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Breaking Down Silos

Enterprise Engagement requires the cultivation and participation of numerous constituencies, both inside and outside the organization. In this excerpt from his new book, Strategic Brand Engagement, author John G. Fisher discusses how tomorrow’s leaders must address the challenges and opportunities posed by various employee groups, communities, generations, data sets and motivational needs in order to break down the walls between them and make engagement work across the enterprise.

The time for serious brand engagement has come if organizations are going to retain the trust of employees and wider community, as both media and markets fragment into ever smaller niche areas. But it has to go further than just another HR campaign to briefly grab the attention of multi-tasking employees who have their day jobs to do as well as complying with whatever policy changes you want them to include this quarter.

The sweeping changes in communication that mobile telephony and tablet technology have ushered in mean that job-holders are now running their social lives concurrently with their professional obligations, often using the same devices. Part-time and work-from-home options mean that the traditional bonds between the organization and the people who work for it have diminished to the extent that the old ways of exerting pressure to comply through coercion, weather gentle or heavy-handed, may no longer be relevant.

Tomorrow’s employees will assume the organizations they want to work for will treat them professionally when it comes to communicating the employer brand, explaining values, consulting them about changes and measuring feedback honestly. Just like with consumer products, they’ll know the message they receive may change if they’re part of a different employee community, and that one promotional employer claim doesn’t suit all employee or channel partner markets. They will be wise to the tone of voice and any phrases that try to obscure the true situation. If the organization doesn’t tell the truth, it will be found out very quickly, such is the transparency of the internet and social media these days.

For an employer brand to work effectively, it needs to project itself to the wider community of business partners, advisers, ambassadors and advocates – not just its existing “customers.” But these groups need to receive a coherent message that’s in line with corporate values and very much “on brand.” Anything less looks unprofessional and careless; it suggests the organization is unable to think in a straight line or with any authenticity.

‘Command-And-Control’ Is Over

More and more, employees and advocates are using open access social networking media to run their everyday lives. Employers need to be aware that the standards of social networking transactions, in terms of ethics, branding and behavior, will be the same as when interacting with the organization, so there’s no point in having old-style, militaristic, command-and-control rules for organizational life when the real world operates in a more relaxed, open and collaborative way.

The 30-year-olds coming through to positions of supervisory power are already familiar with the digital age – they will have experienced no other world – so organizations need to adapt and trade up to the new platforms. Paper diaries, posters and notebooks are inefficient and one-dimensional, offering little option to share and discuss. They belong to the era of private information and the closed shop of outmoded organizational power.

The availability of cheap and flexible data storage and usage systems means there’s no excuse now for bland, broad reward & recognition programs that take no account of individual circumstances. Remuneration can be personalized to the granular level, whether it’s basic pay, performance rewards or loyalty benefits. What’s more, changes should be accommodated at will if they’re beneficial to employees – rather than annually for the sake of organizational convenience.

Engaging With The Disengaged

In general, about 60% of the employees of well-managed, well- resourced organizations are engaged at present. When an organization reaches the dizzy heights of 75% or 80%, champagne corks pop. There’s no reason why average engagement scores shouldn’t be in the low 90% range – or higher. In the pre-internet era, the convenient excuse for why this wasn’t possible was that getting the message out to every individual was both time-consuming and often broad-brush. But with the capability now to tailor messages down to the individual level and receive virtually instant response, there’s no reason why employees can’t be fully engaged for most of the time they’re at work.

Of course, it’s not always as easy to get full commitment from channel partners and advocates, simply because their economic ties are less binding. But if Amazon can offer millions of consumers the books they actually want to buy on what seems like a personal recommendation based on previous buying habits, it’s only a matter of time before organizational partners will receive tailored messages that resonate with their own team, rather than having to think how this organizational message could be applied to their own local situation. The resources to do this already exist in terms of line management and access to policy information. Where it often fails at the individual level is having good communication tools and, to be honest, remembering to keep team members informed in a way they’ll relate to.

Engagement And Loyalty

When commentators first started writing about the potential effects of the internet on working life, remote working was hailed as the model for future organizations. The attractive and compelling idea was that “in the future” most people would have a portfolio working week, largely based at home, and that a typical jobholder would interact with his or her colleagues over the “net” and only work a few hours a day for any one employer. Just like the futurist myth of vitamin pills being substituted for food and space travel for all, it hasn’t come to pass. The vast majority of workers still travel to a fixed location to work, and the best work is done by being in close human contact with groups of other people. Although flexible work arrangements are more common, they’re still not the way the majority of the workforce earns its living today.

For that reason, effective engagement is still largely about fixed location programs for large numbers of people who share common corporate values and goals. But the introduction of channel partners and advocates into the engagement mix suggests that – through corporate social media – engagement can be promoted in a much more timely, informal and widely dispersed way than ever before. Rather than simply letting it happen, however, the process can be engineered in such a way that organizations can control the communication of their values and create loyalty beyond the confines of bricks-and-mortar fixed locations and the gossip around the water cooler – it can be actively managed in the ether rather than just passively promoted.

Get A Plan

Employees are pretty smart. They can spot a turkey from a long way off. In Jim Haudan’s entertaining and insightful book, The Art of Engagement (2008), he describes what a frontline associate of an organization he had dealings with said about senior management:

I used to see complete incompetence. We got all this flavor-of-the-month stuff. We figured that leaders were trying to please each other or someone other than us – the people who do the work. We just assumed that leaders couldn’t agree on what came next... they’re just not very good at helping us understand things.

If senior executives are good at anything it should be planning skills. They’ve usually had 20 or 30 years to practice, so they should be better at it than most people. If “strategic” means anything, it should mean you have a plan. Of course, before you do anything, you should do some research – it may be formal and cost a fortune, or it may be undertaken by your team and cost almost nothing. But do some. You’d be surprised how many organizations launch into major change initiatives on the whim of an article the CEO saw in a business magazine that may have no relevance at all to the organization or its industry.

You should examine the skills of those who will be required to manage the change. If brand engagement is a mix of hard-nosed HR calculations and marketing communication skills, does your team (and the internal management infrastructure) know enough technically about how to get leverage from any activity you may put into place?

What incentives are you going to put in place to encourage change? It’s an old saying in business that “what gets rewarded gets done.” It doesn’t have to be life-changing. Often, small rewards and lots of recognition are powerful enough. An incentive, however small, signals to employees and the channel that this is an initiative you want to be taken seriously, not just a “nice-to-have.”

Once these steps have been gone through, go through them again and again at every stage so you’re constantly questioning whether you’ve asked enough questions, got the right skills, communicated the change effectively and offered participants a reason to change their behavior. If any of these steps are missing or poorly addressed it’s likely your engagement ambitions will also fall short. That’s a plan – so your brand engagement activity is now “strategic.”

In the final analysis, brand engagement is all about loyalty from both paid and unpaid partners, and it shouldn’t matter whether you’re employed by the same organization, work in the same building, work in the channel or are an unpaid, individual advocate. The more digital organizations become, the more likely that reputations will be managed digitally and stakeholder values will rise and fall based on who tweeted what to whom and when. The walls and silos are falling.

A Potential Disconnect

There’s no doubt that a major factor driving the need for better engagement is the different ways Baby Boomers and Generation Y use communication channels and media. With the raising of official retirement ages for Baby Boomers and the proliferation of social media channels used by younger generations, there’s a real danger of a disconnect in communication within organizations.

Older workers aren’t retiring anytime soon, so organizations that ignore the generation gap and the differences in how they communicate with each other may suffer. Commenting on a survey by the Boston Consulting Group of populations in the United States, UK, Japan, Canada, France, Germany and Italy in 2010, Dick Stroud and Kim Walker noted that “In 2010 there were 375 million over-60s...In the next 20 years, by the end of 2030, this number will be 695 million.” Those in positions of power – primarily the Baby Boomers – who haven’t done so already will have to get comfortable with social media if they want to engage fully with their younger, more media-aware workforces.

The Engagement VP

So if engagement is going to be one of the crucial metrics of successful organizations, someone will have to take responsibility for its delivery. It will be the Engagement VP’s role to try and control this whole process rather than be its victim. He or she will have to be a hybrid of existing HR and marketing VPs who know how to save money but also how to spend it. He or she will have to be able to research and recognize a trend as well as create new trends that are beneficial to the organization and its brand values. He or she will be able to be critical about how the organization’s values get translated into the many social media now available and be able to manage the reputation of the organization, both internally and externally, online and offline.

Above all, the Engagement VP will need to gain and maintain trust from numerous internal and external groups in the same way that a successful brand builds consumer trust over many years through brand performance. Better and persistent engagement requires organizational building skills and marketing skills to an equal degree. Not an easy task, but the brand future you envision for your organization can’t be left alone to simply evolve. The Engagement VP and his or her team will have to make it happen.

So, over to you. Are you happy with the way your brand engages your employees to improve their performance? If not, you may need to do some research. If you’re proud of your employee engagement scores, how well do these scores compare with the scores of your sales people and channel partners? Have you thought about your CSR program and whether your advocates and volunteers are in the engagement loop? Whether they fully understand your values and how they can be used to engage better with consumers? There’s still plenty to be done when it comes to planning and implementing engagement.

John G. Fisher is CEO of FMI Group, a brand engagement consultancy. He has over 30 years experience in marketing, communication, incentives and performance improvement programs, specializing in the financial services sector. He has written five business books and is a regular columnist in the marketing and HR press. For more info, go to

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