The promise of the new Beatles-inspired video game, Rock Band, is that it will transform the way we listen to music through interactive listening and participation. Writing in the The NY Times Magazine last week, Daniel Radosh said that the promise of “interactive music” is that listeners (participants) will be able to add their own personalities to their favorite songs, adjusting and improvising on themes created by the musicians.

It got me thinking about the goals of corporate communication and how interactive listening should be at the top of our list. What communication goal are we aiming for if not active participation in the communication and decision-making process?


Inviting and capturing feedback helps employees own the outcomes of corporate decision-making. The goal of the Rock Band video game is to embrace the fantasy of being a rock star through simulation and participation with the music– rather than merely listening. But the point for us as communicators is to establish employee ownership of the message (like the song).

Do senior leaders really believe in the latent power of employees to tweak and vamp on an idea or decision in a way that leads to greater clarity or helps to establish or vet corporate strategy?

As a senior leader message is delivered through social media channels like videocasts and blogs and as the comment thread builds there is always the possibility for confusion, but there is a much greater opportunity for innovation and evolution.

A recent Forrester Research poll indicated that nearly a quarter of American adults who use the internet are “creators,” or what Forrester defines as those who write blogs, upload original audio or video, or post stories online.

We hear the rallying cry for innovation again and again, yet at most companies senior leaders are not even listening to employees (surprise!). But how can we expect innovation when we have not even set up a messaging process to engage employees through active, participatory listening? How can we have innovation when our communication plan does not include channels that solicit feedback from the “creators?”

Because the right communication plan and process was not set up senior leaders do not have a direct connect with employees– all the news and feedback they receive is either managed by individuals with a vested interest in doing so or processed through organizational surveys. This leads to divergence between what they think and what’s really going on.

Because employees don’t know what’s on the mind of senior leaders they naturally assume the worst; namely, that talent at the organization is undervalued and that business is going bad. The wrong inferences are drawn simply because senior leaders did not establish a direct connect with employees.

A strategic communication plan must include social media channels for two-way interactive participation as well as traditional channels like town halls and employee engagement surveys. “Management by walking around” is another great way for senior leaders to establish a direct connect. Long championed by change management consultant Linda Dulye, a simple unfiltered encounter with employees is great way to gather feedback. Deborah Dunshire, who leads a biopharmaceutical concern in Cambridge, Mass., was quoted in The New York Times this week as using this method:

“They’d be working and I’d knock on the door and somebody would put up their head and sort of startle when they would see me. Now they don’t do that anymore. I would just say: “Hey, what’s keeping you up nights? What are you working on? What’s most exciting for you right now? Where do you see we could improve?” That’s really rewarding. To have the full engagement of your employee population is so important.”

Ms. Dunshire also has an excellent approach to “getting the right people on the bus” at the organization — hiring the right talent. This has direct result on innovation and company culture, and certainly has an impact on whether our communication plans will resonate with our audience.

“Has this person demonstrated an ability to step out of their initial area of mastery and added other skills? Have they done things a little bit out of the norm? I like evidence of people who are broad, and not just deep.”

Thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: niclindh’s photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.

The “gift” of feedback is not only something discussed by a manager and his or her direct report during the performance management process, as important as that is. But I also believe it’s also the foundation for two-way communication at that can lead to real consensual decision-making at an organization.

Understanding the value of feedback has become even more important now, when pulling back the curtain on employee engagement has become an increasingly complex affair, and the changes and challenges facing the communication industry may be unprecedented in their scope and magnitude.

The traditional top-down cascaded messaging pattern of old has lost traction with employees, and thorny new issues have emerged, such as how to cut through the clutter of too much information, and how to make sure messages connect with an employee audience that has vastly differing preferences when it comes to how they want to receive communication –- differences based on age and demographics, remote or central office workplace locations, or the preponderance of offerings available through next-generation communication platforms like social networking and Web 2.0.

How should corporate communicators respond? Most Baby Boomer employees are comfortable with e-mail, yet many Millennials and Gen-Xers want to communicate exclusively through collaborative social networking channels (as they do outside of work) or through instant messaging or texting, while some older Traditional employees may not be connected electronically at all –- voicemail be the only viable option.

The challenges and choices facing communicators are legion, yet the priority to engage employees has never been higher; namely, the priority to acquire and retain key talent and avoid the steep cost of rehiring and retraining, the priority to inspire and motivate employees to achieve new levels of productivity, and the vital role of communication in helping employees to make an emotional connection with what they do at work and their value to the organization.

Incorporating feedback into the decision-making process is perhaps the most essential thing organizations can do to build engagement. This is simply a good management practice. John Donahoe, chief executive of eBay since March 2008, understands the value of feedback to gauge his own performance, and he understands the value of feedback to lead others toward better performance. In The New York Times Corner Office column last Sunday he said he relished the time spent at a talent firm (Bain & Company) because he received rigorous performance reviews every six months or so.

Sounds counter-intuitive, eh? He must have loved long division and studying for exams back in school too, right? No, he’s not insane– Mr. Donahoe is on to something: he understands the vital importance of feedback.

“In many ways it was liberating, because I realized feedback is a gift. I try to do the same for the people around me, and give them open, objective feedback offered in a constructive way,” he said.

“Then each person says, Here’s what I’m good at, here’s where my development priorities are and where I want to get better.”

The rules of engagement have changed, and continue to move swiftly in the direction of a two-way communication model that values employee feedback, consensual decision-making and transparency at senior levels of the organization. Companies need a plan to restore trust throughout the organization and they need to have an effective two-way communication model in place. Do senior leaders at your organization understand the vital connection between employee communication and a company’s financial performance?  Start with a methodical and ongoing evaluation of your communication practices. Are senior leaders listening? Does the harvesting of employee feedback result in real consensual decision-making? Are front-line employees being managed in a way that inspires engagement and drives them in the direction of work they are good at — work which uses their natural talents?

Where and when does change begin? Embracing the gift of employee feedback is a fine place to start — it leads to the kind of change in management style espoused by business leaders like John Donahoe at eBay. Only when organizations embrace the gift of employee feedback can they experience the kind of incremental and ongoing change that leads to increased employee engagement, retention and productivity, while making the best use of limited financial resources in a challenging economic environment.

I’ve been thinking about the value of micro-blogging applications for CEOs, and it seemstwitterto me that the use of Twitter (or Yammer, the micro-blogging service for internal corporate applications) for a CEO or anyone else in the corporate space becomes an issue of engagement, culture and two-way communication. I believe two-way communication, by definition, is an intelligent effort to incorporate employee feedback into corporate decision-making. So the use of Twitter becomes an issue of a CEO’s comfort level with consensual decision-making (wisdom of the masses) as opposed to the top-down, cascaded messaging prevalent at most companies whose businesses were built by traditional means.

But there’s an important distinction to be made; namely, that the use of Twitter at companies like Zappos is a reflection of their business model and culture. Zappos use of a next-generation communication platform like Twitter makes perfect sense because their business model was built online — they sell shoes over the Internet. What legacy-based organizations have to overcome is the cultural perception that their business model was built without reference to these new communication tools and platforms.

You get my point: It makes sense for the CEO of a new media firm to send out tweets during the day about how she’s meeting with venture capitalists, or how he’s working on a hot new product that will jump start sales in this sluggish economy. His communication with employees is direct, unfiltered and and in real time. This holds great promise and possibility for employee engagement. And President Obama obviously understood the value of this platform in directly connecting with Millennials during the last election — many felt connected to the Obama cause, even if, in some cases, it was only a staffer who sent the Tweet, and not Mr. Obama himself.

But for Twitter or any Web 2.0 next-gen medium to work the organization must be committed to open dialoguing, direct connection and two-way communication that leads to consensual decision-making. To me that’s the real issue: how transparent does the CEO or organization want to be? I think generally, owing mostly to generational preferences/differences, there is a definite line drawn in the sand when it comes to transparency at most legacy-based organizations. The openness has its limits — whereas outside the firewall, no such limits exist. Legacy-based organizations may not be as comfortable making decisions based exclusively on the wisdom of the group, or waiting for complete consensus.

I’ve heard consensus-driven decision-making explained this way: Google works by arranging the organic searches that receive the most hits in their order of precedence. So… if there is a consensus that Twitter is the top organic search result returned for those who Google the search term “micro-blogging,” well then, Twitter, by consensus, must be the leader and best choice in micro-blogging. It seems to extend to other areas of life as well, at least for Millennials. Rather than “deferring to the expert,” as Baby Boomers (and Gen-x cuspers like me) were trained to do, Millennials bow to the consensus of the masses. They won’t move forward until there is a consensus.

I would say that trying to deploy a Twitter-like application (or any social networking strategy) at a company that does not have buy-in at the top for consensual decision-making and transparency is like, in the immortal words of Seth Godin, trying to put a meatball on an ice cream sundae. My feeling is that increasing and encouraging two-way communication through vehicles like Twitter will only be successful if senior leadership is committed to acting on the wisdom of the preponderance of employee feedback.

Photo credit: xotoko’s photostream licensed by Creative Commons.

Looks like someone in the corporate space truly understands the value of two-way communication and direct, uncluttered and unfiltered messaging. Great post from the Zappos CEO about how he uses Twitter to get traction with the values embodied by his company. You can read the full post here:

Here’s a snippet:

“I’ve talked a lot in the past about how we’ve used Twitter at Zappos for building more personal connections with both our employees and our customers. In fact, we recently debuted on FORTUNE MAGAZINE’s annual “100 BEST COMPANIES TO WORK FOR” list, and they began and ended the article talking about our use of Twitter to build more personal connections with people. That in itself is its own reward that has both personal and business benefits, but for this blog post, I wanted to share my stories and thoughts on how Twitter has helped me grow personally.

For me, it comes down to these 4 things:

Transparency & Values: Twitter constantly reminds me of who I want to be, and what I want Zappos to stand for
Reframing Reality: Twitter encourages me to search for ways to view reality in a funnier and/or more positive way
Helping Others: Twitter makes me think about how to make a positive impact on other people’s lives
Gratitude: Twitter helps me notice and appreciate the little things in life”

Thoughts? Agree, disagree?

Have you seen this? Joe McKinnon of DailyBeast weighs in on Twitter. Well actually he trashes it — one of many victims of the over-information highway and, I admit, the panoply of options from MySpace to LinkedIn to Twitter can be confusing and overwhelming.

While boomers settled into and embraced e-mail, millennials and Gen Xers embraced social networking. In some ways never the twain shall meet. While I respect Joe’s communication expertise, he shouldn’t make the mistake of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Read the full story here: Journalist who does not understand the value of 2-way communication, collaboration, trashes Twitter
Joe does have a point and an interesting point of view, and we do need to sit back and judge the strategic value of new communication platforms. But I disagree with his assessment. He doesn’t understand the value of two-way communication and directly connecting with people. It all depends on how you use Twitter and what your goals are. It’s also a generational thing, I believe — no one can stop Milennials from communicating through texting or micro-blogging, their preferred medium. I agree that the proliferation of other communication options can get mind boggling. But some may find them useful. It’s always a challenge to find the right balance, but this author is wrong in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Weigh in, what do you think?

Jim Ylisela of Ragan Communication points to the following secrets of global communication — the challenges that nearly all organizations share when it comes to the corporate communication function:

1. All organizations have initiatives that no one can comprehend. They have strategic pillars, three-legged stools, key drivers and abstract concepts that never quite sink in with employee audiences.

In the western world, these initiatives come about when executives hold an “off-site meeting,” which most employees associate with golf, lots of booze and expensive dinners at exotic resorts.

In South Africa, they do the same thing, but they call it a bosberaad, an Afrikaans term that describes bearded men going off to a wine farm, drinking themselves silly and deciding how to continue oppressing the masses “for their own good.” Sounds very familiar.

2. Their intranets blow. Nearly every organization has an intranet these days, and with a few noteworthy exceptions, they are poorly organized, difficult to navigate and stunningly boring.

“We can’t get anyone to go there, and no one can find anything when they do,” was the lament I heard from more than one conference-goer in London. Boy, if I had nickel for every time I’ve heard that one.

3. Their organizations are, dare I say it, “silo-ed.” Everyone gets caught up in their own work and their own departments, and nobody, but nobody, understands the big picture. This leads to confusion, wasted resources and, at times, people working at cross-purposes.

This is as true about communications as any other department. Despite all the good reasons to do so, internal and external communicators often never share information or tactics.

During a recent focus group with one of our clients, an engineer told me she didn’t realize she was working on the same project as a fellow employee until she talked to him—at home! They happen to be husband and wife.

That is some sexy pillow talk!

4. Executives are cut off. Employees want to hear from their leaders. They want to know the strategic direction of the company, but they also want to know that their ideas and suggestions are getting heard.

But the executives can’t seem to get out of their offices and just walk around. They never ask for ideas, only impose decisions. And then they wonder why people aren’t fired up about that goofy initiative.

5. Managers are even worse. They do talk with the employees who report to them, but not very well. They do a lousy job of communicating the big picture from the chiefs (if they even understand it themselves), and they do an even worse job of letting executives know how the rank-and-file thinks.

Most managers say they don’t have the time to communicate. What they really mean is that they don’t have time to sift through all the crap to find something meaningful (and believable) to share with their folks.

6. Organizations have way too much communication, poorly applied. Once upon a time, employees complained they didn’t get enough information and didn’t know what was going on. No longer. Now people scream about getting buried in information, most of it irrelevant.

They’re incensed by e-mail, have given up on the intranet and find nothing relevant in print.

So where do we go from here?

What’s the future role of 2-way communication — user-generated content instead of top-down corporate speak — in overcoming these common obstacles?

We want to hear from you.