Listening - The key to activate employee engagement

By Roger Bolton and Ethan McCarty, Global Head of Employee and Innovation Communications, Bloomberg

In a dynamic discussion a few weeks ago, a small group of Page and Page Up members meeting in New York City explored the challenges of engaging employees in support of the enterprise.

 In this era of radical transparency and low trust in institutions, employees have a lot more impact on public perception than ever. Engaging them in building and telling the company story thus is critical to building stakeholder engagement and trust.

The discussion was off the record, so we won’t reveal names or specific examples, but the key takeaways are worth sharing.

  1. Listening is the key to getting the story right. To make the company’s narrative really resonate, it should reflect the mission and purpose of the enterprise and relate to the actual work employees do. The best way to build the story is by listening to employees at all levels, not by huddling with the old guard at HQ. Everyone in the room described elaborate listening programs that were not just inclusive of the execs.
  2. Make it easy for employees to get access to shareable content. We had a great discussion of available platforms. Of course, the content must be authentic to their experience or it won’t resonate. See point 1.
  3. Motivate middle management. No surprise here, but middle management can be a blocker. Some in the room actually seemed to activate the very top and the bottom of the organization, but this could be a perilous end-run around middle managers. A better approach might be to engage middle management in message creation (see point 1) and find champions who love living, modeling and telling the story.
  4. Encourage employees to tell their stories on Glassdoor. Disgruntled ones do it anyway, so actively encouraging all to participate can help to present a more balanced picture. That’s assuming, of course, that you’ve observed point 1 already and have listened and responded to their concerns in a meaningful and material way (not just messaging).

One more thought: A lot of this listening and sharing is enabled by technology. If used thoughtfully to enable authentic human connections, digital engagement systems can be incredibly effective. All of us must remain diligent, though, about resisting the misuse of technology that has plagued the social media environment, where fake news and fake personas distort authentic dialogue between real people.

The leaders & culture 'digital' demands

Two pieces came across my transom today — one a summary of a meeting with IBM’s Ginni Rometty and Jon Iwata, the other a post from friends at Bloomberg Beta. Both indicate to me the direction that winning companies need to take and, you guessed it, I see Communications at its core. Especially communications with and among employee populations.

The first is a post to Fortunes’ CEO blog about the necessity for  industry incumbents to get off of their disrupted tushies and make the best use of their inherent knowledge, data and the capital they’re sitting on to take advantage of emergent AI. But, “the biggest problem they face is not technology, but rather creating a culture that can embrace and adapt to technological change. As Iwata summarized their view: ‘Culture is the number one impediment… Culture moves in a linear way; technology moves exponentially.’”

Ayuuuuup.

But as I began to learn at IBM (under Jon’s leadership, no less) years ago — company culture is a killer app, or just a killer. Depends. Mostly on how (or whether) or manage it. And by the way, the culture extends internally, externally and across time in ways that are damn hard to address. But digital networks of employees (future and past) leave evidence of behaviors, ideas and artifacts of feelings as never before. Observable…and therefore measurable…and manageable?

(Hint: I most certainly think so.)

The second post — coauthored by Roy Bahat and James Cham — suggests that industry needs a kind of Digital Drucker. Someone with some new ideas about management informed by the capabilities of machine learning. We need fewer genius/hero CEOs and more leadership who understand how machine intelligence can propel their firms (and their increasingly loosely-coupled-recombinant-adaptive workforces) to success. These new managers will “understand how to manage models, which are the flux capacitor of making software go beyond workflows to decisions.”

Couldn’t. Agree. More.

So in both of these articles — ostensibly kinda sorta about technology but really more about adaptation — you have an insight about how Communications as a profession must proceed. The best communications professionals will be consiglieres to their CEOs as their firms develop products, policies, platforms and employee populations open to ‘digital’ (for lack of a better term.) If we’re looking for a ‘seat at the table,’ then our best bet will be to understand the methods of communicating with and through digitally activated populations assisted by many, many flavors of machine intelligence.

Don't measure "internal communications"

Ok, first, allow me to apologize for the slightly click-baity headline. But I actually do mean it. Let’s all stop measuring internal communications for two reasons.

  • First, internal communications is probably not actually internal and,

  • Second, you’re wasting your time if you’re measuring the communications instead of the desired behavioral changes.

I’ve been on a bit of crusade for the past, oh, maybe ten years about the difference between internal communications and employee activation. Despite a drastically changed communications landscape, there’s a lasting idea about employees that seems all too pervasive: employees are an audience, and a monolithic one at that.

It’s just not true. For the most part, employee intranets are designed to mimic web publications from the 1990s or early 2000s. Sure, many have some collaborative or transactional tech bolted on, but, for the most part, the behaviors of the employees are a second thought. But I’m hopeful because I see more and more communications professionals looking over at their colleagues in marketing for some ideas about how to link their work to business outcomes.

It starts with measuring the observable behaviors — many of which have a digital fingerprint — instead of measuring the consumption of the content. In the end, employee communications is not about selling impressions (there are very few, if any, corporate intranets which serve up advertising), so measuring based on impressions is, well, a tough sell as far as I’m concerned.

At Bloomberg, we no longer use the term “internal communications.” We call our team Employee Communications. And it might even be more accurate to call it Employee Engagement. Or Employee Activation. Because we are not in the business of Internal or Communications. We are not in the business of storytelling. We are not even in the business of generating awareness.

We want to be in the business of driving behaviors that lead to business outcomes. Specifically, we are on the hook for improving sales, increasing productivity, opening the doors for our recruiters and building employee retention. We even help protect the firm by changing behaviors around security.

Awareness is just one arrow in our quiver, a means to an end; but it is not a business outcome.

There is a reason why we think of our function so differently. It has a name: Digital. The Internet changed the nature of the relationship between management and employees. While employees used to be thought of as an audience to receive messages, we now look at them as the messengers themselves. Together with the brand behind them, they are a powerful network, a potent combination of brand authority and personal authenticity. And we should focus our efforts on empowering their voices in ways that further the business’ strategic goals.

So where are we as a profession and what should we measure? The following four areas are worth noting:

Strategy and vision: There is no function better positioned to help senior leadership align the company with a shared sense of purpose, mission and even future than Employee Communications. This is especially true if you think of Communications much more broadly than just multimedia or written content. What does your architecture say about your company’s vision? What do the snacks served in your office say about your strategy? What rituals serve as guideposts for employee behaviors? When you think holistically about all employee touch points, a different story may emerge than you wish you’re telling. Likewise, a whole new set of measures may reveal themselves.

Marketing mix: In recent years, a whole cottage industry of software providers has cropped up with solutions for soliciting your employees to share company content with their personal social networks. There’s value in that to be sure, but employees are also the ones interfacing with your current customers. What digital mechanisms have you considered for compelling your employees to behave differently around customers? What does your employee mobile app do to remind them to be their best self and come equipped with the knowledge they need to build even greater value for your customers?

Reputation: I heard a great case study a couple of years ago when Slack’s servers went down. They had anticipated this could happen and equipped their entire employee population with the ability to respond to comments about the company through the company’s official Twitter handle. When the inevitable outage came, Slack’s main Twitter handle replied to every single complaint and compliment on Twitter thanks to this ingenious crowdsourced demonstration of trust. How would you measure that value with traditional metrics like page views and downloads?

Recruiting: While a handful of companies have found ways to get their employees to open up their own networks to their recruiters, for the most part, I still see firms deploying the same old tactic: a referral bonus. Fundamentally, this approach turns a potentially positive network expansion into a limited transaction. We’ve found at Bloomberg that working back from the business problem — in this case, the open role — and then putting the employees in the center of the story has been very effective. Our YouTube channel has dozens of videos highlighting current employees in roles we’d like to fill — these are the employees most likely to know similarly wonderful and skilled people. Each video has a link to apply for a job and the employees featured in these videos are happy to share them.

If we accept this fundamental re-framing of the function formerly known as internal communications, then the way we measure our impact should also change.

Primarily, we must stop using only Awareness as our KPI. Awareness is not an outcome. And its impact on behavior is dubious and difficult to measure. In addition, we must stop measuring after the fact and trying to reverse engineer business impact.

The measurement process starts with an active collaboration with business leaders and a clear understanding of business goals, and most importantly, a definition of observable behaviors that will drive outcomes.

Consider these two aspects of measurement:

Metrics that measure improvement

  • Any data that helps us understand our efficiency and the relative efficacy of our tactics

  • For example, the number of blog posts over time is an indication of productivity or the number of publications quoting a spokesperson is a measure of message effectiveness. But they are not – in and of themselves – measurements of business outcomes.

  • Open rates on email newsletters are a great improvement metric. At the end of the day, if everyone in the company opened the newsletter, you could brag about your open rate and still go out of business. But if no one opens the newsletter, then at least you know you should probably stop sending it out.

Metrics that measure business outcomes

Business leaders will not – and should not – accept measurements of activity as proxies for value.

  • Volume does not equal change – email opens, story clicks, and the like are important, but insufficient.

  • We must be able to define reasonable action that communications can take to contribute to observable behavioral change.

  • For example, how a widely read article about a new sales technique led to adoption of the technique, and a subsequent increase in sales.

It is critical to collect these metrics in a way that does not impede productivity of these teams. If measurement is baked in at the beginning, it’s easier. And of course: enable automation whenever possible.

There will be resistance.

Employee communications functions are not used to this kind of scrutiny. We’re not used to being on the hook for revenue generation. But we should embrace the role of consultant and/or strategic advisor. The alternative is being measured on volume of activity alone, which leads to an endless cycle of doing more with less. Tying your performance more directly to business outcomes makes the function more strategic. It encourages additional investment, rather than incessant belt-tightening. It keeps you relevant. And employed.