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Is anyone listening out there?

It's all part of the continual search for improvement in the quality of products and customer service, inextricably linked to an unswerving commitment of the work force.

Good progress is reported by many companies. But employees remain critical of the willingness of top management to listen and to act on ideas from the shop floor.

In boardrooms the world over, captains of industry are urging their lieutenants to step up the process of what they like to call cultural change. The subalterns, in turn, are calling on other ranks to operate in a more responsive, creative and productive way, taking the corporation, leaner and stronger, into the 21st century.

Is the call to arms being heeded? Many companies, operating within a climate of openness and effective communication, can point to a better-motivated work force with a "we can do it" approach. Others, too often without a communication strategy, have unwittingly traded employee loyalty for a working environment of uncertainty, confusion and fear.

Minimum controls, maximum delegation Through the implementation of fundamentally different ways of working, major companies in the U.K. are dramatically raising all aspects of company performance. They are creating streamlined organisations with minimum controls and maximum delegation of responsibility. They are harnessing the talent and energy of all employees to deliver highest quality goods and services at the lowest possible cost.

This can only come about through change. And the level of change ranges from state-of-the-art technology to a management style that gives employees more decision-making authority - and the chance to be heard.

Streamlining the structure Bogged down by their own bureaucracy, many companies are simplifying the corporate centre, devolving authority and eliminating traditional layers of councils and committees. Hierarchically structured departments are out; small, flexible teams are in.

Indeed, teamwork is seen by many as the key to success. The whole point of the work-group system is the bringing together of people with multi-skills and cross-functional experience; the strategy is to use everyone's ability to the fullest. Improvement teams, responding to this welcome new level of corporate involvement, are providing vision, championing causes and seeking out ways of making work more enjoyable and rewarding. For example:

British Petroleum, through its "Open Up" programme, is concentrating on the development of flexibility, innovation and interpersonal skills. The process is designed to liberate the talents, enthusiasm and commitment of all BP people.

Open Up is the basic framework underlining performance in the new BP culture; it is relevant to every job. The company is committed to recognising the needs and aspirations of the individual and helping employees to manage their own career in a partnership with the corporation.

The component parts of O-p-e-n -- Open Thinking, Personal Impact, Empowering and Networking - are being actively promoted throughout the corporation as a whole new way of doing things. As BP Chairman Robert Horton puts it: "I am confident that Open Up will play a major role in unlocking the potential that is in each of us. In so doing, it will propel us firmly towards the achievements of our vision of being the most successful oil company in the 1990s and beyond."

The Rover Company, with a "New Deal" programme, is effectively offering employees jobs for life in return for the adoption of Japanese-style working practices.

Chief Executive George Simpson told 35,000 workers that Rover intends to guarantee job satisfaction as far as possible. Necessary reductions in manpower will be achieved with the cooperation of all employees, through retraining and redeployment, natural wastage, voluntary severance and early retirement programmes."

Under the latest proposals, employees would be expected to improve their working methods and the company's performance. Hourly paid workers would receive salaried status; clocking in would end. All employees would eat in the same canteens. Holidays would be flexible, not fixed.

Changed procedures to deal with grievances would be introduced; management would seek a system that forbids industrial action during negotiations.

The company broke New Deal ground with the design and manufacture of the new Rover 800 saloon. A 10-strong employee team from engineering, design, sales and marketing, supported by outside component makers, ironed out faults before the car reached the assembly lines. Result: The Rover 800 was designed and built in just two years, compared with the usual 39-month lead time at Rover and 35-month average for Japanese manufacturers.

Encouraged by this breakthrough, Rover is taking more than 3,000 workers off assembly lines and our of offices in one of Britain's biggest training programmes. In an effort to raise efficiency of group operations by 30 percent in four years, hundreds of workers will be studying assembly and management techniques in companies around the world.

* ICI Paints' "Focus on Customers" programme encourages employees to improve the quality of all operations, to become more efficient at meeting the needs of all customers.

The broad objectives: to bring about a service-oriented culture to ensure that employees understand, and subscribe to, the concept of the "internal customer," and to recognise that the quality of service which reaches the external customer begins with the quality of service that people inside the company give each other.

Research showed that ICI employees genuinely wanted to contribute problem-solving ideas and have a say in how the business operates. Supported by a vigorous communication programme, this hitherto untapped power of the work force has been successfully channelled.

There's nothing new about all this, of course. In Britain, ICI began the process in the early '80s, led by the redoubtable Sir John Harvey-Jones. And in the United States, General Electric, under the abrasive but inspirational leadership of Jack Welch, linked job cutbacks to simplified structures and streamlined processes.

Grasping the implications It all spells flexibility. But the new company culture, the new corporate metamorphosis - call it what you will - is doomed to fail unless employees understand and accept all the implications of the corporation's new way of working. This vision is more easily articulated than achieved.

Little doubt exists that British industry has clearly defined its new corporate culture and management style: New technology, new quality standards, new patterns of working are up and running. There's ample evidence, too, that employees are fast shaking off that "comfortable" feeling that came from doing things in the deeply entrenched way in which they were originally trained. Unimpeded by traditional values, more and more people are solving their own problems, developing interpersonal skills and bringing out the best in colleagues.

Waiting to be heard

And yet ... employee communication surveys consistently show that workers remain dissatisfied with information that is coming down the line. Employees remain critical of the ability of top management to provide leadership and direction. In short, the work force is not convinced that the boardroom has learned to listen.

As I see it, communication programmes have been defined; the key issues have been identified; and strategic plans are in place. But the signs are that too many managers are still not prepared to talk candidly with employees.

John Aspery, ABC, an IABC Fellow, is principal of Aspery Associates, public relations consultants, Wayord, U.K.

CEOs SET STANDARDS

Harold Burson, chairman of Buurson-Marsteller, describes characteristics of communicators who measure up to CEO's new standards in a speech at Bank of America's San Francisco Academy, a course designed for senior communication professionals:

"Invariably, they are intelligent-bright, smart, any of those adjectives that apply to those individuals who demonstrate rather quickly a keen intellect. They got their smarts in different ways. Some went to good schools and had high test scores with grades at or near the top of the class. Others were mediocre students, often compensated for by a leadership role in extracurricular activities. Some of these people are intellectuals; others come across as being 'street smart., But no matter how they came to it, you soon recognize that, mentally, they are top rung. Almost instinctively, they project credibility.

"Invariably, they are leaders. They come to a situation and they take charge. And others around them are will to follow their lead. They communicate their leadership in two ways: First by their presence and then by their action, by what they do. Most of them look like leaders. But physical features alone are not the key. It's the way they act, the way they carry them. selves--a reflection, to be sure, of the way they drink of themselves.

Invariably, they know how to get along with people in a work environment. They get along with their superiors, which is a given. But they also get along with those in thew peer group. And they know how to relate to those organizational levels below them, direct reports and otherwise. My longtime associate, Bill Marsteller, used to say 'more people are promoted by their subordinates than by their superiors.' Bill maintained it was the subordinates who made one look good. Also, these people get along with those who disagree with them. They are not thin-skinned.

"Invariably, these people are 'tuned in.' They know what's going on. They know what tomorrows agenda will be. They read a lot; they listen; they observe. Their literary menu consists of one or more daily newspapers, the news magazines, the business magazines--and they can name the guests on the Sunday morning talk shows. They have friends and acquaintances in lots of places; whether they are not personally known, they know exactly where to go for information or help. And equally important, they know when it's time to ask.

"Invariably, these are people of great credibility, people of great integrity. They are people one wants to share confidences with. They can be trusted. Moreover, there's a sense of independence about them; they exude a sense of security. They tell it like it is and it's up to you to make the call. But once the call is made, they're on one team.

"And invariably, these people are good communicators. Almost always verbally. But, with many of them, the written word, too. They know that communication is a two, way proess--that effective communication requires a receiver who senses a relevant message and a persuasive sender. They know that listening to the authence is key and critical to not only delivering the appropriate message, but properly identifying the problem.

But perhaps most important of all, these people know that it's not really good communication that motivates audiences to a desired behavioral pattern. it's really good behavior. Not merely what you say, rather what you do."
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Section 2: Dealing with Today; Looking Back from the Future; includes related article
Author:Aspery, John
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Words:1734
Previous Article:Latest 'excellence' study results.
Next Article:From Canada to California: new directions in corporate communication.
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