In the Loop

Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 08:59

For success, companies must communicate within their organisation as well as they do with customers and external stakeholders. Darren Baguley looks at three models.

Constant, fast and efficient top-down, side-to-side and bottom-up communications have become a vital part of the corporate landscape. Companies that struggle to communicate that fail to have everyone working from the same play book - are at a disadvantage compared to organisations that keep everyone in the loop.

There are several factors that all companies that communicate well share. These include:

  • high-level commitment to a culture of communication
  • policies and procedures that foster that culture
  • the encouragement of a management style that engenders good communication
  • acknowledgement that communication is an essential part of change management
  • technology that enables all the pieces to fall into place.

Management Today spoke to three well-known organisations to find out the reasons for their internal communication models' success.

According to Marcus Blackmore, the Chairman of iconic natural health company, Blackmores, the company's communication culture has been driven from the top down ever since it was founded in the 1930s by his father, Maurice Blackmore. "It's a terribly important issue. [When a company has a culture of good communication] people are happy, and happy people are productive people."

Not that it's all plain sailing, says Blackmore. "Historically, we hadn't been particularly good at communication with our Asian businesses so we now have a monthly B News meeting that we telecast to our Asian office, we tell people what's going on, recognise good performers with awards, and so on."

At a more formal level Blackmores has a staff liaison committee, elected by the staff, which is responsible for managing the level of communication with the staff.

There's also an employee communications manager and a leadership forum which comprises about 30 people in the second tier of management. Top management communicate the goals and ideals of the organisation with the forum members and they then communicate with their people. The Blackmores intranet shares company information on a daily basis and is widely used by the organisation.

Nevertheless, says Blackmore, "It's all about creating an environment where people can be open and honest with one another and communicate readily. You can put everything down on paper, use all the technology, but if you don't have the right culture and environment, none of that works; you have to walk the talk. You can set standards of integrity and honesty but the moment someone at a senior level doesn't share those values the whole culture is destroyed."

BT Australasia
Technology company BT Australasia's General Manager of Business Development, Graham Smith, believes technology is an important enabler of better communication, but that organisations need to be careful to avoid the silver-bullet mentality.

"We use a range of different technologies; email, audio and video conferencing and MyBT, a Facebook-like portal, all integrated in various ways. As a general theme, while the technology is important, the service management and ease of use is critical. The easier a technology is to use, the better the take-up rate and the more impact it can have for an organisation."

Video conferencing and its more sophisticated incarnation, telepresence, have been touted for the past 10 years as the technologies that should be used, but they have really only come into their own in the last 12 months through companies like BT making it easy for employees to use.

At BT, Smith says, this is because it's now set up so that anyone in the organisation can provision a meeting and it's all set up automatically. "There's no need to be a technical expert to set it up. Having [the technology set up] so that any staff member can use those platforms has made a huge difference to us."

While some companies may take a more freewheeling approach, BT Australasia is focused on policies that encourage a communication culture. "We've generated clear policies we can quantify and qualify, including: What practices are in our processes?; How do our teams work together?; What data is needed to get things done?; and Have people got access to that data?," Smith says.

Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA)
CCA's Internal Communications Manager, Angela Maher, says that communication across the organisation is facilitated through cross-divisional attendance, at regional and local levels at monthly team meetings.

"In addition, there is a monthly update from the Australian managing director via email, and quarterly newsletters in each state that provide regional and local information from across the business," she says.

"There's also a regular video piece delivered via the web that provides an overview or insight into various divisions, teams, projects and products from across the business. Group voice messaging via the phone system is used by many team managers, and a recently relaunched intranet provides daily news articles from across the business as well as business-critical information."

As it dates quickly, information in a fast-moving consumer goods organisation like CCA needs to be shared quickly, and with an organisation as large as CCA, there is a lot of information, says Maher.

"Rather than using mechanisms designed to enforce fixed communication processes and information sharing, we find a flexible approach results in the organisation willingly engaging and sharing," she explains.

"The key has been to provide flexible communication templates and tools via the intranet and allow the business to make use of them without the need for central management. Instead, a strong culture of sharing information results in less need for processes around communication at CCA."

CCA is currently rolling out SAP across the organisation and Maher ascribes its success thus far "to regular communication at various levels with each of the stakeholder groups involved in each 'go-live'. Email updates (called 'postcards'), posters, video, the intranet (specific project pages deliver key information), meetings and presentations have all contributed heavily to this large change-management project," she says.

Hot tips for better comms

  1. Good business communication has to be a top-down, executive-driven type of philosophy but it needs to go to every level of the organisation.
  2. Processes are important and useful, but no substitute for a communications culture that has been established, nurtured and maintained over a period of many years.
  3. Building a communications culture requires trust and that trust can be easily broken if senior executives aren't walking the talk.
  4. Technology can enable greater communication today than at any time in human history but it's still only an enabler and if the above factors aren't in place it's just more pieces of kit.