Spreading The Right Word

When people ask me what I do for living and I reply “I am communication strategy consultant”, I get lot of vague smiles and empty nods. Those who guess usually think I work for Telecom, planning future cabling requirements.
In New Zealand, communications is rarely viewed as strategic organisational performance imperative. Communications isn’t usually represented around the executive committee table, and the perceived need for highly specialised communications resources is low.
While the legal or HR areas are recognised as specialist, highly trained and strategic disciplines, communications can easily be relegated to the back benches. Everyone writes and everyone speaks, hence everyone communicates. There’s nothing more to it than breathing, really.
But this view costs New Zealand organisations millions of dollars every year. Organisational communication has direct links to staff satisfaction and the bottom line. Communications strategy alongside solid HR and management practices can make the mission, vision and corporate objectives part of each employee’s day-to-day life.
Replacing and training staff is one of the highest costs any organisation can face. Recent Gallup research shows staff are less likely to leave job if they embrace their organisation’s mission and purpose and feel their work is important. To do that, organisations need to ensure all communications – even policy and procedure – are linked back to the big picture. Adding more or revitalising existing communications may improve organisational performance. Maybe not.
The key is taking the time to accurately diagnose what’s working and not working in the present environment, and basing your communications plan around the gaps. Each organisation has different needs, but there are some basic steps anyone can take to start focusing communications strategically. strategic communications focus links directly to the bottom line, because it aligns people with the overall organisational direction.
The first step is visualisation – determining strategic business drivers and critical success factors or put simply, understanding the big picture. All too often organisations communicate what they want people to do, but they don’t paint the big picture of where the organisation is heading and therefore why people should do certain things.
In globalised environment, many don’t even have cohesive picture for the organisation overall. Each business unit has its own set of objectives and marches to different drummer. This often results in disjointed communications that leave staff uncertain about where the organisation as whole sees itself. Establishing strategic business drivers and critical success factors for the organisation as whole is important, even if it has to incorporate specific business unit goals. Once there’s big picture to communicate, you have what should become the core framework for your organisational communications moving forward.
Once you have drawn the big picture, you need to know how well your staff understand it and how well existing communication is promulgating it. Readership surveys are about as sophisticated as most organisations get. While readership is useful to understand, it doesn’t tell you whether or not the right messages are being absorbed. It’s like asking student to do book review. You know they’ve read the book if they can regurgitate the plot with some degree of accuracy, but you don’t know what they’ve actually absorbed.
True evaluation means “warts and all” audit with defined measurement criteria in number of areas. Then comes the gap analysis. Where do we want our people’s understanding to be, and where is it now? Once you know your strategic business drivers and you have measured the success of your current communications in promulgating them, you can move on to the next steps. Now it’s time to redesign your communications. The first question to ask yourself – what tools do I need?
Every organisation is different and there is no “one size fits all” answer. You may end up augmenting, rationalising or refining depending on what your evaluation phase identified. Whatever the makeup of your ultimate communications suite, the key to success is ensuring that everything going into it has some tie – express or implicit – to the big picture.
The last step is continuous improvement. Ongoing measurement and refining is necessary to keep your communications fresh and effective. Good organisational communication is more than writing and speaking well. It is about aligning your people with your strategy and ensuring what they do every day supports key objectives. Posters in the tearoom extolling the mission and values of the organisation are only as powerful as the overall communications strategy that keeps these messages top-of-mind each day.

Samantha Shaw is strategic communications consultant with the organisational performance consultancy The Empower Group.

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