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Taking quarterly town halls on

Recently, I threw down the gauntlet:  Can technology help reinvent and humanize internal communications?   Today, I thought we might take a look at one of the worst ideas in employee communications – the quarterly town hall – to see.

Quarterly town halls were intended to give employees the opportunity to hear the important financial news from the CEO and to ask questions and interact with executives.  But, in reality these moments never really get beyond a one-way communication thinly disguised as two-way?  And never move beyond the question/response format into a discussion. Far from building relationships they encourage a deeply transactional approach.  Once the CEOs presentation is over and the one or two planted questions asked the call is done for another quarter.

Oh wait, no it’s not.  The CEOs town hall may be over, but unless you’re a senior executive and therefore hosting your own town hall, you now have to endure the same thing with your senior executive.  And unless you have the good fortune to be a front line employee who can’t be taken off the manufacturing line, or out of the call centre or off the retail floor, the pain is not over.  You may need to listen in on, or lead, at least one other.  That’s a lot of meetings every quarter.

Stopping town halls altogether seems impossible.  Trust me I’ve tried. There’s almost a primal need for CEOs and execs to have this moment in front of employees.  So, over the years I’ve experimented with different models.

In the most successful, we tried sending an e-mail announcement from the CEO [and of course the news release it was derived from], followed by team meetings where managers led discussions with their people about the local implications for the news.  And, a week or 10 days later the CEO would host a town hall.  By then there were real questions and issues that had surfaced and something close to human interaction could happen.  Qualitative and quantitative surveys for the pilots showed higher level of engagement and retention so we kept going and eventually implemented across the organization.

But now, what could it look like if we used technology to humanize those quarterly sessions like the teachers in Palo Alto were doing in yesterday’s post.

The quarterly process would start with a video with the CEO  [not a talking head; maybe even embedding technology like the Khan Academy uses] to tell the story of the quarter [don’t get me started on the paucity of storytelling or the short-term focus on financials].  Not just the dry financials, but feedback from customers and/or a roving reporter’s  view of things that matter to employees from the quarter.

Next, managers [well supported as part of their own management development curriculum] would meet with their people to explore the implications of the news for their teams, departments, regions.  This time would be spent discussing and developing tentative conclusions, surfacing issues and articulating the questions that matter most to employees.  This would be even more powerful if we pushed the idea beyond formal hierarchy to focus on cross-functional project teams and/or internal partners.

After 10 days or 2 weeks it would be time to consolidate input and feedback and have the “town hall” conversation with the CEO and his execs so that they can answer outstanding questions and discuss the issues and implications together.

And, I’m guessing the quarters will start to meaningful support to the business from the inside out.  More engaged employees.  More business savvy employees, leading to better business decisions.  Strengthened internal relationships.  Real business value.

Pilot anyone?

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