Every year I watch with interest as new technology trends and tools are introduced and discussed. Beyond the impressive innovation and creativity – and yes, the occasional false start and tendency towards hype – my favored activity is digging into the expected and potential applications for marketing and communication disciplines.

The recent CES conference provides plenty of fodder for discussion. The coverage I’ve read and seen focuses on a number of exciting trends:

  • The Internet of everything – There is a marked trend towards having access to the internet from anywhere, anytime to do whatever we want. We can buy a product using only our iPhone, access the Web in our cars through voice commands, change the temperature of our home remotely, access (or record/save/share) content from a range of mobile devices…you get the drift. It’s all about connectivity across all platforms, allowing us to perform a huge number of activities that require, or are helped by, access to the internet.
  • Technology gets personal – With the boom in wearables, including sophisticated smart watches, you can now connect with your doctor remotely (with real-time sharing of your vital signs) and track every second of your life. Of course, this also allows you to share or use that data with a wide range of appliances and applications.
  • It’s still about content (and data) – This year’s CES had the usual improvements in dazzling ways to share digital content, ranging from virtual reality to curved ultra-high-definition TVs. On the data side, many of these applications require or encourage increased use of data – notably personal data from wearables. The trick is how to collect, organize, analyze and use all the information across all the potential access points.

You can read a few of the reviews of CES (featuring proposed headlines for the top news or trends) here, here and here.

So what does all this mean for communication professionals – if anything?

My first reaction is: with all this focus on internet everywhere connectivity, why do so many workplaces still have limited social and mobile capability? I see plenty of room for improvement for many organizations (except perhaps the usual suspects in the tech world) to deploy and mobilize a mobile strategy to inform, engage and support their employees. Forget high-def digital screens; many are still working to allow use of BYOD smartphones and tablets among their staff, while others are struggling to  ensure their intranets have responsive design for mobile users. One example of potential innovation is using smart cars for employees who spend most/all of their time on the road.

I also see a gap – or to be more positive, a major opportunity – around the trend of personalization, notably personalizing content and communication outreach inside organizations. This need not involve wearables like smart watches – which for many companies are likely years away – but can start with more agile, smarter segmentation of outreach and increased use of personalization on existing platforms like intranets or email networks. Most intranet platforms allow for considerable customization to allow users to focus on feeds and content that is most relevant to them. Communicators can also easily increase the ability for employees to opt into content, of feeds, that are most interesting to them rather than pushing mass distribution. Another simple improvement is making full use of so-called rich profile tools (like My Site) that allow employees to partially shape their own employee profile information.

I think the biggest contrast between the cutting-edge of CES and the average workplace is around data. Where one of the main topics at CES was around the push to collect, track and analyze all manner of data (like those smart watches) for many companies the very concept of data is nascent, limited mostly to cumbersome annual surveys, rudimentary tracking statistics and profile information. Some forward-thinking companies are showing progress in this area; for example, using real-time, regular online culture surveys, and using analysis to match employee engagement data with other metrics like customer satisfaction, engagement and productivity. Others, however, still struggle with old-school issues like updating staff directories (if they are even online) and integrating disparate, disconnected systems.

Ironically, all the hype and excitement from CES serves as a good reminder that it’s not all about technology. Though it’s become a well-worn truism, internal communications still has to include, if not feature, people in the communication mix – notably managers and leaders. But even here, the dazzling new technology offers fertile ground for innovation. Surely we can find better ways to inform and mobilize managers so they can in turn communicate with their teams more consistently and effectively. The real lesson for CES is that communication professionals should always be learning and listening; new ideas and improvements can come from anywhere.

I recently had the chance to have an informal video 

conversation with my good friend and e-learning guru Anders Gronstedt, CEO of The Gronstedt Group, about employee communication trends and opportunities. We cover a fair amount of ground on topics such as social media (inside the enterprise), staff training, employee engagement and emerging communication technology. One of the themes emerging from our conversation is that despite the hype and promise of social media, many companies are still hesitant to embrace new collaborative and social technology in the workplace. Please share your questions and comments.

Over the past few months I’ve attended (mostly virtually) a number of webinars and conferences focusing on social analytics and business intelligence. The latest was the Social Intelligence Summit put on by the W20 folks in London. (Here is a good blog post on the session.) I always come out of these sessions really impressed, even dazzled, by the advances in technology and intellectual leadership at the cutting edge of social business. The big lesson for me from these sessions is that the digital world is – with few exceptions – transparent, observable and measurable, and we’re coming up with increasingly smarter ways to find, package and use the digital data.

It’s difficult to pull highlights from the sheer volume of notable observations and insights, but here are a few I’ve noted:

  • There are now a wide range of sophisticated, user-friendly tools to help organizations monitor, aggregate, analyze and report activity on the Web – including multi-media discussions occurring on social platforms;
  • Analytics software can now provide complex, real-time data and insights that allow organizations to monitor and adapt their outreach 24/7;
  • Smart companies have gone well beyond listening and engagement and are now using the data to understand their audience (and how their brand is performing) and gain intelligence to drive their business;
  • Powerful analytics are being used well beyond the basic objectives of marketing – to drive brand or product awareness, consideration and hopefully purchase – and are now helping to guide activities as varied as health planning, product development and even predictive consumer research;
  • There seems to be a shift in what companies measure, with some focusing well beyond the usual reach/share of voice/tone to issues like identifying and mobilizing small groups of influential advocates, or determining highly customized and protean media channel strategies;
  • Some of the most interesting and advanced analytics work seeks to link social data and insights with specific business processes, transactions and outcomes – and using the insights to adapt and improve related business results.

My initial thought coming out of these events is euphoria (and humility) at the incredible innovation and intellectual sophistication in social media circles, and appreciation so much of this information and technology is readily available for all to use. But inevitably there is a thud when I return back to reality with my own observations, projects and clients. The reality is what I hear in these conferences and webinars still seems like rarified air in my consulting environment, with most clients or peers I see still grappling to understand and implement even the most rudimentary social platforms and strategy. If anything, I feel the gap between the analytics gurus and many of the corporate leaders (and communication pros) I work with is getting wider. In effect, I see a few pioneers with one foot in the future, but many others with one foot firmly placed in the past.

Perhaps the largest gap, and opportunity, is inside the organization. Most companies have at least some commitment to monitoring external social conversations and using the resulting data and insights to direct their social strategy, if not their broader business. But it’s much more infrequent to find companies that deploy social technology inside their enterprise and actually monitor, measure and analyze all the data generated by their employees. And leveraging Intranet traffic metrics or annual engagement surveys does not count as a real-time, robust analytics strategy.

Think of the potential outcomes if companies started to aggregate and interpret all the data on or from their workforce. Those kind of insights would not only help to track and drive engagement – the priority for many HR leaders and employee communication executives – but also provide valuable information to positively impact business outcomes such as productivity, retention, safety and even customer service. I’m personally hoping the analytics gap closes soon. Otherwise leaders and communication professionals are leaving a lot on the table.

A few months ago a good friend and industry peer asked me if I had any employee engagement plans. I had to think a minute, but as it turns out in over 25 years in the communication business I’ve maybe worked on one or two plans that could be considered comprehensive engagement programs – either for my own own company or a client. How is this possible? Isn’t engagement a virtual obsession among corporate executives and a mantra for internal communication pros?

I concluded this void – at least in my own experience – reflects a lack of understanding and commitment among many organizations that claim to seek sustained engagement. Though engagement is the holy grail of internal communications (and related fields like HR) most companies – though well-intentioned and determined to drive engagement – seem to take a piece-meal approach that only addresses one or two aspects of an employee’s workplace experience.

But the reality is it takes a holistic, sustained and integrated approach to ensure employees are informed, motivated (even passionate), productive and loyal. Many factors should be considered and working in strategic alignment to encourage engagement. But in today’s matrix, decentralized organizations the teams responsible for these functions rarely collaborate on that level, and in some cases their siloed activities may even be sending mixed messages to employees. I’ve seen this particular formula several times: spend energy and resources to ensure employees know exactly what they have to do and why they should do it, but don’t engage other functions (like HR) to ensure these same employees are actually trained, supported, recognized or rewarded for said work. Too many companies seem to think an annual survey (to measure engagement) and a few high-profile fixes (to address prominent issues) is the necessary exilir for employee engagement, but that’s only a start.

One approach I’ve used that seems to drive relevance and alignment in engagement activities is to use the employee’s perspective; what are the employee questions and needs that need to be addressed – and answered cogently and consistently – to shape a positive, productive workplace experience? Take a look at the attached presentation for additional details.

Whatever the strategy for engagement, the lesson is that there are no shortcuts. But without concerted action companies risk not only stagnant productivity and attrition of talent, but also lose the opportunity to mobilize their employees as advocates. Given the increasing profile of social media platforms in recent years, what employees say – good or bad – about your organization can have a huge impact on reputation and even sales.

For more information check out this presentation.

 

Over the past year, I’ve witnessed and engaged in several discussions – both online and in person – that explored the mandate and modus operandi of the employee communications function. Though the topics vary, a recurring thread – or really more of a question – relates to who “owns” content developed for an employee audience.

In one online polemic, for example, a participant suggested that a key role of internal communication (IC) practitioners was not only to create most of the content for employees, but also to control, or filter, all content reaching staff to ensure they were not overwhelmed or confused by irrelevant information. Many other discussions seemed to support this position – which suggests a traditional role where the development and delivery of content is directed, if not rigidly controlled, by the IC team.

Though I agree that in many organizations there is far too much frivolous or irrelevant content dumped on employees, I am struck that this “we know what’s best” attitude is badly out of sync with the prevailing ethos of social media, where the power of creating and vetting content and determining editorial agendas has shifted to the “crowd” – or individuals.

Looking from another angle, however, it’s clear that the answer isn’t a free-for-all where individuals and functions are able to generate and share content as they see fit. Employees in most companies often complain of being overwhelmed by the volume of emails and other content – most of which has little relevance to their job or interests. Even accessing simple social platforms (such as Yammer or Chatter) seems to be a stretch for busy employees. So more is not better.

It’s true that some content or communication tools created organically can be useful and get traction; I can think of several examples where social tools or even more traditional e-newsletters created by teams or offices are successful (in terms of reach, ratings and impact.) The problem with a largely decentralized, informal approach is that in aggregate the communication can lack quality, focus, structure and purpose. It can also be very difficult in these noisy, informal environments to find the most urgent or important content; even critical leadership announcements can get lost in the mix.

In this context, I suggest the answer lies in a balanced approach where the communication team becomes a content curator – or a light-handed editorial manager. In essence, ownership of content is shared. The IC team should still play a robust editorial role – creating critical corporate content, counseling functions and teams to encourage value and quality over volume, and limiting what gets broadcast through main corporate tools and channels – but also foster and amplify content generated by employees and internal experts. Whether content is valuable and relevant should be determined jointly by all parties – with the ultimate measure being whether users access, use and share the information. This curator model also allows for rich peer-to-peer communication through social platforms and collaboration tools.

In reality, internal communication has always been a balancing act between communicating what the company wants and covering what the employees want to know and talk about (usually more personal and local issues and “what’s in it for me” questions.) Positioning the IC team as a curator – rather than a self-appointed editorial gatekeeper – builds on that tradition and provides leeway to take advantage of user-generated content, organic storytelling and social or collaboration platforms. It also reinforces the reality that employees – like external consumers – have ideas, interests and information that bear as much consideration as those of senior executives. This new construct may not please traditional CEOs or communicators who favor a top-down approach, but it’s a better recipe for success in this evolving environment.

I haven’t really talked about the evolving nature of content – with the growing emphasis on storytelling and trans-media digital content – but that’s a story for another day.

During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

A few weeks ago I spent time with an old friend who worked in a company that by all appearances was a dynamic, successful industry leader: steady profits, stable leadership, healthy prospects, and a supportive board of directors. But if you asked my friend, or likely many of his colleagues, the description of working at this company would be much less positive. In fact, many of them hate going to work, and they spoke of a palpable malaise inside the company. The reason: a detached CEO who is largely dismissive of communication and culture.

This anecdote brought to mind the old medieval adage that as the king goes, so goes the country.  It’s pretty well accepted as a truism that CEO’s have a direct and enormous influence on their companies, of course. They direct and deploy workers in an organization much like a general in battle. But the twist in this story suggests that their impact goes beyond the most obvious elements (and requirements) of corporate success – such as organization, logistics, strategy and financial performance. A company (and leader) doing all the basic things right – at least according to the MBA playbook – can still be horrible workplace, with disenchanted and disengaged employees.

According to my friend, the CEO at his company has a blind spot when it comes to communicating with employees – grudgingly allowing only perfunctory, formal outreach and avoiding genuine, personal interaction as much as possible. Probing employees for ideas and opinions is limited to a typical annual “culture survey”, which apparently drives little discussion, response or change. Needless to say, convincing this CEO of potential investment or innovation in communication is a losing game.

The CEO also apparently sees little value in fostering a positive, distinctive workplace culture. Sure, the typical HR activities are in place – ostensibly to motivate and reward workers – but there is no leadership interest in truly exploring and improving worker morale and satisfaction. And the corporate identity is muted and generic, with little to inspire pride or discretionary effort. In other words, employees should do their jobs and be happy they have one. Since this company is located in a relatively small job market – with limited options for senior executives – there’s no immediate risk of an attrition of top talent. And with the company regularly hitting its numbers, the CEO sees no reason to change anything.

This anecdote raises some interesting questions for communication and HR professionals. Does it really matter if employees are happy at work? Is it important for a company to have a distinctive, engaging culture? Is the recruitment and retention of talent really an issue in smaller, stagnant job markets? And what is the ultimate metric for leadership and corporate success?

I propose the answers to these questions all revolve around the central issue of the core purpose of the company. Some would say that making money for shareholders and paying employees for good work is the baseline. I would argue that that viewpoint is shortsighted, and certainly not optimal for talented employees seeking a fulfilling career and perhaps even a higher purpose. In other words, employees don’t just need to know (and believe) what the company does, but what it stands for and what it hopes to achieve beyond driving profits. Without that deeper affinity and sense of purpose, most workers will remain steady (if unspectacular) performers and jump ship at the earliest chance.

A prominent topic for many of us involved in employee communications is engagement. Engagement has become a proxy for everything from evaluating the effectiveness of internal communications to assessing the psyche of contemporary workers. For the past few years, the news about employee engagement has been mostly negative, with the economic downturn making working conditions tougher than ever and employees feeling increasingly overworked and disillusioned. That may be changing. With the global economy slowing improving it appears employee engagement is also slowly turning the corner. Indeed, recent global surveys show some positive trends in employee engagement, with several studies showing slight improvements in overall engagement. Still, the picture is far from idyllic. Despite pockets of improvement there is still a stubborn, sizeable minority of passive or actively disengaged workers; Aon Hewitt puts this at 4 out of 10 workers. And the gap between the best companies (with the most engaged and productive employees) and the global norms is still substantial. Read the rest of this entry »

This article by the folks at Hay Group argues that the next frontier for HR is harnessing “big data” to drive engagement with employees and improve talent management – the holy grail of many HR teams. The author suggests there is a stark contrast between the massive explosion of data and real-time analytics in fields like marketing and retail with the halting, uneven progress in HR. For many HR teams, the promise of big data is still more potential than reality – notably in the area of talent development and succession planning.

This assessment is in line with what I’ve seen over years of working closely with HR teams in a wide range of organizations. Despite the emergence of powerful tools and technology – and access to related data on employees and their performance – too many HR departments are still struggling with rudimentary challenges like creating clean, dynamic staff directories and are barely scratching the surface of data collection and analysis. Though in theory HR departments know a great deal about their employees, I haven’t seen (or heard of) many teams that are consistently collecting and analyzing data and using their insights to direct their policies and programs. (To be fair, the one area that seems to be evolving for the better is online performance management. ) In fact, it’s not rare for me to encounter HR teams still using written records or forms for many of their HR transactions – which obviously limits their ability to quickly collect, update and review the information.

Here are a few examples where big data – used to its full potential – could dramatically improve engagement and results beyond talent management:

  • Virtually all leading organizations conduct some sort of engagement or culture survey. Many of these surveys, however, remain superficial (often formulaic) annual surveys more useful for benchmarking than driving real change – including responsive program and policy adjustments – across the organization. Often these surveys are outsourced and the information is reviewed once to develop the final report, and never seen or used again. With all the enterprise social media platforms and real-time analytic tools available, would it not make sense to implement a more sustained, detailed and actionable research program with employees? At minimum, companies should track the content of internal conversations (on the intranet, blogs or other discussion platforms) with the same level of sophistication and follow-up as they do with external platforms. Listening should not be a one-time annual event, but a full-time contact sport.
  • Though some companies have mastered the art of knowledge management and make it easy for their teams to identify and contact peers for collaboration, others still struggle with relatively simple profile information that would allow employees across all levels to search for peers with specific skills, expertise or experience. Having this data readily available would also help leaders develop ad-hoc project teams and make informed staff assignments.
  • While consumers are repeatedly probed for their opinions and preferences on topics like communication and marketing, employees are not consistently asked about company communications. Though some companies conduct robust, actionable internal audits designed to assess the effectiveness of their communication efforts, many rely on piece-meal efforts that are often event-driven, sporadic and informal (qualitative.) Others don’t take full advantage of the built-in tracking devices on their intranets or corporate email tools, which can provide a rolling update on key metrics like traffic, page views and comments. This is a relatively easy fix that can help to make corporate communications much more relevant, resonant and impactful.
  • Though it’s not employee data per se, harnessing the ideas and collective wisdom of an internal audience can be a major driver of innovation and engagement. Companies like Dell and RBC use an internal crowd-sourcing platform to solicit and rank employee ideas on a range of topics, and incorporate the best suggestions in their operations and planning. Several vendors provide user-friendly platforms that do most of the work behind the scenes and allow users to focus on the ideas and the outcomes.

Much like IT’s reluctant acceptance of social media and new technology, I fear HR’s slow adoption of data collection and analytics will decrease its relevance and credibility in the coming years. The result will be the exact opposite of what the HR teams seek; prospective employees raised on social media, ubiquitous communication and all-digital content are unlikely to be impressed if the very team responsible for managing talent and fostering a dynamic culture is so clearly out of sync with social and technology trends.

One of the ongoing challenges of my consulting work the past few years has been to convince clients to engage their employees in their external social media efforts. The argument for doing this is very solid – see this excellent post by Dion Hinchliffe of Dachis Group on the benefits and requirements of using employee advocates through social media. Perhaps the best argument for activating employees is that they are highly trusted by consumers and customers alike. So why is this not happening more often?

In my experience there are several answers to this question. For one thing, many organizations are still reluctant to engage in any social media activity – external or within the enterprise – so it’s understandable that their employee outreach strategy would also be nascent. Others are extremely concerned about rogue employees who can compromise the reputation of the company in one tweet or YouTube video, and can bring up several recent examples to support their position. A surprising number of companies (from my experience) prefer to wait and see, despite the fact they know their employees are already active on social media platforms (such as unofficial company Facebook pages) without the benefit of clear direction, guidelines or training. Companies react differently to these unsanctioned sites and posts – some prefer to turn a blind eye, while others try to quell the comments through punishment and/or additional training. I’ve also seem the other extreme, where cherry-picked employee advocates stray too much into cheerleading (think obnoxious, repetitive Twitter hype) and lose the authenticity and credibility their role demands.

But perhaps the biggest reason – and unspoken truth – is that some company environments are poisoned by distrust, disillusionment and woeful lack of engagement. If many of your employees are unhappy and discouraged, does it make sense to give them full license to represent the company with consumers and customers? Of course, the answer is no. Or at least, not all in one shot. These companies need to fix their workplace culture and foster engagement and collaboration within their walls before they think about activating their staff on social media platforms. (In fact, disgruntled employees can damage a company’s reputation through their actions and comments whether or not they are using social media.) But that’s not an excuse for complete inaction. A social media strategy can allow for a smaller team of ambassadors at the outset, who are selected for specific roles and expertise, provided ample direction and support and highly trained. Real-time monitoring is also critical, not only to assess impact with consumers but also to identify potential issues and ensure ambassadors don’t operate outside the guidelines.

Ultimately, companies need to realize their employees represent them – whether formally or otherwise – and will often be active on social media platforms with or without formal guidance or consent. The best approach is developing a realistic plan to ensure employees are informed, directed, trained and supported to represent the company in a positive light. Using a proactive strategy will allow companies to deploy their best marketing and PR asset – their team members.

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