It’s 2015 and as the saying goes we are one year older and of course, one year wiser.

For those of us who strive to ensure organizations work in the most optimal way through greater trust, engagement and performance, 2015 may well turn out to be the watershed year in terms of maturation and achievement.

Being involved in organizational excellence for well over 25 years—counseling, teaching, leading, learning—my journey continues to be one of fascination and enlightenment. The following commentary is meant for everyone in this professional space to assess, align, argue, challenge, and assimilate. The objective is to truly see things clearly, comprehend what’s really taking place and acting accordingly to achieve results.

What’s Working

Organizational communications being recognized as a strategic management priority – There is growing and expanding evidence that leaders – particularly newly minted ones – are applying internal communications as philosophy, strategy, and process into business planning and management protocol.

Organizational communications as a research subject for critical scrutiny -- Groundbreaking research work from both professional and academic origins continue adding to the body of knowledge in this space. Prime example: the Institute for PR Research (IPR) is involved in a three-year research effort focused on internal communications exploring major elements – Best-in- Class Practices: Organizational Clarity; and Generational Gaps in Organizational Engagement. All of which reflects a growing and necessary appetite for smarter and more effective data and insight in this space.

Experimentation with social and digital methods, approaches –Technology is altering the very way people communicate and interact. As such, adopting and adapting new methods and approaches internally with regard to social and digital media is essential. Professionals are working feverishly to understand the value and efficacy of such tools in building engagement and achieving clarity.

Focus on content and platform (storytelling) – The real game being played both internally and externally by communications executives centers around Content. The challenge though is that there more content than attention so the need to break through and have people hear you is more important than ever. Smart money and resources is being invested in content development and curation.

Growing use of visual techniques – In most studies on the subject, over 65% of people consider themselves visual learners. As such, internal communications approaches are including more visual content – videos, broadcasts, graphics, photos. This trend is resulting in better comprehension, higher retention of information, and stronger interest among employees.

Data/Insight to uncover Perspective, Worldview – The Age of Big Data has spawned the gift of Small Data meaning communicators have the means to dig deeper into behavior patterns, information usage, and employee archetypes. All of which can result in more precise messaging, cadence, tonality, frequency.

What’s Not

Common views on the workforce and communications model – A major impediment to effective engagement lies in varying definitions and perspectives about the workforce and communications in general as a means to improve performance among the leadership and management team. This misalignment often results in mixed signals, competing priorities, contradictory policies or worse, paralysis.

Communications is the most important component in the management model – This fundamental truth is often overlooked within corporate structures. Optimizing real value within organizations rests with an open and collaborative environment where leaders, managers and employees work in concert to attain goals and serve customers. Until and unless communications is comprehended and applied consistently throughout the management system, issues of trust, clarity, and performance will be adversely impacted.

Still chasing symptoms – One of the more troubling habits still plaguing the profession is the race to focus on symptoms vs. causes when dealing with a situation. All too often the default position seems to be generating a series of tactics (to prove action) rather than a concerted effort to probe deeper into the cause. Such efforts minimize the strategic import of effective communications, diminish our role as partners, and expend wasted energy circling problems or opportunities.

“Marketing” to employees -- Similar to above, there is still a fair amount of organizational communications designed to “sell” concepts, ideas, programs to employees. First and foremost, employees are not customers. It’s not about messaging but meaning. Themes, branded programs, coffee mugs and mouse pads do little to inform, engage and challenge people’s thinking. In fact, studies show employees actually turn off to such efforts making trust more difficult to attain.

Lack of Analytics to guide decisions – Even though data is becoming central to a communicator’s value proposition, it still is the exception with regard to being integrated into an organizational communications model. The ability to gauge employee interest in topics, propensity for greater involvement in the business, usage of specific channels and platforms, and linkage to performance can all be accomplished today using the right analytics models.

Artificial metrics – One more time, if your organizational communications strategy and plan is not tied to the overall business strategy and plan it is worth little. Metrics in this regard should be designed to show a correlation and causality between communications and the stated business goals.

Infatuation with technology vs relationships – It continues to astonish me that our interest in technology far outweighs our focus on achieving outcomes such as stronger relationships internally. I often see technology being used without regard for how it will lead to a better situation. Incorporating new ways of reaching and engaging people is critical to success but overcompensating on the tactical side only leads to complexity and obfuscation…leading to the next point:

Social/Digital complements F2F should not supplant it – The most effective communications method ever devised is Face-to-Face. Knowing that, every other method or approach should be designed to reflect or reinforce that truth

Starting a CEO blog, first have the CEO meet with various groups of employees at all levels to share priorities, engage in discussion over concerns and ideas, and build rapport with a network of advocates. Incorporate the learnings into blog posts and activate the network to support the effort.

What’s Next

Centering “Advocacy” as the means to instill confidence, camaraderie – My strong belief is that 2015 is going to be a year in which Employee Advocacy as a meaningful customer attraction and retention lever will gain traction. The benefits are numerous: authentic voice for the company and its products/services with customers and consumers; catalyst for networking and relationship-building among employees throughout the enterprise; credible voice to balance arguments.

True consultative approach to engagement – Addressing causes and becoming a true partner will continue to become prerequisites for professionals. To that end, a more disciplined and consultative approach will continue to be employed and more importantly expected by leaders.

Such an effort begins with set of probing questions such as (example only):

  • Where are we as a business?
  • Key priorities? Challenges? Vulnerabilities?
  • What is our competitive set? Is it changing?
  • Where are our customers migrating?
  • What is the current management model?
  • What is the worldview of the workforce?
  • How “social” is your management model?
  • How smart do you want people to be (about the business, etc.)?
  • What is the formula to strengthen knowledge and engagement?
  • What is the conversation internally?
  • Is there clarity or ambiguity around the business strategy, priorities?

 Multiple platforms for different story lines – The era of story line development internally is upon us. Instead of one message fits all – both content and channel – breaking down stories into pieces and placing them on different platforms allows employees to find the most meaningful subject line to relate to. Doing so adds to the dimensionalization of content furthering enhancing people’s knowledge of the business.

Getting the Ds right -- It's about dialogue, discussion, debate vs dissemination. In 2015, all internal communications must ladder up to accomplishing the Ds.

Print ain't dead -- Contrary to popular belief, print remains an important medium in reaching certain segments of employees – specifically manufacturing, sales, retirees, and employee families. In 2015, print will increase as part of an internal communications ecosystem in organizations looking to gain an edge with specific audiences.

Video needs to enhance story development – As mentioned above, the use of video and visual elements are being inculcated into how communicators are telling stories for employees.

Employee engagement starts at the point of hire – An emerging trend to watch involves organizations establishing expectations for employees in terms of engagement, involvement, information exchange, and communications right at the beginning of employment.

Social Collaboration is a two-way street – In 2014, the biggest knock on social collaboration platforms was that employees stayed away in droves. Those that did participate spent more time buying and selling home items than learning about the business or building new relationships with colleagues. For social collaboration to bring about the necessary benefits to organizational success such as knowledge sharing, constructive disagreement, relationship-building, discovering new ideas, and challenging entrenched beliefs, both leadership/management and the workforce at large must participate together and consistently. Doing so breaks down barriers and encourages interaction.

So, as we embark on a new year, there is much to consider as we look to complete the intricate communications and engagement puzzle that unveils the picture of organizational excellence. 
While people can debate the nuances and intricacies, one thing we can all agree on – it should be an interesting ride!

Gary F. Grates is Principal at W20 Group. He is a noted authority globally on organizational communications and change management.