Caught in the Middle – The Dilemma Facing Today’s Communication Professional
Jim Cockin, the Head of Group & Employee Communications at Sky, recently described how we’re living in “a golden age of storytelling.” Never before have we had so many tools or channels on which to share our stories. With a smartphone in every pocket, the way we distribute and receive information in our everyday lives has rapidly evolved.
But that also has presented companies with a challenge, he cautioned. When it comes to leveraging technology to communicate with their employees, organizations haven’t advanced as quickly as their employees have.
“The pace of change is so great that we have better stuff at home than we do at the office,” Cockin said. “It’s a race for businesses to keep up.”
He neatly captured two sentiments that were expressed again and again during Dynamic Signal’s ThinkTank Roadshow, a series of events we hosted around the U.S. and in London. It brought together communication leaders for thoughtful conversations with peers about problems they all face.
What we heard is that communication professionals are energized by a growing recognition that their roles are mission-critical to business success. But there also is a palatable sense of frustration. While more is expected of them, companies aren’t keeping pace with the cutting-edge technology needed to help deliver results. They describe an environment where:
- Executives want to communicate more often and more directly with the workforce to ensure alignment around revenue goals
- Employees want more relevant, real-time and “snackable” content, but often say they feel less connected
- Communication teams are squeezed in the middle, dealing with flat resources and disjointed, outdated systems
Oh, and not only do those teams need to better connect executives and employees with authentic information, it has to be done in a way that can be controlled and measured.
“Companies just aren’t communicating with their employees the same way people now are communicating in their everyday lives,” said Joni Renick, a Senior Executive Advisor at CEB, which is now part of Gartner. “That’s the root issue, and comms knows it.”
Renick has her finger on the pulse of what’s happening throughout the industry. She specializes in helping communication leaders solve their biggest challenges. What CEB analysts like Renick do so well is talk with practitioners on a regular basis so they can craft strategies to help all of us do our jobs better. She said CEB research has found that communication professionals are struggling to navigate a rapidly changing landscape.
They understand that to be successful, communication delivery must be employee-centric, not company-centric. Great content shouldn’t disappear into the black hole of a company intranet, languishing unopened on the company email system, or lost in the flurry of messages that flow through collaboration tool feeds.
Renick said that’s why over the last two years she has seen more interest in connecting with employees where they spend their time – on mobile devices. According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than 77 percent of all Americans own a smartphone. But companies have been slower to embrace mobile apps – which can have a profound impact when workers don’t sit at a desk or might not even have access to corporate email.
In other words, companies are lagging behind.
“There has been some resistance because smartphone use constitutes personal time,” Renick explained. “But more and more I’m hearing about this being used as a work channel, which I think is great. It’s important to reach people where they are, and communicate the way they want. So, I’m hearing more of a groundswell on this.”
She added: “If people aren’t going in this direction already, they absolutely should be heading there.”
A just-released research report by CEB drives home that point. It found that the top communications challenges for meeting 2018 organizational goals are “navigating digital transformation” and an “inability to measure and monitor communications activity.”
Also, CEB discovered that communication professionals are so focused on tracking the effectiveness of their efforts that nearly 44 percent of staff budget in 2017 has been devoted to building measurement capability – a steep increase from 30 percent in 2012.
“The measurement component is just a huge part of communication success today,” Renick said. “It just makes a lot of sense to know how you’re doing.”
That also helps explain the buzz around mobile as a channel of the future. A digital platform provides the hard data to finally show communication teams which messages are resonating with employees and which ones are falling flat. Renick said practitioners can see that potential, and it’s why they quickly get excited about the possibility of implementing a mobile app.
“Then they say: ‘But I can’t even get the company to invest in basic email software,’” she added.
So, Renick spends a lot of her time coaching communicators to be better salespeople.
They are often not accustomed to building a business case for cutting-edge technology with their executive team. Telling a CFO that stronger company culture through better communication clearly is accurate. But the argument that carries weight is how a new system will make employees more productive, create better alignment around strategic goals, and provide metrics to prove the workforce is engaged. That’s the ROI component an executive team understands.
“I talk with people all the time about speaking the language of executives and elevating the message,” Renick explained. “Communicators will speak the language of their audience externally. But so often they forget to speak the language of their internal audience.”
As Cockin said, this is a fantastic time to be telling stories. But the trick is making sure that they’re not ignored in the deluge of information directed at all of us each day.
“It’s a race to find the tools and budget,” he added. “You have to keep up with the constant innovation that people are exposed to in their lives every day.”
That’s the dilemma facing communication professionals. But the good news is these tools exist, and companies can catch up.