A well-known management consultant once told me, in a jaded tone, that the trick to sounding credible in business is memorizing the article abstracts in the Harvard Business Review. Judging from a recent survey of HBR abstracts, business success these days hinges on being able to talk about the importance of effective “listening,” both within organizations and to customers.
The result is that well-informed HBR readers from functions as diverse as HR, L&D, Comms, and Marketing are running around trying their best to listen, and simultaneously suffering from a kind of listening fatigue. The CLO of a global MarComms firm recently explained to me that, between surveys and town hall meetings and Adobe Connect “listening” sessions, his colleagues are over it. They would rather just put their heads down and get their work done. And the execs in his firm’s C-suite were starting to feel that this kind of unstructured, chaotic listening wasn’t really worth their valuable time or money.
This exasperation is a big problem because some forms of listening are tremendously important. To take only one example, the introduction of any new corporate strategy ought to be influenced both by employee feedback and by an informed sense of how the strategy is likely to be implemented within a variety of business contexts.
But the real prize is the ability to elicit meaningful feedback from a wide range of stakeholders so that the strategy and its implementation can be shaped in real time. As a senior leader, I want to leverage the practical knowledge of my organization to make the best decisions and I want access to this dispersed knowledge right now.
Most of us have a sense of what good face-to-face listening means: actively engaging, demonstrating interest with a range of cues, asking the right questions at the right times, guiding the flow of discourse. But the question of how an organization can effectively listen is far more challenging. Who should be listened to? How often? About what subjects? And, last but not least, how can listening at scale (often across functional and geographical borders) actually work in practice?
Some apostles of the digital/social revolution in business communications argue that technology has solved the listening problem. They contend that enterprise social networks like Tibbr, Jive, Yammer, and SocialCast, among others, generate efficient collaboration and knowledge sharing between geographically dispersed and attention-starved managers.
But technology only gets us about 20% of the way. While these platforms generate lots of chatter, it’s difficult and time consuming for senior managers to sift through random posts to find hidden gems. What’s missing is a real conversation that leads to new and actionable knowledge about what’s going on within an organization. And, given the unstructured nature of many enterprise social networks, real conversations are unlikely to arise randomly online. Conversations—whether they’re digital or face-to-face—need to be carefully curated to become meaningful. And good ideas need to be captured and carefully re-presented in order to be heard.
Conversations about business work better when they’re carefully embedded in learning, in environments that balance structure with space for creative thinking. On the one hand, senior managers can define topics to make feedback more useful. Elements of competition and peer selection hone the output. And all stakeholders have a shared store of cases and concepts to draw upon in order to clearly articulate their opinions.
On the other hand, learning environments are familiar safe zones. Everyone in an organization has a long history of learning experiences. When the task is to learn, many of us are used to taking risks, expressing ideas, and engaging in debates about challenging topics. Listening, then, can be a powerful indirect effect of learning.
That’s why Nomadic fosters organization-wide conversations about particular business issues structured around social learning experiences. For example, we helped that exasperated global MarComms CLO launch a custom program combining cutting-edge cases and concepts about the digital revolution in MarComms with series of discussion prompts directly relating to his CEO’s new digital strategy. In fact, the CEO specifically requested that more than 50% of the impetus behind the custom learning program be about fostering an organization-wide listening function.
Thousands of globally dispersed learners, in dozens of cohorts, debated the specific implementation challenges of the CEO’s vision as it related to their daily working lives. Later, we selected and curated the strongest and most provocative comments and presented them back to the CEO. In response, he meaningfully adjusted corporate strategy. Not just digital listening. A structured digital conversation.