More than any previous technology, the internet allows companies to ensure that every employee has access to the corporate news, views, and vision. But its sheer availability can mislead managers into believing that communicating effectively is easier than is the case.
Certainly, the internet offers new ways to disseminate the vision of the company’s mission to its staff. Some companies use the internet to explain their ethical code—and to communicate it to their suppliers and customers as well. A good example is Boeing, whose website offers an online “ethics challenge”. Employees can test their moral instincts for such delicate issues as “acceptance of business courtesies” (what do you do if a client offers you a set of golf clubs to swing a contract his way?) and “proper use of company, customer and supplier resources” (should you circulate an appeal for a charity on the Boeing intranet?). Boeing uses the test to give its employees “ethics refresher training,” each year.
Managers can also tell staff electronically where they want the business to go. For example Jacques Nasser, chief executive of Ford, sends the company’s staff a weekly “Let’s chat” note (a curiously matey idea for such a notoriously tough boss). The company runs a purpose-built newsroom; employs a team of professional journalists who update several times a day a website that is available to Ford’s employees around the world and to staff in its recent acquisitions, such as Volvo; and runs what it claims is the world’s largest corporate intranet. The aim is to use company news to help to create a sense of belonging.
Ford thus handles its internal communications with as much care and professionalism as most companies apply to their external public relations. That is surely sound policy. Most companies spend much more time and money on talking to their customers than to their staff. Yet, if a company cannot communicate its values to its employees, how can it expect to sell them to its customers? In addition, in the past (and indeed still today), trade unions have often dominated the connection between a company and its staff. Internet technologies give managers a chance to bridge the divide directly.
Not only does the internet allow managers to talk to their staff: It allows them to discover whether their staff are at least pretending to listen. William Nuti, a senior executive for Cisco Systems, produces a monthly video to send to his staff, explaining where the business is going. What happens if employees choose not to watch? Happily, the internet allows you to track who opens an e-mail and when. “I know everyone who clicks on it and those who throw it away, and I make phone calls to people, saying ‘it’s important you watch this.’” Not surprisingly, Nuti’s monthly videos enjoy high viewing figures.
However, only a foolish boss would imagine that staff who read the “chat” note or watched the video would also buy the spiel. For starters, in a multinational company, the same message may go to people in different countries—and be heard with differing degrees of cynicism or enthusiasm. Moreover, the internet is not a one-way channel. It allows staff to communicate directly, for the first time, with senior executives whom they have never met in person. At Siemens, a large German company, Chittur Ramakrishnan, the chief information officer, has noticed a “very significant number of e-mails to top management. The idea of going through a secretary to get an appointment has changed. People can send e-mails to anyone and expect a response. It’s very democratising.” That assumes, of course, that the top brass do not delegate to a minion the task of replying. The technology, as always, is no guarantee of cultural change. But it creates the opportunity for managers to see what really worries their employees. That opportunity can be amplified if corporate pages feature real questions from employees rather than ones invented at the top, demonstrating that their questions are genuinely being heard and answered.
The erosion of hierarchy, such a primary aspect of the company of the future, is not always welcome. Questions may arise over who should address whom. Once, information trickled down a company, layer by layer, conveying authority to each subset of managers who delivered the word from on high. Now that is no longer necessary. When SAP, a German business-software giant, created an elaborate internet-based communications system, it found that middle managers objected to the chairman’s e-mailing all employees. The middle managers’ authority had rested partly on their role as a source of information, and without it, they felt exposed. As so often with internet-driven changes, the implications of what initially appeared to be a simple, time-saving measure turned out to be more complex and politically sensitive.
Finally, if the chief executive is to be the chief communicator, the job requires a whole new set of skills. It needs that rare quality, an ability to write clearly and persuasively. Managers will frequently need to carry an audience with whom their main link may be the written word. Good writing, as Peanuts’ Snoopy has observed, is hard work. Communication also requires an ability to use video effectively. A chief executive may be a brilliant strategist, but some of that brilliance must emerge on camera if it is to inspire confidence in employees, customers, and investors. The leaders of big companies need to be rather more like effective politicians than they have been in the past, able to inspire and lead from a distance.
If messages travel only from the top down, they will have modest impact and sometimes may do more harm than good. True employee commitment will depend upon creating a sense of belonging to a community or a team. In order to be secure, productive, and creative, most people need to feel they belong to a group.
How, then, to create a new sense of belonging? And can the internet help? One part of the answer is to create smaller units to which people can feel they belong. The Wisdom of Teams, by McKinsey consultants Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, points out that “large groups of people...have trouble interacting constructively as a group” and suggests an ideal scale of the units in which people operate effectively: “Virtually all the teams we have met, read, heard about or been members of have ranged between two and 25 people.”
Some large companies deliberately encourage small units. At Carlton Communications, a British media giant, Michael Green, the chairman, decided not to consolidate staff scattered in offices across London into a single unit, arguing that smaller groups feel more entrepreneurial. At St Luke’s advertising agency, also in London, the rule is that when a work group has more than 35 people, it splits. Bill Gross, founder of Idealab!, an American venture capital company, argues that people cannot tolerate working in a group of more than about 100, because a group of that size becomes too impersonal. Few people can remember the names of more than 100 colleagues.
People are more committed to other individuals than to an amorphous corporation. Team members. If pay is tied to team performance, peer pressure will encourage members to work for the good of the team. Not only do smaller groups enjoy a greater sense of belonging, but they are more effective. Whenever a company—or indeed a government—wants to achieve a goal, it creates a task force, a hit squad, a committee, or a team. As workers become more dispersed and disconnected, they increasingly need to participate in teams.
The internet not only allows teams to talk to each other around the world. It also makes it easier for several teams or small groups to behave as though they were a single large one, collaborating where they gain benefits from size. The internet fosters lateral connections within a company—or even between people in different companies.