How communicators can create better understanding from other managers
How often you have found other people misunderstanding your communication role. I can think of many times in my own corporate career when other staff had little idea of our strategic value. Typically, they thought we were merely a support function involved in low-level activities.
The big difficulty is that organizational communication is a complex concept in all organizations. As Professor Anne Gregory, former Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management, says in The Next Level – Global IC Report (page 136):
The communication profession is the living embodiment of complexity. Communication is complex, fluid and often misunderstood. It is a function, but it is also constitutive of organisations and organising in a way that other professions are not. It is perfectly possible for organisations to operate without buildings, money or products, but it is not possible for them to exist without communication.”
No single, simple definition or measure can explain the sweep of what we do. Our role is difficult to describe in an “elevator pitch.” So most of the time we give an example of a single, sample activity – we will tell them about an event or publicity or a campaign. As a result, people think we are only involved at the tactical level, in day-to-day activities. They don’t see how we help to strengthen the organization’s performance. They don’t see our strategic value.
Communication is central to every organizational activity. Working relationships among individuals and groups grow from communication, and the performance of organizations is based on effective internal and external relationships. Communication helps individuals and groups coordinate activities to achieve goals. Overall, communication and relationships are so integral to every part of operational activity, it is impossible to arrive at a single measure of our success. We can’t simply summarize annual communication results. Nevertheless, we can measure the results directly achieved from communication activity and therefore show how it provides tangible benefits to almost all organizational results. And it is crucial for us to show how communication has enabled organizational strategies to succeed.
Decision-makers undervalue the communication role
A recent European survey of internal communicators revealed that while 70% of CEOs value internal communication (IC), the advisory influence of internal communicators is low. Only 37% of IC respondents believe the IC team’s recommendations are taken seriously by executives and senior managers. Also, 30% of respondents think there is limited or even non-existent capacity or opportunity to influence senior management with their recommendations, as reported by the IC Kollectif, page 8.
How can communication be aligned with corporate strategy?
You need to get onto the same wavelength as business unit managers
Communicators generally aim to support the achievement of organizational goals, but studies show they don’t manage to demonstrate this conclusively to peers and top management. In order to be accepted by top management, communication departments have to demonstrate that their strategy supports corporate strategy.
Explaining and reporting on the impact of communication in the business language of top managers remains a key challenge. A consistent understanding of how communication adds value to the organization is still missing.
Review of the 4 stages of management activities
A European research team led Professor Ansgar Zerfass of the University of Leipzig analyzed more than 800 scientific publications – from disciplines like public relations, marketing, and management – to find out, among other things, what tools are used in the four stages of management activities:
These stages are also used for communication activities. The research team reviewed management tools and the equivalent tools used in communication, which are discussed in the team’s 165-page report, published in 2018.
- Analysis tools help to analyze the marketplace and operating environment, provide evidence-based foundations for decision-making, raise potential strategies for action, and forecast trends and innovation opportunities.
- Planning tools help to set up organizational departments, outline a business unit strategy and its specific goals, make staffing and budgeting decisions, develop timelines and project management goals.
- Implementation/execution tools help to drive programs and ensure plans are in place, steer and lead teams and coordinate labor requirements, guide processes and workflows
- Evaluation and control tools help to monitor and evaluate the execution of operational activities, identify improvement needs and adjust activities accordingly.
Then the research team drew up a ‘toolbox’ showing how communication tools relate directly to each set of the management tools. The results are shown in the diagram below. You can also access the image directly here.
This powerful toolbox enables you to use the same tools as other business managers
Almost 25% of visitors to this website use mobile devices. As the layout of this toolbox is horizontal and very detailed, which makes it unsuitable to read on those devices, I have sliced the image of the 4 types of tools in half, so ‘Analyze’ and ‘Plan’ tools are shown in one image while ‘Execute’ and ‘Evaluate’ tools are shown immediately below to enable mobile and tablet users to be able to read the details. I hope these work for you.
Left hand side:
Right hand side:
From this powerful toolbox, or menu, communicators can explain to colleagues and upper management how the same techniques are being used in communication as well as in business management to enable the organization to achieve its strategic goals. This enables communicators to talk the same business language as their management peers, and therefore makes it more likely that the communication function will be accepted as mainstream by management at all levels.
Notice that social media doesn’t feature at all among the corporate management tools and is only one of more than a dozen corporate communication tools listed. This reflects the fact that social media isn’t really in the mindset of corporate management, and therefore it is important for you not to focus too much on social media in your reporting to corporate management, especially when bottom-line results are so difficult to demonstrate from social media activity.
Top 10 types of management tools
According to the latest Management Tools and Trends Survey conducted by Bain & Company in 2017, the top 10 types of management tools used most often by the 14,700 respondents in 70 countries were:
- Customer relationship management
- Employee engagement surveys
- Strategic planning
- Balanced scorecard
- Mission and vision statement
- Supply chain management
- Change Management programs
- Customer segmentation
You can read helpful information about each of the top 10 tools plus the balance of the 25 tools reviewed in 2017 in the Bain & Company booklet Management Tools 2017: An Executive’s Guide. The guide helps you understand about these management tools, and will enable you to speak with your organization’s operational managers in their language. The handy guide provides a description of each tool, an explanation of how and why it is used, and with several references listing where you can read more about each tool.
Once you understand the purpose and value of these tools, you can consider using suitable ones in the communication processes you manage. If you are like me, you will have never heard of some of the tools with exotic names like ‘multi-level contribution margin accounting,’ Disney method,’ and ‘brand iceberg.’ You will need to refer to Dr Google for those, I’m afraid.
But when you understand what these tools are, you will be able to impress senior managers with your knowledge, and make a useful contribution on operational and administrative matters at business unit meetings, even with your executive committee. What’s more, your operational and administration managers may not even know about some of these management tools and so you could demonstrate your knowledge of the tools in conversations with these managers (without over-doing it, of course)!
All this knowledge of management tools is important because, according to the IC Kollectif report (page 132):
Too many communications pros simply lack the critical business knowledge that allows them to communicate on the same strategic levels as senior management.”
The future of management reporting
According to the European researchers (page 40), communication report usually contain output-centered measurement data such as media reach, website traffic and event visitors. By contrast, few reports included data demonstrating the strategic contributions of the communication department to organizational performance.
Professional reporting will become an important success factor in the future. Excellent communication executives will move beyond reporting at the technical level and will likely move towards using more strategic reporting tools. In the future, professional reports will show more measurement results summarized, for instance, in balanced scorecards, which quickly show the state of play.
Keys for success
The researchers conclude (page 40) that successful communication departments will:
- Include the use of management tools because supplementing communication with management tools helps to plan and define communication targets, measure department effectiveness and efficiency, and also helps to report communication impact in the language of management.
- Show results-based assessments of value creation: the measurement of communication success is still heavily based on monitoring communication outputs.
- Track the costs and evaluate communication impact based on the strategic or financial targets of the organization.
- Use evaluation insights for planning and adjusting strategies.
Communicators benefit from applying established management tools to steer and optimize communication. Using the same tools as business executives helps to demonstrate the department’s effectiveness and efficiency convincingly. Reporting communication impact in the language of management contributes to greater appreciation of the communication unit and recognition of corporate communication as a key competitive factor in business practice.