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Reinventing communication.

The communication function in most organizations should be reinvented if it's to be taken seriously as a strategic business partner.

Recent downsizing of organizational communication functions slashed bodies and cut costs. It left fewer people and smaller budgets to do the same work that was performed pre-downsizing. But, rarely did it address the work's appropriateness. Nor did it help the communication function address its future role in a changing organization.

Today's aggressive communication reformers are trying to pick up where downsizing left off. Their reforms are driven by three factors that are shaping the rest of their organizations: Technology, increased competition and the emerging partnership between the organization and its members.

Technology replaced layers of middle management that frequently blocked communication. Now, technology allows anyone with E-mail to move information throughout the organization, posing questions or suggesting new product ideas to a Bill Gates or a Lou Gerstner and getting a direct response.

Increased competition forced us to look for ways to do everything exponentially better, faster and at less cost. It's caused us to challenge all the rules, processes, policies, programs and structures. Self-direction, virtual offices, spiderweb organizational structures and telecommuting required us to adopt more efficient and effective ways of moving information among people who need it to improve business performance.

The new partnership evolved from recognition that all assets are inert until people do something with them. Future winners will be those who can get the right people to do the right things at the right time with precious finite assets. Communication in its broadest form represents a critical enabler that can engage people and unlock the discretionary effort needed to win. The new partnership requires a level of openness and honesty that has never existed.

These factors militate for three interrelated reforms that should be made while reinventing the communication function if it's to serve as a strategic partner in the future organization. Some firms are reinventing their functions now. Most haven't started.

Three Reforms

1. The reinvented communication function should be strategic, focused on solving business problems and integrated with business processes. In most organizations, it's not.

Most functions are tactical, programmatic, and focused on developing and distributing media. Their work is execution-oriented, not strategic. They labor each day to produce products. Their preoccupation often is with meeting deadlines, securing approvals, and moving material and people from Point A to Point B.

The reinvented communication function should help identify ways to use information to achieve business goals. It should guide leaders through optional change communication strategies associated with restructurings, mergers, acquisitions and transformation. It should help line managers identify effective and efficient ways to move information that's relevant to improving needed-to-win capabilities. It should facilitate information flow among people and work processes.

The reinvented function should worry about using communication to solve business problems rather than simply getting media out the door. It's not uncommon for a well-intentioned communication practitioner to undertake a communication initiative without having first identified the business problem at hand.

The reinvented function should focus on the information sources that most influence the organization's ability to succeed.

Here are three mega-communication sources, in order of impact on operating performance:

* Leadership style and behavior

* The system's infrastructure (rewards, measurement, planning, financial, resource allocation, structure, etc.)

* The formal media

The reinvented function should focus disproportionately on the two most influential mega-sources, leadership style and behavior and systems that communicate powerfully what's important and what's not. In more than 25 years in the communication profession, I can't recall when an employee publication or video contributed to a significant business problem. However, almost daily I hear of serious business problems caused by conflicting messages being sent by the leadership and the measurement or reward system. Just recently, we were asked to help resolve a customer service problem caused by inconsistent communication.

The company's president is customer-obsessed. Yet, critical front-line employees weren't able to secure important resources they needed to serve their customers. Because communication wasn't managed strategically, employees received conflicting messages. Because the "say" communication and the "do" communication conflicted, employees thought the president wasn't serious about his customer service message. Inconsistent messages from the resource allocation system tarnished the president's credibility. It was a communication problem manifested by declining customer satisfaction.

2. The reinvented communication function should be obsessed with creating information-rich environments that enable people to improve their pieces of the business.

Many communication functions today are top-down and hierarchic. Communicators often view their roles as "getting the word out - to them," meaning employees. Formally distributed information is broad, general and safe. Sometimes it includes historical financial results. Frequently information is manipulated or spun to make management or the company look good. Sometimes there are token, patronizing efforts to provide people with "feedback" mechanisms or "Ask the President" columns in the company newspaper. Rarely is any of this relevant to achieving the organization's critical numbers.

Certainly people need broad, context-setting information. They need access to market, customer and competitor data to perform at their peaks. They need a clear understanding of the business strategy, performance measures and standards.

But, they also need huge amounts of relevant information geared toward building business literacy - understanding how the business makes money and how each individual can influence the cash flow and income statements and balance sheet.

Information that reports last year's or last month's financial results is of marginal use. It tells us how we did and that's about all. Functionally, the information is useless. It's dead data. It can't be changed. No one can manage it differently.

The reinvented communication function should be obsessed with sharing financial information that warns of future variances in inventories, material usage, engineering expenses, direct labor charges and warranty payments. This relevant information can be used to avoid the projected variances and build the health of the business. Rather than providing marginal value, information should be used as a tool to improve the business.

It might not be too hyperbolic to suggest that today's employee newsletter will be replaced by the three financial statements in tomorrow's high-performing organizations.

3. The reinvented communication function should be continually pressed to prove its strategic value.

Many of today's functions are rarely measured on anything remotely close to their strategic impact on the organization. They're often measured on the number of products they create and distribute or on the number of managers they placate.

The reinvented communication function should regularly analyze everything it does. A rigorous analysis should tell it:

* Where the function is performing well and generating good value on work that's important;

* Where the function might be under-performing on important activities;

* Where too much time, energy and money may be invested on lower-priority activities; and

* Where the activity mix might be out of strategic alignment.

Charting the Communication Function

The four graphs on the following pages depict some of the results from a study conducted by a forward-looking communication function in a large medical center.

Figure 1 reports how people in the function use their time. Note, almost half the work is considered "execution," which includes developing and executing activities related to products and services. Twenty-seven percent of the work is "strategic." The same percentage is devoted to "support" work, including coordinating, arranging, scheduling, typing, filing and tracking activities related to products and services.

In general, strategic work adds more value than execution work, which adds more value than support work. However, strategic work can cost more than execution work, which can cost more than support work.

The goal should be to balance high value and low cost. Usually this is achieved (in the case of the medical center) by increasing the amount of strategic and support work and by reducing the amount of execution work.

Reducing execution work is often achieved by outsourcing it, eliminating it or finding technology that can perform the work more effectively and efficiently.

Figure 2 represents results of an importance/effectiveness/cost assessment of five major disciplines within the medical center's communication function. The assessment used a survey questionnaire and a series of interviews with critical stakeholder groups. (Some organizations include external stakeholders [e.g., news media, community leaders] in their assessments. Others include only internal stakeholders.)

Figure 2 reports that four disciplines are perceived to be important to the medical center in achieving its business strategy and effective in what the medical center does.

However, the employee communication discipline is perceived as relatively unimportant and ineffective. This negative finding is accentuated by the fact that more funds are allocated to employee communication than to disciplines that were rated both important and effective. Obviously, this story needs to be pursued further.

Figures 3 and 4 help pursue the story. Figure 3 depicts the nature of work performed within the employee communication discipline. Again, there's a large percentage of execution work that's being performed and relatively small amounts of strategic and support work.

Figure 4 breaks the employee communication discipline down by activities. This enables us to get a clear picture of what drags down the importance/effectiveness results. Figure 4 reveals that two employee publications consume the most financial resources. One of them (#2) is perceived as relatively important and relatively effective. However, the other publication (#1) is on the importance/effective borderline. A large number of activities in the employee communication discipline is either unimportant and ineffective or important but ineffective. Aside from the employee publication, only three other activities (staff and supervisor meetings, education, and benefits communication) are viewed by study respondents as important and effective. Each requires modest budget allocations.

The vast amount of quantitative data and qualitative direction that emanate from a study such as this one doesn't necessarily answer questions. Instead, it stimulates extensive discussions around philosophy, strategic priorities, business trends, best practices, investment tradeoffs and tradition.

For instance, consider classified ads in Figure 4. Classified ads is an activity that ranks high in effectiveness but low in importance to achieving the medical center's business strategy. It consumes approximately U.S. $40,000 a year. On one hand, employees like it. On the other hand, it's perceived as having little strategic value. To what extent should the medical center maintain an employee-favored activity that generates little toward helping the institution compete in a turbulent health care marketplace?

From a business perspective, would it be better to reallocate the $40,000 now consumed by classified ads? Would that $40,000 be better invested by further improving staff meetings (#4), which is viewed as important and effective, but where there's room for considerable improvement?

Obviously similar discussions should accompany every activity within each of the five communication disciplines (e.g., media relations, community relations).

This rigorous introspection is the first step in moving toward greater strategic accountability and in reinventing the communication function.

The function can begin to define its future role with this data.

But, identifying the future role is only a beginning. It should be followed by a thorough discussion about how the function will move from its current role to its future role.

Many questions will need to be asked. Such as:

* Should the function be (Do we have time to be) incrementally reinvented? Or, do we need an immediate transformation?

* What kind of work will be done in the new function?

* What will work processes look like? How will we make or buy the competencies needed for the reinvented communication function to work?

* What kind of structure makes the most sense in the reinvented function?

* How will we select leaders?

* How will we hold the function - and the people in it - accountable? How will that affect rewards, recognition, promotion and development?

And so on...

This may sound daunting. It does require hard work. But there seems to be a significant immediate payoff for at least two stake-holders:

* CEOs and their leadership teams like the reinvention because the new function gives them a better shot at achieving their business strategies.

* Communication practitioners like it because it puts them in a better position to add real value. And it offers heightened intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Does this kind of reinvention cause discomfort? Yes. It requires people to rethink what they do and where they do it. It forces them to stretch or retreat from it. It creates anxiety among people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity. It requires hard work of some people who don't like hard work. It can be scary to those who don't see themselves as beneficiaries of the reinvention process.

But, should it be done? Is it worth the cost?

There's no choice if the communication function wants to be a true strategic partner in the modern organization.

Jim Shaffer is principal, Towers Perrin, Rosslyn, Va.
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.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:business communication
Author:Shaffer, Jim
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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