Chasing Shiny, Bright Objects

One of my early consulting engagements was in Kansas City with a team of smart people from Hallmark. The team was charged with improving business processes that were critical to getting new products to market faster. The work took months off the process. It made the company more nimble, giving it a decided competitive edge.

I was back at Hallmark recently when they hosted one of our “Managing Communication for Results” workshops.  Corporate communication people from a number of companies were there to learn how to transform their work so it adds more measurable value to their companies.

Like the human resources departments of 15 years ago, today’s communication departments are under pressure to prove their worth. For years they’ve been performing the same work—distributing news and information. Each decade has brought its shiny, bright objects that distracted them—video, the Internet, intranets and now social media. The tools have added some value but that value was difficult to measure.

The opportunity for change in the communication function is huge.

It needs to start by embracing a different mindset. That means doing what HR, manufacturing, marketing, sales, finance and other disciplines have done: rethink the business they’re in.  Should the communication department be exclusively in the news and information dissemination business or would it add more value by identifying and eliminating communication barriers that make it difficult for employees to get their jobs done?

Embracing a different mindset brings the realization that communication in any organization is far greater than newsletters, posters, videos, blogs and other formal channels. The communication that really matters is what leaders say and do, what gets measured, rewarded and recognized, how customers are treated, how priorities are set and how resources are used.

There are plenty of opportunities to improve. It starts by eliminating communication breakdowns that cause people to under-perform. Here are real examples that’s I’ve dealt with.

  • John in the Dallas sales office is losing customers because he can’t get pricing information out of the marketing department to pass on to his customers before his competitors get their prices to his customers.  A big communication issue. Downside: loss of revenue.
  •  Mary in Columbus can’t process insurance claims accurately or quickly enough to meet her goals because she hasn’t received proper instructions on how to process claims. A big communication issue. Downside—mistakes that cause rework and loss of productivity.
  • There’s overuse and scrap in the commercial bread bakery because Jose rarely knows how many bags will be needed to wrap the loaves coming off the end of the line. A communication issue that if fixed, will save a ton of money in terms of scrap and lost productivity every time the line goes down.
  • The sales force in Denver has a $76 million productivity shortfall because it can’t retrieve information about current product features and benefits and products in the pipeline.  A communication problem that hurts sales and productivity.
  • A new product development cycle cant be shortened to get medicines to market faster because of silo wars that exist among divisions and departments. A communication problem that could impede new product introductions and contribute to lost market share

These are huge communication issues that are avoided by many communication departments because they–and often their leaders–view their roles narrowly as the formal channel managers not as business problem solvers. Many lack the skills and knowledge needed to assume more of a strategic business counselor role. Many don’t understand how their own organizations make money.

But that’s changing, as evidenced by our workshop attendees and others I work with. Many communication professionals are working to broaden their roles, making business cases to their leaders about the value that can be created by expanding the reach of their work and partnering with other operations leaders to attack communication defects that hurt performance.

There are both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for making this move. Communication people who do so tell me they feel an increased sense of value when they go home at night knowing they helped make getting the job done a lot easier for some of their fellow employees, or that they were able to solve a customer problem that was hurting sales. And beyond feeling valued, they’re also being paid better because they’re adding more value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *