Thursday, May 6, 2010

The new role of the Communications department



Recently, I developed a concept for “socializing” the online work environment at a large company. They came to us because they had invested a lot in a very capable platform and needed to get more value of their platform investment by increasing the usage rate. Their goals were to build employee engagement by increasing online participation, enable easy and freeform knowledge exchange between their employees, leverage the use and value of the corporate content on their intranet, and create an online environment that will help them attract talent. Our assignment was to show them how existing components could be extended and redesigned with the use of 2.0 design principles to better support these goals, and provide them with a roadmap for a step-by-step transformation ("socialization") of their online work environment.

One of the new features that we presented to them as part of the new concept was a blog portal that would allow employees to explore and discover what was happening within the internal “blogosphere”. They already had quite a lot of active blogs and bloggers, but it wasn’t really possible for users to discover new blogs (and thus for bloggers to find new readers and audiences), to know what was currently being discussed, or explore blog posts by popularity, subject, and so on. Hence, this feature was given top priority in the implementation roadmap. It was seen as a “quick win”, building on existing technical capabilities and leveraging existing content.

It is hard to imagine that less than a year earlier, this feature would have been impossible to suggest. Why? Well, because employees were simply not allowed to blog. The Communications department had decided not to allow blogs, claiming that blogs are productivity killers.

So what changed during that year? Well, management became more knowledgeable about what blogs can be used for, and even started blogging themselves. Instead of seeing blogs as just something employees would use to broadcast personal non-workrelated stuff, they accepted that blogs really are communication tools (just as email, phone, IM, and so on) that can be for work-related communication. They also accepted that their role is not to control the messages communicated via employee blogs as these are used for “employee to employee” (E2E) communication and that open E2E communication can be really valuable.

A Communications department is, as Bertrand Duperrin writes in an excellent post, a “business to employee” (B2E) department that usually communicates with employees in "a vertical and one way fashion". The main concern for them is to ensure that any corporate message they are to create and communicate is understood by the employees. In a way, their ambition is to create the perfect message, one that is understood by all and impossible to be misunderstood.

Social media is not really their media as social media allows anyone to create and communicate a message to anyone, in a two-way, freeform and equal manner. It is perfectly understandable if some folks at the  Communications department feels uneasy and skeptic towards social media such as blogs; they have all been educated and hired to create - or at least control - the messages, and with social media their role is simply to provide a media for "employee to employee" (E2E) communication. Their role is no longer to ensure that the messages communicated via blogs, wikis and so on are understood by all. Rather, it is to ensure that anyone can create and communicate any message, given that the message and how it is being communicated does not violate any policy. This means, as Bertrand writes, that “it should be an employee-driven process, for their own problems and, necessarily, practical-things-oriented on subjects on which, logically, and HR or Com dept does not have neither any hold nor any expertise or competence since that’s local management’s call."

With this in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand why blogs can be such a hot potato for at some people at Communications departments. Their profession is to create and communicate important messages in a precise and timely manner, not just providing employees with a media that they can use (more or less) as they want for virtually any purpose.