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Proof at last.



Evidence is beginning to mount proving that communication programs produce measurable results. The following story involves a US East Coast mega-corporation --General Electric--and a smaller West Coast high-tech company, Hewlett-Packard. While the organizations are quite dissimilar, findings of surveys they conducted with their employees agree that the better the manager's communication, the more satisfied the employees are with all aspects of their work life. And satisfied employees--it is widely agreed--are more productive employees.

For years communication and human relations professionals have struggled with measuring the effectiveness of their communication efforts with employees. Do the dollars invested in employee communication programs produce any measurable results? Can the function justify its existence?

The answer--a resounding yes, based on research done at Hewlett-Packard Co., headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. The research work focuses on a valuable, yet often ignored, channel of employee communication: face-to-face.

Most employee communication programs are built around mass-media channels, and communicators measure employees' reactions to specific media--magazines, bulletin boards, videotapes. These mass media are the ones in which most communicators were schooled and where they feel very comfortable. Yet employees will tell researchers time and time again that they prefer to get information about their organization from their immediate manager.

Data from HP's 1985 employee attitude survey supports that assertion. Employees, when asked to identify their preferred information source put their immediate manager in the top spot, far ahead of any other channel. (See Table One.)

Until recently, few communicators had attempted to measure the effectiveness of managers' face-to-face communication skills. Even fewer had done so with the same enthusiasm that they studied the effectiveness of their publications or videotapes. And even fewer still had tried to tie communication effectiveness to the bottom line.

But in the early '80s, researchers at General Electric's corporate headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., uncovered a strong link between a manager's communication effectiveness and an employee's satisfaction on the job. The evidence came from an analysis of the firm's exempt-practices survey conducted periodically involving thousands of US employees. GE discovered a set of five survey questions that was a better predictor of an employee's overall satisfaction than any other question or set of questions. The five questions dealt with face-to-face communication between employees and their immediate managers. (See Table Two.)

We wanted to find out if the same trends were true at HP. Our first step was to find questions about manager-employee communication in our most recent "Open Line" employee-attitude survey that matched GE's. While not perfect matches, three of the five covered identical subject matter. The other two questions did possess the sought-after face-to-face qualities. (See Table Three.) The HP survey also used a scoring scale that paralleled GE's.

To evaluate the survey data, we followed GE's methodology by grouping employees into six "types" based on their positive response to the five questions. (A positive response would be either the "agree" or the "tend to agree" answer.) The first type included those employees with no positive responses on any of the five communication questions. The last type included employees who had positive responses on all five communication questions. The four types in between were made up of employees who had one, two, three and four positive responses out of the five questions.

The six separate types were then analyzed for positive responses to the other 120 questions in the survey. These questions were grouped into 15 categories for analysis.

The same pattern that GE had found began to take shape as the analysis was recorded. Those employees indexed in the 5-of-5 positive type were more positive on each survey category than the 4-of-5s who were more positive than the 3-of-5 type who were more positive than the 2-of-5 type who were more positive than the 1-of-5 type. The 0-of-5 type were less positive than the other five types in every category of the survey. (See Table Four.)

The conclusion: The better the managers' communication, the more satisfied employees are with all aspects of their work life. Most managers, when shown these results, are willing to allow that a more satisfied employee is a more productive employee.

Hewlett-Packard's culture, popularly known as "the HP way," has always placed a premium on open, honest communication up, down and across the organization. The concept of Management by Wandering Around (MBWA) that management guru Tom Peters preaches has long been a part of the communication climate at HP. Plant and sales office managers hold monthly meetings to let employees know about orders, shipments, expenses and therefore operating unit profits. The company-wide magazine and video counterpart regularly win awards for excellence and receive high ratings from employees in communication surveys. Twice a year the company ties together its public address systems worldwide to announce its financial results and its cash profit-sharing percentage to all employees. Through an extensive satellite teleconferencing network HP introduces new products and programs to its sales force.

But rather than rely on these mass-media channels to convey everything to its work force, HP has started to shift the focus of much of its communication effort to build on the immediate manager as the key link in the communication chain.

At HP factories and sales organizations, professional communicators now target programs specifically at managers to encourage them to share information with their work groups. For example:

* Messages once destined for bulletin-board posting are now sent via electronic mail to supervisors for them to pass along to their employees.

* Monthly newsletters and meetings for managers are becoming common-place, designed to provide a bit more insight into business unit plans and directions.

* Speaking-skills classes, conducted by outside vendors such as Communispond, are offered to HP functional managers to make them more comfortable in their face-to-face communication roles. Nearly 300 managers, including most top-level executives, have completed the programs in the last two years.

* Management By Wandering Around is encouraged for functional managers and its effectiveness measured. One facility started a process-improvement project aimed specifically at improving this long-standing HP communication practice.

* Corporate Public Relations sends overheads and talking points to HP general managers to help them supplement their local monthly coffee-pot talks for all employees. These talks cover local operating results as well as company-wide trends.

* Corporate Education introduced a training program called Process of Management (POM) to develop successful managers. It includes five steps: Establish a purpose and direction, build a shared vision, develop shared plans, lead the course of action, and evaluate the results and the process. Many of the class modules emphasize interpersonal communication skills.

Before attending the POM class, managers ask their subordinates to evaluate their managerial skills and habits through a 60-item questionnaire. In class, the managers see the combined data from this upward evaluation process and are then given skills to improve their effectiveness.

HP's POM program will provide data to track the company's progress in improving managerial communication effectiveness over time. Preliminary research indicates that the communication-related questions are key differentiators between more effective and less effective managers. Future studies will use this growing database to establish ties between communication effectiveness and subordinates' performance.

The fact that HP's survey results match GE's earlier findings certainly lends credibility to the study. The quantitative nature of the research at both companies offers much more concrete proof than has previously been available to communication professionals. In today's competitive environment, communicators who can quantitatively demonstrate their effectiveness are likely to see their employee-communication programs fare well in the years ahead. And the bottom line: Organizations that are able to implement effective face-to-face communication programs will have a competitive advantage in the future. [Tabular Data 1 to 4 Omitted]

Brad Whitworth, ABC, is manager of employee communication at Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto, Calif., and past-chairman of IABC.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:effectiveness of employee communication programs
Author:Whitworth, Brad
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Previous Article:Customers and commitment.
Next Article:Lateral communication as seen through the eyes of employees.

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