As businesses slowly come to recognize the importance of informal communication, we are starting to hear the words â€œambassadorsâ€ and â€œinfluencersâ€ more and more.
This is a bit of a good news and bad news story, which goes like this:
Good news: â€œWe need to recognize that thereâ€™s informal communication actually going on in our companies.â€
Bad news: â€œWeâ€™d really, really like to control it as much as possible.â€
What does that have to do with â€œambassadorsâ€ and â€œinfluencers?â€
Because, at the moment, most of the energy companies are putting into â€œinformalâ€ communication is being focused on â€œambassadorsâ€ programs, where employees are formally nominated by managers, HR, or other functions to push endorsed agendas and behaviors.
Ambassadors programs are not necessarily bad. But they get problematic when companies and managers call them â€œinfluencerâ€ programs and calling program members â€œthe influencers.â€
Influencers are the people in organizations that their peers turn to for support, knowledge or sense-making. They arenâ€™t nominated by anyone. They become influential by generating respect, sharing knowledge and putting things into context for peers who ask them to do so.
Managers and HR usually have little idea about who is actually influential.
Innovisor, which surveys thousands of employees on these questions annually, said there is nearly no overlap between the people managers nominate as â€œambassadorsâ€ or â€œinfluencersâ€ and those who employees find to be genuinely influential.
In an argument with a traditionally-minded London-based engagement pro, the two of us discussed our preferred approaches to accelerating internal messaging. â€œWhy would you want to bypass the line manager?â€ he said. â€œWhy would you want to bypass the real conversations that actually make a difference to employees?â€ I replied.
The problem with ambassadors programs and fake â€œinfluencersâ€ programs comes when companies try to replace or step over the real informal communication in their ranks, especially with no knowledge of how that real informal communication actually works.
Rather than â€œtaking back control,â€ companies can intensify cynicism and degrade their own credibility by inserting nominees into the informal communication process who lack the reputation, skills and track record to be genuinely influential, and, in doing so, suppress the real influence that is critical to sustaining the organizational conversation. Itâ€™s like taking the old-school cascade and painting a friendly face on it.
At the same time, organizations that make the effort to identify their real influencers can be confronted by the question of what to do afterward. Do they simply try to â€œinfluence the influencers,â€ and upgrade the quality of their interactions with the business, or do they out them and attempt to make them act as visible ambassadors â€“ putting them all in the â€œyellow shirtâ€?
Outing your influencers has significant risksâ€”once known publicly, they may become seen as â€œcompany agents,â€ and lose a chunk of the credibility and influence that make them worth identifying in the first place.
Can ambassadors programs coexist effectively with an identified influencer group? Yes. When ambassadors programs donâ€™t pretend to be representative of â€œthe real organizationâ€ but are positioned to champion limited agendas, they can be highly effective at moving the needle on those agendas. One program that took place in my previous company, a high-visibility values ambassador program in Italy which purposely nominated young, ambitious and tech-savvy employees, was very effective at sharing an understanding of values definitions.
Indeed, even though there has been little research done to date, I sense that the effectiveness of ambassadors programs can be improved by connecting them real influencers and seeking their informal guidance, and if absolutely necessary, their overt support.
Precisely because the nominated ambassadors lack the networks, content, and context that make influencers influential, being able to tap into the organizationâ€™s reservoir of influence without damaging it offers ambassadors a chance to better achieve their own objectives, and perhaps become more influential themselves.
This article was previously published by IC Kollectif.