Internal Communication Strategy

Four dimensions of internal influence: ambassadors, influencers, advocates and followers

One of the enduring memories of my undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin is a comment made by an otherwise forgotten Statistics professor: “There are two kinds of people in this world – those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

When it comes to organizations and their social dynamics, I tend to think there are four main kinds of people, each of which has distinct roles and needs to be addressed in distinct, yet integrated ways:

  • Ambassadors: formal representatives of the organization or specific initiatives.
  • Influencers: employees/members of the community informally sought for advice, knowledge or support
  • Advocates: individuals who voluntarily share opinions or facilitate initiatives or courses of action
  • Followers: those who have to be asked to take part in initiatives, activities or courses of action

Ambassadors

In recent years, organizations have become more and more aware of the role of social dynamics in driving the success of initiatives and overall performance. For the most part, they have focused, with few exceptions, on intensifying the ambassadorial dimension in the form of line manager training and incentives, and in organizing and orchestrating “ambassador” and “champions” programs where employees below manager level are formally designated as initiative representatives or behavioral role models.

Rarely, however, has the ambassadorial role been integrated with an explicit appreciation of the role of informal influence in driving the success of initiatives and behavioral change, likewise the role of influencers in shaping and circulating knowledge and opinion.

In some cases, the selection of ambassadors is even intended to usurp the influencer role – to the point where an organization would call its representatives “influencers” without any evidence that their opinion carried any organizational weight.

Implicit in the focus on ambassadorship is a focus on control. Executing a formal organizational role, as a manager or a champion, requires the individual to stick to official channels, messages and interpretations in promoting the agenda.

Influencers

Recognizing the limitations of hierarchy and control in driving change and performance, some organizations have invested in research to identify “influencers,” the group which research has identified as “the three percent of employees who drive 90% of the conversations” in a given organization. Through methods like organizational network analysis (ONA) and snowball sampling, it becomes possible to identify the credible individuals who are sought out by their colleagues for knowledge, advice and support.

According to Innovisor, the Copenhagen-based market leader in ONA for large organizations, there is a massive disconnect between those whom managers see as influential and those who employees actually seek out. “When as part of our research, we ask managers to identify whom they see as influencers, there is never much overlap between the manager view and the employee reality.”

It is rare that organizations actively find ways to integrate a real understanding of organizational influence when they adopt an ambassadorial approach to driving messages and initiatives. Much depends on finding appropriate ways for ambassadors and influencers to interact with each other – depending on influencer attitudes towards an initiative or the extent to which they are willing to be exposed publicly.

Advocates

So far, a third group, advocates, has been given little attention as drivers of organizational change and performance.  Ambassadors are selected by the organization and influencers by their peers and colleagues, whereas advocates are self-selected. Some choose to engage out of a commitment to organizational well-being, and others out of sense of opportunity, while those who advocate contrarian positions may do so out of a sense of grievance.

Even though their credibility and levels of authority may be lower than those of key influencers and ambassadors, advocates are nonetheless a critical and often underrated piece of the organizational puzzle, particularly if they are passionate, committed or acting independently. If they can be recruited to participate in the most appropriate ways, the effort involved in identifying them and channeling their activities can be highly beneficial – integrating their energy and enthusiasm and enabling them to be focused in positive, constructive, and efficient ways.

Followers

In most organizations, the percentage of ambassadors, influencers and advocates is dwarfed by a mass of employees who are none of the above – followers.

Followers are a huge percentage of most workforces. But mass mobilization of followers, especially relying solely on ambassadors or on direct internal communication, is often ineffective and generally inefficient.

In part, this has been because the prevailing approach to employee engagement treats all employees as equal, failing to distinguish and legitimize the normal role of a follower – which, simply put, is to amicably accept ABC and to execute XYZ.  Good followership is valuable in ways that are entirely compatible with good ambassadorship, influence sharing and advocacy. But the ways in which internal communication and employee engagement are generally managed and incentivized often leave followers inundated with irrelevant information and bewildered by calls for greater commitment and attention to matters outside of their immediate work scope.

The first step towards success

To bring success back into focus, the first step is to recognize that every organization is comprised of ambassadors, influencers, advocates and followers in varying degrees. Accepting that reality, the next step involves questioning the authoritarianism of ambassador-only interventions and the laziness of one-size-fits-all approaches to communication and engagement. Then, replacing these with an approach which respects the natural roles of employees and harnesses their interest, energy and leadership.  Doing so will maximize the value of organizational influence by integrating its different forms, and create a pathway toward real, systemic and sustainable organizational engagement.

4 Dimensions ICK

Courtesy of IC Kollectif

FREE BOOK OFFER: For deeper insight into the social dynamics of organizations and communities, download, From Lincoln to LinkedIn.  Invoking ancient principles of political communication articulated by Abraham Lincoln in 1840, I look at how identifying, connecting and mobilizing informal leaders can drive social and business communication and results. For a free download, click here.

Tools and services, Uncategorized

Six “term-changers” for internal communication

 

termchangersAs I have said often, it’s not the easiest of times to be a strategically-oriented internal communicator.

At a time when clients want “snazzy-snappy-happy” tactics, a number of brave practitioners and firms have developed real tools and methodologies that seek to change the game, or even “change the terms” for their clients.

These six are particularly interesting to me, in that they are focused on driving alignment, to reduce the noise, friction and even the conflicts that keep organizations from moving in a common direction.

The Influencer Scan

I start with a shameless plug for my own tool, the Influencer Scan, which uses snowball sampling to work with employees to surface the most influential employees in their organizations.  Noting that the top three percent of  employees who are most influential in each company drive conversations with 90% of their colleagues, the Influencer Scan builds on trusted relationships to build a lean, fast and credible internal communication process that can either supplement or replace more expensive and intrusive approaches.

Pulse Tracker

My friends at Innovisor in Copenhagen use a different methodology for finding internal influencers than I do, but are equally strong proponents of the 3-90 rule. Innovisor’s Pulse Tracker is a user-friendly software used by IC, HR and change professionals to track perceptions and engagement of the most influential 3% – and only that top 3%. This not only makes the INNOVISOR Pulse Tracker much more resource efficient than any other organization-wide survey, it also provides an early – and fast – indicator of changes in the direction of organizational perceptions and engagement. It only takes five days from question to results.

Muse

Meanwhile, in the UK, the fine folks at Woodread are focusing on improving content, and improving the ability of practitioners to deliver it.  Their product, Muse, offers access to a uniquely bundled set of services and resources to address the internal communication challenges HR, engagement and internal communications practitioners face. Muse combines the tactical: a service which gives internal communicators access to consumer quality comms written in their own corporate style, along with a package consisting of exclusive training, ‘how to’ guides and access to a community of Muse users to share ideas and best practice.  A comment from an HR practitioner is indicative: “You think you’ve ‘nailed it’ until you see how with a few subtle changes by Muse it reads even better.  This has really helped not only to improve our communications but also to coach our team in what is needed to really achieve our Tone of Voice.”  Nicola-Jayne Thomas Head of Reward, Relations and Development, Peugeot Citroën

Eli

Eli is an award-winning platform that’s unique in that it enables communication between incoming employees and their new organizations during the onboarding process. Eli is a highly flexible and versatile tool, which can support communication with specific audiences at any stage of the employee lifecycle, allowing for a seamless, brand-aligned experience from the moment candidates apply to the moment they move on as former employees.

Communication Climate

Marc Do Amaral, one of the more innovative practitioners in the Netherlands and an IC Kollectif internal com thought leader, has developed an approach for assessing and improving the communication climate inside an organization. The Communication Climate inventory addresses  perceptions of fairness, autonomy, certainty and relatedness, and how they impact employee attitudes towards top managers, supervisors and colleagues–usually more strongly than expected. Even so, they are seldom explicitly discussed, remaining largely invisible in the undercurrent. The inventory surfaces these perceptions through a survey, followed by a process where the findings are broadly shared and discussed. This provides the basis for the design phase which builds toward a shared vision of the desired communication climate and the key behaviors and interventions needed to cultivate it.

Mirror Mirror

Focusing both on on-boarding and team communication and appraisal, Lindsay Uittenbogaard’s Mirror Mirror tool provides a structured but rapid approach for driving team alignment.  Mirror Mirror allows teams to develop a shared picture of ‘where they are now’ so they have the clarity, alignment, and momentum needed to progress to ‘where they want to go next’. Think detailed team employee survey with immediacy. Think psychometrics and teamwork insights with applicability. Think engagement on a plan with doability.

So these are six tools.  Six battle-tested, real-world products and services that make a tangible difference in addressing actual business challenges.

They are here for the taking.  And they need your support.

Quality tools need quality practitioners to buy them and use them.  Are you interested? Do you want to Change The Terms?

Please fill out the short form below.

Uncategorized

Are town halls “worth the paper they are printed on?”

Amerika-Haus Köln - Town Hall Meeting Peter Ammon

One quote famously misattributed to Hollywood titan Samuel Goldwyn was “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Now, town halls are the main official form of corporate verbal communication. They are where senior executives speak to large crowds of employees, and are such a stable fixture in the internal communication world that they might be a contractual requirement of sorts. But are they worth the effort to organize, much less the total hours of attendance that they mandate from those in attendance?

I admit that I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I have organized and participated in these events for a double-digit number of years. It has struck me that these events seem to suck more value out of an organization than they add to it.

Here’s why:

  • High execution risk:

    A mistake in the execution of an event – a dead microphone, out-of-sequence PowerPoint slides or inappropriate snacks – may prove far more memorable than the actual content that is shared, or even than the presence of the leader(s) themselves.

  • Low audience relevance:

    Unlike those face-to-face events that are aligned with major organizational change activity, traditional town halls tend to be timed to align with quarterly or annual financial results. I have seen many organizations take the view that all employees should be motivated by and interested in the overall financial numbers, and use the town halls to force-feed the numbers to the assembled throng.  But the discussion of the previous quarter’s numbers that the financial markets require often offer little of relevance to employees, who tend to be more interested in what to do in the next quarter and beyond.

  • Limited and stifled dialogue:

    Although I have never been to a town hall that doesn’t have a Q&A section, I don’t remember when many questions were asked.  Indeed, as the communications “bod,” I found myself doing the asking, to the point where the CEO would see me in the elevator afterward and thank me for the question.  As much as I enjoyed the fifteen seconds of fame such encounters offered, it underscored the reality that town halls are lousy environments for stimulating leadership-employee discussion. Something more disempowering happens afterward.  Most town halls end with little left to discuss, and generate little post-event conversation about organizational momentum and direction.  The CEO or leader presents a view, it lands undiscussed, and employees are left to accept it as given or treat it as marginally relevant.

  • The royal box tick:

    In some cases, the CEO sees his quarterly performance at the town hall as his ticking of the “communication box,” and isn’t seen until the following results town hall.

What to do about it?

Although there are a lot of ideas out there about how to improve town halls, most notably from Alison Davis in the US (who is one of the strongest experts and advocates for all-employee communication), I would go farther. I personally would like to see the town hall disappear as a regular communication tool, and instead be reserved for extraordinary announcements and events.

Instead, I would like to see leaders have smaller meetings with well-chosen groups of influencers and/or randomly selected members of staff, with no direct managers present.  This makeup would drive two things: channeling real feedback to leaders from real employees and stimulating those employees talk about their experience with their peers and colleagues.

The tricky thing about town halls is that they are but one of the many tasks of the internal communicator that has little to do with strategy or outcomes, but exists to meet stakeholder expectations.  When communicators can effectively make the case that town halls don’t actually help the cause in their current form, there will be some leeway to change the script or even to take them off the schedule.  Otherwise, they will persist, even if they aren’t “worth the paper they are printed on.”

 

Uncategorized

Internal influencers: now actionable, no longer optional

Ever wonder why your internal communication isn’t getting any traction?  Or why your engagement scores are slipping despite your steady diet of snappy intranet articles and C-suiter videos?

Recent studies from Edelman, the American Press Institute, and Innovisor in Copenhagen identify a crucial and often-omitted factor: the peer influencer, or, as they are often called within organizations, “internal influencers.”

Influencers drive trust

Although corporations and other organizations have relied heavily on C-suite leaders as authoritative voices, a significant gap has opened in the extent to which people respond to senior leaders versus their own peers.  According to the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2017, peer credibility is above 60% across the board, while trust in CEOs averages below 38% across the 28 countries surveyed.

In a world where the sharing of articles is an increasingly pivotal internally as well as externally, a recent American Press Institute survey shows that peer credibility can be decisive in whether messages get noticed or believed.  Receiving an article from a trusted influencer drives positive attitudes towards messages, and higher degrees of engagement, than receiving from an unknown or less-well-trusted source.

Forget the 80-20 rule.  Think 3-90

Now, recognizing the value of peer influence does an organization little good if it can’t successfully harness, or indeed, influence it.  But the identification and mobilization of influencers is an emerging practice within internal communication and organizational change, and, when done properly, it’s relatively quick and cost-effective.  The most important thing to remember is that 3% of employees (the “key influencers”) drive organizational conversations with 90% of the other employees, according to Innovisor, the Copenhagen-based market leader in organizational network analysis and social mapping (www.innovisor.com).

Finding the 3%

There are two main methodologies for finding the 3%.  My approach involves a small-scale survey approach involving a relatively small number of respondents, and engaging those who are most frequently identified as influential by their peers. A similar approach was explained in this piece by McKinsey: https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/business%20functions/organization/our%20insights/tapping%20the%20power%20of%20hidden%20influencers/tapping%20the%20power%20of%20hidden%20influencers.ashx.

A second, which Innovisor (www.innovisor.com) focuses on, performs a comprehensive social network analysis which not only identifies influencers but maps their connections across the entire enterprise, and produces a “real” organizational chart, one which can vary from C-suite perceptions of “the way things are.”

Two other methodologies that are often substituted for these – having managers select who they perceive as influencers, and having HR and communications staff brainstorm names in workshops – tend to miss the target.

Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard, Innovisor’s CEO says: “HR and Communications staff tend to pick the people they see the most of, and managers tend to pick the employees who are most cooperative.  When they are asked to pick the influencers, the overlap between what they pick and what the employees pick is usually limited and often non-existent.”

Communicating through influencers

Regardless of the method chosen to identify influencers, it is most crucial that efforts to engage them reflect the respect and status that they have earned from other employees.

Identifying influencers without offering them enhanced news flows, detailed explanations and rationales for major decisions, and preferential access to senior management makes no sense.  They need to be able to tell your story credibly, and even if they disagree, they will have to account for facts and realities they won’t be able to ignore.

This reflects that there are always two main tracks of organizational information: the baseline news (the snappy intranet stories and videos mentioned above) and the informal conversation where, if a coherent, cohesive narrative isn’t being conveyed by credible sources, rumor and “fake news” will fill the void.

This does not mean that you must turn your informal influencers into formal “ambassadors.”

Early in the process, though, the organization needs make a choice.  It can choose simply to make sure that its side of the story is moving into the organizational conversation, or whether it needs to actively mobilize influencers to support specific initiatives or narratives.

Making it happen

If you recognize that peer credibility is something you can’t ignore, the key is to make an authentic effort to tap into it, by doing the research to find the people your employees trust, rather than doubling down on the people you trust (your line managers and departmental favorites) and hoping that no one will notice the difference.  Then, make sure these people are prepared to tell your side of the story or at least to acknowledge its legitimacy.

This is not a complicated process. It’s nowhere near as complicated as what it takes to produce highly visual communications and ambitious live engagement events.   But it requires discipline, a willingness to operate strategically, and a recognition that peer credibility is no longer optional.

Want to talk about internal influencers and how to quickly find and mobilize them?  Call me at +31-6-2417-9475, or send me a note at mike.klein@changingtheterms.com.

This piece was published previously as a submission to IC Kollectif.