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How issues management turned the tide: a case study for action and results.

In the past, the term "issues management" often meant a cumbersome process with fuzzy results. But today, the need to actively implement and get value from an organized system of issues and knowledge management is critical to achieving success in the business battleground.

In my recent years as an internal strategic planning consultant, I served on a team of change catalysts at the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Salt River Project (SRP), a water and electricity supplier. We launched a results-oriented approach to issues management.

SRP has come a long way from a decade ago, when the company's efforts to identify and manage major issues were scattered and turf-driven. A few executives informally controlled and communicated the company's key, big-picture issues with certain constituencies, while other departments focused on a number of micro issues. Although strategic issues were on the horizon, we were missing opportunities to leverage all of our company's knowledge sources and potential ambassadors for communication.

How did SRP transition from turf-driven to team-based issues management? Here are some lessons we learned in getting a corporate grip on strategic industry and company issues that drive business results:

Lesson No. 1:

The business case and desired outcomes for issues management must be clearly understood and supported by senior management.

Several years ago, an issues management program was launched. Although an admirable effort, it was cumbersome and process-driven. The effort failed to continue gaining senior management's support, after it was launched with a group of mid-level managers, because of the following reasons:

The effort lacked clear and explicit business results. No "burning platform" reason was positioned to incite support for dissecting painful and highly political issues. (In working with a number of companies, I've found that even when a clear business case is built, if issues are highly sensitive, often the business case must be restated and re-sold to the senior-most level of management - to prevent the issues management effort from being shut down. If your company's issues management effort faces roadblocks, return to "square one." Reaffirm the business case. If needed, return to your key decision makers with a best alternative plan.)

A decade ago, the utility industry culture served as a barrier to sharing issues-related information throughout a company. Utilities operated in a monopoly environment where no threat of aggressive competition existed.

The initial issues management effort was viewed as communication-controlled, rather than communication-enabled. This promoted silent opposition in other departments, which led to the effort's demise.

Lesson No. 2:

Competition and rapid change usually serve as a trigger for creating the demand, or "pull," for issues management.

Several major industry events served as a gigantic tidal wave for competition in the utility industry. For example:

The U.S. National Energy Policy Act of 1992 and other regulations introduced competition into the utility industry; dozens of mergers and acquisitions occurred in recent years, enabling a host of huge utilities to compete on the basis of size and scope; and hundreds of non-utility players have entered the utility industry, offering new technology, cheaper prices and new services.

Because of the rapid changes brought on by competition, senior management needed to examine - and develop positions for - issues threatening our ability to remain competitive. Suddenly, issues briefings were in great demand.

Lesson No. 3:

The abundance of Internet information is an additional driving force for managing issues. No "one department" can be the "owner" of issues anymore. The possibility for fragmented understanding of key issues is great.

We've learned that it takes many players to manage the company's top five to 10 strategic, big-picture issues. Sharing information is critical; there should be no single "keeper" of important information. However, at SRP, assigned leaders are accountable for reaching specific constituencies with clear positions on certain top issues.

From Issues to Action

Issues management at SRP is facilitated by the corporate planning department - and to match the needs of our company, it is action-oriented, not process-driven. The outcome is speedier and higher-quality decision making, and more effective communication with employees, customers and constituents. We learned that the act of identifying and prioritizing issues means little to a company unless real actions are executed by those able to influence desired outcomes. We're leveraging both electronics and employees for monitoring issues and determining action.

Electronic Information Converted to Knowledge

We are rapidly integrating our electronically stored customer information, market information, business trends, forecasts and key company issues into a knowledge-sharing system. Having the information is only the first step. Even more important is using the information to build knowledge - and the appropriate action.

Knowledge-sharing systems and tools are vital for managing issues. SRP is evolving as a knowledge-based company that knows its customers, competitors and improves its position in today's competitive business environment.

Employee Information Converted to Knowledge

A number of "competitive issues teams" were created, comprised of our top executives and issues leaders from a number of departments. Each team is focused on a single, strategic issue. The teams are charged with providing issues updates. The teams also assist senior management with shaping SRP's corporate position with respect to the issue, and how the issue will be communicated.

Communicators participate on these issues teams and develop strategies for communicating the issues. As a result, issues management is integrated into a number of communication efforts.

* Customer and community leader communication: SRP conducts two-way communication with customers and key external groups through face-to-face meetings, customer focus groups, one-on-one contact with representatives, customer publications and targeted advertising. Topics include strategic issues that are important to our customers.

* Strategic planning: Strategic issues, shaped by the competitive issues teams, are integrated into senior management's strategic planning sessions.

* Executive management dialogues: Held monthly as hosted lunch sessions, these dialogues focus on promoting mid-level managers' understanding of SRP's strategic issues with respect to implementing the strategic direction.

* Employee communication: Strategic issues are communicated regularly with employees through "cascading" meetings where employees meet with their direct managers. Issues also are communicated through SRP's intranet and a number of employee publications.

Carol A. Poore, ABC, is the newly appointed marketing director for New West Energy, an affiliate of Salt River Project, based in Phoenix, Ariz.
COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Issues Management: Ten Perspectives; issues management at water and electric utility Salt River Project
Author:Poore, Carol A.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jul 15, 1997
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