Exchanging ideas Featured

9:40am EDT May 1, 2006
Communication is central to our everyday lives. From dawn to dusk we correspond, converse and cajole. Without it, managing, leading and inspiring would be impossible. At the corporate level, having an effective strategic communication plan can make the difference between a thriving business with superb employee and customer relations versus a disjointed operation with no clear mission.

An integral piece of any strategic communication plan is distributing an unambiguous message — both internally and externally — that clearly defines a company’s identity.

“The principle danger of not aligning internal messages with external messages is that the corporation will eventually lose its focus and not operate as efficiently as it should,” says Edward Clift, assistant professor and chair of communication at Woodbury University. “If your messages are not aligned, then your company will be pulled apart by two different visions of itself.”

Smart Business spoke with Clift about how to effectively deploy strategic communication, the importance of valuing employees’ input and how the Information Age has changed avenues of communication.

How can CEOs or business owners effectively use strategic communication to improve the exchange of ideas within their companies?
Strategic communication involves meta-level discourse, or talk about the nature of talk. It is the outcome of a certain way of thinking about communication in an organization; one that sponsors creativity and engagement as opposed to managerial control. I believe business leaders should model strategic communication by actively experimenting with communication processes in the workplace. They should work to enhance the flow of information and learn from obstacles they encounter or frictions they cause along the way.

What are the benefits of having an organizational structure where the input of all employees is valued?
The fuel of a cutting-edge business today, no matter what it sells, is the modern employee who is always on and always mobile. In the search for opportunistic risk, business owners experience the greatest returns when they successfully urge their employees to imagine new possibilities for the world around us. To remain nimble, a firm must encourage a diversity of perspectives, avoid assumptions about its own actions, and take chances on the people it hires. One example of innovative planning along these lines is the use of “unfocus” groups designed to elicit outlying perspectives and possibilities. Methods like this are a testament to the fact that it is really the people within an organization that keep it viable.

How important is it to align internal messages with those that are distributed to the public?
Transparency builds confidence and trust, plain and simple. There is no substitute for the alignment of internal messages with those that are distributed to the public. Cultures are formed as clusters of coherent messages so that a business, like a family, constitutes a miniculture of sorts. Maintaining separate public and private “faces” produces closed cultures that make it difficult to realize one’s maximum potential in the marketplace.

How has the dawn of the Information Age changed communication methods?
Words are falling out of favor, and simple redundancy is no longer enough to capture and hold people’s attention. I recently met a political operative who told me that he must relay political platforms seven different times in seven different ways before people start to listen. Ideas increasingly have to be communicated much more instantaneously and comprehensively through multiple channels and domains of discourse. Internet blogging, political cartoons, and personalized methods of distribution like the iPod all come to mind as stark reminders of how fast the world can change the way it communicates. The Information Age speeds up this process of change by leaps and bounds. However, CEOs seeking to develop usable and stable methods of strategic communication should not rely solely on technological solutions. They should cultivate instead a fluency in communication that will allow them to better manage the sociocultural roles enacted through such technologies.

When a company is reorganized, or if there is a merger, what steps can be taken to ensure that everyone is still on the same page?
It is true that many reorganizations and mergers look good on paper but fall apart in the real world. Changing business culture from the top down is an extremely difficult task. In fact, organizational culture was initially considered to be an obstacle to productivity after a series of controlled laboratory experiments known as the Hawthorne Studies (1931), which simulated a banking workplace environment. It was determined that employees quickly discover a multitude of ways to resist mandates that may be rational, but still negatively affect their deeper sociocultural selves. Leaders of companies going through such changes need to consider how their internal strategic communication decisions impact the invisible social and cultural selves that must also be integrated into the new business form.

EDWARD CLIFT is an assistant professor and chairperson of communication at Woodbury University. Reach him at (818) 252-5197 or edward.clift@woodbury.edu.