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What I would do with a research budget right now

BY mikeklein As an internal communicator with a strong bias towards written communication and the use of survey research tools, I often have faced challenges from employers and potential clients over strategic and tactical preferences and precedents.

In many organizations, tactical priorities and the budgets attached to them are non-negotiable, with employee engagement surveys and management conferences being at the top of many companies’ untouchable lists and commanding substantial shares of internal comms budgets. In the same vein, insistence on cascading and the primacy of managers as communication channels can only be challenged at the margins.

The problem isn’t simply the insistence of clients on tired traditional tactics. It’s that we as a profession lack hard evidence with which to challenge these preferences in terms of communication effectiveness, nor in terms of Return on Investment.

While groups like the Institute of Public Relations are looking at internal communication measurement overall, as a practitioner, I have a need to get four specific questions answered – four things I would focus on if I had my own research budget, or at the very least, some ability to crowdsource from my position as an IC blogger with a bit of an audience:

  • What is the real relationship between organizational performance and employee engagement scores? There is more skepticism about whether and how employee engagement surveys play a constructive role in organizations, but in many organizations, improving engagement scores remain an objective that often gets assigned to internal communicators.

  • What is lacking is any real sense of whether improving engagement scores actually improves performance, or whether improvements in performance actually drive higher engagement scores. It’s a crucial question because if there is a real disconnect between employee engagement scores and performance, effort to improve the scores could either be a waste of time, money and social capital that could be better dedicated elsewhere. It’s also a challenge because many practitioners and clients have conflated employee engagement and internal comms.

  • What is the relative ROI of different types of IC interventions: management conferences, Organizational Network Analysis and mobile applications?
    Management conferences, where companies tend to gather their top 100-500 managers in a hotel conference room somewhere, are nearly universal. But the cost they involve is substantial. To physically transport, house, and feed 100-500 people for 2-3 days is a six-figure or seven-figure undertaking, not to mention the cost, time and process involved with developing content that is entertaining enough to keep the snoring in the conference hall to a minimum.

    But what is the actual business case for a management conference? How does it compare to other investments of comparable cost: organizational network analysis and internal mobile applications, to name two with potentially seismic impact, particularly in the context of specific business goals. And, in terms of ROI, if you are going to insist on having management conferences, who are the right people to invite?

  • Can frequent small-sample surveys deliver useful data while minimizing “survey fatigue?”
    “Survey fatigue” is unquestionably a disease. But while most cite it as the unwillingness of employees to complete surveys, I see it as more pernicious condition where organizations refuse to conduct essential research, and then act or block action knowing that the research essential to driving good decisions is missing.

    A way to bypass survey fatigue involves reducing the numbers of people approached for each survey. Small samples tend to be less valid statistically, but the question is whether they are valid enough to conclusively recommend them as an alternative, particularly when the alternative is to act (or not act) based on managerial judgement or sense of smell.

  • What is the connection between written internal communication and word of mouth?
    I see this as the ultimate question facing internal communication today.

    Far too often, written internal communication efforts are killed or marginalized because of a belief “that no one reads that shit.” With readership and “eyeball” figures often being unspectacular on their face, research needs to document the relationship between the content, the people who actually read it, and their influence on organizational conversations.

    This is research that can be done in different ways. Measuring changes in behavior, or tracking least awareness of issues injected into an organization through intranet or newsletter mentions reflect one approach. Tracking the recall, acceptance and rejection of official terminology among readers and nonreaders represents another. I’ve long contended that written internal communication is the fastest and most effective way of changing and directing word of mouth in organizations, yet intuitive beliefs about its value often prove hard to overcome without bulletproof evidence.

Could we get this done?

Much of this research is orphaned – while definitive answers to these questions would help the IC profession immeasurably (not to mention my own prospects as a practitioner, fessing up to my compelling self-interest here), no one alone has sufficient business imperative to sort all of this out in one go. But even one-company examples could go a long way to reshape arguments and make a case for investment in further research.

More importantly, common awareness of the weak points in our profession’s business case can strengthen the common will to resolve those weaknesses and make a better case to the CEOs, CFOs, CHROs and Communication Directors who drive our scope and agendas. To the extent practitioners have the ability to ask such questions, we need to ask them. And to the extent to which the task is bigger, we need to challenge our industry bodies to commission the research we need to empower us to do our jobs effectively and demonstrate the value we add.

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3 thoughts on “What I would do with a research budget right now”

  1. Michael, thanks for your piece about engagement, communication and organizational performance. Here are some thoughts.

    There’s a lot of work being done by communication practitioners to shift from a news and information function to a results and value-added function. In my own work with clients we’re focused laser-like on making sure that communication management improves operating and/or financial results and that the gains we create are greater than the cost to create them. In other words, there’s a return on the communication investment. For instance, at FedEx we generated a 23% increase in sales and a 1,447% ROI in 90 days at a Los Angeles FedEx operation. In five other locations (Seattle, Denver, Chicago, NY and Miami) we increased sales by $6.1 million and generated a 1,667% ROI.

    It’s important that communication efforts are focused on improving the business, not increasing engagement. Engagement is a means to a better end but only if it’s directed at the right targets. Increasing engagement scores without an improvement to the business is a waste of money. Shareholders aren’t investing in our clients’ companies because their engagement scores are high. They’re investing because they want an acceptable return.

    Communication practitioners should start first with the number that needs improving–in the FedEx case it was export sales out of LA. The next step is to identify and remove communication breakdowns that are impeding performance–in the FedEx case it was sales. Communication breakdowns include mixed messages, lack of information, inaccurate information and slow moving information. Make sure you projected gains are greater than the cost to create them. If there’s an acceptable projected gain, launch your process.

    I’ve never seen survey fatigue in a company that responded positively to what a survey revealed. Survey fatigue happens when people survey too much and listen and act too little.

    I hope there’s a useful thought here.


  2. Really useful input. Implicit is a focus on using sharp diagnostics while driving towards specific business outcomes, neither of which you can say about an employee engagement survey. Thanks much for this!

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