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Over the years, I’ve had many clients and peers ask me about the best strategy for true, lasting employee engagement…the holy grail of internal communications. Like many, I’d tell them about the importance of two-way communication, robust workplace programs, strong leadership and a vibrant culture.  But often I’d also relay my “Amazon” story – which was based on my short but formative consulting stint with the internet giant when it was still a brash start-up.

My Amazon story was about the incredible energy, drive and productivity of their Seattle team despite tough odds, persistent criticism from pundits and brutal, round-the-clock working conditions (this was not a place to ask about office hours.) Sure these guys worked in a funky renovated hospital and defined the casual workplace, but they worked incredibly hard and seemed driven by a greater cause, a belief they were inventing a new business and creating a better customer experience. In hindsight, there were right, and they continue to blaze a path in the evolving world of internet commerce.

The lasting lesson for me – and the point of telling my story to clients – is that doing all the right things is usually not enough to get employees to operate at the highest level, and that the most successful companies are the ones where employees believe their work has higher meaning beyond the obvious imperatives – fill a customer need, sell services or products, make money and please investors. All of us want to do something that really matters, or at least appears to be useful, relevant and timely.

As it happens, I’ve had the opportunity to put this theory in practice in a recent client engagement. This company was in the midst of a classic “transformation” exercise designed to improve efficiency and profits. In short, they needed a major reboot. After months of relying largely on logical arguments and data – the usual practical, empirical rationale for change and list of potential benefits – we started to focus more on the meaning of the company and its unique heritage. Luckily for us, this client was a legitimate pioneer in its industry (helicopter services) and had a very compelling, unique story to tell about getting customers to/from the most remote places on earth safely and on time. In short, this company was cool, did something very special – even dramatic – and had a lineage going back to the creation of helicopter flight. Not surprisingly, this storyline – translated into various media and injected into the brand identity – has resonated much more than the balance sheets and market studies that were initially the focus.

I’m glad to say the smart folks at McKinsey have landed on the same conclusion. This recent article makes a compelling case for why this quest for meaning is critical for tangible and lasting employee engagement. The article acknowledges one of the challenges inherent in this aspiration– some companies will naturally have an easier time identifying and promoting their distinctive pixie dust; either because they are pioneers, uber-cool, game-changers, or have an obvious altruistic bent that fuels that sense of “meaning”. Think Google, Kiva, Facebook, Body Shop or Apple. Much tougher to imagine, and implement, if you work for a company that produces ball-bearings or book shelves.

But the McKinsey folks argue there are strategic steps and tactical tools that can allow even the most mundane, uncool business to foster a sense of meaning among their employees. I particularly like their concept of holistic storytelling, which suggests companies go beyond the typical turnaround or “good to great” narrative – which is inherently focused on company benefits – to encompass other impacts:

Our research shows that four other sources give individuals a sense of meaning, including their ability to have an impact on:

  • society—for example, making a better society, building the community, or stewarding resources
  • the customer—for instance, making life easier and providing a superior service or product
  • the working team—for instance, a sense of belonging, a caring environment, or working together efficiently and effectively
  • themselves—examples include personal development, a higher paycheck or bonus, and a sense of empowerment

Ideas like this can provide communication professionals with additional justification, and potential approaches, to foster engagement that comes from deep employee alignment and commitment.  When employees are in the zone, as McKinsey says, there is nothing they can’t achieve. It’s our job to help them do that.

Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.

As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.

This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)

I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?

This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:

“CES is about more than just technology.  The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”

I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.

I recently attended a conference in Austin that focused on social media best practices, and more specifically the merit of word-of-mouth in driving brand reputation and preference.

Wordofmouth.org’s Andy Sernovitz makes a compelling and deceptively simple argument that love – or making your customers happy – is the fuel for positive, robust word-of-mouth conversation. This positive buzz, in turn, provides the essential element for a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship between customer and company that typically translates into customer advocacy and, ideally, purchase.

In short, companies need to give their customers a good reason to like them, and talk about their products or services. Making customers happy – best done by doing things big and small that are remarkable, or special – helps spark and spread the conversation, and also ensures the buzz remains positive – which is critical since we all know that a lover scorned can make a great deal of bad noise. Sernovitz has a funny line in his presentation that advertising is the price for not having good word-of-mouth; companies without a robust, active fan base need to pay to broadcast their message to generate the same awareness and interest. Another key point here is that this goes well beyond the actual product or service the company offers, it’s also about how they treat their customers.

In an era when personal recommendations carry considerable weight in consumer consideration and purchase, the relevance, emotional heft and organic credibility of word-of-mouth is critical. This observation intuitively makes plenty of sense to me. I’ve experience first-hand how simple steps taken by companies – both good and bad – have dramatically impacted my impression, commentary and likelihood to recommend them to others.

So here’s the question I asked myself walking out of this conference: does this same logic, or model of loving your target audience, apply to a corporate context? More specifically, could it help to make employee communications more relevant and compelling, and help to address the malaise and detachment that seems widespread in so many organizations?

My answer is…a qualified yes.

On the one hand, I can see how this model isn’t a perfect fit for the corporate world.

  • First, information like quarterly earnings, strategic priorities or leadership changes does not exactly fit the mold of content that can delight and surprise the audience. Corporate news can tend to be dry and formal.
  • It’s also important to remember that content must match the situation and audience, so a more informal, conversational and/or humorous approach may not be appropriate for all companies or employee segments.
  • While companies can reach and engage new fans and customers every day, they typically have a much more limited and stable internal audience. Dealing with employees, therefore, doesn’t allow the same experimentation or re-invention you can have with consumers.
  • Finally, love must be earned through both deeds and words. In an era rife with company layoffs and cost-cutting, an approach that appears contrived or disingenuous may foster cynicism and even anger rather than love.

Still, I think there are important lessons here for communication professionals:

  • Never think of employees as a captive audience that have no choice but to absorb and use the information you share. The more you think of employees as internal customers – with their own preferences, habits, concerns and, yes, distractions – the more you can customize your outreach to increase relevance and impact. A good mindset is to remember you are competing for eyeballs just as you would in a marketing context.
  • Though corporate information and news can be dry and technical, there is plenty of opportunity to make communication more original, smart and…yes, more remarkable. There are many internal campaigns and messages that use the best elements of marketing – including sarcasm and humor – to break through the clutter and start positive conversations. Maybe the best opportunity is the element of surprise – doing something (positive) your employees don’t expect.
  • Don’t underestimate the small touches – whether informal manager recognition or a CEO responding quickly to an employee email. Employee opinions are shaped by these small, daily interactions as much as the formal HR policies and benefits.
  • Listen to your employees. Really listen. That means not just the usual annual surveys – which often have a dubious reputation – but addressing questions and concerns through all available channels. Even better, try to fix issues that need fixing.
  • Remember that this is a conversation, not a monologue. By its very nature, word-of-mouth must be allowed to flow freely with minimal restriction. If you want to start some good buzz, don’t strangle it with onerous legal hurdles or by stifling legitimate criticism.
  • Remember that line about “advertising is the price of not having good word-of-mouth”? Use that same logic to calibrate your communication output to focus more on how your employees are reacting to your activities, and how you can improve that response, than simply increasing the volume of your outreach. Better to do less communication that works.
  • Identify and nurture your influential supporters. Much like on the web, the comments and opinions of employee peers will play a big role in the water cooler discussions.

Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that your communication approach must consider both the head and the heart. It’s almost a professional cliché, but despite that too many organizations emphasize fact over emotion and productivity over opinion. Think of your employees as individuals that will be more engaged and supportive if they feel appreciated and relevant. Maybe you do need more than love in the business world, but you probably won’t be successful without it.

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in several projects that revolve around that challenging, nebulous communication exercise called the “vision thing.” More specifically, I’ve worked with clients to help develop, or uncover, and articulate their corporate mission…or vision…or purpose.

As you can surmise by my last sentence, these type of engagements are often rife with confusing, overlapping terminology and unclear intent. In fact, the very labels used in this type of work usually spark negative reactions, if not yawns, for many employees. Still, this is critical work that can help to direct business decisions and boost employee morale, engagement and productivity.

On the surface, helping a company to crystallize its purpose – or reason for being in business – seems obvious. In fact, shouldn’t a company already know who it wants to be, and what it wants to stand for in the marketplace? In theory yes, but the reality is many organizations don’t have a credible, relevant purpose – or mission statement – that captures their core aspirations and corporate DNA. Even fewer of them have defined their identity and core values. Much of the work I’ve seen in this area is generic, trite and lacks relevance or credibility with both customers and employees. Think of the clichéd values on the wall (sometimes as many as 12!) or the vacuous mission statement with no apparent link to daily operations or goals.

With this context in mind, I’ve developed a short checklist to help organizations develop and execute a valid mission statement:

  • Use words wisely – Knowing that many employees (and indeed professionals) are fuzzy about what these words mean and often tune them out, start by carefully selecting and clearly defining the labels you will use. Perhaps the most frequent confusion I’ve seen centers around purpose – which identifies a company’s fundamental reason for being, and captures key customer benefits and/or market differentiators – and strategy – which is a plan of action, or roadmap, to achieve the purpose.
  • Connect the dots – A purpose will only make sense, and drive real change, if it’s part of a strategic framework that clearly outlines the various elements of an organization’s strategic plan. There is the purpose, or aspiration, which is linked to the strategy, or roadmap to achieve the purpose. Beyond that, there are typically related elements such as: core values that define the “how”, or desired behaviors; market differentiators; cultural tenets; and so on. Whatever the elements are – since these will differ based on circumstance and industry – their relationship and relevance should be clearly and consistently communicated.
  • Don’t forget the brand – Linked to the point above, a purpose should also inform a company’s brand positioning. That means marketing messages and themes should reinforce, if not specifically mention, the key elements of the purpose. Many companies spend considerable time developing their brand essence or positioning, as well as related tag lines or campaign slogans. This marketing approach certainly has merit, but the process – and implicit messages – must be aligned both with the purpose and related themes the company is promoting with employees.
  • Be credible – Having a purpose that is a stretch, or aspiration, is fine. In fact, the purpose can be so ambitious the company may never fully achieve it. But the purpose has to be realistic and based on true marketplace advantages and cultural differentiators.
  • Walk the talk – As noted above, the key to a viable, relevant purpose is having a robust plan of action – or strategy – that firmly anchors the purpose to the company’s business operations. Everything the company does – all the way down to capital investments, performance reviews and team priorities – should be linked to achieving the purpose. In short, it can’t just be an idea or concept.
  • Tell a story – Though in theory a purpose should serve to direct and motivate staff, too often they fail to engage and drive any meaningful action. There is huge opportunity to leverage the inherent passion and pride in a purpose through compelling, consistent communication across all audiences. Companies that do this well use all the tools and sophistication of marketing and storytelling to bring their purpose to life and illustrate best practices and positive outcomes.
  • Be disciplined – A purpose isn’t going to do much good if there’s no discipline behind it. It should serve as the North Star for a company, and a litmus test for investment of time and resources. If an activity or investment doesn’t support the purpose, don’t do it.
  • Think long term – Many companies often make a big splash to announce their new purpose (or new strategy) but often fail to follow-up with updates and illustrations that provide a sense of progress and success. Though short-term priorities and even strategies will change over time, a purpose should have a long shelf life. The key to sustaining relevance, therefore, is to give stakeholders are sense of if/how the purpose is being achieved, and what impact that is having on the company’s success.

Through my career as a communication professional, one mantra that’s provided me with sustained inspiration and direction is the need to consider all five senses while communicating. In other words, though we tend to spend most of our time in written words (only using sight) there is benefit in using other senses as appropriate – particularly sight and sound – to try to reach and affect our target audiences.  As it happens, I got a great reminder the past few weeks of the impact and effectiveness of compelling visuals.

First, I finally joined the Pinterest bandwagon. I’d heard the increasing buzz about the booming site (or app?) from peers and friends alike, and now use it regularly to “pin” and share a wide range of images. I’m still not sure if it’s a fad or adds any lasting value to the on-line conversation, but from my perspective the images (most of them photographs or posters) are as compelling and informative as the best blog posts or Twitter comments – though it’s true the format limits the detail and nuance the images can convey. Still, I’ve discovered several stories and campaigns – including the much-hyped KONY story – through their Pinterest “windows.” And for what it’s worth my peers and friends have a much richer understanding of my personality and preferences from my selection of images.

The past few months some of the best blog posts I’ve read – or seen – involved info-graphics on a wide range of topics – ranging from the growth of the Internet to the DNA of social media. And by the way, they are much more compelling, memorable and user-friendly than equivalent white papers on similar topics. Check out this one as an example. I’ve also noticed a strong trend towards peers and friends sending me (or posting) photos and videos – often with little or no text.

My best personal anecdote of the power of visuals is about a simple photograph. While working several years ago in a global organization undergoing a massive transformation (both cultural and structural) we convinced the CEO to focus on several stark, bold photographs to convey the key themes behind the change. Over time these photos became widely recognized and even used as unofficial brands for the various facets of the program. One photo in particular – a fish jumping from a safe, small bowl of water into a larger one – came to symbolize the essence of the company’s revolution and was prominently displayed in the CEO’s office as a reminder. Of course, there was content behind the photo – without meaning using photos can easily invite sarcasm and even parody.

I’m not the only one thinking about this visual trend; this blog post in AdAge argues the shift to visual is part of a greater cultural trend sparked by technology: Smarter devices are prompting more occasions for people to create and consume visual content, while social media is encouraging that content to be shared on multiple platforms.

While the use of strong visuals and design has long been a best practice in advertising and entertainment (which could be described as both a form of marketing and communication), it remains nascent and uneven in the PR industry.  For many organizations, the focus on visuals (and related emphasis on graphic design) is limited to primitive PowerPoint slides and esoteric debates about fonts. Even simple internal branding or program collateral is rare in many corporate settings.  Where visuals exist, they are too often functional and lacking attention to creative, original design.  (When is the last time you’ve seen content on bulletin boards with any hint of imagination and visual originality?) Video also seems limited in many companies – at least in terms of internal use – despite the fact new technology makes shooting and editing content ridiculously easy and inexpensive. Even photography seems to be an after-thought in communication platforms and plans.  Years ago this might be explained by the cost of design and printing, but in this digital age there is no excuse for the paucity of pictures.

While one could argue the external world bombards us with too much visual stimulus – think a Blade Runner dystopia where imagery overload drowns out even compelling ideas – many organizations are stuck too far in the other direction. In a commendable effort to avoid hype and be direct, they have become too serious and formulaic, even boring.  Another possible factor behind this visual gap is the lingering firewalls between related disciplines like marketing, IT, design and PR. While it seems like a no-brainer to walk down the hall to your marketing team to leverage them in an internal promotion – one of many examples of potential cross-pollination – it seems to be a rare occurrence.

The result of this lack of visual imagination is predictable: many internal communication programs have limited resonance and impact on employee awareness and engagement. While our focus as communication professionals should always remain the message, we need to expand our thinking about how we communicate with our audiences. The power of images is too potent to ignore.

It’s rare a day goes by without another example of an employee getting fired or reprimanded for posting something inappropriate on their Twitter account, or a company being forced into damage control due to an off-color comment or tone-deaf message. I read this example of Congressional staffers and their ill-advised Twitter chatter this morning. There are countless other blunders that have generated heated coverage – ranging from political scandals (hello Tony Weiner) to marketing snafus. All this noise usually creates two concerns, or conclusions, with many of my clients:

  • Social media is very risky for organizations…probably too risky
  • It’s very difficult to regulate and monitor social media interaction

As I’ve written before in this blog over the years, I think the fears of social media are overblown and misdirected. Yes, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow content and commentary to spread globally quickly – whether it’s positive or critical. But a cursory review of the most celebrated social media snafus (including the one referenced above) reveals that in most cases the controversy could easily have been avoided with basic common sense: Don’t lie. Don’t use inappropriate language or content. Be nice. Play fair. I would argue these are the same guidelines employees would use with any other workplace forum or channel (including company email.) In fact, I am often amazed at how ridiculous and ill-advised these controversial posts are…causing me to ask rhetorically what were they thinking?

The issue of monitoring and managing social media outreach is also surrounded by misconceptions. Companies can use a wide range of user-friendly tools to monitor the Web and track posts, triage comments or questions and identify emerging trends. With regard to organization, many of recognized social media leaders use a small, dedicated team and simple planning process to direct their social media efforts. In other words, this doesn’t have to be that overly costly or complicated. The barriers to entry for social media are very low for individual and institutional users alike.

Rather than blaming social media channels – which are inherently neutral and provide incredible platforms for robust, real-time conversation with millions of users – company leaders should spend more time selecting and training their staff, and determining the strategic purpose of their social media activities (even if they are mostly passive and reactive.) These steps don’t have to be onerous. Many of the most successful companies actively using social media – notably Dell, IBM, Best Buy and Starbucks – have clear and simple policies and objectives. And determining if and how you want to get involved can (and should) be shaped by due diligence and strategic planning.

The fact that some have made mistakes using social media platforms is an indictment of the culprits, not the technology.

During the tremendous growth of social media in recent years, most of the commentary has focused on the potential benefits and positive impact of the new technology – whether it be enhancing connections with customers, acting as a new & enhanced marketing channel or facilitating real-time networking. In recent weeks, however, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations and client engagements that raised a provocative question: does all this emphasis on social collaboration, crowd-sourcing and broad engagement  – supported by increasingly cheap and slick technology – actually hamper efficiency? More specifically, have we gone too far on the side of consultation and consensus, with the result of slowing down decision-making and execution? (This is different than the popular criticism of social media as a colossal waste of time with no clear business benefits.)

My friend Jeff Hunt of PulsePoint Group, for example, recently argued in this post that too much emphasis on collaboration – without clear rules of engagement – can stifle innovation. In a similar vein, a recent client worried that introducing new internal networking platforms would encourage staff to indulge in aimless discussion and prevent objective, quick decisions. The question of efficiency almost seems contradictory, given the immediacy and ubiquity of social media platforms…where developments are measured in minutes rather than days.

From my perspective, the answer to this rhetorical question is…yes: Collaboration and conversation can slow decision-making and hamper execution if you don’t support your social media efforts with streamlined processes and clear guidelines. If you want to introduce new crowd-sourcing tools – either with customers or employees – introduce a streamlined process to evaluate entries and decide which ideas get implemented. If you want major decisions to be reached through dialogue and consensus, set clear time and participation limits and confirm who makes the final call. If you have something to communicate that doesn’t require widespread participation and rumination, try meeting in small groups or – gasp – make a phone call. Collaboration and conversation will by its nature be somewhat messy and unpredictable, but it can and should be directed and managed by simple, clear rules.

Most importantly, perhaps, leaders should recognize that not all decisions should be left to group-think or need to be curated by teams. Getting input on a new shoe design or naming an intranet are not in the same category as planning a time-sensitive product launch or making organization changes that require surgical, timely decisions. In other words, pick your spots. Know when to listen, to invite comment, to encourage ideas, to foster debate…and when to just act.

This discussion is yet another illustration that social media is neither a panacea for business salvation nor a productivity-destroying albatross. New technology provides incredible capabilities to foster virtual, multi-media conversation and collaboration with a global audience. But it doesn’t replace the need for focused, deliberate management and robust planning to ensure things get done right and on time.

My fellow Northwestern Wildcat alumni David Grossman, an internal communication expert, recently shared research in his blog suggesting senior managers are the biggest roadblock to “fearless” internal communication by managers. Gaining leader understanding and support remains a big challenge for many managers who are willing and able to communicate with their teams. This research certainly confirms my own experience, where tremendous focus and energy is devoted to developing creative communication plans, introducing new or improved communication channels and/or helping managers to be better communicators…sometimes all for naught. Ultimately, politics trumps it all. If leaders aren’t on board and actively participating in the communication effort, it will likely fail.

Of course, many communication professionals are aware of this potential pitfall and take steps to avoid this executive resistance. Tactics include enlisting influential leaders as participants or ambassadors, framing programs with leader-friendly arguments like ROI and strategic benefits, or even using market (or competitor) data as motivation. But without a clear mandate, or directive, from the top leaders of the organization, some “walk the talk” evidence they are on-board, and tangible incentives and rewards for active communication, the manager cascade process will remain vulnerable to political meddling. Sometimes, managers are discouraged through subtle, symbolic actions (or lack of action) or apparently throw-away comments (“…you can check the intranet but do it on your own time”.) But I’ve also witnessed explicit warnings by leaders, telling managers that no matter what they hear from HQ, communication is a distraction and comes second to productivity.

Conversely, in one organization it took just one very clear directive from an executive to his senior team to get an ambitious manager communication program untracked and embedded in the daily work routine. And this was in a contact center environment, where time is indeed money and around-the-clock staff support is critical. Another effective approach is to use the broader workforce to drive change. Most managers can make a strong case that their employees are starved for information and rely on them as the most relevant and credible sources. They can even go to their leaders with examples of prevalent questions or rumors that require a clear, concise response. In other words, let us do what needs to be done.

The lesson here is clear: communication pros must proactively address any leadership resistance to manager communication through the planning and implementation cycle – even silent resistance – to ensure managers can participate to their full potential. Managers are probably your best communication asset, even in this age of social media.

A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News provides a fascinating window into how Facebook educates its rapidly expanding global workforce about the company’s celebrated culture. According to the article, Facebook uses a very high-touch strategy led by “landing teams” of trained HQ staff who parachute into new offices for assignments, which often last at least one year. Their mission: to carry and recreate the distinctive Facebook cultural DNA to the new troops. The landing team use a range of activities and tools to tell their story – including the Facebook “hackathon” event, which is designed to demonstrate the value of risk-taking and collaboration and spread some of that start-up pixie dust. Even the office set up is designed to replicate the look and feel of headquarters. Part of the team’s role includes recruiting new staff. During their assignments these ambassadors are expected to do their regular jobs. That’s an impressive commitment, and a good formula to get the best ambassadors.

This story is interesting on many fronts, not the least of which is the priority placed on ensuring new staff understand and embrace the company’s identity and values across diverse global locations. But perhaps the most important lesson here is the focus on sustained, face-to-face teaching – or call it mentoring. Culture has always been a strange animal for organizations, with the orientation and education work typically shared across a motley mix of teams (notably HR, marketing and internal communications). Often orientation is packaged as one-day firehose of materials and briefings – ranging from legal requirements to cafeteria menus – with culture delegated to some seminal historical documents and reinforced by vague, trite collateral in the facilities. The missing ingredient is often the hallway conversations – usually informal but sometimes led by assigned mentors – that carries the real stories, and implicit norms, that are true representations of the company culture.

The Facebook approach works well on several levels:

  • It focuses on the real culture that staff already live and breathe, not some boardroom aspiration or stale bullet points in an elevator;
  • It uses committed, passionate workers who have a range of jobs, not “trained staff” from support departments who are more likely to use canned materials and messages;
  • It suggests that conveying information on topics like values and mores involves as much show as tell, and more emotion than fact;
  • It rightfully assumes that teaching new staff about culture – and making sure they understand and embrace the values and norms – is not a one-shot deal, but a long-term commitment; and,
  • It recognizes that even in dynamic, innovative global companies like Facebook a shared, coherent cultural experience is important to workplace morale and productivity.

I’ll admit that the Facebook approach may not work for all organizations – who after all have their own distinctive DNA – but it’s worth asking whether more traditional approaches work anymore.

I came across a post that purports to be from an Apple front-line employee this week. It’s always interesting to get insider views from major companies – particularly ones like Apple which like to carefully manage their public image and fiercely guard their corporate secrets. I have no idea if this account is legitimate, but assuming it is there are several insights that I gained from the post:

  • First and foremost, Apple seems to be as prickly and protective about company secrets with its employees as with consumers and news media. Based on this account Apple store employees appear to get little or no warning of major announcements – presumably to avoid leaks.
  • Along the same lines, Apple management clearly enforces strict rules on everything from sales restrictions to product information. So the casual, cool atmosphere of stores apparently doesn’t preclude fairly strict protocol on staff behavior.
  • Apple seems to make special effort to involve staff in product launches (once the information is public) through special briefing sessions, store events and training.
  • Though this employee feels pressured to sell – something true of any retail environment – he/she acknowledges the effort Apple makes to support and encourage staff in their efforts. Some of the activities are what you would expect from an uber-hip company like Apple – a masseuse on site, ordering in food, etc. It also appears staff get bonuses for the brutal hours during product launches.
  • For better or for worse, Apple seems to be doing a good job promoting their culture  and credo (what the staffer calls a cult) through collateral, training sessions and management reminders. This writer isn’t quite sure they like the taste of the cool-aid.
  • The staffer mentions the lure of becoming one of Apple’s famed “genius” staff, which suggests there is opportunity for advancement…and presumably commensurate benefits in reaching that position.

Overall, this seems like a fairly exciting workplace with pros and cons. It’s interesting to note the staffer barely mentions things that are often hailed as Apple’s workplace assets – including free/cheap use of products, pride in working for a global leader and an atmosphere of innovation. That’s a good reminder that all jobs are ultimately judged through our personal perspective and day-to-day activities.

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