This blog is about the relationship between organizations and the people who work for them and the communities they operate in. And, it’s dedicated to the 100s of millions of people around the world who go to work every day wanting to do a great job.

Archive for April, 2010

Making the case for employees first

When Richard Branson said he would run Virgin from the inside out – employees first, customers next and then shareholders – his logic was clear, compelling and pretty radical.  His logic:  “If your employees are happy, they will do a better job. If they do a better job, the customers will be happy, and thus business will be good and the shareholders will be rewarded.”

Over the years, Virgin’s success would seem to prove his point.  And yet, I continue to be astonished by the number of CEOs who haven’t got it.

This is especially surprising given that in the 20 years from 1975 to 2005 the big drivers of company value have shifted from tangible [73%] to intangible [80%] assets. [Thanks to David Martin, Interbrand]

And what are intangible assets?  “They are non-monetary assets that cannot be seen, touched or physically measured, which are created through time and/or effort and that are identifiable as a separate asset.”  According to Arthur D. Little, Inc. “reputation is critical to corporate success, topping the intangible asset list of most CEOs.”

What builds reputation?  A consistent experience.  Whether you’re an employee, a customer or an investor.  Whether you have a direct relationship with the organization or not.

Who builds reputation?  The people who design, build and/or deliver your products and services and serve your customers.  The people who get the work done every day.  Your employees.

So, I’m curious, when you sit down with your senior executive where do your employees and health of that relationship figure in the conversation?

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The PowerPoint addiction

The abuse of PowerPoint has been a hot topic around our office for some time.  Michael [Hinton], my partner in life and business, is working on a paper “The Economics of PowerPoint” with Ryerson Prof Tom Barbiero.  And, several years ago he wrote a short pamphlet, “Exorcising the demons of PowerPoint”.  He’s been sharing it with participants in his presentations skills trainings and had planned to build a workshop based on it.  The reaction to that idea was so strong and so negative – “Are you kidding?  We can’t think without PowerPoint!” – that Michael eventually decided to shelve it.

So, today’s post by Seth Godin caught my eye.  From there, I followed a link that took me to Elisabeth Bumiller’s article on the US military’s PowerPoint addiction.

That made me think.  If there’s a single communications tool that dominates organizational communications, it’s PowerPoint.  And, if there’s one communication tool  professional communicators rarely talk about it’s PowerPoint.

Why is that?

Institutions use PowerPoint when their most senior executives speak to employees.  They rely on it when employees present ideas and plans to their managers and to each other.

In one organization I know of, you’d never go to a meeting without your deck even if you’re not presenting because you know that sooner or later the meetings all turn into “dueling decks”.  And in another if you want to understand the evolution of the thinking on any institutional topic you always refer back to “the decks”.

So, why are we so addicted to PowerPoint? Is it because the structure gives us comfort?  And the format helps us feel professional?  Does it protect us by giving us an illusion of being clear and concrete while actually being ambiguous enough that we can talk our way out of pretty much anything we present?  Is it because we don’t need to spend as much time clarifying and articulating our thinking?  Is it because if we weren’t building decks we wouldn’t know what to do?

And why do institutions feed this addiction?

How much time are the people in your organization spending on preparing PowerPoint decks?

What role does Communications play in perpetuating or stopping the misuse of PowerPoint in your organization?

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From conversation to joint creation

This just arrived thanks to the Ideas Project.

John Hagel, author and business strategist, builds on the main idea presented in my last post by making a powerful argument for why social media need to be part of internal strategies.  Social media are no longer just about conversation.  They are tools for helping institutions set the conditions for collaboration and joint creation.

If you’re a professional communicator what if anything does this mean for you and what you do?

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Deborah Hinton Friday, April 23rd, 2010
Permalink Culture, Internal communication No Comments

The good. The bad. And the ugly

The good

Some organizations are doing interesting, innovative and effective things with social media inside their organizations. Thanks to Montreal’s Third Tuesday gang, I saw an inspiring case study presented by Nathalie Pilon about her experience introducing Intranet 2.0 at Canam, a very conservative 50 year old business in the construction industry.  She and consultant Claude Malaison have over the past few years successfully transformed Canam’s Intranet from a something very basic to facebook to a fully integrated Intranet 2.0 that is still evolving to better serve the needs of their 3,000 employees in 18 factories delivering 12,000 projects a year.  Her presentation is in French and available on SlideShare or on webcast.

The bad

Some organizations are not according to a head line in today’s Montreal Gazette: “Companies put leash on social media”.  The article reported on a study of Chief Information Officers by Robert Half Technology which found “…many companies are tightening their grip on how employees use these channels at work.”

The ugly

Most stand squarely in the middle.  Neither in or out.  Strange.  In Nathalie’s presentation she referenced a study that found 92.9% of organizations either block or do not have policies for social media.  Blocking social media is one thing [discussed frequently and at length by Shel Holtz and others].  Not blocking and not having policies to guide employees behaviour on the web is clearly irresponsible.

Even more strange is that many of these same organizations are experimenting and successfully using social media to advance their goals and build relationships externally.  To be clear, I’m not advocating the mindless introduction of web 2.0 tools and tactics internally.

I am wondering, if social media are now being built into external strategies, why aren’t they being built into internal strategies?

Are web 2.0 tools and tactics part of your internal communication strategy?  If not, why not?  If yes, tell us more.

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Deborah Hinton Thursday, April 22nd, 2010
Permalink Communication, Internal communication 1 Comment

“Can organizations be beautiful?”

Tim Brown, CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO and author of Design Thinking, asks this question in his most recent blog.    “Great design thinking results in functionally and emotionally satisfying solutions where the emotional value is generated through the creation of meaning.”  He goes on to express his frustration that “current organizational design practice…  seems to largely be about arranging boxes in an organizational chart.”  And, then he goes on to ask whether there’s room for design thinking in organizational design?

There’d better be!  How else can we support employees doing their best at work?

And yet with few exceptions and after two decades in OD, brand marketing and communications [where you’d think the expression of the organization would be compelling] I can come up with only three examples where I think the representations were “functional and emotionally satisfying solutions that had potential for creating meaning.”

The first was in Henry Mintzberg’s book ‘The structuring of organizations’.  It was a complete revelation for me when I first saw it.  Granted the boxes are there, but the overlay of loops to show the different functional emphasis for different types of organizations is quite beautiful and simple if not too emotional.  That said, it was a heart pounding experience for me when I first saw them.  I’d even go so far as to say career changing.

The second was work done by Russell Grossman and the team at BBC a few years ago where their interpretation of their new structure was depicted as a colourful flower.  Emotionally compelling. Perhaps not that functional though.  We’d have to ask Russell.

The third, strangely enough happened just last evening.  I was at the Canadian Centre for Architecture for a tour of Other Space Odyssey, their latest exhibit, and my second visit.  This time I noticed something I hadn’t before in the room devoted to Michael Maltzan’s latest designs for the American Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

There among various maquettes and interpretations of the building was a startling blue and green model of the building based on the functional and working relationships [organigram] of the people who will work there. It simply pops!  [check out the images of the exhibit and look for the blue and green jewel]

The architect’s objective was to have the building and it’s work spaces reflect the scale of the work these people do – in time [the outcome of the work they do today won’t be known for 10 years or more] and space [they are doing projects as far away as Saturn] and to breakdown hierarchy to better reflect the way that work is done.   The result is an organizational design that is definitely both functional and emotionally compelling.

Imagining and representing working relationships – as this is within the context of a physical working space or virtually – can be functional and compelling.  We have the technology today to express both formal and informal organizational relationships in beautiful and meaningful ways.  I think the implications from a communications point of view are pretty amazing.  What are we waiting for?

I’d love to hear what you think.  Do you have any other examples of organizational design that is heading in the right direction?

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Friendly. Not familiar. Rules.

Just to finish the story from yesterday.  At our bricks and mortar bank today… Anne-Marie was at reception as she has been for over 15 years. I used to see her often.  We didn’t necessarily speak.  When I had a problem with the business banking cue a year or so ago, she stepped in and got it solved.  Tellers come and go, but Anne-Marie is always there.

Today I was in line at reception to see about getting a copy of a cheque.  She was with another client who couldn’t do an electronic transaction.  Anne-Marie came out from around the desk to take her to the machines.  She saw me and politely asked the other client if she would just wait a second…  and said “Mrs Hinton isn’t it?  How can I help?”  And then gave me the info I couldn’t get on the phone yesterday.

I haven’t even been in the bank when it’s been open for at least 6 months and probably haven’t spoken to her for over a year!  This is friendly and not familiar.  I feel strangely drawn back into the circle.

Came home to try what she’d suggested.  Didn’t quite work.  After the last three calls, I was preparing myself for the assault of overly familiar ‘Hi Deborah, how’s your…[fill in the blank with something way to personal]”.  This time, though, the person on the end of the phone was friendly and not familiar.  No attempts to be my new best friend – just professional, knowledgeable, efficient and yes, friendly. No manipulation.  Nice.

How could there be such a difference?  It’s the same bank.  I don’t know.  But local management surely plays a key role by recruiting and selecting people who love people, adapting training and support systems that make it easy for their employees to be professional and solve their customer issues, personalizing and aligning reward and recognition approaches.  And, respecting employees and giving them an appropriate level of freedom to solve the customer issue.  It is not about encouraging them to get chummy with their customers.

Now I’m sure my grandmother was right.  Friendly.  Not familiar.

Have you got any stories where you think organizations have gotten it right? Way wrong?  What do you think?

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Friendly. Not familiar.

There’s been a lot of talk about making organizations more human from a customer point of view lately.  I think the most recent iteration of this idea has been inspired by Design Thinking  and the role of empathy in customer relationships [thanks Dan Gray and the gang at CommScrum for getting me reading this literature].

The idea is that if you really understand and care about your customers and show it you can build long-term sustainable relationships with them.  Not exactly breakthrough thinking.

Anyway it’s not the idea that’s bad.  The idea’s fantastic.  And there are organizations that do it and do it well.  It’s authentically who they are. The problem starts when not particularly nice organizations decide they are going to institutionalize niceness.  And, a recent post by Julien Smith got me thinking about something that had just happened to me.

A story.  I called my bank about something a few weeks ago and the person on the end of the phone asked if she could call me Deborah [a little familiar] and then began using my name in every second sentence. Then she asked if she could wish me happy birthday… it was the next week.  I felt completely creeped me out.

My grandmother ran her own business successfully for years.  Her mantra:  “Be friendly.  Not familiar.”  This clearly broke that rule.  This woman didn’t know me.  I didn’t know her.  I wasn’t calling for a personal relationship with her.  I wanted to complete a transaction with the institution.  This was simply a pretence of friendly.  It was manipulative.  She knew it and I knew it.

And this got me thinking about what it must be like to be an employee in an organization that’s decided it’s time to be warm and friendly with customers when the organization has never been warm and friendly before.

Imagine you’re the employee who’s asked to behave this way.  You’re given the scripts – customer says “x”, service rep says “y”.  If you’re the Borg it’s perfect.  If you’re a customer service rep who’s really trying to understand a customer need and meet it?  Not so much.  It must get pretty hollow pretty fast for the employee.  I know it did for the customer.

What do you think? Can you be more human from a customer point of view when you aren’t from an employee point of view? Can organizations institutionalize empathy?

Post script – Had to call the bank again this morning and different person same script… although this lady didn’t ask for permission, just asked if this was Deborah and promptly hung up on me twice!  I’m really feeling the love.

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Deborah Hinton Monday, April 12th, 2010
Permalink Communication, Customer, Internal communication, Management 4 Comments

Communicate. Engage. Get results.

A recent Gallup study shows:  “The quality of the workplace can be linked to serious physical and mental illnesses such as clinical depression and chronic anxiety that can have a significant negative impact on workers’ job performance and on their personal lives…Not only do anxiety and depression take a personal toll on workers, but they also result in significant direct costs to businesses in medical expenses — and indirect costs, including lost productivity.”

The report goes on to lay out some pretty impressive facts that link disengagement to anxiety and depression.  Their conclusion:  Engage employees and you can reduce the direct and indirect costs to your organization.

Interestingly, what they don’t mention is that good internal communication is the foundation for engagement.  In their own well-known Q12 survey, 7 of the 12 questions designed to measure employee engagement are clearly related to communication.

So, the answer would seem to be easy.  Better, clearer communications.  Higher levels of engagement.  Lower levels of anxiety and depression.  Reduced costs.  Higher productivity.  Better results.

What do you think?  If you could do one thing today to improve your institution’s communications what would it be?

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Deborah Hinton Friday, April 9th, 2010
Permalink Communication, Culture, Internal communication No Comments

Getting back to basics – Who? Why?

Last week there was news that four Rio Tinto executives had been convicted of taking bribes and stealing commercial secrets.  They’d pled guilty to the bribery charges and denied the industrial espionage charges.  They will serve from 7 to 14 years in a Chinese prison.  All four have since been fired from the company.

Rio Tinto is by all accounts a good company.  It has a Code of Conduct that is well communicated – direct, easy to understand, all employees must read it when they join the organization, and attend annual sessions to understand what it means for them in their jobs.  It’s also publicly available on their website.

Rio Tinto is a company that benchmarks and follows best practice. The communication of the Code of Conduct certainly falls into that category.  [Full disclosure in a past life I was an employee of Alcan now a division of Rio Tinto]

So what happened?  Is this just a case of  “bad apples”?  Maybe.  But for the purpose of discussion let’s explore what could happen if we wanted to communicate a Code of Conduct and followed bench marked best practice without asking ourselves two basic questions – Who are we communicating with? And why?


Let’s start with who? Answer:  All employees.

Next question:  Who are all employees? Answer:  Well they are managers and miners.  And, in a global company like this one they’re from cultures and/or working in industries where the Code of Conduct is nothing new and in cultures and/or working in industries where the Code of Conduct is asking for a radical change in behaviour.


Why are we communicating the Code of Conduct? Answer: Something like to ensure appropriate [according to the law, our values, etc.] and consistent behaviour of all our employees.

From a communications point of view now I think it gets really interesting.  If you’re from and working in the West, the Code of Conduct is for the most part guidance and a reminder of behavioural norms that are well known and understand.  So reading it when you start your job and meeting with your colleagues once a year to discuss for an hour or so would probably do the job.

But, if you’re from, and working in, Africa the code of Conduct may represent a radical change of behaviour that goes against cultural norms.  And if you’re from the West working in Africa you may be comfortable with the behaviours described in the Code of Conduct but how do you get the job done without following cultural norms especially if you’re working in an industry where the competition is?

There’s not a one-size fits all solution to communicating even something as straight forward as a Code of Conduct.  So what does this mean for Communications?  How do we become more than message pushers?

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Learning from the Vatican [part 3]

Today, few believe the Vatican was unaware of the ‘priestly sexual abuse’ that occurred over several decades in Ireland, the US and more recently reported in Germany.  Instead, it is widely assumed that they knew and their response was ‘cover-up, evasion and criminal negligence’.  It is “a time for contrition” it is also a time to reflect on the role of internal communications in this most terrible story.

In the Roman Catholic Church as an organization there are many features we would wish for as corporate communicators [part 2] including a clearly a structured disciplined communication system designed precisely to feed very “rich” information up and down the system [part 1].

It is impossible to believe that what was going on in individual parishes around the world wasn’t known within those communities.  Institutionally, they either knew or they didn’t.  If they didn’t then as communicators I think we need to ask ourselves why?  And, if they did and didn’t act.  Again why?

Collecting such vast amounts of rich information may have contributed to

  • Seeing and not recognizing
  • Listening and not hearing
  • The long time delays

And may also underscore the importance of the art rather than the science of communication.  What can we do to ensure institutionally we’re listening wisely?

Once the institution understood what was going on that same in depth knowledge may have actually served to enable the cover-up and manipulation rather than ensuring swift and appropriate action. Unfortunately and as we’ve seen during the global financial crisis and the aftermath this may not only be an isolated situation.  We as corporate communicators have been fighting to get to the strategic table, so if you’d been in the room when these issues were discussed what would you have done?

And, finally, a lesson:  If the leadership of any organization values the institution over the employees or its clients – where the means justify the ends – then all the great communications systems in the world aren’t enough.  If that is so, what are the implications for us as corporate communicators?

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