Once upon a time, effective internal communication meant simply sharing information through top-down channels – via a cascade approach as information filtered down through the organization. Now it means helping organisations deliver better performance; enabling employees to understand and play their role in the corporate strategy – that’s a key role for HR to play, as well as for internal communicators.
Employee expectations have changed too. In today’s society, people expect to have their say: to be able to question, to disagree, to debate. Inside corporations, the choice is ours as to whether we allow that dialogue to take place.
Most businesses seem to feel they have to take an either/or approach – a top-down information cascade or that more open two-way communication style. Instead, Melcrum’s research suggests a spectrum of approaches available to organizations in which we can find the ultimate blend based on our company culture and available channels.
In a report produced exclusively for members of Melcrum’s Strategic Communication Research Forum (a networking membership of senior communicators) a little while ago, we set out to explore the ongoing debate around the ‘right place, right time’ for a dialogue approach vs. the traditional cascade, and offer some tips, tools and case studies to help assess your organisation’s readiness for more open communication, and then make it happen.
Based on our research, then, here are some suggestions for ways to start the conversation flowing, either within teams, or across functions and business units.
1. Invite employees to contribute to regular climate feedback sessions. A couple of the companies we profiled in our study annually survey employees on16 consistent questions relating to company strategy and culture. Discussions then take place to explore the reasons behind the responses and identify opportunities for action
2. Hold a “story-swapping” session to accompany the broadcast/cascade element of an important topic. One company refers to “campfire sessions”, where people discuss what the company strategy means for their team by telling stories about their experiences.
3. Invite employees for regular “coffee break” sessions with senior leaders to discuss current strategy from both ‘sides’. Set a clear agenda beforehand, and try to encourage people to share their questions in advance.
4. Change leadership conference calls from “tell” to “ask” sessions. One company we profiled revamped the format of its CEO conference call, as its top-down approach meant it was difficult to get employees to speak up. They re-named the calls “Question time” and hosted them as a radio-style interview, in which a member of the communication team moderated a discussion around a chosen topic between either a senior leader or an external guest, and employees. Employees were invited to submit questions in advance.
5. Use tools to facilitate dialogue in discussion about important topics such as strategy, a change project or values. Provide managers with simple guidelines to help them think through how to say what they have to say, versus than what to say word-for-word. We’ve shared several versions in our study.
Engaging employees in meaningful, productive conversations takes time and effort across the entire organization – and unquestionably strong partnership between HR and IC. That said, our research – and our 14 years of working with senior internal communicators and their teams – would suggest that this is something that every company needs to consider and that the time is right for HR and internal communicators to step up and lead that process.