The Big Yak 2018 – what internal communicators are talking about

Last week I hosted The Big Yak with my fellow IC Crowd co-founders Rachel Miller and Dana Leeson.

It was our fourth event and our biggest one yet with 160 internal communication professionals gathered together on a Saturday to set the agenda for the day ahead. These were the topics they chose to discuss and you can see that remote workers, leadership coaching and developing our own skills were all high on the agenda.

I managed to sit in a few of the conversations so here are my thoughts from the event:

We are forgetting we are human beings
Every conversation I have at the moment seems to be about this. About our need to feel connected to each other or the organisation we work for. The rise of digital channels means our investment has been in the technology not the people and there is growing recognition that this needs to change. We know that the investment in internal communication is often minimal but there was strong agreement in the discussions about remote workers (either physically remote or completely remote without access to technology etc.) and the need to invest in face-to-face.

Remote workers remain a huge challenge
With two sessions talking about remote workers it was no wonder that the conversations were lively and encouraging. Lessons were shared about launching apps, creating culture and purpose and also the role of the line managers. There was no one in the room who had totally ‘solved’ this challenge but the need to learn from each other here is huge. It’s the reason I’m doing research into this space this year and it’s clear to see why the hard to reach employee is on the top five barriers list from the Gatehouse research earlier this year.

Content is not just about the operation
We seem to have forgotten that content doesn’t always have to be about the work that needs to be done. There was a general consensus that fun was missing. The need for content that supports the culture, the social aspect of work and the relationships we try and cultivate was clear and it made me think about how many of us have a content strategy that sits alongside our channel strategy.

Neuroscience, psychology and digital
This is a big theme and it was apparent in several sessions I attended. Work is not somewhere we go, it’s something we do and our fulfilment of the work has never been higher on our personal agendas. Digital tools are unfulfilling, they don’t support the messages being communicated and they aren’t fit for purpose. We are all being asked to do more with less – what can that look like if the solution isn’t more digital channels?

Being a co-founder of the IC Crowd is so rewarding. We set it up to help internal communication professionals connect and The Big Yak was born out of the Crowd asking to get together. It is a day full of energy, discussion and insight and it would be nothing without passionate individuals willing to give up their Saturday to talk about how they can make work a better place. It is something I’m so incredibly proud of and it’s given me the chance to work with two fantastic ladies for over 10 years!  You can find out more about The Big Yak and read other write ups from the event here.

Who is the best communicator in your business?

Communication – the key component to getting relationships right – is often taken for granted, yet frequently trips up organisations when it goes wrong. Given the evidence that it is the root cause of so much trouble (large and small), you might assume that most reasonably sized organisations would have an internal communications strategy in place, but if research from CIPR, Gatehouse and VMA Group is to be believed, less than 50% of firms with an internal communications function have developed an active strategic plan.

This article was written in partnership with Neil Tomalin, as we plan to explore the themes below in a workshop on 12 September in London – book your ticket to secure your place!

Getting the basics right
What strikes you as you begin an investigation of this subject is the informality that surrounds it and yet how vital it is in order to be productive. One of the issues is just how you get started and the degree of support that businesses currently provide in deciding, for instance how to communicate internally and by what means? This sounds pretty simple, but what are the rules between using email, one-to-one communications, or meetings to convey a message and get things done? Just one example illustrates the point. It is, according to the latest research, 24 times more likely that you will get a ‘yes’ from a face-to-face meeting, rather than relying on an email or other forms of communication. Is this the root cause of why our diaries are so full?

Here’s one other question – can you name the best communicator in your business and to what extent do their communication skills get recognised and rewarded?

Relationship mapping
It is a funny old word ‘relationships’. It carries with it all sorts of connotations and yet is the lifeblood of how to get things done within a business. Forming effective business relationships is about communicating well. So when it comes to your organisation, think about the relationships that exist between departments, between the leadership team or between groups that need to work together. Explore how they operate and help them understand how to get the most out of their time. Understand when meetings happen, whether any are linked, the process for the meeting and help employees become the gatekeeper of their time.

Get the relationships between your employees right and the efficiencies will follow. But to get there, you have got to talk about it and can you honestly remember the last time you called a meeting or discussed how ‘relationships’ within your business were working? Very often this only happens when things have gone spectacularly wrong – that project has overrun again, or there is an issue with a major supplier. Frequently, a breakdown in communication lies at the heart of the problem.

Yet one source of help is normally very close at hand, borrowing an approach that for many years has been adopted by the sales division – relationship mapping. This process almost always focuses upon external customers by identifying key relationships and then putting together an action plan for winning new business. However, it is as relevant for a more systematic approach focusing upon internal relationships in order to achieve greater business efficiencies and reduce, amongst other things, silo mentality.

It is also about helping to tackle stress and maintaining good mental health. Research commissioned by Mind in 2013 found that work was the most stressful factor in people’s lives with one in three people saying their work life was either very or quite stressful.

Assessing your own style
This can be a very revealing exercise particularly in relation to the number of meetings in your diary. It is best done over a number of weeks to establish trends. The key questions to address are:-
1. How would you describe your own communication style?
2. Who is the gatekeeper of your time?
3. Do you have a sense of how much time you are spending in meetings each week?
4. How effective are the meetings you attend?
5. What is your preferred method of communication?
6. How might this be improved?

Learning through observation
To a large extent there is very little formal training around how you communicate in the workplace. New employees very quickly pick up upon hierarchy and the ‘norms’ that exist. They will observe if there is a casual meeting environment, or if it is more formal and will adapt their working style from what they see.

Attending your first meeting as a new employee provides a wealth of information. How does it feel? Do you get the sense that everyone is relaxed and happy to speak up? Are questions welcomed and clear answers given? In his latest research Neil Tomalin argues that this is not always the case. That attendees, rather than ‘being themselves’, adopt various different personas that can undermine the purpose of meetings and frustrate their effectiveness. Partly this role playing is influenced by the way in which the organisation does business, the degree of hierarchy etc. But, it is also impacted by the sheer volume of meetings that some people attend – put frankly – they simply have meeting fatigue!

Meetings aside, the point is that in every organisation there will be an optimum way of communicating and whilst in many organisations this will evolve organically and work well, this does not apply in every case, or enable individual employees to appreciate what works best for their own personal style.

Internal Communications – perfectly placed
If the organisation you work for has the resource to have an internal communications function, there is evidence to suggest that these internal resources are not being fully utilised (CIPR). When it comes to internal communication, business leaders are still unsure about the role it can play inside an organisation, but professional communicators exist and they are able to help other professionals, leaders and line managers form superior relationships, thus enabling the entire organisation to function better.

This is all the more surprising when you consider what, according to Jenni Field, the definition of internal communication includes:- ‘Everything that gets said and shared inside an organisation. As a function its role is to curate, enable and advise on best practise for organisations to communicate effectively, efficiently and in an engaging way.’

So ‘professional communicators’ do exist. How would you measure up if you met one?
Jenni Field and Neil Tomalin will be jointly hosting a communications workshop exploring the themes in this article on 12 September. To secure a place please contact either of us.

A blend of the right capabilities will deliver better outcomes

Earlier this week I attended IBM THINK Collaboration London – an opportunity to hear more about the latest updates to their collaboration suite and more importantly for me, a chance to really understand how Watson will help make organisations more efficient.

During my 13 years in-house I used a mix of social intranets (wordpress with buddypress), SharePoint and IBM Connections. At most conferences or events I attend about internal social channels we hear about Facebook Workplace, Microsoft, Jive etc but never IBM Connections – which is a shame because having used this for four years (both as an internal customer and as the global lead for the platform) it is the best solution I have found.

Cognitive intelligence with people at the heart
The founding principles of IBM Connections are people and choice and the basic elements of the platform are brilliant. When you start that internal change conversation with the basics – files and spaces to collaborate (Communities) the conversations in each part of the organisation are easy. Files are all in one place. You choose whether to share with an individual, a group of people, a community or make it completely public. I might even choose to just have it restricted so only I can see it. It even comes with a plug in to Windows so as a user I can see the familiar file and folder structure of a shared drive.

One of my main challenges with other platforms is this lack of one version of the truth. I want one file (with version control) that I can surface in different places and I want it to be easy for people to know where to put that file – this comes as standard.

With the introduction of Orient Me, IBM Connections can now offer a home page that is tailored to the individual. Surfacing content that is relevant allowing the user to pin communities, files, people in their network – this allows them to reduce the noise and see the relevant information to them.

I can tailor the design of the communities. I don’t need IT to help or an expert partner – I can do this and any of the employees in my organisation can do it as well. This ability to be able to have control over how the platform can work is brilliant. With every other platform I have experienced, I have needed IT or an external partner to create spaces and templates for me – not with IBM.

Deliver business outcomes faster
Watson is impressive. Watson Workspace is equally exciting. The use of AI in the platform means it not only helps the user based on keywords but it also understands intent – and you can help it learn too.

It can support the organisation in a variety of ways:

  • Watson Workspace will surface data regardless of source – if it is connected to CRM platforms, HR systems – pretty much anything – it can surface any of that content to help you – saving you the time to search
  • It works both ways. Using the workflow application you can sign off a sales deal that can then trigger an action in one of the platforms it integrates with – making you and your team more efficient
  • Watson technology can be used to search through social media channels for keywords and automatically create a space in Workspace, adding the relevant people into it, to solve an issue raised by a customer or employee
  • The platform understands the context of the conversation so you can summarise the discussion based on that context and build custom actions that can be fulfilled, all using the cognitive power of Watson
  • The cognitive capabilities can be extended into other existing applications, enabling you to summarise, gain focus and insight on data in 3rd party business apps
  • And the future is looking impressive with plans to integrate the technology with video chat/video meetings to make them more efficient

All about choice
Choice can be tricky. Sometimes too much can make it difficult to make decisions, but having a business model that has acquired businesses with expertise, created partnerships with some of the leading technology providers and created a stack that people are learning at college means they are flexible. I still have conversations about why I would use Box when I have files in IBM Connections but it has a place for some. The choice is there to ensure that you can create the right solution for your business. IBM work with Microsoft, Google, Jive and others to make sure they stay true to keeping people at the heart of the offer.

For me, the blend of the technology has to support the business strategy and in the communications function, this should include providing platforms and content that supports it all. I had my frustrations with IBM Connections when it first arrived and when I had to do upgrades and some things would break – but it is technology and we learnt that a close partnership with IT was needed to make it a true success. I have used other platforms since and it was painful. None of them have come close to the empowerment IBM Connections gives, the ability to collaborate with external parties, nor do they provide the seamless file sharing element I used heavily.

As they said at the event this week; you can integrate anything but what is meaningful? It is this question that should bring the IT, HR and Communications function together to create the right solution for your business – I just hope you add IBM to the list of providers who can help.

From informing to engaging: the role of IC in driving engaging and authentic leadership communications

This morning CIPR Inside and Luminous hosted an Ask the Guru event all about the shift from informing to engaging audiences inside organisations.

As the Chair of CIPR Inside I was there to open the event and facilitate any questions. The event was designed to explore the role of internal communication in driving engaging and authentic leadership communication. With guest speaker Graham Cox, Director of Learning and Development at Boundaries Edge and Mark Litchfield, Executive Creative Director at Luminous they took us on a journey of authenticity, decision making, perception, creativity and measurement.

Understanding how we make decisions

As we set the scene to understand the role of authenticity it was helpful to better understand how we make decisions and where the logic and emotion come in. I’m already a big fan of Simon Sinek and his golden circle theory so it was great to kick off with a reminder about the mammalian brain (feelings) and neocortex (logic) and how 86% of decisions are based on feelings.

What was equally interesting was the fact that as we evolve we should become more logical in our decision-making but with the introduction of AI the need for us to make logical decisions is diminishing.

The six rules of perception

  1. Initial impression resists change, and perception resets every 10/15 seconds
  2. We have confirmation bias, we self-validate – if there is more investment the individual is less likely to change their mind
  3. We cannot hold two precepts in the mind at one time
  4. Perception is directly related to context, so we have to remind people about context all the time. This is linked to the fact that we don’t know how to calculate value
  5. We perceive losses three times more that we do gains. It is this focus on losses and therefore fear of them that leads us to stay in jobs we don’t enjoy or relationships that don’t work
  6. People perceive the past, present and future – and different groups of people will have a tendency to focus on one element more than the other

Engage audiences through creativity and measure how you do it

  • To help with creativity look around you. Benchmark with peers and be inspired by things outside of your everyday
  • Consistency is important
  • Create a central bank of assets to support both the consistency and to help with efficiencies in the team
  • Create a two-way conversation with relevance and measurement; define the metrics upfront, be clear about the audience and who to target, and get qualitative and quantitative feedback

As we finished the morning I shared the Making it Count research with the attendees as this is all about understanding the value and effectiveness of internal communication – and if we find it difficult to calculate value and our perception is directly related to context, I hope this helps us move forwards into more engaging conversations.

Why internal communication is the key to brand authenticity

This morning I attended a breakfast event hosted by VMA Group on the topic of authenticity. The session was led by Matt Hampshire from MK and he was supported by Ed Austin from Wagamama and together they took us through five rules for authenticity.

During the hour they took us through examples from Wagamama as well as some from other organisations – some who get it right and some who get it wrong. As someone who has spent most of their internal communications career working with employees who are predominantly offline it was great to hear a clear message about customer service and organisational purpose – so here are the five rules and how internal communicators can play a role in brand authenticity:

  1. Know who you are
    Looking back to a 1971 Coca-Cola advert and comparing it to a 2017 Pepsi advert reminds us all to stay true to who we are and not jump on a bandwagon. The backlash to Pepsi was huge with an estimated loss of $40m and an advert pulled after huge criticism all over the world.  The identity of the organisation can come from iconic leaders – Steve Jobs and Anita Roddick were just two examples shared – but having a strong purpose and a clear understanding of what your organisation is about will allow you to demonstrate who you are through good communication.
  2. Embrace the truth (even when it is uncomfortable)
    Last year someone shared a photo of a poster in a Wagamama restaurant that clearly told employees they would be disciplined if they called in sick. The first thing Wagamama’s did was talk to their employees – using all their channels they quickly communicated to all employees that this was in fact not the case. It was important for them to keep the conversation going and explain the truth behind the headlines.
  3. What you do is more important than what you say
    Quite often the conversations we have inside organisations will be around values and how we can put a poster on a wall to share them so that people know what they are. Sadly, this rarely works simply because what you do is more important than what you say. If one of your values is respect but it is accepted that people are late for meetings or on their phone during meetings then this doesn’t match. For many, the focus is on the profit and company results and this can lead to behaviour that might go against how we want to be perceived – as Ed said, “If you focus too much on the numbers, you lose focus on the service. Sales will follow if the service is there.”
  4. Start with the right people
    If 72% of people are judged on their CV alone then how can we be sure we are hiring the right people? When we think about employee engagement and employee experience, we need to start at the beginning. The whole employee journey needs to be considered to make sure that the people we train and invest in are committed to the organisation. The example about Zappos giving people £2,000 to not take a job was an interesting example to show how some companies ensure they only hire people who really want to be there.
  5. It’s not about you, it’s about them
    I have spent many meetings discussing this with leadership teams – explaining that they aren’t the audience for some of these messages. The example from Wagamama about the introduction of their Vegan menu was founded on co-creation. Inviting employees who choose a vegan diet to meet with the Executive Chef and discuss the menu, taste it and get involved in what good service looks like for them was fundamental to the roll out of the new dishes. As he said “it’s not about jumping on a bandwagon, it’s about embracing it”

At the end of the session there were some questions about corporate reputation, downloading apps to phones and how to engage cynical employees – all these questions were from different industries and they highlighted the different challenges we can all face in the different cultures we work in. The solution? Come back to these five rules and think about how to apply them in your business, they are core  principles and as a guide, they should work for everyone.

Employee engagement isn’t about happiness, it’s about outcomes

Is employee engagement still on your agenda? A few weeks I blogged on AB thinks (for my client AB) about employee engagement and employee experience – here are my thoughts on how things have changed…

Today commentators are using a new term – employee experience – described as the next competitive frontier for organisations. The challenge is to understand and create a culture where people can perform at their best. In short, to understand what makes humans thrive.

In October the importance of good mental health in the workplace came under scrutiny. Rightly, wellbeing, self-care and societal pressures are still hot topics. Earlier this year, reports suggested the link between serotonin and depression could be false and poor mental health might have a far deeper cause.

“We all know that every human being has basic physical needs: for food, for water, for shelter, for clean air. It turns out that, in the same way, all humans have certain basic psychological needs. We need to feel we belong. We need to feel valued. We need to feel we’re good at something. We need to feel we have a secure future. And there is growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those psychological needs for many – perhaps most – people.” Johann Hari, Author

To explore how this translates into the workplace, we need to look at employee engagement – or the employee experience – differently. Engagement is a result. It is an output. It is the consequence of a variety of factors happening simultaneously. We therefore need to think about the entire experience our employees have, from that job advert that initially caught their eye to their final exit interview.

A recent article from Jamie Nutter, maintains: “When you measure engagement, you are documenting a state of mind among your employees that was created over a period of months or years — in the past. That means that your detailed (and depressing) picture of today’s disengaged workforce, unfortunately, gives you very little you can use to actually solve the problem.”
This is a huge step forward in understanding employee engagement. Just six years ago we were having to define the difference between happiness and engagement.

Kevin Kruse explains: “Someone can be happy at work, but not ‘engaged’. They might be happy because they are lazy and it’s a job with not much to do. They might be happy talking to all their work-friends… to have a free company car. They might just be a happy person. But! Just because they’re happy doesn’t mean they are working hard on behalf of the company. They can be happy and unproductive. When someone is engaged, it means they are emotionally committed to their company and their work goals. They care about their work. They care about results. This makes them go above and beyond—to give discretionary effort.”

So where does this leave us? Employee engagement has never been better understood. As communicators we need to use the growing body of research to help us understand the complexity of human beings, how we thrive and how our organisations can create a culture that enables everyone to perform at their best.

This piece from Denise Lee Yohen nicely outlines what employee experience is and is not. It also explains why it’s something that should be on your agenda this year

Tips for communicating with volunteers

Last week I was asked for some insight into volunteer communication on the back of my involvement with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). I have been working with CIPR for a number of years and leading the internal communications group has given me some understanding of what to consider when communicating and engaging a network of volunteers.

These were the tips I shared and I’d be interested to hear from anyone working with volunteers who can share any further tips or advice for those communicating and engaging with this stakeholder group:

  • There will be different roles for the volunteers, so understanding them and their level of engagement with the centre is important
  • Be clear about what is a must do, nice to do and completely optional. Volunteers have limited time so it is good to know what is required
  • Recognise their contribution – whether this is doing something in-kind or having an event for them – make sure they feel valued
  • Give them plenty of notice – provide key dates and minimal information and then more detail closer to the date – the more notice they have to plan things the better
  • If the volunteers work together, explore running a workshop for them to discuss their purpose/reason for volunteering and then sharing a common goal and ways to share information and ideas – either with an online platform
  • Explore a suite of channels for them – just like you would for employees – they might want a regular newsletter of information that is specific to volunteers separate from other employee comms
  • Have clear guidelines available for them when they join – what is expected in terms of time etc. and provide a clear structure of meetings/touchpoints with the centre

What would you add to the list?