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Taking aim at information overload: e-mail, memos, TV news, industry publications--employees are bombarded with messages. But communicators can guide them through the chaos and help them find what's relevant.

Recently, while visiting Boston with my family, we decided to take .one of that city's famous trolley tours. The guided tour exposed us to most of the city's major points of historical significance and gave us our bearings among the old, narrow, twisting streets. We could get off at any point to explore on foot sites that interested us, such as the Old North Church and Boston Common, and we could rejoin another passing trolley when we wished.

It dawned on me that the Boston trolley tour provides an apt metaphor for what the role of internal communicators is today.

Let me explain.

Nowadays, the typical employee is assaulted by a growing number of messages--information about the company, its products and services, and its strategy--all flooding in from numerous sources, including internal vehicles such as e-mail, the intranet, management memos, internal publications and even the minor mill, as well as external media such as local newspapers and TV news and national business and industry magazines. On top of the formal and informal media, employees screen countless voice mails and sit through dozens of meetings, presentations and training sessions. As a result, they self-defensively begin to develop filters to reduce the noise so that they can better focus on doing their jobs and determine for themselves what "reality" is.

Unfortunately, the internal communication function all too often worsens the situation by adding to the noise level with new communication vehicles and increasing the volume of messages, each seemingly more urgent than the last.

An employee trying to work in this environment is a lot like a tourist in the middle of a strange city without a map. The street names mean little or nothing, and particular places have less meaning, though they may appear to hold great significance. The tourist is lost and befuddled amid the cacophony and apparent chaos of the unfamiliar city.

The value of a tour guide becomes apparent. He or she has a working familiarity with the setting, an ability to navigate the chaos, and the necessary filters to help the tourist grasp, understand and appreciate all the city has to offer. The guide puts the gross panorama of the city in perspective, allowing the tourist to partake of what he or she may find particularly interesting.

So, what exactly does this mean for communication professionals dealing with today's chaos?

Reassessment

If, as internal communication professionals, we could see ourselves as tour guides for our employees, then we would take the time to step back and assess how many of our critical messages are getting through and, more to the point, how we can help people achieve greater control of the information they need and want, thereby helping them reduce the noise and increase understanding. Like tour guides, our job is to see the big picture in the context of where the business needs to go. We must fully appreciate our audience and what they want and need to see and hear, and then respond accordingly. We need to be up-to-date on our subject, make sure that those "places" are populated with lots of relevant information and provide appropriate feedback opportunities.

Professional tour guides are intimately familiar with their cities. They know all the points along the route in terms of their historical significance and the details that will make them memorable to a visitor. They also strive to stay current with attractions along the route, such as when an art museum has a new exhibit, when road construction forces a detour, when a site has been in the news, or when an anniversary occurs that helps make a particular place more meaningful. A tour guide is, essentially, a filter, building upon his or her experience with and knowledge of the setting, adding new stops, and eliminating others as customer preferences and events dictate.

Discover versus sell

Similarly, our communications must provide context, relevance and collaboration, helping people connect the dots for themselves. Instead of pushing information on our internal audiences (essentially trying to "sell" them), we must allow them to discover information on their own. This approach recognizes that no two people are alike, so providing the opportunity to discover and engage will be far more effective in the long run than the scattershot approach that treats the employee population as a monolith.

The discover approach, built on the human truth that discovery carries far more credibility than something that has been spoon-fed (sold), plays itself out in many ways that involve active engagement of audiences. Many companies, including General Motors, for example, are using internal weblogs to generate and sustain conversations with employees on a variety of topics.

More important, GM makes greater use of "pull" mechanisms such as the company's intranet, whereby employees, if they know the information is available and up-to-date, can select the information they need based on the cues they are given or the personal interests they have.

Far too often, we as communicators decide that our primary responsibility is to the "mass" employee population. First of all, there isn't a "mass" anything anymore. Today's workforces are "communities of interest" that see, experience and feel the organization differently depending on their role, assignment, location and manager relationship. Given that, we need to organize our information and data in ways that lend themselves to easy selection and use, are customized based on employee preference, and provide a trigger for manager interaction. The latter group, managers, is our primary audience: The more we can influence how managers interact with this information and relate to employees based on their preferences, the better the organization will be able to operate in today's competitive, global arena.

Power shift

Communication is driven ultimately by leadership and management action, not by rhetoric. Here's an example from the automotive industry of how this new environment is changing everything. Years ago, when you (as a consumer) wanted to find out more about a particular car or truck, you went to your local dealer. The dealer "controlled" the information flow and the dynamic because the salespeople knew more about the product than you did.

But today, your first trip to a dealer showroom is likely via the Internet--that is, you are more likely to peruse the Web to learn about a specific vehicle, navigating automaker web sites and third-party web sites such as Consumer Reports or Edmunds.com, and checking a few blogs to read about real consumers' experiences. You might even visit Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com) to get unbiased pricing information. All of this research makes you smarter and more confident about the options, price and availability of the vehicle you're interested in. Now, when you walk into an actual dealer showroom, you are armed with all the information necessary to make a purchase.

Simply, the dynamic has shifted power from the dealer to the consumer. The dealer is not "selling" anything; he is now merely a broker, determining whether he is willing to accept the product type, color, options, availability and price you want.

An evolving role

Internal communication has come a long way--from company picnics and bowling scores to leveraging an organization's people capabilities for greater results. As tour guides, our role as strategic communicators is evolving even further, reinforcing business strategies and goals through stronger employee involvement.

And therein lies our assignment, if not our challenge: We should never expect or promise that our job is to talk at people or that every employee will partake of all the information, opportunities, access and data we provide. Awareness of the availability of the information in and of itself is critical, not only in conveying the importance the organization and its leaders place on each employee's ability to grow, contribute and care, but also in generating dialogue, discussion and debate. The latter is the only true measure of how successful your internal communication efforts are in improving the organization.

As tour guides, we are evolving our value proposition as communicators to add context and collaboration to the model. We no longer control information. The value now lies in adding context, relevance and collaboration so that people can achieve a fuller, more robust story from which to derive meaning and encourage action. At the end of the day, we can't do much better to align employee actions with company strategies.

RELATED ARTICLE: Is your organization sending a clear message?

* Have your organization's priorities been translated into meaningful and accessible content and made available through a variety of media for employee consumption, discussion and debate?

* Do you train employees about their responsibility for keeping abreast of the organization's strategy, performance, challenges, issues, etc., as part of today's employer-employee compact?

* Do you provide contextual information internally so that employees have a stronger understanding of a specific subject?

* Do you regularly discern shifts in employee perception and reflect those changes in your information body and communication systems?

* Are you spending enough time strengthening managers' resolve and confidence in initiating and sustaining dialogue, debate and discussion with employees?

--G.G.

RELATED ARTICLE: The pulse of the organization.

To verify the quality and relevance of its employee communications, General Motors conducts periodic "Pulse" surveys of its broad employee audience--some 325,000 people worldwide. Typically, these quantitative studies ask whether the respondent is receiving timely, relevant information about the company and its business, and how he or she feels about the quality of the information received and its flow up, down and across the organization.

Consistently, the findings underscore the overwhelming desire of employees for more relevant information. There is a pervasive sense that even with the amount of information available "outside," within GM, employees expect information that provides a clearer picture of the company's performance and more specific content and broader context to assist them in their day-to-day jobs. If the information is deemed relevant and useful, then more and better dialogue among peers, managers and others can take place. It is here--with dialogue, discussion and dissent--that true change and growth can happen. --G.G.

Gary F. Grates is special adviser for strategic communications policy to General Motors Corp.
COPYRIGHT 2005 International Association of Business Communicators
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Author:Grates, Gary F.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:1676
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