Are communicators ready for social business?

A former monastery deep in the lush rolling Swiss countryside wasn’t the first setting I had in mind when I joined my CIO at a roundtable meeting yesterday with his peers and other communications leaders to talk about social business in the 21st century.

No need to set your iPhone alarm here; the solemn peal of the friary bell sees to it that you’re awake early. Twitter? That’ll be the dawn chorus. And salvation is super-fast wi-fi, and a receptionist with a boxful of travel adaptors for the latest Brit who forgot that Switzerland has its very own shape of plug socket.

In these contemplative surroundings, the discussion covered the opportunities and challenges for IT and communications brought about by social business – which, in this context, is about using communications and collaborations tools and techniques to unlock value and productivity for organisations.

We talked about interactions and collaboration inside and outside of the organisation – with consumers, customers, influencers and employees. Chatham House rules mean I’m taking a vow of silence on the details of the meeting, but here are a few things they’ve left me reflecting.

Social business is growing fast, and the best organisations and teams are recognising this and adapting now. For communicators, that means becoming more agile, interactive and responsive to the needs of their customers and communities, internal or external. Flexibility is key – be prepared to think and act differently; to try new things and move on quickly if the solution’s not quite right.

Social is a mindset, not a channel. The organisations most likely to thrive as a social business are those whose leaders and culture already embrace and value feedback, discussion, challenge and change. If command, control and cascade still outweigh creativity and conversation, no amount of social tools or channels will help you to succeed.

The purpose of a social approach needs to be clear for all concerned. Goals and outcomes still matter. Social for social’s sake will be shortlived. People need to understand what you’re trying to achieve, and good change management and communications is at the heart of the matter. As communicators, we can’t forget the basics of a well-understood, well-prepared and well-executed plan in this respect.

Measurement matters like never before. If you’re not tracking and listening, it’s time to start. If you’re doing it, do more. There are more data and analytics available to business and communicators than ever. Social businesses make the most of this to ensure information is delivered, exchanged and used in a smart, effective and insightful way.

For social business to succeed, IT needs communications, and communications needs IT. If it’s not already happened, IT will soon be as important a partner to communications as HR and marketing. Regardless of their organisation’s industry, progressive CIOs are serious about social communication and collaboration and are investing in the tools and platforms to enable it. Communicators can help these come alive and thrive by creating and curating smart content, and helping the business to understand and act on the insights.

What do you think? Is your business becoming more social? Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts? Have I missed something important? I’d love to hear what you think.

Internal communications – art or science?

Some posts I’ve been reading in recent days have got me thinking about an age-old question for internal communicators – is what we do art or science?

At the risk of getting splinters in an uncomfortable place, I’m going to say both – but not necessarily in equal measure.

The ‘science’ is important. I strongly believe that what we do has to be grounded in various degrees of process and theory. The models vary, but it’s vital to understand what your organisation is trying to achieve and how internal communications can support that. Who needs to know what, when and how, with a clear sense of why that’s important and the desired outcomes you’re looking for.

Measurement continues to be an essential element of the science side of our world. It’s gained weight with the wealth of metrics relating to digital data and that’s a good thing. But in all truth, any and all measurement is good and this is where theory and established practice helps, be it a particular engagement model, a sound way to structure a survey, or simply taking time to visit and talk to people in a factory, office, call centre or out in the field. You can’t beat front-line feedback.

Best of all, measurement is often how you can influence business leaders, many of whom think in numbers – be that financials, products sold and produced, or customer service levels. Connecting what you do to their metrics, and showing them the difference you make in language they understand, is critical for the credibility of communicators.

So what about the ‘art’ side of our profession? Ignore it at your peril. If your strategies and plans stay in your head or on a page, or have no life or energy, you’re not going to move off first base. I passionately believe that internal communications makes a real difference, and is at its best, when it creates an emotional connection with people.

Recently, I was leading a training session for our commercial teams and it closed with a video that my team had produced to summarise the course content. It made one participant cry and five or six more applauded when it ended. That meant more than the comments and scores on the feedback forms at the end of the course.

Creativity is key – be that ideas, campaigns, words or pictures. The art of internal communications is about making what you want or need to achieve compelling and engaging for the people you need to reach. With that, your theory becomes practice and your measurement will have meaning. The art brings the science to life. Without it, internal communications is, well, lifeless. There, I’ve jumped off the fence…

In truth, the best internal communications leaders, teams and people appreciate why the art and the science are important – and have the skills to deliver both for their organisations. That’s what makes our profession attractive, interesting and effective.

So are you more artist or scientist? Let me know what you think…

Is your employee content fit for a king?

I’m at the annual European Communication Summit in Brussels – my second visit and a conference worth attending if you can. Speakers and delegates are from across the continent, giving a fresh perspective if you have a pan-European role like me, and the event covers the full range of corporate communications – meaning there’s always something new to learn from other disciplines.

A big attraction this year is the focus on digital – and day one didn’t disappoint. A cracking keynote from Jimmy Maymann, CEO of The Huffington Post; smart social media insights from Lego; and, closer to home, how The Coca-Cola Company has brought Coca-Cola Journey, its ground-breaking media platform, to Germany.

What’s clear is that content is king and conversations are fast becoming the heir to the throne – driven by technology, informed by data and powered by mobile. But in this digital realm, does internal communications content treat employees like princes or paupers?

I tweeted (with some reaction) that my biggest learning from the first day was that we must deliver employee content to the same standards that they’d expect to receive as consumers. We’ve been talking digital here but that goes for employee magazines as much as e-zines or intranets. Our job is to bring alive the vision, strategies and goals of our organisations for employees through great stories, slick writing and creative thinking coupled with meaningful dialogue – first so they actually notice; then so they engage with it; and then so they care.

Before long, organisations that don’t appreciate the reality of the digital world their people live in are likely to get left behind. Rely on the cascade and ignore the conversations at your peril. And if you think this is solely the preserve of the tech companies or the big-budget super-brands, think again. I heard at least two examples here of manufacturing and financial organisations who are embracing this approach.

Why? Because increasingly, employees are the barometer of how trustworthy your organisation is. They’re now a more credible source of information than the CEO. Nurture and cultivate them and they’ll be your best ambassadors, telling your company’s story as well as driving engagement, reputation and trust.

Consumerising your employee content – whether that’s a simpler tone of voice, a shorter, sharper word count or tackling some challenging subjects in a different way – means taking a few risks. You’ll have some great ideas. Some will be too expensive, some will take off and some will be duds – but it’s OK to fail fast. One speaker here said rightly that speed now trumps perfection.

You’ll also have a few sceptical leaders to convince that it’s the right thing to do, but most are alive to the fact that corporate reputations grow through transparency and authenticity. Who better to build that than your employees, supported by great content that’s created and curated by you?