Communication – It’s good to listen

Companies have failed to learn a crucial lesson from the last generalind out staff opinion, says David Sowter. election: not finding out what people think can have disastrous consequences.

This clear warning emerges from a survey of major UK businesses, which between them employ more than two million people.

The survey shows that methods of sounding out staff opinions are inadequate.

Feedback from briefing meetings – which are frequently carried out by managers who have no training for the role – is all too often poorly evaluated or non-existent.

The survey, Change in Internal Communication 1976-1997, which I conducted with my colleague Andrew Adamson, compares management practices and attitudes to employee communications today in New Labour’s UK with those prevailing in old Labour UK more than 20 years ago.

The questions put to the 36 participating companies largely replicate those asked in a similar survey in 1976. They reveal that, while technology has brought great superficial change, little of substance has changed in underlying employee communication values.

Indeed, the survey findings confirm the impression from two high-profile disputes last year that some organisations do not have a clear enough picture of employee attitudes to make effective decisions. First, the BBC was forced to revise plans for the reorganisation of its news departments in the face of intense employee opposition. Then, British Airways totally underestimated the resolve of its cabin crews, resulting in an embarrassing and costly dispute in the peak of the holiday season last July.

Arguably in each case, better intelligence, in the form of more accurate, seriously evaluated feedback, could have minimised or circumvented these disputes and prevented a lowering of morale and performance among staff.

It would also have avoided the undoubted damage that was needlessly inflicted on the public image of each organisation.

Many respondents to the survey were apparently unclear about how their internal communication policies were being implemented. Worryingly, too, there was no evidence that, 21 years on, UK business as a whole had paid much more than lip service to the strategic importance of internal communication or realised how dramatically – beneficially or damagingly – it could affect productivity.

Despite the fundamental advances in technology over the past two decades, traditional means of addressing the workforce, via face-to-face briefings, noticeboards and in-house publications, are still extensively used although their roles have changed. E-mail has become the fourth most important means of passing on information to employees.

And, in spite of the emergence of flatter organisational structures in recent years, the fact that 40% of respondents stated that their communication with managers and team leaders was through a vertical system suggests that old hierarchical attitudes remain widespread and firmly entrenched.

E-mail, which was unknown in 1976 and mentioned by only 4% of respondents to an Industrial Society survey in 1994, has become a dominant means of communicating urgent information to employees in nearly nine out of ten of the companies surveyed. What is not known is the percentage of people within those companies who have easy access to PC terminals – employees without such access could risk becoming second-class citizens in business communication.

In terms of communication conduit, e-mail and intranets represent the most fundamental change over the 21 years since the first survey. Although it is too early to see how their interactive capabilities will be developed, there are indications they are already leading to information overload – the antithesis of communication.

Briefing, the most interactive of the communication methods used by businesses, has become virtually universal, whereas in 1976 three-quarters of the companies then surveyed used briefing groups where managers or team leaders met with staff to provide information, discuss matters affecting them, and listen to the response.

Disturbingly, however, we found that, in 1997, one-third of the businesses surveyed did not train the people running the briefing sessions to fulfil this vital role. Additionally, while 86% said they had a method of evaluating and responding to feedback from briefings, 38% regarded it as ‘not very effective’.

Only one in five companies were making feedback reports from team leaders freely available. This is a crucial issue, because these reports let team members see how their comments and opinions are being interpreted to senior management. There is great temptation for managers seeking to show how well they are doing their own jobs to put a rosy tint on such reports.

Transparency is essential if decision-making managers are to be kept properly informed.

Few respondents could provide any meaningful analysis about how briefing sessions were structured, with some not even knowing what proportion of time was devoted to group, company, site and team matters.

One significant finding in relation to briefing was that the use of this face-to-face technique for urgent announcements was down from 50% in 1976 to 27% today, indicating a move towards less personal means, often electronic.

Company journals aimed at employees saw a small, statistically insignificant, decline during the intervening 21 years, with many companies having several publications of varying frequency. Over the same period there was a pronounced switch from tabloid newspapers (down from 70% to 40%) to magazines (up from 18% to 53%), combined with a trend towards less frequent publication.

This suggests that the role of print in internal communication has become, at least in theory, a medium for explaining and reinforcing rather than the primary source of information it once was, or ought to have been.

Both surveys revealed that 40% of such publications had no written objectives, and some of those that did were on an inform-and-entertain level. And it is extraordinary that now, as then, two out of five companies spend time and considerable sums of money in this way without having a clearly defined purpose.

There is one very positive finding on the print front: greater effort is being put into communicating financial information to employees than was the case in 1976.

Printed special reports are now the preferred method of 53% of businesses, against 3% in the earlier survey. Almost three-quarters of respondents said that their companies produced such financial reports for employees half-yearly or more frequently, compared with 44% in 1976.

The Labour Party demonstrated conclusively during last May’s general election campaign the supreme importance and value of continuous assessments of opinions among the electorate.

But while many companies have also commissioned opinion polls to ascertain the views and attitudes of their employees, the design of these can be flawed. More often than not, they take place under duress, when the management has realised it has a serious problem, rather than applying the same criteria and importance as is necessary for gleaning public views for marketing purposes.

What is more, the interpretations placed on the results by communications departments can also be distinctly suspect because, inevitably, they will always be anxious to show they are delivering value for money.

One of the most significant in-house changes since 1976 has been the growth of integrated communications departments, sometimes headed by good administrators who are not communication professionals by background.

Yet at the very heart of the problem for business is the question of commitment to internal communication. Our survey showed almost three-quarters regarded it as crucial, with most of the rest classing it as very important.

But when these men and women, all with responsibility for internal communication within major companies, were asked about their personal commitment to internal communication, only a third described their commitment as total, while for nearly half it was very important.

A director of a large organisation, who said candidly that internal communication was the less interesting and exciting side of her work, perhaps exposed a clue to the reason for this: compared with external relations, with its customary lacing of glamorous events and people, she found it dull.

Superficially, new communications technology has been adopted for internal communication purposes. But we see little sign that the full significance of the many media and channels now available has yet been grasped.

For communication to stand out and influence effectively today, companies need to identify and take account of the preferred channels of those at which it is aimed. Employees are conditioned outside their work to ever greater choice and sophistication in how they are informed.

The content must be right, matching and balancing the communication needs of the employer to a style and depth to which employees will be receptive.

Importantly, too, the careful evaluation that is essential to this approach eliminates waste in communication budgets, rather than being an expensive luxury.

Internal communication is so important to the performance and success of any business that it should be accorded a strategic dimension in respect of every development and issue, rather than treated as an afterthought.

And it should be demand-led, rather than reactive.

For this to happen requires not just company-wide commitment, but commitment that stems from the top: from the chief executive. Nothing less can, does or will suffice.

David Sowter is a partner in communications consultancy Sowter & Adamson. Change in Internal Communication 1976-1997, #25, from 30 Bewdley Street, London N1.

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