I had some interesting  conversations last week on the topic of employee communications, notably if and how organizations are adopting the lessons of social networks and the Web into their internal strategies. I think the verdict is decidedly mixed. Some companies continue to hesitate on making the shift from traditional communication to dynamic conversations. In some cases the caution is valid (for example in unionized manufacturing environments) but in many it’s a function of ignorance and/or inertia. Other organizations have made good progress – introducing internal blogs, wikis, RSS capability, customized intranet portals, robust search engines, digital content production, interactive training modules…among many others. And the point of these tools is not the technology, but rather the philosophy behind them – to foster candid dialogue, faciliate peer-to-peer collaboration, encourage employee input and innovation, provide relevant and interesting training, allow for time-shifting of information, and leverage existing or potential networks of like-minded workers. But often these successes focus on the basic internal mandate – helping employees do their jobs efficiently and effectively.  

What I don’t see nearly as often is companies that strive to make their employees fans of their company, and ultimately active ambassadors outside the organization. From my experience, these are areas where few companies dare to tread and even fewer succeed. The companies that do this well – Nike, Apple, Patagonia – have found a formula that fosters legitimate commitment and passion among their employees. It starts with liking (loving?) the products and services provided by the company, of course, but also includes strong affinity with the vision and beliefs of the organization. How do the companies do it? I think it starts with the basics – make sure your employees use (and like) your own products.  Let them define and represent the brand inside and outside the work environment. Foster a true sense of community. Treat them like your main marketing asset, not an after-thought.

Once you have this well informed, excited group of employees the next step is leveraging them as advocates for the company (and brand.) Let them interact with customers or share their thoughts on the company blog – or their own blog. Give them the tools to create and share their own marketing materials (like viral videos.) Make them the focus of external events or presentations. And of course, let them use and promote your products.  

Why does all this matter? Can’t we just focus on making sure they do their jobs and drive revenue? Think of it this way. Even with effective internal communication, you can have a workforce that is either invisible or critical outside the company. The ideal is to have a majority of employees act as your de-facto marketing army, spreading the good word with customers and peers alike. No matter where your organization is on this spectrum, it all starts with empathy and respect for the employees. Passion and alignment cannot be forced or manufactured. Maybe it’s just about treating your employees like customers…your best customers.

Update: What is a company’s worst nightmare? Employees that turn against the company and corrode the brand reputation – think of them as “kryptonite” ambassadors. See this  BusinessWeek article on the problems at Wal-Mart stemming from disgruntled and cynical employees.