“The premise of From Cascade to Conversation is that broadcasting to employees is now dangerously archaic. People everywhere have found their voice. They have both the desire and ability to converse across time and space. Employees no longer passively receive the message, but look to share and shape it” – Katie Macaulay
In her new book, Katie Macaulay captures the reason why having conversations with employees – rather than pushing messages to them – plays dividends to engagement, corporate reputation and sustainable business performance.
What I really liked about this manual is its ability to condense research and provide plenty of concrete examples drawn from corporate life. I also enjoyed the interviews in the form of conversation with professionals in the field. The result is a captivating reading on how to “unlock the collective wisdom of our workforce”.
“Organisations need to be constantly innovating. If we look solely to our strategists or management consultants for this thinking, we ignore the hundreds or thousands of people who know our organisation best; who create our products and deliver our services every day.”
Outlook and outlooks – conversing over screens
Thanks to technology and remote communications, workers now can have multiple conversations with colleagues across time and space. Yet, the large volume of messages they receive daily on their devices can inhibit effective communication. It is so easy and quick to send communications using the latest technology. The temptation to bombard employees with messages around the clock is huge.
“As a result,” writes Macaulay “employees tell us that they are missing important information because it is impossible to filter everything they receive. Many hit the delete button in defeat.”
The author likes to remind us that while emails, intranets and enterprise social networks can be a great source of productivity, at the same time they must be managed appropriately. “Without planned, considered implementation and support, they can cause frustration, confusion and stress.” These tools do not manage themselves, and the way an organisation adopt them is reflective of the culture.
Investing in social technology is not enough. In order to have open and authentic conversations on internal social networks, we need “ behavioural change: meaningful social exchanges that add value to the company will not spontaneously erupt across a workforce unless the conditions are right. An absence of trust, from either side, can make a workforce wary of speaking up and leadership appear wilfully incapable of hearing even if they do.”
I found the interview with Richard Dennison, intranet and channel strategy manager for BT, particularly insightful. He talks to Macaulay about the experience of having their global workforce connected via their corporate intranet. Their blogging platform and forums are encouraging personal and professional discussions armong staff. That also applies to their leaders.
Prior to Ben Verwaayen joining the company as chief executive in 2007, the company’s approach to management was rather hierarchical and traditional. The new CEO on the contrary proved to be down to earth and encouraged a more open and flat culture. He discussed with Dennison’s team how he wanted to communicate internally: “blogs were all the rage at that time, so there was some pressure for him to blog, but we quickly realised he didn’t have the time to do it properly.” Instead, he decided to host a 90-minute web chat with employees every six weeks. He would sit in front of his computer and answer questions. “If he couldn’t answer it directly, he’d point the person with the question in the direction of whoever could. Very occasionally he would check for feedback on a dubious answer with the internal communication manager, but more often than not go on and publish it anyway.”
Verwaayen was Dutch tended not to use punctuation or grammar. “This meant nothing was polished or practised, but it also made everyone instantly aware that the chief executive of the company was set there, replying to them directly. This approach made a huge difference to the culture of the organisation.”
Together people are more productive and intelligent
“Why would you bother to gather hundreds of intelligent, diverse employees into an organisation, only to keep them segregated?”
Throughout the book, Macaulay makes the case for collaboration as a key driver of value creation. Yet, she points out that not all collaboration is the same. She explores three distinct but related forms:
- “Aggregated knowledge”: useful for gathering opinions and predictions on clear and unambiguous questions (for example, which product is likely to sell best). “Here averaging out the opinions of large groups is likely to provide better intelligence than relying on the preferences of a few.”
- “Crowdsourcing”: searching for insight from a broader group of employees than is usually consulted, increasing the chance of uncovering a creative solution. “This can be especially powerful when individual on the frontline are asked to solve problems as they are often closer to the issue and have the most relevant knowledge, but are too frequently excluded from the conversation.”
- “Group genius” refers to social collaboration, with employees joining forces in real or virtual groups to innovate. The term was coined by author Keith Sawyer in 2007: “when we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
An example of global collaboration comes from Oxfam GB. Saskia Jones, Head of internal Communications, shares the story of ‘Oxfam Future Shapers,’ a crowdsourcing exercise that enabled the organisation to collect ideas for cutting costs during the recession. Rather than using their existing intranet, which had limited functionality, Oxfam created a bespoke tool for staff to submit their ideas, vote, discuss and comment on them.
According to Saskia, “the site generated a wide range of ideas” from major restructuring to recommendations by people all over the world. “An idea would originate in the Philippines, be built on by a team in Uganda, and then reinforced or voted on by people in the UK.”
Since the days of Oxfam Future Shapers, the organisation has run larger collaboration initiatives: “before we knew it, these global conversations were building brand new networks across the organisation. It’s an incredible useful way of identifying and unearthing people whose valuable ideas might otherwise get lost in the system.”
In today’s global economy it is more important than ever that organisations give their employees a voice and the opportunity to showcase their talent.
It is refreshing to read a book whose author believes that the best way to run an innovative business is to empower conversations and build on employees’ ideas. Macaulay does this in a simple and captivating way without sounding preachey.
From Cascade to Conversation is a rich collection of studies, references to research, examples and use cases.
Internal communicators as well as professionals managing collaboration processes will find the ideas mentioned in the book particularly useful. They can help them build a more engaging, interactive and creative workplace.