David Murray, me and the vacuity of ‘Engagement’

by Lee Hopkins on February 23, 2007 · 11 comments

in miscellaneous

When was the last time YOUR family gathered around the company newsletter to laugh at the photos and see who was up to what?
An interesting day in Sydney today.

Met up with David Murray from Ragan Communications.

Over a coffee and a light breakfast we discussed the state of employee comms in Australia, social media, technology in general and whatever else came our way in discussion, including tripods, video and podcast editing, and sitting in your underwear whilst attending meetings in Second Life (!).

David then presented to a lunchtime meeting of Sydney-based IABC members, where he gave his view on the state of employee comms from where he sits as the Editor of the Journal of Employee Communication Management.

Australia has a growing presence within the pages of the JECM; indeed, your humble scribe is very flattered to be appearing in the current (Jan/Feb 2007) issue: Social Media and the Evolution of Communication.

Whilst it was very pleasant to find him, as Allan Jenkins had previously informed me I would, friendly and affable with a great sense of humour and a sharp mind, what was most interesting were the views he expressed in his lunchtime presentation.

In his speech he talked of three ‘things’ that were really ‘bugging’ him about the current state of employee communication (my own liberal interpretation of what he said follows — don’t ascribe everything you read next to David, some is my own embellishment and rant):

  1. That the notion of Strategic Communication Plans had taken far too strong a foothold in our psyche, at the expense of informal, immeasurable but highly influential communication and idea-sharing.

    Whilst no one would pretend that the Strategic Comms Plan is useless — a roadmap is always a handy thing to have — the challenge for communicators is to allow for deviations and roadworks on the journey to the Promised Land.

    With the heavy focus on ‘Strategy’ comes, by osmosis, the one-way dissemination of information that Management (our paymasters) want delivered, and increasingly it is being delivered in a management-esque fashion, with the jargon and vapid platitudes that go with it:


    “Going forward, we know that to be world-class we need to be more strategic in our actions, whilst recognising and remembering that our people are our greatest asset and our greatest strength.” [Fight the bull]


    Followed next month by news of another set of redundancies, closures, ‘right-sizing’, ‘people-process realignment’ and so on.

  2. That technology, whilst helpful in generating and sustaining internal conversations, can also lead to laziness in communicators and an over-reliance on technological tools to do what pre-tech communicators did without realising: engage both employee and management, and generate meaningful debate.

    Today’s new tools have the potential to unlock closed doors and minds, and break up bottlenecks; equally technology can alienate, disenfranchise and create barriers, because we as communicators focus too much time and energy on mastering the tools and less and less time on crafting and refining what we are actually trying to say.

    As David pointed out, fifteen years ago the choice of delivery channels available to us was a simple one: print, video or face-to-face. Now we have blogs, audio podcasts, video podcasts, streaming video, intranets, extranets, portals, aggregators, seminars, webinars and YouTube. As he pointed out, some of us are trying to replicate Murdoch’s media empire on a Corporate Communication budget.
  3. That employee communicators have forgotten to be the mediators and facilitators of discussion betwixt management and employee; instead we are morphing into the official (and unrespected) mouthpiece of management, complete with a toolbox of management jargon and rhetoric. Our bid to be taken seriously at the ‘C’ level has found us forgetting what our ‘personal mission’ is: to be the eyes and ears of the company that is able to communicate to management what employees think and vice versa.

    The death of the so-called ‘Journalistic Paradigm’ (ex-journos who cluttered up Employee Comms positions looking for ‘angles’ with which to beat up management, all in the name of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’) has not, unfortunately, led to a resurgence of meaningful conversations. Quite the opposite. Allied with point 1 above, the death of the ‘Journo’ model has meant the death of great copy, great layout and great photography. As David Jones at MBF said in an interview I conducted with him last year, too much time gets lost on ‘Strategic Planning’ and too little time is focused on actually having any ‘output’ — and as Crescenzo reportedly says, if you only rarely come out (infrequently publish an employee comms vehicle, for example) then its very hard to develop a personality. Instead, the death of the ‘Journo’ model has led to passive, minimal resistance and spineless scepticism by communicators to the dictates of senior management.
    Whilst not wishing to suggest we bite the hand that feeds us, equally our role as facilitators and initiators of conversations means we equally need to advocate for employees, not just pump up the volume of management’s desired messages.

Over breakfast, before the IABC session, David and I had talked about many of these issues. I feel strongly that whilst the metrics of communication output can be measured, the intrinsic nature of our role as internal conversationalists means that much that we do is not measurable.

In an age of KPIs, ‘Strategic Focus’ and ‘measure and improve or fall on your sword’, such a stance is not a popular one with the bean counters or senior management.

For example, I’ve long been highly sceptical of the concept of ‘engagement’, the idea that employee commitment to a company can be ‘measured’. Laughable idea!

It makes about as much sense as the tea-leaf reading practice of psychometric tests, which repeatedly show (in comparison tests with other predictive measures) a risible degree of predictive validity. Not as bad as handwriting analysis (‘graphology’), true, but not as effective as psychometric test manufacturers would have you believe; the tests are newspaper horoscopes for the well-heeled and gullible employer, or the scared HR manager who daren’t risk ‘gut feeling’ on someone but needs some ‘numbers’ on which to fall back on should their choice of candidate prove a dud (“Gosh, they fooled us, they even tricked the battery of tests!”).

What you answer to a vague, poorly-worded and often-times frustratingly ‘nonsense’ question is highly dependent on who you are trying to impress, what answer you think they want, what you had for breakfast, if you had a fight with your spouse the night before, what kind of and how much sleep you had, whether you had to run for the bus that morning, whether the person sitting next to you had their ‘personal’ stereo so loud that you were bombarded by tinny and repetitive “tiss tiss tiss thud, tiss tiss tiss thud”, and so on.

Similarly with ‘Engagement’ — I know of companies who hold parties to reward shop-floor managers if the engagement score of their department goes up by 1% in a survey!

Much like the professional horoscopes I mentioned above, the answers employees give on these once-a-year surveys are highly dependent on so many factors — including sleep, breakfast, familial fighting, public transport companions, and what that nonce of a supervisor told me off for this morning, or that wonderfully astute and intelligent supervisor praised me for; whether my improvement suggestion was acknowledged or ignored, taken up or dismissed out of hand.

What happened three, six or nine months ago is completely forgotten and so plays little or no part in our deliberations. Goodness, I have trouble enough remembering my own name some days, let alone what I was doing nine months ago and with whom and why!

Like politicians leading up to an election, smart companies do lots of ‘fun’ stuff and give out staff bonuses just long enough before word of the upcoming Annual Staff Survey is announced that most employees don’t see the link between the two.

Anyway, my rant on my soapbox is finished.

I had a great time sharing notes and anecdotes with David — thanks for shouting breakfast, mate!

Now, if you could only organise the fat bald bloke to make a time when he and I can sit down with Skype and have a chat… But then again, Rome wasn’t built in a day, was it?


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  • Steve Crescenzo

    Lee!!

    Great post . . . lots of good stuff here. I would quibble wth David’s view that technology is making us lazy, though. I think just the opposite: I think technology is finally giving us the tools to NOT be so lazy. Lazy is churning out a lousy print publication that nobody reads, just because you’ve always done that way.

    NOT lazy is convincing your dynamic CEO to blog and podcast—and helping him do it—-so that he can be closer to the workforce.

    I just did the latter with a client . . . and it was a lot of work, lot of selling, lot of back end work, and will be a lot of work going forward.

    But it’s also going to change the way this executive communicates with the company.

    Now, why the hell won’t you interview me, like you keep promising????

    Steve Crescenzo

  • Steve Crescenzo

    Lee!!

    Great post . . . lots of good stuff here. I would quibble wth David’s view that technology is making us lazy, though. I think just the opposite: I think technology is finally giving us the tools to NOT be so lazy. Lazy is churning out a lousy print publication that nobody reads, just because you’ve always done that way.

    NOT lazy is convincing your dynamic CEO to blog and podcast—and helping him do it—-so that he can be closer to the workforce.

    I just did the latter with a client . . . and it was a lot of work, lot of selling, lot of back end work, and will be a lot of work going forward.

    But it’s also going to change the way this executive communicates with the company.

    Now, why the hell won’t you interview me, like you keep promising????

    Steve Crescenzo

  • http://www.live365.com/stations/claren44 Clarence Jones

    Amen Brother Lee!
    I used to fill out those surveys in a previous life as a KMart employee (until the leftover idiocies of the previous Corporate Leaders put the company in bankruptcy & our local store out of business). It always came across as a waste of an hour that I could have spent productively Doing My Job. But, it sprung forth from the same brilliant minds that piped in over the muzak system the 100th Birthday Celebration the company threw (live, them repeated all day)…the celebration that mentioned the names of every executive from the Regional level on up, every major vendor, each company hired to provide food & decorating for the shindig, & oh, at the end of this litany, in passing, mentioned “the associates throughout the company”. Made Us feel appreciated…LOL.
    Not that I’m bitter…I only lost a few hundred dollars in my 401(k) account when KMart tanked (& I wasn’t fully vested yet). It just never ceases to amaze me how Retail employees, who touch directly all their products & all their customers & all their store-level vendors every single day, are treated like third-class citizens by Corparate Honchos: never spoken to directly (only on the “Message from The Almighty” level), never asked directly for their opinions, & always taking the fall (aka “Jetson…You’re Fired!!!”) when the company fails to provide quality management.

    I’ll put away my parentheses & go home now…
    Love & Peace, Clarence

  • http://www.live365.com/stations/claren44 Clarence Jones

    Amen Brother Lee!
    I used to fill out those surveys in a previous life as a KMart employee (until the leftover idiocies of the previous Corporate Leaders put the company in bankruptcy & our local store out of business). It always came across as a waste of an hour that I could have spent productively Doing My Job. But, it sprung forth from the same brilliant minds that piped in over the muzak system the 100th Birthday Celebration the company threw (live, them repeated all day)…the celebration that mentioned the names of every executive from the Regional level on up, every major vendor, each company hired to provide food & decorating for the shindig, & oh, at the end of this litany, in passing, mentioned “the associates throughout the company”. Made Us feel appreciated…LOL.
    Not that I’m bitter…I only lost a few hundred dollars in my 401(k) account when KMart tanked (& I wasn’t fully vested yet). It just never ceases to amaze me how Retail employees, who touch directly all their products & all their customers & all their store-level vendors every single day, are treated like third-class citizens by Corparate Honchos: never spoken to directly (only on the “Message from The Almighty” level), never asked directly for their opinions, & always taking the fall (aka “Jetson…You’re Fired!!!”) when the company fails to provide quality management.

    I’ll put away my parentheses & go home now…
    Love & Peace, Clarence

  • http://www.leehopkins.net/ Lee Hopkins

    G’day gentlemen!

    Steve: actually, it was ME that was thinking that technology is making us lazy; it wasn’t something David expressed. But instead of us thinking about the message and how best to word it, we ‘blat it out’ via email, intranet post, etc.

    As for interviewing you — let’s email and sort out a good time/day for you; my schedule is more flexible at the moment, so I can work around your timetable and timezone. I know that there would be MANY folks here, both undergraduates and seasoned and salty pros, that would value hearing from a master communicator.

    It’s either interview via phone, or else have David fly me out to interview you. Personally, I think the former has ‘more legs’… [grin]

    Clarence: it never ceases to amaze me that the employee is very often the worst treated and most disrespected ‘audience’ for a company when it SHOULD be the most important and most respected.

    However, come the revolution, when mobs of angry employee communicators storm the C suites, burn the toilet paper in the executive cubicles, and throw internal marketers and other foolish bretheren out of the boardroom windows, all will change. Viva la Revolution!!

  • http://www.leehopkins.net Lee Hopkins

    G’day gentlemen!

    Steve: actually, it was ME that was thinking that technology is making us lazy; it wasn’t something David expressed. But instead of us thinking about the message and how best to word it, we ‘blat it out’ via email, intranet post, etc.

    As for interviewing you — let’s email and sort out a good time/day for you; my schedule is more flexible at the moment, so I can work around your timetable and timezone. I know that there would be MANY folks here, both undergraduates and seasoned and salty pros, that would value hearing from a master communicator.

    It’s either interview via phone, or else have David fly me out to interview you. Personally, I think the former has ‘more legs’… [grin]

    Clarence: it never ceases to amaze me that the employee is very often the worst treated and most disrespected ‘audience’ for a company when it SHOULD be the most important and most respected.

    However, come the revolution, when mobs of angry employee communicators storm the C suites, burn the toilet paper in the executive cubicles, and throw internal marketers and other foolish bretheren out of the boardroom windows, all will change. Viva la Revolution!!

  • http://www.ragan.com/ David

    Hey, Lee, great summary of our yammerfest. You failed only to mention that we were tossed out of the breakfast room, almost forcibly.

    Steve and I have been kicked out of many bars. But only with Lee have I ever been ejected from a breakfast nook.

  • http://www.ragan.com David

    Hey, Lee, great summary of our yammerfest. You failed only to mention that we were tossed out of the breakfast room, almost forcibly.

    Steve and I have been kicked out of many bars. But only with Lee have I ever been ejected from a breakfast nook.

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