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Advance Engagement: Employee Communication Drives Business Success
David Kistle, APR, senior vice president, Padilla Speer Beardsley Research

In the March 2002 issue of CIO Magazine, chief information officers listed their biggest barriers to effectiveness. Think there were many surprises? Hardly. The list included familiar responses such as lack of employee skill sets and retention, lack of time for strategic planning, and disconnects with executive peers.

What may be surprising is that these barriers are not often considered Internal Communication opportunities critical to driving and sustaining organizational success.

Traditionally, Internal employee Communication has taken a backseat to other forms of company communications — marketing, public relations, investor relations and so forth. If the annual benefits information is distributed, reward and recognition programs are working, and contributions to designated charities are coming in, the employee-communication program is working. Right?

The truly strong, attractive and vibrant organizations of today position the employee audience at the same level — and in some cases, even higher — than the other constituencies of customers, suppliers, investors, community groups, public policy groups, etc. They provide real foundation to the otherwise flimsy statement of "our people are our greatest asset." These companies have learned that a strong inward focus has direct impact on their ability to generate client satisfaction and profitable growth, giving them a competitive edge.

In short, employees drive your organization's success. Depending on their level of Employee Engagement, they can propel your business to new heights — or run it into the ground. You expect it's the former. Yet even organizations that appear successful may have significant employee issues that limit opportunities — for the company and employees themselves.

What is Engagement?
Let's talk further about "engagement." It's an appropriate term in communication discussions, as it describes the general intended outcome of the communication process. Still, engagement can be vague and viewed as "soft" and "squishy." So let's take the opportunity to define and fortify engagement, give it real quantitative power and further examine how communication provides impact.

When employees are engaged, they are more likely to produce four tangible behaviors: staying, performing, influencing others to perform well and recommending the employer to others.

  • Staying is all about how the work environment attracts, develops and retains workers. The time required to fill a position, the quality of hires, the diversity standards, development rates and employee satisfaction are leading indicators. There is nothing more valuable in creating a work environment — and determining the long-term culture — than the communication system that supports it.
  • Think about how many times performance would be increased if there were simply stronger common understanding among workers involved. Six Sigma and other quality improvement processes focus on better utilization of resources to eliminate waste. These systems are built on effective information-sharing models. So why shouldn't this disciplined communication approach reach into the areas of your organization that impact customer service, speed, innovation, research and development, etc.
  • How does an objective really get accomplished in an organization? According to the business school model, dependent factors include clarity of objective, real opportunity to achieve objective, solid project management and viable resources. I argue there's more to it. There is a significant need to influence and inwardly market the objective to a vast array of individuals who are likely at widespread points of adoption and motivation. How many functional leaders — as the CIOs validated — do you know that don't strive to position the value of their function within an organization?
  • Whereas influence is internally oriented, business today cannot survive without the continued positive advocacy of your organization to outside groups. Engaged employees are loyal employees. No matter where they are in your organization, they are authentic ambassadors of your company to prospective clients, investors and employees.

Still not convinced about the value of engaged employees? In 2001, a Gallup survey indicated that only 26 percent of U.S. workers are actively engaged. The study found this group is the overwhelming source for profit generation in organizations. At the other end of the spectrum, 19 percent of workers are actively disengaged, meaning they intentionally act in ways that negatively impact organizations. The cost to employ this group across the nation exceeds an alarming $300 billion! The remaining 55 percent of workers are disengaged or indifferent to company objectives. How does your organization compare? More importantly, if you were able to shift even a portion of your employees to become actively engaged, what would that mean for your company?

How Communication Can Help
Engagement is achieved greatly via your communication process. While many factors collectively influence engagement levels, the following communication-based elements indicate a strong engagement environment:

  • Immediate supervisors are rated as good communicators
  • Management is trusted in what it says and does
  • Communication is honest and straightforward, helping maximize organizational and individual performance
  • Employees are communicated to first with vital organization news
  • Employees truly understand your organization's business strategy
  • Employees are able to apply their knowledge of your business strategy to their job duties
  • Accomplishments are recognized and rewarded
  • Employees recommend your organization to colleagues and friends

For many years, internal and/or employee communication has been perceived to be within the realm of human resources. Other organizations have incorporated this process into a corporate communication function. Frankly, the argument for best org structure position is moot, as long as your organization can build and sustain an internal employee communication strategy that addresses individual needs (the HR side) and company needs (corporate communication side).

This provides the best opportunity to engage employees and achieve success from a truly integrated communication strategy that produces desired outcomes from all your audiences.

In closing, as the passionate business philosopher Tom Peters says, "If your company is going to put customers first, then you must put employees more first." Makes sense, doesn't it?

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