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?

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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.

I’d like to stress the importance of a communicator’s understanding and participation in what’s going on outside the corporate firewalls as a vital aspect to succeeding internally with Sharepoint’s panoply of social media tools. Beyond the configuration and intranet governance issues that must go in to a proper Sharepoint deployment, let’s not forget that something organic has grown up around us — something we can’t control anymore; namely, two- way conversations and dialoguing on the likes of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn at the kind of engagement levels that we as communicators would kill to have inside our organizations.

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I believe our required reading on this topic, if any, lay out there — in understanding the premises of social media I think we uncover why these social media channels are so popular. Not the “Sharepoint for Dummies” isn’t a stimulating read, but are you still a dummy after you’ve read it…always wondered about that 😉

Social media is useful to me because there’s a lot of smart people out there from whom I can learn; in fact, I’m sure I could learn something for every one of you. That’s one of the premises of social media.

Organizations that wrestle with the premises of social media may not fully buy-in to the value of consensus and inclusive (in our case, employee) feedback —  let’s face it, not all of us grew up trusting the wisdom of crowds and the value of consensus; certainly Boomers were taught to question this very thing. Yet I don’t think many of us would argue the value of employee feedback as the basis for informed senior leader decision-making, would we?

Social media is a golden opportunity for communicators to deliver a consensus-driven decision-making model: Sharepoint provides the tools
to help senior leaders lead with transparency in the style of Mr. Obama (his prescient use of social media in the last election), and I believe this is the real value to organizations. The ability to deliver data from internal social media that reflects a consensus among employees is something tangible communicators can bring to the table. Senior leaders need a pulse check from their front-line and they need it more frequently than an annual employee engagement survey. This presents an opportunity for communicators using Sharepoint with social media.

Our social media communication strategy must deliver leadership transparency. One can’t expect to change a corporate culture from risk-averse to transparent by setting up a few blogs for senior leaders or the CEO, or simply encouraging employees to populate their My Site employee profile with personal information in the hope that this will somehow mushroom into a Facebook-like usability craze among employees.

Communicators can deliver value to the enterprise with Sharepoint’s RSS feed capability, for example, which kicks out an e-mail to notify you of blog updates — a blog in which you specifically expressed interest and to which you willingly subscribed to receive updates. That’s a bit different than the top-down cascaded corporate messaging pattern of old — this is targeted messaging and a reduction in unwanted e-mail. Every blog also invites opportunities for two-way communication on posts, leading to a lively two-way or multi-layered conversation thread among many participants.

Social polling invites blog readers to comment on a post in a number of different ways, some of which are non-threatening, leading to greater collaboration. Workgroups can “follow” other team members to boost collaboration (with their permission, of course), receiving updates on team or individual progress on activities, work assignments or projects. Whole teams can easily create and edit a document — a 401(k) Summary Plan Description, for example, or a set of intranet governance rules — with version updates made clearly visible in a collaborative wiki workspace.

Micro-blogging applications like Twitter and Yammer (not one of Sharepoint’s out-of-the-box capabilities) have been used effectively by CEOs and corporate marketers as immediate sounding boards and feedback mechanisms for products and ideas, and have proven to be very useful platform for real-time updates (Tweets) during a crisis.

Sharepoint with social media offers previously unknown possibilities to gather unfiltered feedback and facilitate the right conversation and collaboration among employees.

Photo credit: psd’s photostream, licensed under 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.