The Challenge of Internal Communications
I recently joined a local roundtable group here in Seattle made up of business leaders focused on the challenges of internal business communications.
In preparing for our first meeting the organizers asked that we each name our most pressing internal communication challenge.
For me, the answer is changing the directional flow of communication.
I mentioned a similar thought to this in my last post when I talked about Microsoft’s Academy Mobile podcasting platform. One of the benefits of giving field employees the tools to create their own knowledge content and share it with peers is that now Microsoft corporate benefits from hearing more of what is happening in the field directly from the people out there doing the work. Microsoft didn’t need another tool for the field to hear what corporate was saying, they needed a tool so corporate could hear what the field was saying.
Think about your own organization. Is there a similar challenge in place for you?
Lopsided Communication Patterns
I will admit there is for us. As inclusive as we are in our thinking about who should have authority to create content and share it throughout the company – and just to clarify, we think the answer is “anyone who wants to” – it’s still true that the dominant internal communication pattern remains from corporate to the field, from the top down.
How to change that? That’s the persistent question.
As I think about it I am reminded, for reasons only my brain knows, of the Chicago River. There was a time (specifically for all time up until the turn of the 20th century) when the Chicago River flowed north out of central Illinois and emptied into Lake Michigan.
Eventually the moneyed interests running Chicago decided they wanted to reverse the flow of the river, to make it flow south from Chicago into central Illinois. And their engineers did it.
The connection to this example, I believe, is that, like the river, communication has a current too.
Changing the Flow of Information – Technology is the Final Step, Not the First
To change the flow of a river your engineers have to raise the land. To change the flow of conversation, I believe your company leaders have to model information sharing and get people talking who previously haven’t been. As a case in point, I am starting a series of subject matter expert (SME) panels within our company to build a bridge between our field employees – the subject matter experts doing the work – and management, marketing and sales – the groups that need to represent to the market the work being done.
We have tried in the past to build technology tools to enable our field employees to share knowledge with one another. But those tools have met with only sporadic success. To extend the river analogy above, it was as though we built a river bed in the hopes it would make water flow. We gave employees the tools to share and to post content, but we didn’t have a culture of sharing in place yet.
My hope is that through our SME panels I can lead our company culture to become one of more knowledge sharing and one where the current flows as much from employees toward each other and from employees toward management as it does from management toward employees.
There are three distinct steps in this process of creating a new communication current, only the last of them technical:
Determine what knowledge is most critical – You can’t get everyone to start sharing all at once. Some of the knowledge in your company is more critical to your company success than others. Determine what knowledge you want to uncover first. Start small by getting those SME’s sharing, and then expand as you become successful.
Hold in-person meetings first – This takes some coordination efforts, especially in larger companies with more widely dispersed workforces. Still it can be done. The benefit of having in-person meetings rather than trying to kick off robust dialogue online is that through in-person meetings you can establish familiarity and trust between people. Trust is critical any time you want people to share with each other. The trust people establish face to face can be the catalyst to an eventual robust exchange online.
Let the sharers define the technical solution – As relationships grow through the in-person exchanges and as people begin to experience the benefit of a knowledge sharing culture you can engage them in the discussion of how to take the conversation online. Have participants define an online approach that would enable them to replicate the kind of sharing they can do in person. But it’s important to let the sharers themselves define the online approach – they know what information they want to find, they know how they want to use it. Let them tell you and then you deliver it for them.
Technology to Support Change, Not Force It
Reversing the top-down flow of communication in a company is not an easy task. It isn’t something that will happen quickly company-wide. Start by creating small tributaries of change and once they’re flowing consistently then build a technology environment around them to support change on a broader scope.
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