Let’s face it folks, employee engagement has had its day

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MMMA few years ago I contributed a chapter called Marketing and the Internal Market to Professor Phillip J Kitchen’s book Marketing Metaphors and Metamorphosis in which a number of marcomms experts debated the use and abuse of the metaphor in internal and external stakeholder communication.

Given the fact that, despite years of “noise” and effort verging on overkill, employee opinion polls remain firmly in the “red” with regard to employee engagement which, of course, has a causal relationship with communication, perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate a concept that has constantly divided opinion and which runs many of the same risks associated with the mis-use of metaphors in everyday parlance.

“For many years, internal communication was seen as an off-shoot of marketing and largely reported to the marketing head. Recent evidence suggests that corporate communication and, rightly or wrongly, HR are starting to assume increasing responsibility for employee engagement (see Melcrum study in Brand Engagement).

This subtle power struggle is a sign that internal communication is gradually gaining improved status as the importance of employees as deliverers of the promises made by brands via marketing receives increasing recognition. It may also be a signal that the marketing function lacks the appetite and aptitude to influence the internal markets appropriately.

While there are clear similarities between the internal and external communication markets, especially in industries where the distinction between customers and staff is blurred, the internal market differs from the customer-facing market in a significant number of ways. This means that a blanket approach to communication based upon the use of marketing methodology is essentially a flawed model. Employees are more savvy, more informed and more innately cynical than customers. They literally know the product/service inside out and most importantly, understand the means of production. They also have a feel for the core values and motives of the business owners and managers. They demand greater authenticity in internal communication which has implications for the way metaphors can and should be used.”

The core thesis was that the process of employee engagement differs from customer engagement yet essentially there needs to be greater authenticity and audience focus, especially with regard to internal comms.

Yet it strikes me that this lesson hasn’t been learned as bluster, commoditisation or creation of “engagement products” exaggeration and spin continues to undermine talk about systems-based engagement, amplified by the proliferation of social media where it is hard to differentiate between enthusiastic opinion based on scant knowledge and well-honed and grounded experience.

Hardly a day passes without hearing about fresh attempts to:

– define the term

– create a business case for it

– lambast leaders for ignoring it

– deplore the lamentable statistics associated with it

– badge initiatives like internal marketing, training, brochure design, app design and events etc as “silver bullet” engagement solutions.

The problem is that, even the few who appreciate that employee engagement is just a cog in the wheel of a comprehensive, systems-based organisation development solution to a compelling business need, namely to tap into the full range of latent employee potential, are fast becoming sick and tired of the term.

Let’s face it folks, the employee engagement “drive” coinciding with the global economic downturn, has amounted to little more than a cathartic filibuster. The volume of noise it has attracted/generated has only caused the community leaders most in need of support to withdraw and retrench and this is reflected in the global employee engagement matrices, as well as the proliferation of culture-induced brand implosions which have typified the period in question.

Just as the use of metaphor can be a powerful tool in marketing but detracts from the core message if over used and abused, the very term engagement has sadly become a lazy shorthand for employee satisfaction or wellbeing. It is too readily dismissed as a “nice to have” by cynical senior leaders who have too many conflicting, often short-term priorities to pay it much heed, especially given that the employment market is still buyer loaded. And despite the talk of Edleman and co creating engagement indices as well, I do fear that the term, riddled with mis-use and miscomprehension has had its day because it lacks credibility with the outcomes focused people who matter. The need for employee engagement should be a given, but ironically the terms itself and the circus of single solution practitioners may well have had its day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The relentless rise of foie gras internal communication

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Never in everyday pursuit of corporate endeavour have so many been force-fed by so few.

The rise of social and technological media and the proliferation of communication channels means your average employee could be nearing communication saturation point.

But are they?

I would suggest the appetite for effective communication has never been more keen, yet effective communication is still in very short supply.

Lest we forget, communication is essentially an outcome,not an input. At recent team briefing workshops, I had to make a point of reminding a group of senior civil servants that
“success isn’t measured by volume, pace or quantity. Good communication is a product of whether the message has been received, understood and resulted in the necessary action”.
For a number of years now, when I’ve conducted communication audits for clients, employees across sectors have complained about being bombarded. Despite the rather
trendy discussions about the difference between internal communication and employee engagement, message management and push communication appears to be
increasing.The biggest culprit is the dreaded email.
Having just carried out an audit of internal communication channels for another public sector client currently undergoing major change, I’ve been struck, by a bizarre, and frequently seen contradiction. In answer to the question “How would you prefer to be informed of changes?”, a whopping 76 per cent of respondents voted for face-to-face communication. Of those 76 per cent, some 68 per cent wanted that communication to come from their immediate line manager/s. The second preference was for some form of internal social media allowing them to provide feedback and debate in an interactive, real-time environment.

But when we looked into the communication department’s communication methods of choice, they prioritised: lunch meetings with the CEO and senior team; email bulletins; voicemail; and publications.

As the change programme gathered pace and brought with it ‘right sizing’ and major structure changes, the top two methods fast became the only ‘official’ channels. Sadly, team briefings led by line managers had faded to sporadic bursts.

It’s perhaps understandable that a number of line managers and supervisors had taken a backward step when faced with extremely difficult message management. It happens. But in this case, it was soon very clear that abdication on this scale reflected deep-seated leadership issues. Their CEO, in Hero Leader guise, although well intended, was clearly undermining his leaders. They had also lost faith in their communication function which was simply stepping aside by pressing the forward and ‘cc’ buttons.

The simple fact is that top down, cascade bombardments, particularly by email, are synonymous with lecturing. They allow the originator to tick a box but are largely
ineffective and simply reinforce one-way messaging. Cascading swarms of messages in the interest of employee engagement means the organisation promises one thing yet delivers another. It’s disingenuous and creates deep seated resentment.

Most of us learn much more effectively in interpersonal environments, when we’re involved and can interact with others. This is one of the reasons why line managers and immediate supervisors are increasingly important communicators. When they have the opportunity
and take the time to commit to Facetime rather than Facebook, employees are enlightened and reassured by the example being set as well as the opportunity for face-to-face discussion, debate and reflection.

Nearly everyone now appreciates the merits of electronic communication. But despite the simple temptation of “compose, click and send” and the sophisticated charms of new-wave social media tools there really is no replacement for good, old-fashioned, face to face, eyeball-to-eyeball communication. This is especially true during testing times when people lose what appetite they may have had for Foie Gras and deeply resent the fact that there’s no comfort food on the menu.

*first published as The Last Word in Employee Engagement Today.

You can download it as a pdf by clicking here: Buckingham_last word

The London 2012 opening programme – a masterclass in engagement

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I’ve been working in the engagement and transformation business for well over a decade. Never have I seen the so-called people disciplines in such a state of disempowered crisis, cruelly at a time when they are needed the most.

But in these dark days, what an uplifting delight it was to watch Danny Boyle’s genius unfold before the world as we watched the London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony.

While boardrooms pontificate and procrastinate about measurement and meaning citing austerity as an excuse for avoiding the very action that would ironically help to kick-start recovery, Boyle and co conceived a strategy based on the yang of authenticity to counter China’s intimidating, totalitarian, resource-rich yin.

They were up against almost impossible competition. But when put to the most extreme of tests, with the eyes of the world literally upon them, they found a way to out-perform the previous games.

While governments squandered scores of months on enquiries, committees and spin to explain the economic and engagement downturn that has dominated world news since London won the bid , Boyle’s creative team quietly ignored the emasculating criticism levelled at their plans and confidently assembled a complex showcase of brand Britain which from pastoral idyll through to NHS more accurately portrayed what it is to be British than anything I believe any of us has hitherto seen.

To the many change practitioners out there who find themselves increasingly confused and frustrated by the ever-slippery engagement word, take some time out and have another look at the show. Remind yourself that like most things, engagement is essentially a simple concept. It’s more sensation than dry understanding. It’s more feeling than thinking. It’s more story than event.

In the context of an organisation, it’s how connected employees are to the entity they work for and how prepared they are to be themselves or to give more than is contracted from them. It’s the sum of the moments when the hairs rise on the back of a tingling neck or the warm feelgood glow that comes from sensing that an organisation shares the values you personally hold dear. And from the perspective of the leaders the more widespread, consistent and persistent that feeling, the more impact it’s going to have on the way those people and that organisation performs.

Of course there are lessons aplenty that business leaders can learn from the opening to 2012. The first however, is to acknowledge how much engagement really matters and to appreciate the impact it can have. The second is to take action and “make it so”.

Reflecting on THAT oh-so-important ceremony however, it’s worth remembering that:

  • the ceremony was only 1 stage on a long journey from heritage via strategy to legacy. As I wrote in Brand Engagement, don’t be fooled into believing the hype perpetuated by the event or training companies claiming that engagement is a quick, marquee-event fix. Transformation needs more than a short-story mentality from leaders, a vision and journey not an initiative.
  • As the thousands of volunteers, programme of events and interactive opportunities show, from social media through to the relay of champions, collaborative art works etc the route to engagement is the involvement of as many stakeholders as possible as often as possible. Push communication, PR and instruction all have their place. But engagement they ain’t.
  • Your true champions aren’t the marquee names, they’re the Everyman communities, the unsung names, the sum of your potential who inspire their peers with the sense of “if they can I can”. The “guard” of building workers and entire torch lighting process was a masterclass in this principle.
  • There’s nothing more powerful than authenticity. Andy Murray found this out at Wimbledon recently in a moment that transformed his relationship with the public. All the athletes role model this when they’ve given their all and it’s certainly summed up in this “unbelievable” clip of Bert le Clos, father of “beautiful” South African surprise gold medal winner Chad :-).

When planning the ceremony Boyle knew Britain couldn’t compete with the Chinese resources. So he showcased our thinkers, our planners, our builders, our carers, our artists, our singers, our lovers, our tryers , our jokers, our champions and mentors but most of all our indomitable ordinary, authentic people….and look what they achieved!

Quite possibly the last is the most important point of all. The Opening ceremony showcased British ordinariness and diversity in all its magnificent quirkiness. It couldn’t match the razzamatazz and overwhelming corporate might of the US games or the tikeish new world charm of Sydney. But spin and PR aside, it touched upon the weirdly wonderful uniqueness of what it means to come from these small emerald isles and the people who have punched above their weight in the world for such a long time.

I’m not one to gush, but like many people who were trepidatious about these games, I wish a few of the leaders of Britain’s brands would take just a lesson or two from the way Boyle devised and executed his vision of Brand Britain as showcased in the preliminary process and ceremony which gave our Olympics the adrenalin injection they needed.

We would all undoubtedly be a lot the better for it if they did.

Employer brand: HR perceptions vs employee reality – that’s quite some disconnect

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I’ve long been a champion for HR as a key engagement pivot and have always promoted the importance of employee advocacy to brand building. But this infographic powerfully shows the extent of the gap between HR perceptions and employee reality.

Time to start thinking employment brand and sharpish?

Brand watch: engagement is still all talk @Arm Holdings

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When, as a partner at SDL, I first worked with Bill Parsons, Arm’s leader & chief strategist for most things with a pulse, he was giving a keynote speech to a large room of senior insurance executives at an event we had organised aimed at helping to cultivate a culture of innovation within the organisation. Despite employing less than 500 people at the time, Arm shortly thereafter entered the FTSE 100 (in 2000) and grew revenues by more than 60 percent that year, outselling Pentium at a ratio of 10:1.

That insurance brand went on to do rather well too.

I’ve written a number of articles charting Arm’s evolution for various journals down the years and featured a major case study on this Cambridge-based global leader in semiconductor intellectual property in Brand Engagement (2007). I’m not exactly a “tech-head” but I do have a great deal of admiration for this paradoxically modest UK powerhouse of a brand especially as their success isn’t built on the superhuman qualities of a few but on the cultivation of a collaborative, sustainable culture amongst the many.

Having caught up with Bill last week, I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed yet everything has improved, despite the worldwide economic downturn. They’re a truly multi-national business now, albeit still a brand typified by characteristic understatedness to the point of being virtually unknown outside of the IT technology world. As their corporate literature states: ARM technology is enabling the world’s leading companies to succeed. It stresses their partnership ethos rather than conveying a sense of dominance even though in 2011 ARM maintained a >95% market share of smartphones and tablets and Google and Microsoft announced that they were creating versions of their PC operating systems and application software to support ARM processor-based computers.

As I wrote back in 2000, innovation is all talk at Arm. They may employ the cream of the technology graduates from over 50 nationalities, but employee engagement is at the forefront of their people strategy and face to face communication is prioritized wherever possible. They may have been at the leading edge regarding the use of wikis as collaborative development tools but they greatly prize leadership accessibility and cultivate the sort of partnership culture internally that they so prize in their external stakeholder relations. As Warren East, CEO states in their 2011 annual report, “we believe partnership is the smartest approach to creating value. Rather than establishing a business that tries to do everything we partner with many companies each of whom can focus their efforts on where the best add value.” They take the same approach to leadership and project management and as a consequence their employee engagement statistics have improved from 83% to 89% over the last two years. I’m struggling to think of a set of figures that could compare during the same period.

It won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone but perhaps Bill that his time is very much in demand by executives struggling with the challenge of change. He’s even helping to shape thinking around marketing & communications and the ever-evolving use of social media, something he admits he never thought he would be asked to comment on. But it’s both reassuring and pleasing to see that, regardless of the part ARM is playing in the evolution of the tools and gadgets that are in many ways opening up a world of possibilities for enhancing the ways we communicate, for Bill, engagement is still very much all talk @ Arm Holdings.

Brand Watch: Malmaison “wows” with employee engagement programme

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I’ve long been a fan of the Malmaison brand having had the pleasure of spending considerable time at a number of their facilities during my travels.
I’ve always found the employees to be great brand ambassadors and that this positive and empowered behavioural culture worked well with the physical brand trappings. I featured Malmaison in my second book, Brand Champions (2011), a case-study-based guide to the role that everyday employees play in bringing brands to life from within.
It was pleasing therefore, to read  Michelle Stevens’ article in People Management on 22 May 2012 detailing how the staff recognition scheme had “paid off at Malmaison”.
The group received more than 8,000 customer ‘wows’ as part of an engagement plan, largely as a result of empowering and rewarding customer service initiatives. The programme has also reduced staff turnover significantly and increased consumer loyalty at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin. Kate Underwood, the company’s people development manager announced at a recent HR Forum that  the hotel chain had introduced a ‘Wow’ employee incentive scheme to drive customer service in response to the recession.“Our challenge in 2010 as a boutique brand was to reduce costs like everyone else, but ensure that our customer service did not struggle,” she explained to delegates on the Aurora cruise liner.As a result the Wow campaign was launched by the firm’s CEO in June 2010, which trained and encouraged staff to provide an extra level of customer service or give away complimentary items at their discretion.The need to “involve the trust and empowerment of staff” to go the extra mile for special occasions or rectify a complaint situation was key, Underwood added.Employees were then able to report when they had ‘wowed’ a guest, which was signed off and logged by their manager, the audience heard.Employees achieving 10 Wows were rewarded with a free meal in one of the hotel restaurants, while the ‘Wow of the month’ won £150 and personal congratulations from the CEO. Staff recognised as offering the two best customer service examples of the year won a trip abroad.

More than 8,000 Wows have been recorded to date, with 650 occurring in the first two months of the scheme as hotels competed in a weekly league table.

Underwood explained that since the introduction of the campaign, the proportion of customer service related complaints had dropped from 69 per cent to 17 per cent.

In 2011, staff turnover dropped 17 per cent and customer loyalty had increased, with repeat business up by 51 per cent.

Underwood said that against those improved figures, the total cost of complimentary items had only been £6,500.

She added that Wow training was now included in inductions and some of the special touches instigated by staff – such as those around birthdays and anniversaries – had become standard customer service elements.

Furthermore, recent employee surveys found that 96 per cent of staff now felt that they received excellent customer service training, and the proportion of staff proud to work for Malmaison & Hotel du Vin had increased from 87 per cent to 98 per cent.

“What made the programme innovative was the simplicity of the message,” said Underwood. “We highlighted that service was our top priority.”

More positive reinforcement for the fact that employee engagement initiatives are largely cost  negative at least, and at best can be a hugely powerful way of ensuring that employees feel involved and empowered to keep the promises made by the marketing department. What FD worth his salt wouldn’t endorse that business case, especially during these austere times?

It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it.

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There’s a catchy 80s tune  by Bananarama which includes the lines “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it. Ain’t what you say but the way that you say it”. Oddly I couldn’t get it out of my head this week.

As part of the research for an employer brand assignment, I had been watching a series of dvds of the leadership team of a well-known brand delivering an address to their employees…and I guess my mind wandered a little. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one.

During the talk, clad in suits and ties they took turns to stand behind a lectern with their backs to a Powerpoint deck and repeated a well-rehearsed series of phrases which included the terms wellbeing; diversity, engagement and employee satisfaction.

It reminded me how much these words have become a non-sensory, almost corporate version of Orwellian double-speak for emotive but oddly business-critical issues.

I’m sure that like me, most of the intended audience would have been lulled into tolerating this sort of 20-minute ritual by the status of the presenters, intonation and the gravity implied by the setting. Yet judging by the feedback, the intended audience clearly failed to understand most of what was being said.

I couldn’t help feeling that had at least some of the speakers, who I know to be passionate about their job and who had a difficult message to sell, injected at least a degree of realistic context, humanity and empathy into the piece both in words and delivery style, they would certainly have connected with the audience. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that they had been sitting at one of the tables facing the stage.

Perhaps if they had paid at least some attention to the economic backdrop against which the talk was taking place (severe financial challenges etc) and focused on the business case for both the business and the individuals, they would have come across as sympathetic yet capable of making informed decisions in the best interests of the business, a position which few would be able to disagree with.

Most of all, however, they needed to recognise, like most of us do from time to time, that the semantics matter. Despite the catchiness of the Bananarama tune, those 80s sirens were wrong. BOTH what you say AND the way you say it matters.

Firstly, it’s clear that the business, like many of their competitors, needs to find ways to turn speeches like this into  dialogue at a local level. The topics they were talking about have perception problems. They’re seen as luxuries for the good times. Employees under-fire are always looking for the devil in the detail. They don’t take apparent platitudes at face value. So it’s the role of the leadership team at all levels to point out that there’s the same expectation about ROI/return on investment for the inappropriately termed soft skills programmes as there is for any other initiative whether in terms of tapping into discretionary effort; innovation or just keeping the collective consciousness connected with the corporate strategy and motivated to keep going.

If the notion of wellbeing or diversity has truly been embraced by the board in spite of the economic climate and, heaven forfend, isn’t a ruse, then it’s something to shout about and the least they can do is make the effort to share what that means in language the audience can relate to and explain the business case as the executive team sees it. That’s what people expect from their leaders. They don’t appreciate compliance dressed up as favours. And they deplore corporate catharsis cloaked in the trappings of employee engagement and delivered by a speech accompanying a bi-annual survey that everyone suspects no-one really intends to action.