There’s never been a better time to elevate the internal communication function. It’s doable, but it will require bigger, bolder and broader action than ever before.
Today’s internal communication functions are primarily cost centers. Their budgets are spent disseminating information to employees that has little to no impact on making or saving money or influencing what’s important to shareholders and customers.
“Our communication people are worried about the wrong things,” a marketing senior vice president told me. “They worry about click-throughs, opens, mentions, share of voice, awareness and retweets. I’m worried about sales and gross margin. I need communication people who can help us improve our business!”
A recent survey of the role of communication professionals found that most are perceived as not adding value, having the wrong priorities and lacking competencies needed to affect business results.
However, some communication functions are changing. They’ve made significant improvements in key areas — quality, service delivery, sales, productivity, safety and turnover to name a few.
FedEx was an early adopter. Its communication leader and the CEO teamed up with me to improve export sales. We conducted a global communication assessment that revealed that FedEx leaders and the communication team wanted to work more closely in order to improve business results.
We started in FedEx’s Los Angeles operation by reducing communication breakdowns that were impeding export sales. In 90 days, sales increased 23%. The investment generated a 1,447% return. We increased sales and reduced costs in five more FedEx locations.
Communication professionals have made similar gains in a variety of industries.
Shawna Todd led an effort with service technicians at Honeywell. They improved communication and eliminated one million process steps, reduced paper by 93% and reduced the company’s billing cycle from 17 days to less than seven.
Bob Kula helped ConAgra Brands reduce damage in a distribution center by 65% while improving productivity by 16%. He followed up with similar successes at four other ConAgra Brands locations.
When Kristin Kelley was at Owens Corning, she helped improve productivity by $1 million in five months at a fiberglass insulation plant in upstate New York. She created similar improvements in four more Owens Corning locations.
And Dave Jackson, also at ConAgra Brands, helped reduce rework by 50%.
Successes came from internal communication people thinking and acting bigger, bolder and broader with a focus on results, not just activity.
Each used performance improvements in an initial operation to demonstrate that they could improve results and value in more parts of their organizations.
So how do you get started? Here are four things that successful communication practitioners do.
4 Competencies Communication Professionals Need to Win
Start with small wins to get results fast and prove that taking your business to the next level is doable.
Manage Communication as an Integrated System
Communication represents all the ways we send, receive and process information. It’s the things we measure, reward and recognize — and what we do or don’t say.
Historically, internal communication managed formal channels from town hall meetings, newsletters, brochures, blogs, speeches, social media, video and digital signage. But that’s a small piece of an organization’s communication system when it comes to driving results.
The communication system needs to be managed as an integrated system, not as a collection of formal channels that might or might not come together to drive the right results.
Measure What Matters
Traditional communication functions measure the number of tweets, retweets, page views, campaign effectiveness, content consumption, readability and channel usage, to name a few metrics.
But none of these reflect the state of our businesses. None of them matter to shareholders, customers or business leaders. Practicing these traditional measures disconnects internal communication from the business.
Communication functions need to focus on business measures in the organization’s strategic plan and goals. These measures include customer net promoter scores, number of accidents or injuries, customer retention rate, revenues, cycle time, gross margin, operating income, order fulfillment, quality, service delivery, cost, scrap, re-work, yield loss and productivity.
You might say, “Those really aren’t communication scores.” Oh, but they represent results that are driven in large part by the way communication is managed!
Identifying and tracking the right measures enables internal communication people to find communication breakdowns that directly cause underperformance and uncover and eliminate root causes of that underperformance, thus improving business results.
Build New Competencies
Old paradigm communication departments possess skills and knowledge specifically related to distributing news and information. Performance-based communication departments possess similar talent but have a deeper understanding of the business, finances, leadership development, change management and consulting/business adviser acumen.
Shift From a Cost Center Mentality to a Value Creation Mindset
Shifting to a value-adding function requires four steps that each of the successful communication practitioners cited in this article took. They are:
- Get your leaders on board.
- As Kristin Kelley, now communication strategist and change leader at Amcor, says, “Leaders want to make their numbers, so when our leaders saw others getting the kinds of performance gains that we were able to help them generate, they wanted more of the same.”
- Assess your current state.
- A value-to-cost assessment is, in my judgement, the best measure of the importance of communication activities, how well they’re performing and their cost. That assessment speaks volumes about the productivity of your communication investment.
- Build a business case with a value proposition that clarifies what you will and won’t do in your results- and value-driven role.
- At ConAgra Brands, the CEO and his communication leader, Theresa Paulsen, adopted a value proposition that simply stated: “Our work will help the company make money or save money. If it doesn’t make or save money, we won’t do it.”
- Ask these questions to get started.
- Where are the best opportunities to improve performance by better managing the communication system?
- What’s the size of the opportunity?
- What are the root causes of the underperformance?
- What will it cost to improve?
- Is the ROI acceptable?
Organizations have had to pivot how business gets done when COVID-19 blocked the way. As part of these organizations, communication functions can capitalize on these shifting times to let go of old ways that don’t serve the customer or the business. Helping to create or save money for the business gives communication professionals a valuable commodity: new competencies that drive results.
Jim Shaffer will join a panel of IABC Fellows to discuss return on investment in communication in the next IABC Circle of Fellows discussion. Join the conversation on Thursday, 15 April at 12 p.m. ET. Click here to tune in.
Jim Shaffer, IABC Fellow
Jim Shaffer is a leadership coach, business adviser, author and speaker. As leader of the Jim Shaffer Group, he helps organizations accelerate results through superior strategy execution. The firm creates hard business results by translating the business strategy to the people who need to implement it and aligning systems, processes and culture to make the gains sustainable. The firm has improved quality, service, sales, safety, turnover, productivity, speed and costs with some returns exceeding more than 1,600%. He designed and produced the IABC Academy courses, “Managing Communication to Drive Results and Value” and “How to Add Value as a Strategic Adviser.” Some of his clients have included: Hallmark, FedEx, IBM, Marriott, Mayo Clinic, Verizon, Pfizer, Honeywell, ITT Corporation and Toyota.