance, we can glean insights to direct communications and change initiative efforts.
Making Change Real
Against this backdrop, leaders have come to understand that change is a requirement of survival. Change is about uprooting the organization – its people, structure, processes, systems – to achieve financial and operational performance that results in long-term growth and prosperity.
The targets of change
While all change initiatives must have a clear goal or purpose, the underlying and long-term results should be seen in one important area – decision-making. Change efforts should focus on teaching people to develop new abilities and skills to make decisions, take risks, assess information, channel knowledge, engage others, build relationships and effectively deal in a real-time world from a position of confidence, not fear.
Change management, therefore, should be concentrated in four areas:
Any organizational change starts with leadership – leaders set the direction, tone, decision-making, accountabilities and consequences for an organization. But it’s not about what leaders are saying, it’s about what people are seeing. Through their actions, leaders can instill the necessary mindset around the organization’s vision, values, purpose, strategy and performance. This means that employees understand the direction and priority of the business almost intuitively.
To effect change, leadership must determine the narrative – that is, define the specifics of the effort against the backdrop of the business, its history, prospects, challenges and advantages. What exactly needs to be addressed and why? Further, leadership should establish a standard for how employees will interact with each other – defining and demonstrating how the company will provide information, listen, respond and engage people.
Done well, leaders provide the rationale, including the importance of renewing the business.
It’s management that will ultimately determine success. As leaders, we must equip managers with the skills and tools they need to make critical business decisions. Expectations of managers must be clear – if necessary, managers should be reoriented around specific expectations (e.g., how to listen, performance expectations). To make change real, performance metrics and new compensation models must be linked to their efforts.
The most powerful tool for a manager in effecting change is to ask a question. Experience has shown that an organizational “revolution” can’t begin without first asking the right questions. To succeed, businesses need to continually ask themselves insightful questions that will shape their future. Therefore, we must empower and encourage managers to question the status quo and challenge the assumptions upon which the business is built.
Within the context of change, communications must create a new conversation with employees, customers and other stakeholders. This means we must move away from focusing primarily on what we’re going to say and, instead, achieve a true dialogue through active listening, feedback, policies, accountability and decision-making,
Too often, companies confuse events with experience. Effective communications is about more than communication “events,” such as town hall meetings and executive speeches. It’s about connecting events to experience, by filling in the action in between (e.g., what happens before and after the town hall). Communications must translate the change strategy into stories that people can relate to – by bringing the outside in, by using relevant examples, by telling stories about real people.
Most change is needed because organizations fight themselves. Thus, the real focus of change is to tear down bureaucracy and move forward. To make change meaningful and lasting, the structure of the organization must be re-aligned to support the change effort. When this occurs, leadership, management and communications are in sync with where the business is going, and each understands their respective roles in getting there.
Similarly, systems are critical. As leaders, we must ask ourselves a number of questions. How do we manage employees? What are the key relationships within the organization? What are our policies? How do we compensate employees? How do we interact with them? This is where the “rubber meets the road” in any change effort.
Contextualizing Change in the Current Environment
Against this backdrop, how do we as leaders successfully effect change within our organizations? What are the key lessons learned over the past 20 years?
Social is a complement
In a digital world, it’s easy to mistake technology as a replacement for face-to-face interaction. Winning organizations employ social to support interaction not to replace it.
First and foremost, any major corporate undertaking is a chance to continuously learn and grow. The process is an iterative one, yet many change consultants and business leaders attempt to package the process in a linear box believing that things will happen in proper sequence if they deem it so. The true value for people involved in such efforts is their ability to learn and share, to formulate their own insights, and to forge perspectives that keep their involvement crisp and real.
Timing and audience cadence
We have seen major organizational change efforts implode because the announcement and introduction phase came too early. Any serious change effort should begin with at least a build-up of two to three months where the conversation internally begins with leadership and focuses on new and different topics, told in robust and interesting ways. Instead of the usual corporate rah-rah information told in typical corporate speak, a more personal, authentic and provocative form of communication that encourages discussion, dialogue and debate should be used.
This new rhetoric should be complemented by specific outreach to managers at all levels to set the stage for the current competitive or business reality, followed by a discussion of the various approaches the organization is contemplating taking to address them.
Communications as catalyst
To continue running the play above, we must take a broader, strategic view of communications. We must go beyond process updates to incorporate messaging on desired results and a vision for the future. We’ve learned that we must separate communications from the change process and, instead, focus on telling stories about the business, which will provide content and context around the reasons for change. All communications must answer these questions: What is changing? How does it affect me and my function? What does success look like? How are we tracking progress? What is the organization doing to support me in my efforts to engage? Will I become better through the process?
The bottom line is that communications must facilitate an organizational dialogue, not a leadership monologue. This requires a completely new perspective as it relates to communications being a driver of knowledge, insight and counter opinions in an ongoing discussion
What are you solving for?
The number one area in change is recognizing the cause versus the symptom. It’s so easy to chase symptoms in change and communications, expending time, energy and resources on the wrong things. Addressing the cause and then solving for it focuses energy and action in the right place.
Strategy in narrative form
Translating a business strategy into a story or narrative is one of the most important things that can be done in change. The story provides a picture of the effort, makes it personal, and reinforces the context for people.
Employees are an audience
In a digital age, every stakeholder group is an active, engaged and vocal entity providing influence across a wide spectrum. Employees, in particular, are the most trusted group for an organization and their opinions are the most sought and respected.
Begin with where people really are, not where we want them to be
In the past, we allowed consulting firms to define communications as a dissemination model without any respect for what people wanted to hear and where they currently were. Today, we understand that we must employ research to gain a clear understanding of the values and beliefs of management and employees.
What’s often missing in change efforts is a sense of empathy – ensuring your efforts acknowledge the individual and what they are experiencing.
Ensure messages are relevant and dynamic versus “rah-rah”
Remember that information about the direction of the business has little meaning to employees unless a line of sight can be drawn to their daily activities and responsibilities. Segmentation is key. A homogenous approach to communicate to all audiences is bound to fail. We must consider people’s individual perspectives and priorities and focus on creating relevance.
Communications must be clear and easily understood. It must avoid jargon and corporate-speak. But even more importantly, communications must tell a story.
Don’t mistake tools for solutions
Communicators often mistake tactics for strategy and solutions.
Think about your employees like a public constituency
Employees must be treated as if they are a public constituency capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and, ultimately, organizational success. We must fight for their attention just as we would with a customer.
As with any external constituency, you should consider leveraging a variety of communications tools and techniques to engage your people, including, but not limited to, face-to-face meetings, social media, learning modules, manager intervention, network outreach, messaging and pulse checks.
Focus on education versus promotion
Any change effort should be viewed through the lens of learning and development – moving people from where they are to a new place. Promoting a new initiative – through promotional materials, emails, slogans, etc. – does not add to someone’s understanding or knowledge. Instead, focus on training managers and delivering engaging, two-way communications versus one-way “push” vehicles.
Be proactive in terms of addressing critics and concerns head-on
People don’t fear change as much as inconsistency and uncertainty. Confusion is a part of change – you can expect that people will feel frustrated, concerned, skeptical and angry about change. People accept change more easily if they feel they are being dealt with honestly and if they are engaged in a dialogue about their concerns. Utilize communications to encourage dialogue, discussion and debate – this type of engagement leads to learning.
What Does the Future of Change Look Like?
After reflecting on how change management has evolved in the past 10 years, it’s interesting to consider how things will continue to change in the years ahead. How will the concept of “change” continue to evolve? How will the role of communications be redefined?
Change will increasingly become “business as usual.” Embracing and effecting change will become a part of the operating model for companies and, increasingly, CEOs will emphasize a focus on the business rather than the process of change. More and more, communications will be a strategic methodology that brings change to life – creating new conversations internally, facilitating dialogue among leaders, managers and employees, and initiating social interaction both inside and outside the company – rather than being a disseminator of information.
As technology leads organizations to constantly reassess their purpose and value, so too communications will be a provocative catalyst for change.
- Is there a there there? What is the change?
- Consider how people assimilate information. What do you want employees to know, feel, do?
- Have you clearly defined the reasons for change? Are your communications answering the question “What is this change meant to achieve?” Remember that if the goal is clear, you won’t have to sell a change.
- Are you seeing the world through the eyes of your workforce and management team? Remember that information about the direction of the business has little meaning to employees unless a line of sight can be drawn to their daily activities and responsibilities.
- Think externally to legitimize internal actions – the marketplace should dominate the internal dialogue.
- How will communications be conducted in a social and digital environment? What will employees do with the information?
- How will people know it’s working? What are the markers and guideposts to guide the effort?
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As companies navigate an uncertain future, the need to change has never been greater. So why is the formula still broken?
According to a number of reputable studies, a majority of organizations fail to gain the intended result from a major corporate transformation or change initiative. From an M&A standpoint, new strategy deployment, safety improvement, cost-containment, quality excellence, new product commercialization, and top-line revenue growth, too often, the tendency among leaders, managers and communicators is to translate important efforts into a campaign without specifics, leaving employees confused and ill prepared. The old adage, “people hate change” is actually wrong. What people hate is not knowing what the change is and how they need to engage in the effort.
With so much upheaval in business today, transformation is the mantra of today’s CEO. But why is it so difficult for a new initiative, such as a product launch, a cost-cutting measure, a business strategy or even a turnaround effort, to succeed?
Consider the case of a global automotive company, poised to introduce a line of redesigned high-end sport utility vehicles (SUVs) – a move so critical to the organization’s future that senior management believed it would mean the difference between the company’s success and failure. To win, the company needed to redesign virtually every aspect of its operations and how it performed. Yet, instead of providing employees with the specifics of new behaviors, and the needed training and rationale for the new product line, leadership asked internal communications to promote the situation via a campaign to get employees “excited” about the new vehicles.
What went wrong?
Welcome to the new business reality – one where business-critical initiatives, whether a new corporate strategy or an M&A – can succeed or fail based on whether or not the workforce understands and accepts them. “The dynamic has changed,” notes one senior leader. “People have to first comprehend the reality and then dictate exactly what they need to succeed. No longer can transformation be dictated from the top. There has to be a real dialogue, including constructive disagreement in order for people to buy in.”
As the research indicates, many well-intentioned major initiatives have failed or never gotten off the ground because company leaders and communicators either ignored detailing the actual areas of change necessary or trivialized the effort with slogans, big-scale launch events, and motivational programs designed to stir up employee enthusiasm and acceptance. According to an expert, initiatives introduced with this kind of fanfare and no substance are doomed to failure. “Typically, what happens is that management decides the business is no longer competitive and rethinks its entire model. Communications – usually after the fact – is directed at communicating the change or transformation initiative in order to elicit employee buy-in.”
“What’s the Change?”
Transformation or change is neither shiny nor exciting. It’s disruptive. It’s unwieldy. It’s kinetic. The most egregious error CEOs make in a transformation effort is failing to identify the specific change necessary for the business to succeed. By not providing specifics, employees are left hearing noise instead of information. Without critical information on what people should do to survive and thrive in a new reality, the transformation effort is akin to visiting Disney World without the attractions.
Further, aligning the initiative to your culture can accelerate your success. Corporate culture is an organization’s greatest asset when it comes to implementing critical initiatives. From a total reorganization to putting into practice a new business strategy, corporate initiatives can best succeed if the organization’s culture is stable, high-performing and open to change. Unfortunately, a dysfunctional culture can stop any corporate initiative in its tracks. These are cultures that exhibit the following characteristics:
- A top-down leadership style
- Unhealthy competition between functions – or turf wars
- A sense of entitlement
- No accountability
- Low levels of employee trust
Honest discussion, including dialogue and debate between and among leadership, managers and employees, is the bedrock of a healthy corporate culture and, if nurtured over time, can help an organization overcome cultural barriers. Open, honest communication can transform dysfunctional cultures into workplaces that have a bias for action, a sense of urgency and employee commitment, and fortitude to see initiatives through to their successful outcomes.
We’ve experienced a direct and strong correlation between successful initiative implementation and a strong internal communications system – integrated with leadership and management decision-making, multiple channels, content centralization, manager involvement, feedback mechanisms and a push-pull system of information exchange.
This is the most overlooked, under-appreciated yet powerful insight for an organization going through change, transformation, renewal or some form of a corporate initiative effort.
Behind any important corporate initiative is a solid management and communications system to support it. The system is meant to support the purpose or goal of the effort. It includes the proper training efforts, the essential information infrastructure and reporting model, while spelling out the specific measures to determine progress against the goal.
Too often, major corporate initiatives lack this protocol, and, in many instances, communicators fail to inquire about or question such a process, opting instead to develop the tools, techniques and materials meant to communicate the program.
When brought into a planning situation regarding a corporate program, strategy or initiative, communicators can make a solid contribution or even influence important decisions by asking insightful, specific questions. Whether we’re talking about a new corporate strategy, a cost containment program, a new system or quality effort such as Six Sigma, the following questions can go a long way to ensuring that communications support and reinforce the effort:
- What is the primary reason for such an effort?
- How will the effort be led, managed, measured, rewarded?
- Who/what are the critical levers in the effort (i.e., those that are the difference between success and failure)?
- What do people need to know, feel and do in order to make this effort successful?
- What types of training/skills are needed?
- What actions will legitimize the effort? What may be an obstacle?
- Will this effort require significant behavior change? By whom?
- What role will management play?
- What are the milestones to indicate progress?
This management/communication integration is critically important because, in a corporate transformation effort, for instance, communications can actually become the de facto management plan in that the need to communicate and get people engaged trumps the time it takes to pull a management or deployment plan together. In this regard, both management and communications must be tied together at the hip and work in concert throughout the change initiative process.
Corporate slogans and other internal branding tag lines are usually developed to sharpen employee focus around an internal initiative, but end up as the punch line in employee jokes at best. They are also indicators of how clueless senior management and communicators are when it comes to reaching employees and gaining their buy-in.
Another slogan trap can occur when external branding initiatives or advertising campaigns are tweaked and unleashed inside the organization. Several years ago, a major domestic airline attempted to translate an advertising theme into a company-wide platform to change the corporate culture and employee behavior. The theme appeared in all communications channels and then made its way to specific training and development programs. The goal was to convince the airline’s passengers that employees care and were trying to always do better in terms of service and capabilities. According to the airline, the training programs were part of a larger effort designed to empower all employees to do whatever it takes to provide more professional and enjoyable travel experiences for customers.
The result: The effort was dead on arrival. Employees felt betrayed by the company for suggesting – first in their ads and then with a very public internal effort – that they were solely responsible for the problems customers faced. Additionally, since the entire concept started out as an advertising campaign, it lacked the credibility and discipline of a management directive, relying instead on slick tools and vehicles to convey messages and change perceptions.
The lesson: Slogans breed mistrust and ridicule. They are a sales tool, and employee wariness is natural. Whether developed specifically for employees or adapted from an advertising tagline, slogans are difficult to turn into viable corporate initiatives since they are not outgrowths of strategy. With no support or investment and, therefore, no buy-in and credibility with employees – and worse, customers – slogans that become initiatives are only as good as the next advertising campaign.
What we have seen in the earlier examples is that “selling” people on anything today, particularly important changes in business direction, is next to impossible.
After decades of experiencing “the sell,” consumers and employees have developed a force ﬁeld around their emotions. Breaking through is the challenge facing today’s leaders and communicators.
Given that, it’s time for communicators and managers to change the formula. A new formula is emerging that allows consumers and employees to discover the very attributes the organization needs them to experience in order to be successful. This enables people to engage in the business: to sense, feel, think, act and relate. From an internal standpoint, this is being translated in a variety of ways:
- Changing the style and tone of messages to reﬂect a more mature, diverse workforce;
- Making available additional information around key programs, strategies, etc., in a “pull” format so interested employees can learn more;
- Running pilot efforts to test programs, messages and systems and gain early buy-in and positive word-of-mouth;
- Including dissent in ofﬁcial discussions to provide a true learning opportunity; and
- Ensuring proper training and system support throughout the initiative life cycle
A fatal flaw many organizations and leaders make is to not respect the time people need to probe, investigate, test and acknowledge the change being sought.
Often leaders immerse themselves in a strategy or initiative and then drop it on the rest of the organization, expecting people to acknowledge it and get up to speed in days or weeks versus the time spent by the leaders to delve into, discuss, debate, research and agree on both the rationale for change and the actual initiative or strategy itself.
The lesson in change is to respect the learning curve as the initiative’s success is dependent upon employee understanding, acceptance and commitment to the effort.
Leaders, managers and communicators have tended to treat employees as a captive audience and, to a lesser extent, a necessary burden. The result can often be compared to dealing with employees as children – spoon feeding them rhetoric and, worse, pabulum, in the belief that they would just “eat it up.” The reality is that employees are smart, knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children and actively involved in their communities and the world around them.
To be effective organizationally, employees must be treated as if they are a public constituency (versus an audience) capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and ultimately, organizational success – which they are! This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication. The situation at excellent organizations notwithstanding, the crux of the problem at many organizations is that neither management nor the communications function understands that today’s employees are savvy and need to be treated as mature, intelligent, capable adults. Instead of motivational speeches and parties, leaders and managers need to give employees the facts, the rationale, the objectives, goals, training and follow-up information to make change stick. Then, they need to provide encouragement, inspiration and the tools to get the job done. “Forget the rah-rah sessions,” agrees one senior communications expert. “Employees want the tools to make their jobs easier and more satisfying. Don’t trivialize important initiatives with launch parties and meaningless tchotchkes.”
Moving forward, what can today’s leaders and managers do to help prevent their initiatives from becoming empty slogans and losing credibility? The following guideposts are intended to help guide leaders as they grapple with how best to gain acceptance for their next product launch, redeployment or cost-cutting initiative.
- You cannot separate communications from management planning and decision-making. Instead of turning to the communications function when you’re ready to introduce a new initiative, involve communications people in the process from the beginning. The more they know about the initiative, the better prepared they’ll be to set clear communications objectives that are in alignment with the business initiative.
- Corporate initiatives must become the priority for all managers. If managers don’t believe in the strategy and make change a priority, no one else will. Deal with managers ﬁrst, immerse them in the initiative, train them and address their concerns.
- Education versus promotion. Any corporate initiative should be viewed through the lens of learning and development, and moving people from where they are to a new place – one that allows them to stretch, grow and excel at higher levels. Promoting a new initiative leaves the intended audience – employees – paralyzed in terms of behavior change.
- Employees and customers must experience the change inherent in the new initiative rather than being told about it in literature, promotional materials, presentations, speeches, emails and other forms of one-way communications.
- Make sure you get the message right. Employees need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Then, they need to know how it will affect them, their group, their department, their ofﬁce, etc. Always listen to their concerns, issues and requirements. What’s the timetable? What will success look like? How will each employee make a difference? Don’t do anything without understanding what employees believe about the organization and their jobs right now.
- Before you embark on a new initiative, start with where employees are, not where you’d like to take them. This accomplishes two things: first, it nurtures a respect that you understand the current reality; and second, it allows for a more realistic assessment of how the initiative evolves and adapts.
- When it comes to launching new initiatives, don’t copy other organizations’ success stories and expect the same results. Every organization has a unique culture and too many companies try to copy what others do and how they act instead of how they think. Remember: You can’t benchmark “mind-set.”
- Avoid mnemonic devices designed to characterize corporate strategy and initiatives, such as “The Plan” or “Focus. Invest. Act.” These tend to de-legitimize the purpose and importance of the program.
- Work together to assess people’s reactions. Make sure whatever media you employ include mechanisms to solicit and evaluate feedback.
- Face-to-face interaction is critical to building respect and rapport, encouraging involvement and improving comprehension. Indirect communication methods (e.g., email, newsletters, video, broadcast) should be used to reinforce but not substitute leadership communication.
In the final analysis, management and communications must spend time on defining the actual transformation that must take place and articulating it to the organization to begin a process of assimilation and movement.
Today’s employees deserve more than to be sold on a decision that management has already made – they must understand it and be involved with it. In the end, corporate initiatives mean change, and successful implementation means a shift in mindset. Leaders need to take into account what employees want, need and are willing to hear. Success is all about outcomes, not outputs.
Ask yourself: are you equipping your employees with the knowledge they need to make effective decisions and help the company reach its goals? Have you provided employees with a venue for healthy discussion, dialogue and debate as a backdrop for the initiative? In the end, transformation is about relevance. The more people comprehend and absorb the elements of the change so they can adapt accordingly, the faster the transformation can happen. To that end, communications is both catalyst and guide in the process – but it takes a complete rethinking of internal communications from a promotional tool to a strategic lever.
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Working with the Volume Off…Ignoring Content to See Clearly Overcoming the attention deficit syndrome via strategic internal communications and change management
An overwhelming byproduct of today’s digital reality is the volume of content produced for consumption. Unfortunately, most of the information is not relevant to the intended audience. This results in a whole lot of waste and missed opportunity for individual benefit. This is particularly true when addressing employees. When an organization fails to recognize it is not engaging its workforce and the content it is producing is not hitting the mark, two things are wasted: information and opportunity. Just when organizations have made improving relationships with employees a priority, they’ve encountered an interesting, sobering reality – employees aren’t listening.
People today are choosing to work without listening. The key to improving their awareness and understanding is to watch what’s happening around them to discern what’s real and authentic. Through the years, the necessity for leaders to strengthen relationships with employees has risen to the point that it is now a pillar of competitive advantage. Today, an uninformed workforce can spell disaster for any organization attempting to navigate through the treacherous waters of global business. To that end, while internal communications has been fast becoming a strategic means to change and drive an organization, the result has mostly been a flurry of activity around tactics, content and mechanisms. This results in a flood of information raining down on employees, most of which lacks the relevance and context necessary to affect behavior and performance.
The sobering truth is that leaders believe they are “communicating.” Yet, while communicators are certainly keeping busy with the tactics of communicating, employees have responded by tuning out the “noise” and focusing only on the picture – that is, responding only to what they see happening around them. In reality, what organizational leadership needs to accomplish in order to drive change is to capture employee attention and ensure every person in the organization understands that they largely control the company’s success or failure, as it is determined by how every employee thinks, what they focus on, and how they execute their responsibilities on a daily basis.
These days, employees find themselves defending against information that lacks context, depth and meaning. A number of studies have found that employees attribute ill health and stress directly to the crushing amount of information they are expected to handle, resulting in low job satisfaction. Alas, despite everything we’ve learned about strategic communications over the past two decades, many corporations can be compared to stubborn patients who refuse to see their doctors despite knowing better. What’s worse in this case is that the communications counselor is too often compliant, willing to continue focusing on the latest technology (e.g., blogs, quarterly financial announcements and corporate videos) while the organization’s very viability is under threat.
Just as some baseball fans watch their favorite team with the volume off to escape the incessant noise posing as commentary and insights, employees are watching, but choosing not to listen. They look for visual cues and pay attention to what’s going on around them, as company information raises questions rather than answers them.
For instance, employees may hear or read in a company publication about a new initiative that realigns the way things are done. But then they see leadership or their managers operating in the same manner as they always have. What’s the real message for them? Is the company embarking on a new paradigm or not? “Probably not,” employees say to one another. The result is widespread cynicism instead of the enthusiasm and commitment that business organizations need in order to grow and thrive. Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that employees are working with the volume off? For many, it has become a self-defense mechanism, tuning it all out because they have no choice if they are to get their jobs done. Yet, there’s no denying that there are critical messages that your employees must receive – particularly the critical need for employees to understand, embody and act on the company’s strategy. A startling fact uncovered in recent surveys indicates that a low percentage of the workforce, including managers and supervisors, understands the company’s strategy, and that leadership is aghast at that fact.
This knowledge deficiency among managers is a serious problem because these are the very people who must drive the strategy.
So, how do you cut through the clutter and noise to ensure that the messages are received, understood and acted on?
To capture employees’ attention when the volume is off, we have to adopt a “discover” approach rather than a “sell” approach, meaning the most effective communication is when people discover for themselves leadership’s strategic intent. In this regard, communications can help employees experience the necessary changes and the benefits of new corporate initiatives needed to drive organizational strategy. Initiatives, in this vein, are owned by employees rather than viewed as an ever changing “program of the month.”
In the example below, we’ve outlined the difference between a discover vs. sell approach for an organization introducing a new corporate strategy:
A sell approach addresses employees as a homogeneous audience and typically includes the following actions:
- All employees are given theme-adapted, visual posters, coffee mugs and/or screensavers
- CEO sends an email to all employees and an article about the new strategy is posted on the company intranet
- Information slides are given to all managers telling them what to say to their teams
- Cascading of information is expected
The discover approach allows people to engage in the effort on their terms and typically includes:
- Sessions with leaders and management detailing marketplace realities, competitive issues, etc
- Analysis and insights on employee attitudes, issues and behaviors
- Cadenced communications peppered with information on the marketplace, competition and its impact on the company, relevant to employee reality
- Briefings on strategy with managers, supervisors and union leaders
- CEO involvement
- Focus on plans and budgets in line with the new strategy
- “Immersion days” for all employees by function to make strategy and the business relevant.
In the latter, more effective approach, communications provides context for decisions. In that sense, all communications should answer the following questions for employees:
- How are managers conveying the initiative?
- What are employees’ understanding?
- Are there pathways to action?
- What does leadership need to do to ensure progress?
- How can the organization better collaborate for success?
From an internal communications standpoint, the goal of engaging employees today rests with influencing what employees see rather than merely the messages they hear. We must guide employees to understand and believe through experiential techniques – discover vs. sell. And we must encourage employee engagement with the company on an emotional level. Let employees see how senior management shares the challenge of cost containment and cost reduction. Let them see how leadership treats customers with respect. Let them feel passionate about the brand. Let them see how the organization handles crises, puts values into action, and translates strategy into financial performance.
Internal communications is no longer about messaging and events. It’s about discovery. Involvement. Feedback. Conversation.
Remember, in a digital world, people are doing more looking than listening!
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Avoiding the most potent byproduct of digital
Strong brands have a special relationship with employees and consumers – one that transcends the very product or service being offered. If you doubt that for a moment, consider the relationships brands such as Apple, Harley-Davidson or Tesla have with their customers. Few would argue that Apple is “just” a consumer technology company, or that Harley Davidson “just” makes motorcycles, or that Tesla “just” makes electric vehicles. These brands have more than customers. They have advocates who, to some degree, actually view and shape their lives through their relationships with these brands.
Many consumers are willing to pay more and stick with brands over time. A recent study even demonstrated that more than half of consumers are willing to pay a 20% premium on branded meat. However, if relationships are seriously damaged – or worse marginalized – when organizations fail to fully understand or appreciate the very essence of the bond between audience and brand, then brands are transformed into mere companies, or organizations that lose the often-transcendent relationship brands enjoy with their stakeholders.
But in a digital age, the ease at which brands can become companies – faceless bureaucracies – is quick and often undetectable. What does it mean to transform from a brand into a company? When a brand adopts a more company-like demeanor and approach, something usually triggers it. The product experience lacks a value-added component. Engagement is inconsistent if not invisible. Quality has slipped. The competition has leapfrogged you and provided something new or different. Consumers believe you’re taking their loyalty for granted. Employee turnover or lower morale has resulted in poor service – often the result of a lack of employee understanding or approval of the brand’s strategic direction. The marketing and communications commitment dips and the character and personality of the brand is muted or, worse, lost across multiple platforms.
As strategic communicators, we sit in the best position to listen for these cues and then drive the organization into a state of action. This can be accomplished through changing the dialogue, keeping content current, maintaining relevance, raising the flag in certain areas for step-change improvements, supporting the reinvention of the workplace environment to foster critical employee understanding and involvement, and directing communications efforts that build relationships and support leaders in focusing the organization on critical priorities.
And, more often than not, it means making the seemingly little things “important” again.
The bond between brand and consumer in a digital world can be severed when organizations stray from what they do best or fail to pay attention to how employee and customer relationships are evolving. Or, they take their eye off the ball, so to speak, and spend more time on product features vs. brand benefits.
When this happens, brands become companies – a devastating transformation that compromises the very viability of an organization. Because when a brand becomes a company, it loses qualities both tangible and intangible, often permanently.
It forgets what it stands for. It emphasizes processes rather than people, policies rather than purpose, and themes rather than concepts. It’s when metrics supplant instead of support purpose, meaning, benefit and belief. It’s driven by analysis instead of passion, market research instead of insight, and cost reduction instead of revenue generation.
When a brand is seen as a company, the dialogue shifts away from innovation, people, ideas and relevancy, and focuses strictly on narrow measures. It means crises that might otherwise represent unfortunate blips on the radar screen become much bigger threats to the organization’s longer-term reputation and performance. With this comes a huge lost opportunity to motivate employees, influence consumer behavior and remain relevant. Ultimately, employees become rudderless, investors become cynical, and consumers become confused, indifferent or even angered.
The damage, in short, can be irreversible…even fatal.
Building trust, performing consistently, responding to customers in both positive and negative situations, exceeding audience expectations, and realizing whether or not you’re giving people a reason to care about your brand is the stuff brands are made of. It’s imperative that brand leaders constantly evaluate how well they’re managing these criteria.
Good Brands Gone Corporate
Strong brands have the luxury of being viewed through a different lens by consumers, prospects, suppliers, analysts, media and employees. They are more heavily evaluated by subjective measures, such as their promise, innovation, personality, history and creativity – all of which are conveyed through product development and commercialization, marketing, communications and the overall interaction between the brand and its constituents.
Companies, on the other hand, are generally measured by more objective, sometimes less-forgiving criteria, such as market share, profitability, revenue, new product pipeline, leadership and overall competitive advantage. Of course, a brand cannot exist without these measures. They are the reality of business success. The need to operate with discipline and competency – having the appropriate systems, processes, structures and networks – to keep pace financially is critical. What we are talking about is when business measures supplant, impede or negate what the brand stands for and is expected to deliver. When finances drive the brand, the brand loses.
Companies are evaluated intellectually based on hard numbers – and if the numbers don’t look good, watch out! Brands, in contrast, are certainly evaluated for their hard numbers, but they are also evaluated emotionally and experientially based on innovation, history and purpose.
As a result, they’re far more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt in difficult times, unless the benefit of the doubt is abused by the brand reneging on its core promise or losing focus by trying to chase too many consumers.
When that happens, what took years or decades to build can evaporate in what seems like an instant. Even your most loyal constituent is bound to make an exception and forget your face.
Or, they’ll do even worse. In the age of the blog, companies failing to live up to their brand promise are savaged on the Internet for everyone – employees, consumers, media – to see.
The reasons brands devolve into companies are varied. But, collectively, they inspire a series of questions and considerations for all brand leaders:
- Do we understand the essence of our relationship with consumers?
- Are we truly a digital organization?
- What’s our engagement with key audiences in a social and digital realm?
- How relevant are we with stakeholders?
- Do we understand how our constituents feel about our brand right now?
- Do we understand what they’ll need from us tomorrow?
- Have employees internalized our vision and goals, meaning do they behave in a way that reinforces the consumer relationship?
- Are our Marketing and Communications developing and nurturing relationships? Are they leading our brand into the future or being led by events?
The answers lie directly with being able to answer these two questions:
- Are we focused on the right things?
- Do we place more value on research and analysis or on passion and insight?
Rediscovering Your “Center of Gravity”
Brands that have resurrected themselves focus on the same themes: mission, value, systems, policies, engagement, content and procedures. Those are the things that drive companies, each one indistinguishable from the other, functioning in lockstep. Brands, on the other hand, aren’t driven by those kinds of things any more than sports teams are driven by uniforms and half-time shows.
Brands are about Passion. People. Creativity. Consistency. Insight. Flexibility in an ever-changing business environment. A maniacal, emotional commitment to a shared vision and focus.
Today, more than ever before, organizations must focus on getting consumers to maintain an interest in your brand. Listening to them. Paying attention to how their lives are changing.
Brand leaders, including the CEO and heads of Marketing, Communications, Finance, HR, etc., would do well to remind themselves of that. How? Become an employee of your organization and a consumer of your offerings. Then determine the relationship you’ve experienced. Does your brand respect you? Does it care about you? Does it ask for your opinion? Does it even hear you?
You may be surprised.
Signs your Brand is Becoming a Company
As strategic communicators, we can assist our leaders in avoiding, recognizing or addressing the areas where the brand is becoming a company. As such, how well is your brand avoiding these pitfalls?
- Digital is viewed as channel vs. business model. Digital is a way of conducting business by influencing every facet of the organization.
- Brands are seen as logos, ads, signs and messages. These are just the symbols and signs representing your brand identity. Brands exist in people’s minds based on the experiences and feelings products and services provide them consistently. Great brands are relationships built on processes and cues.
- Financial reality and discipline have been decoupled from brand management. If your brand is not producing positive financial results, there is something inherently wrong with the business model. Financial results must be an integral part of the brand architecture if the brand is to be sustained.
- Brand is relegated to Marketing. The Marketing function is important, but the CEO and senior managers are your chief brand stewards. If they don’t publicly buy in to – and drive – your vision, no one else will either. Marketing is important, but the CEO, senior managers and employees must be passionate about the brand. Brand attributes must permeate the organization through its policies, systems, processes and, yes, products and services.
- Marketing and Communications are viewed as functions not as part of the management model. A function in a company is treated as a by-product of the organization’s decision-making whereas brands treat these two components as part of the decision-making and brain trust of a company.
- Internal priorities are seen as an end in themselves. No one is paying attention to how employee and customer relationships are evolving.
- Brand is viewed as a plan vs. a mantra. Beware the brand plan. Look for brand “cues” instead. Building and nurturing a brand is not a linear process.
- Employee metrics don’t directly connect to improving customer experiences. Are employees focused on doing things right or doing the right things?
- Employees are seen as implementing a program, instead of being part of a blueprint. The best brands tell employees what to accomplish, not how to do it.
- Internal communications are based on the intellectual not the emotional. Emotionally committed employees are your best ambassadors.
- Analysis replaces passion. “Thinking about what people feel” loses everything in its translation.
- Cost reduction without revenue generation takes center stage. This causes employees to focus on eliminating instead of creating, and customers to search for other alternatives.
- Opportunities to share knowledge and experiences are seen as expenses. In reality, they’re critical investments essential to growth.
- Research replaces insight. Experience and first-hand knowledge, not computer printouts and focus groups, drive brand relevance and growth.
If you agreed with one or more of the above, your brand may be on a path to becoming a mere company.
Strategic communicators can help reverse this slide by focusing on three areas:
- Shift the Dialogue from Inside to Outside.
Draw a direct line of sight from internal goals around costs, restructurings, quality and productivity back to the customer experience and the brand’s promise. Infiltrate employee forums and interactions with new thinking, new ideas and relevant, context-based and dynamic information that influences behavior.
- Link the Financial Arm to Drive Brand Relevance.
Ensure that financial priorities and business metrics are supportive to improving the brand promise and that messages are consistent internally and externally in this regard.
- Listen and Ensure Transparency to Gain Trust.
Allow the organization and its stakeholders to view how others perceive the brand by providing a new lens to see through.
Doing so will allow employees and consumers to do two things:
- Connect the Dots – Without jumping to the punch line in our communications and/or marketing, consumers and employees will be able to understand our story in their own way.
- Discover – People will experience the brand in a credible way that is conducive to an ongoing relationship based on trust.
These actions will result in a different attitude and new behaviors consistent with the brand’s personality.
Brand is a powerful business lever for long-term success especially in today’s social and digital reality.
Can leaders and communicators really afford not to leverage it?
Over the last three decades, change management has evolved to become a series of messages, PowerPoints and meetings meant to inspire and motivate people about the road ahead. Often, those approaches ring hollow to employees because they don’t reflect reality. The result is distrust and distaste in the company and leadership. What’s lacking in all of this? Engagement.
Getting employees to participate in change or transformation begins with trust. Trust that espouses participation, involvement and conversation. But how do you engender trust in a time of uncertainty, doubt and skepticism?
- Relevance–All information must be tied to addressing what you want employees to know, feel and do. Messages must reflect the actual change effort.
- Face-to-Face Interaction–Placing leaders and managers in front of employees – via meetings, town halls, briefings, videos – provides a sense of stability and confidence throughout the process.
- Feedback–Responding to employee ideas, suggestions and complaints is essential to earning trust as it establishes a level playing field and demonstrates the organization cares.
- Progress– As simple as this sounds, reporting on the change initiative frequently provides a sense of accomplishment and meaning to the workforce.
When deployed properly, the four elements that engender trust cause “emergence.” Emergence creates something new and interesting that is critical to successful change.
Change is a very personal experience. On the one hand, it challenges your purpose and competence. On the other hand, it encourages new thinking and experimentation. The underlying reason for any major organizational change is to reposition the business for future growth. When organizations confront the challenges of a shifting marketplace, they begin to assess an array of strategic options.
This results in a fresh view of the business and a clear narrative. Beginning here, the workforce begins to assimilate a different way of conducting work without the benefit of formal engagement activities.
As such, change efforts tend to go in one of two ways: Communications becomes a promotional circus whereby the goal is to “sell” people on the change. Or, communications is employed as a learning institution geared more as a “discover” model for people to identify with the change.
The myth that often surrounds change is that people hate change. What we’ve found is that people are more willing to accept change if it is clear, consistent and important. If the “audio matches the video” so to speak. From a cultural perspective, employees in a receptive environment are better able to accept new ways of working and thinking. Communications must operate on a more emotional level to allow people to identify with the new worldview, thus creating a bridge to the future.
Corporate transformations are now a way of life. Unfortunately, history has not been kind to such endeavors. From a communications standpoint, the most important contribution rests on building trust, not tactics.
And it starts with having employees answer one question: “Why should I trust you?”
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With Organizational Culture being the difference maker in success, removing blockages can accelerate growth
With all the talk about corporate culture today and how critically important it is to organizational health and success, and the ability to execute strategy flawlessly, we’d like to share the fatal mistakes often made to undermine a productive and collaborative culture. These mistakes can be characterized by four types of executions – Blinded by the Light; Sound of Silence; Right Time, Wrong Me; and the Spirit is Alive:
- Symptoms vs Cause – Too often, leaders and managers focus on negative symptoms when culture goes bad and ignore the specific cause. Culture is a complex formula comprising policies, manager behavior, leadership direction, promotional policies, etc. All of which conspire to form habits, behaviors, and relationships.
- No North Star – When there is no singular meaning, culture suffers. People operate to their own needs vs. the organization’s direction.
- Unenforced Policies – Similarly, unenforced policies with the workforce chip away at cultural norms and beliefs.
- Lack of Leadership Voice – Without a consistent, clear narrative internally, culture suffers as employees lack direction.
- Investment/Improvement – Culture is positively impacted by an organization’s investments to improve the business as employees view such decisions as confidence in the future and more opportunities personally.
- Interactive Freedom – The power to build connections, provide feedback, and speak one’s mind is the cornerstone of a healthy culture and tends to be overlooked.
- Organizational Spirit and Story – Represents the character inherent in organizational culture. Thriving cultures exude a passionate spirit borne out of the business strategy and told in narrative form.
The cultural touchstones that set the pace and direction of a company’s evolution must balance decision-making, oversight, collaboration, information sharing, and structural integrity. It is a delicate dance for sure but one that can be established and maintained through an never-ending search for organizational balance and health. Finding purpose and value in what you do is a key tenet of an effective culture.
It aligns business intent with customer experience and employee connection.
How can you measure an organization’s culture?
Very simply, by how people are recruited, developed and the level of knowledge and confidence that permeates the company. And then how that information is shared and cultivated among each other.
Culture can be both incredibly complex and amazingly simple. The key is removing those things that act as deterrents to operating in a seamless, productive manner.
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When organizations decide to transform one of the first things discussed is the process needed to change. How will it be organized? What groups must quickly adhere to the new model? What behaviors and measures are sought? What timeline is being managed against? And 70% of the time, such transformation efforts fail to reach their stated objective. If we’ve learned anything about change it’s that the one and only important element is the individual.
A fundamental aspect of people is the ability to reason. To process ideas, information, feedback and possible solutions for how an organization must recast its business model and how the workforce must perform in new and different ways. For employees, the first step is finding truth. What specifically is causing the change? Why is this effort the desired approach? How can people get there? Where do we look for outcomes along the journey? Change itself is a loaded word. For employees, change tends to:
- Engender Anxiety, Fear – Out performance and ability
- Question Leadership, Authority – Is this accurate?
- Shine a Light on Inefficiencies – Processes, functions
- Highlight Inferiority About the Company – Weakness around products, services
- Raises Suspicions in Relationships – Who can I trust internally?
So, how can leaders and communicators combat such negative vibes and create a strong equilibrium from which to progress? The following are effective strategies and approaches culled from many years of successfully partnering with global organizations to transform businesses:
- Let People Discover – Instead of selling or telling, have employees find the truth themselves
- Create Spaces of Inquiry and Learning – On a weekly basis via meetings to discuss and debate
- Be Transparent – Showcase positive momentum
- Get Specific – What must change? why? what behaviors and skills are critical? What no longer works?
- Close the Loop – Have employees see how the new organization is delivering results to customers, clients
- Catalyze New Conversations – Communications must be geared to be provocative
- Play out Scenarios – Allow employees to plot different paths
Transforming an organization in today’s digital world is no small feat. The goal is to improve products, services, processes, and the customer experience in order to strengthen profitability, margin, and revenue and overall EBIDTA. To date, companies have attached such change via a technical route – process, layoffs, redesign, architecure – relegating employees as observers. The surprise in all this is that employees are the key to creating the future. Leaders and communicators must now recalibrate their styles and methods to embrace the human purpose inherent in the workforce.
It literally means they must change first!
If you’re interested in learning about W2O, check out our About and Services pages.
Want to chat? Drop us a line.