Friday, June 21, 2013

Don't chase the folly of the Emperor's New Clothes: make great content your communication King

Every day as I work, Twitter provides a back-beat to my activity. I’ll delve into YouTube for information I can use, and probably will check out Facebook and LinkedIn at least a couple of times a day. I’m a regular on the BBC News site, and a number of other sports, business and news sites that augment the daily paper I read and the radio that wakes me up - and also accompanies my transition from work to rest late in the day. A large chunk of my week is spent working on my own, but I never feel disconnected – my social set-up accompanies me through the day, wherever I happen to be working from.

I love the fact that we’re now so much more connected than in the past – whether it be purely socially or through the socialising of business communication. Every day my twitter feed is filled with the latest chat about instagram and its new video, the rise of infographics, the latest webinar, who has storified what and the best pinterest boards to check out. In fact, almost every day there appears to be a new application on the rise that could be fantastic for the businesses I work with. There’s a whole generation of social entrepreneurs out there evangelising. Some organisations are making fantastic strides in democratising the communication process and many, many stakeholders are joining in a rapid evolution of organisational communication – sweeping the old, top-down, elite-led communication paradigm away, and replacing it with a whole new era of connectivity, blurring the boundaries of work/non-work and enabling anyone who wants to be a collaborator, contributor and communicator across their organisation to assume that power.

Across a swathe of Gen-Y dominated organisations, often marketing-led and highly technology-attuned, we’re approaching communication anarchy. Not in a bad way of bombs and extremists, but in the sense of collectivism without rulers.

But then I come back to my working world: a world that in the last couple of months has seen me spending time with care workers employed by a charity (as far from the BBC reports of 15 minute care appointments as you’d possibly get); in a supply chain company’s ‘pick and pack’ operation; with sub-contracted engineers working for a power provider and in a small call centre that’s a very long way from the third largest operation in Swansea. None of the people I worked with was in a conventional office environment. In three out of four operations, people felt somewhat cut-off from their organisation’s leaders. All were proud of what they did, but few understood their contribution to the organisation or how they made a difference in achieving its aims. None in the three felt particularly part of any engagement revolution – not through an absence of tools and channels to get involved through, but much more so through a lack of high quality content that really connected with them. There was a consensus that their organisations were missing a trick: going all out to make the best use of technology, but not putting equal focus on the lifeblood of effective organisational communication: great content that’s timely, relevant, involving and delivers the right action.

At the call centre, staff leave their own devices in their locker. Throughout their shift, their machines display customer contact information, scripts and some very basic product information. There’s some social and admin material posted on noticeboards, and there are end-of-shift handovers where a little business information is shared – but people are, by then, very keen to get off the floor and away. It’s a hard-grind sales environment. staff turnover is high and loyalty is low. Managers and staff are rewarded on short-term sales goals – and the big picture plan is out of sight for all but the most senior. We’re now working on some simple information shared well. It’s not all about new tools – staff told us the last thing they wanted was company messaging popping up on their phones and tablets out of hours. So we’re bringing in some lunch and learns; regular team huddles; a suggestion and recognition process and much more management by walking about from a previously largely invisible senior team. At the most basic level, people want to know why they should get out of bed and what’s in it for them if they do. For the senior team, they want to know how they can keep their best people longest. In both cases, there’s a demand for up to date information, shared in a way relevant to the people involved. At this stage, it’s far from the technology-led, collaborative engagement revolution. It’s real back to basics stuff based on giving managers the confidence of a good story to share, and staff the confidence that responding and participating is actually worthwhile.

Elsewhere, my care workers, several of whom seem to manage at least two phones while serving lunches to the elderly and chatting to me with ease, want to know what’s going on in their organisation; some recognition for the extra miles they go for the people they care for; and the reassurance that the charity won’t be losing its care contracts. They exist in a vacuum, directed by weekly visit sheets that are updated by SMS. They’re low paid, almost exclusively female and generally older. But they’re open to technology – and every one I met had a smartphone. What they want is a regular channel that keeps them updated on their employer and makes them feel part of what, in the charity’s head office, is a crusade for great elderly care carried out with missionary zeal. Somehow, the link from the office to the care workers has been lost – the crumbs of communication shared are watered-down, late and poorly put together (all recognised by the charity’s trustees).

Meanwhile, my pickers and packers are much further along their journey. They’ve had three years of major change, and there’s no sense of the pace of change slowing. But they’ve been taken through every step of the change in a thoughtful, purposeful way. The change and comms manager showed me their business plan, the communications process that was helping to deliver the outcomes; the compelling narrative that provided the parameters for their communication; the stakeholder mapping that helped define who needed what, when and how; their feedback loops and speak up channels; their communication development interventions for anyone with a people management responsibility and the fairly simple, low-tech tools they’d used to involve people in the change.

In a very busy warehouse, I spent some time with a team who pick and pack components for airline engineering workshops. I asked a guy what he did: “I keep planes in the air,” he responded. For me, this was a breakthrough moment. His employer had got the content/technology balance right. This guy was connected to his company’s business aspirations and had made the connection between what he did and the benefit it brings to his end customer – a customer he never sees. But, in the breakout room, customer pictures and testimonials adorn the walls; infographics showing the supply chain stars get the narrative across quickly and effectively – and video case studies, updated monthly, detail different aspects of the business; its interaction with customers and how the products it supplies are used in aviation engineering. There was a real focus on telling great stories; using the company’s own people; and sharing just the right information (not all good news!) not just to inform the people who worked in a fairly soulless environment lifting and shifting components, but to really involve them in all aspects of the business.

The next day, I was out with a boiler engineer. Sub-contracted to a sub-contractor of one of the big six, he wasn’t actually sure at first which of the major players he was representing on our calls. He had a smart CRM device detailing calls, his schedule and enabling him to update each time he’d finished a job. But it had no other applications. About every half hour he was on the phone to ‘Dave in the office’ asking questions about obscure boiler parts, giving advice and bellyaching about his lodgings. While he was pleasant and polite with customers, there was no sense of representing his employer’s employer. He knew nothing about the power company and was unable to respond on at least two occasions when there was an open door to upsell to the customer. No-one had though to include my engineer in any kind of company communication. This was a failing of process, but also a failure to give him the right content not just to do the immediate job, but to represent effectively the company ultimately paying his wages. For him, better use of smart technology would help – but that better use has to be based on strong content that will engage his interest in the business he represents.
We can have connectivity a la mode until it comes out of our ears, but if it’s not backed with the right content, it’s worthless. As internal communicators, we can’t abandon our role in creating great content or helping others in our organisation to do so. And we mustn’t forget that while the fashion among evangelists is for newer, shinier, faster and flashier all the time, most of the workforces we represent aren’t Hoxton hipsters with the latest I-pad living their lives through apps, but are much more likely to be my Polish care worker with a passion for loud phone conversations while changing beds; my call centre mums, knackered at the end of an evening shift; my picker and packer fed up of the four warehouse walls, or my engineer, sat in his van, making another call to Dave.

We need to engage these people, and while the social media revolution may help us reach them more easily, we won’t grab and keep their interest – and provoke them into really giving their all – unless we can give them content that intrigues, inspires, educates and involves.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cross-posting from - The virtues of progressive pedantry

Does grammar matter? Does the way we adorn our language with spelling, punctuation, the right constructions and even, sometimes, standard vocabulary add to the clarity of our expression? Or does it just hinder the reader’s understanding of what we’re trying to say? The world has moved on a long way from the days when a government mandarin might write:

“This is offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put.”

Wrongly attributed to Churchill, it’s the kind of grammar pedantry that would not allow the writer to conclude a sentence with a preposition. Thankfully, the world has moved on. But, in much more recent times, I’ve noticed distinct slippage in the way we use grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. To some, that simply doesn’t matter. Oxford University’s Simon Horobin, speaking at the Hay Festival, asked grammar pedants to relax over such things as the use of the apostrophe; the spelling of words such as through (thru) and, more generally, the consistency of written English. He has a point. English is dynamic and ever changing. In fact, I’m rather surprised that he didn’t ask his audience to “chillax.” However, when it comes to business writing, the objective is to create a shared understanding, and you’ll only achieve that through consistency.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been bouncing between the usual round of client copy editing; assessing award entries, and marking undergraduate essays and dissertations. It has been illuminating in understanding just where we stand in grammar wars. From my perspective, written English is in a state of flux. There’s an age divide that seems to split those aged 35 and upwards from their younger peers, while we also have a divide between native speakers and those for whom English is a second (at least) written language.

Older writers are more structured, more formal in their use of grammar – but (huge generalisation) also more passive in their sentence construction and prone to 70 word + sentences. Late Gen Xers and the Ys and Zs following are consistent only in their inconsistency. They have a fleeting relationship with the rules of grammar, and such tools as apostrophes are sprinkled without rhyme or an awful lot of reason through their direct, active and often sparkling copy. They’ve slipped back, though, into the world of ‘amongst’, and ‘whilst’ for among and while. My students tells me it gives more gravitas to their copy. I simply repeat what my English Language tutor at Manchester University, Dr. David Denison, told me back in 1982: “It’s archaic, and a waste of ink.” That was 30+ years ago, but what was archaic then is creeping back now (and adds no gravitas!)

We’re far from txt spk taking over (another myth), but the business and essay writing of the young reflects a complete neglect of lessons around the process of written English in UK schools through the 90s and 00s.

And then there’s the rise of ‘International English’ – this new concept of English written for a global audience by non-native speakers that adopts the grammar rules of their native language. I’ll give you an example. I received some copy from a Dutch client that started: “Since today, we are rolling out a new way of working across the business.” I pointed out that this use of ‘Since’ was not something we’d say. In British English, ‘since’ always implies the past. My Dutch colleague simply didn’t get it – not entirely surprising as the construction is common in Dutch and German and used as we might use ‘from’. There are more and more examples of these internationalisms creeping in. Perhaps they’re a natural evolution, but the more crass intrusions should still be picked up with a view to helping the writer understand the nuances of British English.

Of course, the other battle is against that bastard son of American English, corporate babble. If I see another “leveraging the synergies” in my life, it will be several lifetimes too soon. Every organisation has its own language style, but the continual verbalising of nouns and use of meaningless phrases simply does the language no favours at all.

I used to think of myself as a grammar Nazi – but that has a distinctly pejorative tone. Today, I’m happier as a progressive pedant. Language – and our use of it – evolves. I’m comfortable about starting a sentence with ‘And’ and ending it with a preposition. I pepper my copy with contractions, the occasional elision – and the odd flourished dash.

And now I preach what I practice. Whether through my business grammar training module, through marking and grading undergraduate essays, or simply through editing client copy for publication, I’m striving for that balance that makes the written word clear, and technically as correct as it should be.
We can’t be stuffy about the development of language, but nor should we encourage creeping language anarchy. The goal has to be about creating understanding. For that, some simple rules, and their consistent implementation, is key.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Oi - I'm over there!

It's weird that my new blog has been up and running for quite a while now, but this one still seems to get the majority of the hits - I suppose, just because it has been around for quite a while.

Anyway, if you want to know what I'm up to in terms of internal comms and engagement, pop on over to insideleapfrog.

There's stuff on there on the training modules I'm currently offering, while I'm also working up a coaching piece specifically by those who are forced to communicate in business - but really don't want to.

So far, I've run it with a group of Finance and technology (and a combination of both) professionals - and it went down exceedingly well.