Insight article

Focus on dialogue

It was a whirlwind week last week, with a stimulating couple of days at Melcrum’s Strategic Communications Management Summit.  Some strong themes emerged, but one in particular stood out….the increasing need for dialogue and involvement in organisations.

I usually come away from this event feeling that the biggest issue is always the same issue – that of the problems encountered at middle management level in communicating vital strategic messages.  This still exists of course, but this year the spotlight seemed to veer away from this tier of management to focus on the subject of dialogue at every level of the organisation.

We have been promoting the concept of dialogue, innovation and involvement as key to a high-performing culture for years.  It’s vital for engaging a workforce and the key to stimulating a sense of ownership, which unlocks the inertia that often challenges change.  I never cease to be surprised, however, at the number of large organisations that are still relatively paternalistic and command-control in their culture, driven from the top.  Ironically these organisations are often the ones which have performed well over the years, with no obvious burning platform. So why bother?

We are encountering more and more examples – particularly in the world of financial services – where this is the case.  Yet platforms are beginning to smoke.  Consumer expectations are changing. Employee profiles are changing.  Technology is changing.  The world is changing.  What, in fact, isn’t changing?   What has made these organisations successful in the past are not the ingredients for success in the future. Add to this a different generation of workers whose expectations and attitudes are wildly different from the ‘employee lifers’ that have existed in the past.  Mix into this the loss of pride and trust in leadership that has come with the recession and media battering over the last couple of years.  If these organisations don’t start to change their working practices and culture now, their position in the market place may come as a shock in three or four years time, together with a heavy recruitment and training bill.

So at Melcrum’s conference I was encouraged to hear more and more examples of companies who have deliberately involved their employees in shaping the culture and direction of the business;  Maersk, Volvo Trucks and Merseytravel to name just a few.   Whether it be through surveys, focus groups, via social media or other interactive communications channels it seems that more organisations are taking this very seriously.  Dialogue begins at the top, with a visible and accessible Executive presence.  Enter the CEO blog…

There was a lot of talk about doing away with cascades too, although I must say that in my view the word ‘cascade’ (ie top down communication) has its place.  The ideal is to wrap dialogue and conversation around the cascade, perhaps with the help of ambassadors, change agents or influencers.  Leaders and managers still have an important role in communicating strategic and operational messages, especially when you take into account the fact that trust lies with the line manager, not the most senior managers at the top of the tree.  Hierarchy still counts.  It’s how you make the human element of hierarchy work that matters.

Good on Melcrum for an excellent conference.  As spending cuts loom, it’ll be fascinating to see what the hot topic will be this time next year.

Nailia Tasseel