How to create better communication value for business units
Organizational communication has two broad roles – to support corporate strategies and to support business unit strategies. Communicators are generally located within head office where most senior management is located, and therefore communicators tend to give more attention to corporate influences. But the bulk of revenue is generated by the business or operating units.
These units are in the frontline where the customers are, but unfortunately some operational managers hardly ever get a visit from communication staff. As a result, business unit managers don’t understand the extent of the communication role. In fact, many think communication is an optional head office indulgence. This view tends to be consistent among managers at the ‘sharp end’ of your organization’s operations whether you are in the private sector or in government.
The negative view is supported by surveys that show that more than half of support functions don’t align with their organization’s business unit strategies.
Focus more on operational areas
In view of all this, you need to focus more on satisfying operational managers in the business units. You need to show how you can help them produce better results by using your communication services.
The best way to add value to business units, your internal customers, is to align with their business plans.
Your communication department, like any support unit, has a role to help corporate and business units generate revenue and make profits. One way of looking at the role of your communication department is to think of it as a ‘business within a business,’ which has the mission of creating stakeholder value.
You can add value to business units by treating them as your customers whereby you establish effective relationship management with them in the same way as successful professional service firms do. You should establish an internal client management process, designating relationship managers, doing integrated planning, using service agreements and conducting customer reviews.
In this way you will align your support service to the priorities of the business units. Effective alignment should be actively managed as an ongoing partnership process with business units in the following ways:
The first step in improving your support to a business unit is to assign a staff member to lead and manage the relationship with your internal customer or client (whichever term you prefer). This is a logical step, but only a minority of support units, such as HR and IT, do it. Many communication departments have never considered it.
It is a simple matter to delegate one of your staff as an ‘account manager’ to manage the day-to-day contact and implementation of activities in support of a business unit. By allocating accountability in this way, you ensure that your staff member is more responsive to the needs of the business unit and is in touch with them more often than previously. Ensure that the account manager visits the business unit to see it in action, learn how it functions and understand the unit’s internal and external environment. All too often, business unit managers criticize communicators for not making the effort to understand their business. This is one way to turn the situation around.
Your role as department manager could be to represent your area in planning and review meetings with the business unit head, accompanied by your client account manager. If you don’t have staff, or if they aren’t sufficiently experienced, then act as an account manager yourself.
Find out business unit plans
One of your first actions in preparing your annual communication plan should be to obtain a copy of the strategic plan of each business unit to identify and note business unit matters in which you think communication could significantly assist. (More detail on how to do this is contained in my ebooks on communication planning.)
Discuss business unit priorities
Armed with this knowledge, talk with each business unit head about their priorities, the main internal and external issues they believe they will face in the coming year. Cross-check their feedback against their documented plan. (If a plan isn’t available, you will need to rely on the information you learn from your discussion with the business unit head.)
You need to talk about the operational matters that are important to them rather than talking to them about communication topics. Most of them aren’t interested in communication per se; their priority is to address their operational issues. You should therefore talk with them in their terms, using their terminology and making notes. You might have instant solutions, but you are advised to go away and think through any communication solutions you might offer, consulting colleagues for their ideas as part of the process. Don’t feel obliged to produce instant solutions in the meeting; you may say that you would like to think about how you can help and that you will get back to them with a plan.
By investing the time with each operational manager, you will know exactly what their concerns are. The communication strategy you propose to deal with each of those issues can be costed and put to the respective operational manager as part of their budget for dealing with the issue.
Seek to get operational managers to pay for their communication costs
As your resources of funding and labor will always be limited, you can put the onus on the operational manager to pay for the communication costs to be incurred. (If there is minimal cost, you don’t have to worry about budget issues.) If they can’t afford all the activities you propose for them, then get them to prioritize what they can afford. In this way, the cost is borne from their operational budgets rather than your corporate budget. And in this way, you will train them to start thinking of communication as an integral part of their operational planning.
When the communicate strategy has been agreed for each operational area, you can arrange to communicate to employees within that business unit about the planned activities. Ideally, you may even be able to consult them for their ideas; if they have input into the strategies, they are more likely to support them.
Write ‘service agreement’ with each business unit
When you have reached agreement on the projects you will implement for each business unit, you can review the staff resources from your department that will be necessary to service the projects. If you have sufficient staff resources, write a service agreement with the respective manager for providing this support service to them, with objectives and measurement factors built in to make you accountable for the delivery of results you have agreed you can achieve. You needn’t necessarily call the document a service agreement (I personally don’t like the term); you can call it anything you like including “Communication plan [or strategy] for XY business unit.” If you don’t have the staff time to service the agreement, consider outsourcing the work to a consultancy, again at the expense of the operating unit.
Review progress and obtain ‘client’ feedback
You should review progress on your program for individual business units on a monthly basis and should conduct detailed reviews and planning with them at least quarterly. The monthly meetings provide an opportunity to share viewpoints on progress and to fine-tune planning of forthcoming components of projects.
Report on benefits gained against costs
You must ensure the services you provide meet the objectives mutually agreed with the business units you are servicing. This goes beyond simply showing that the activities were delivered within specifications. You should go the extra step in agreeing to share some responsibility for results with the operational manager, even if communication is just one part of the overall project. Management advisers generally recommend that when designing their bonus system, organizations base half of the bonus of support unit staff on the results achieved by the businesses they serve. This keeps everyone focused on success.
When support units like communication are aligned with the business units as well as the corporate priorities, you are likely to produce better results than otherwise. However, most organizations don’t create such alignments. The onus is therefore on you to take the initiative in serving operational business units.
The strategy in this article fits with the approach in a communication scorecard, and therefore will serve you well if your department or organization introduce a Balanced Scorecard method of running the business.