Information Management And The Internal Communications Process
By Bruce W. Marcus
A terrific definition of chaos is when a client asks two different people in your firm the same question -- and gets two different and conflicting answers.
Another form of it is when there's a crisis, and the press calls and gets somebody on the phone who hasn't been briefed -- but who answers the questions anyway. There's real horror for you.
A managing partner bemoans the fact that his or her clear and well-defined vision of the firm has become so diluted by the time it gets transmitted down the line that there's cause to wonder if everybody is working for the same firm.
It's at times like these that somebody gets the idea that maybe the concept of internal communications is more than a management cliche. But how much more? Where does internal communications begin? With a firm newsletter? Or regular staff meetings? Or memos? Or the intranet?
Why do so many internal communications programs so consistently fail to communicate important information within a firm?
The answer, we find, is not in the mechanics and devices of communication, which is too often the first stop for an internal communications plan, but in the content. It's only when we realize the difference between content and mechanics that we can properly formulate an internal communications program that works. Content is the gold. Mechanics are merely the vehicles.
Technology fools us into thinking that because we have facts, we have information. We now have incredibly sophisticated ways and devices for gathering and distributing facts. But in reality, we are inundated with the flow.
Experience now tells us that a major cause of the failure of internal communications is trying to tell everything to everybody, randomly, and often irrelevantly. Information overload, no matter which communications devices are used, results in people not hearing information they really need. Information overload, then, means no information at all.
A basic tenet of a sound program is that not everybody has to know everything about everything. Success lies in defining who has to know what, and why.
Nor does internal communication do much when it's random and disorganized, and not focused on objectives. It does work, though, when there's a plan and a program, no matter how simple, for your own firm, no matter how large or small.
The Profound Need for Internal Communications
The consultant David Maister talks about the one-firm firm, in which all of the people in a firm, regardless of their specialties or positions, function together to enhance the firm and its objectives. Everybody understands those objectives, and recognize that what's good for the firm is good for them. Of the many elements that contribute to the harmoniously successful firm -- the one-firm firm -- none is more fundamental than good internal communications.
At the same time, internal communications is bi-directional. Allowing people to be heard -- internal communication must work both ways -- is crucial to making a firm of any size function as a solid phalanx to the marketplace.
The Cost of Poor Internal Communications
Relegating internal communications to second class status can be costly, even to the smallest firm ...
o The service promise you make to clients can't be fulfilled, if the people who have to make the promise a reality don't understand and accept it.
o Motivation begins with communication. If everybody who shows up for work every morning has a different view of why he or she is there, then there's no cohesive motivation. All the motivational speakers in the world aren't going to help.
o If there's no clearly defined internal communication plan, the most urgent directive, no matter how clear or simple at the outset, is garbled, distorted, and diluted as it goes down the line to the people who have to act on it.
o Cross-selling is doomed if the firm's professionals are uninformed about all aspects of the firm's range of skills and experience.
o There is a great deal of information that must be imparted to every individual people in the firm. But each person has a different degree of responsibility, experience, and access to the firm's practices. Each must use the information differently. Each bit of information means something different to each individual in a firm.
o In most firms, people go to clients, to the offices of other firms, to other cities. With half the staff off site on any given day, an internal communications program is necessary to keep everybody informed of everything he or she must know in order to function productively.
o In even the best run firms, turnover can be high. That means that new people must be educated constantly, either from scratch or by updating.
o And of course, there's always the need to fight rumors and misinformation.
These compelling reasons dictate that internal communication not be arbitrary or random; that carefully designed programs are both necessary and cost effective.
What do we want people to know, think, or feel as a result of our internal communications efforts, and why? The answer to these questions are the foundation for any communications activity, internal or external. They define the dynamic of the program, its focus, and its program goals. They make possible a foundation for defining and shaping the strategy.
There are three crucial concerns ...
1. What do we know as an organization? What we know defines the information that must be imparted, and to whom. It is the information that must be categorized and evaluated. It is the substance of the communication process.
2. How can we create more value from it? We can define which pieces of information go to which internal or external audience. What information best enhances and leverages the skill, knowledge and experience of each individual in the firm? Understanding and organizing what a firm knows creates value by understanding how that information can be used to the best interests of the firm, and how it will be used to serve the firm and its clients.
3. How can we learn faster than competitors? We can learn faster than competitors by applying the defined and refined information to the firm and its practice. When knowledge, unfettered by extraneous information, is focused and directed to the individuals who can make the best use of it, streamlined information becomes infinitely more useful than it is with just random facts. Information management is the key.
By defining and classifying information, people will get only the information that's meaningful to them, unencumbered by irrelevancies.
o Defining information. What information do we have? What specific information must be imparted to each group? What information is mandatory for a firm's professionals, but not the non-professional staff? What information is optional. Some information is urgent and crucial, some important but not urgent, some interesting and useful on a particular level. Six kinds of information to consider are....
o Professional. Information pertaining to the profession itself, such as new regulations, rulings, laws, etc., and the firm's professional skills.
o Proprietary. Information that gives a firm competitive advantages, or that might be harmful in the wrong hands. Firm plans and strategies, for example.
o Creative. Original ideas and new uses of old ideas in practice development and management and client retention.
o Opportunistic. Information that can lead to improvement in the practice, or to competitive advantage.
o Anticipatory. Information that anticipates opportunity or crisis.
o Competitive intelligence. Important for understanding trends, ideas, competitive strategy.
The information needed by each group is then organized and codified. For example, all lawyers or accountants in a firm responsible for practice development should be aware of the marketing program, but only partners may need to know long term strategic plans. The entire firm has to know about changes in certain firm procedures, but only secretaries may have to know about nuances in word processing or rotating work schedules. In each practice group there are some things that every member of the group should know. There are some things that professionals in other groups should know. Social events should be accessible to everybody, and clearly defined as such, but shouldn't clog sensitive business communications lines. In anticipating a crisis, it is prudent to keep everybody in the firm aware of the crisis, but the core details and crisis management strategy need only be known to those who must deal with it. This should lead to pertinent information being more readily accessed, appreciated, and useful.
Acquiring information. When people understand the kinds of information the firm is looking for, and the benefits that individuals get in return for supplying it, then the process has a greater chance of functioning well. Feedback mechanisms are crucial. Two factors are important -- be specific in defining the kind of information you expect each person to contribute, and use devises to streamline the process, such as forms that can be filled in simply. Motivate and educate the office support staff to gather and transmit important information.
Spreading responsibility. Unless you want to maintain a staff of professional internal communicators, you are going to have to establish a process that can be performed effectively by a firm's professionals and staff. Practice group leaders have the responsibility to communicate within their own groups. The managing partner, in running the practice group structure, has the responsibility for inter-group communication, and so forth.
Manage the operation. Internal communications programs don't work by chance or good intentions. They must be organized and managed, with written agendas, plans, schedules, and attention to the details of defining, sorting and classifying information. Appropriate systems and mechanisms must be established. It's a task that should be in the hands of a dedicated information specialist - a marketing director, a librarian, or an information technology director. It's important to realize, though, that it is not a low level job.
While the substance of information vary from firm to firm, there are some general categories to consider . . .
- The firm's goals within the industry (e.g., share of market, quality leadership, shareholder value, increased productivity, and so forth).
- The firm's business plan and strategy. Firm policies and strategic information, much of which may be confidential. New practice areas, now territories, new opportunities. Not everybody has to know everything, but everybody has to know something specific.
- Daily firm business. Matters concerning firm day-by-day operations, such as medical plans, and secretarial scheduling, pension and health benefits, holiday schedules, expense rules, and other housekeeping information.
- Professional information. What each professional needs to know to enhance his or her professional skills and practice. To remain competitive, key people have to know the latest rules, regulations, laws, findings, results, and both technical and client related techniques.
- Morale factors. Social information, softball scores, weddings and births, company's progress and what everybody has contributed to it, and addressing adverse rumors. Specific opportunities at every level, such as sales incentives, rewards for increased productivity.
- Crisis control. The mechanics of dealing with a crisis, how to handle inquiries from the press, how to handle rumors, and what to communicate to staff. A prime consideration here is the concept of no surprises. People who might have to deal with others outside the firm (such as the press) should be aware of crisis information and the process for dealing with it. Crisis management is a function of anticipation and planning before the crisis occurs.
- Client information. Information about clients that should be shared by others in the firm, such as new clients and new client matters, cross-practice needs and opportunities, etc. Who the clients and customers are, who the key people are, who does what for each client, matters pertaining to best serving the client. Some of this may be sensitive; some may be housekeeping. The housekeeping information goes to everybody administratively responsible; the sensitive information only to those who must perform for the client.
- Firm performance. New clients, new business from old clients, cases won, projects completed, feedback on the effectiveness of the firm's activities, etc.
- Marketing. Firm, practice group, and individual marketing plans and activities, techniques, opportunities, and results. Press releases, new firm literature, new ideas. A firm's marketing position is everybody's business.
- Competitive intelligence. What other firms are doing in every aspect that you can discover. Not as benchmarks (which can be retrogressive), but for market trends, ideas, and opportunities.
The Mechanics and Devices
The possible vehicles for internal communications are finite, although imagination may breed innovation. Each vehicle has its purpose, and each its advantages and disadvantages. None is better than others, but value depends on how each is used. In a well-devised program, communications vehicles reinforce one another (E-mail combined with hard copy memos, for example). Among the more standard vehicles are...
o Intranets. An intranet (an internal web site) can be a great tool for internal communication. You can get a lot of information to a lot of people in a very short time. The danger is in not categorizing information.
o Face-to-face meetings and internal seminars. They are the ultimate form of targeting information, because they allow interpersonal relationships to be enhanced, and offer the opportunity to ask and answer questions, using graphics and audio-visual material to explain and clarify. Unfortunately, the larger the firm the more difficult it is to rely on this method as a primary source of general information.
o Internal newsletters. Properly done, a great deal of general information can be conveyed. Firm newsletters that are well written are usually read, and can be a friendlier way to discuss general firm policy than are memos and booklets. Internal newsletters are increasingly being replaced by intranets. To be most effective, newsletters segmented by target audiences should be considered.
o Electronics. E-mail is increasingly popular in larger firms, but with its popularity has come e-mail pollution -- a glut of dubious information in which, like some electronic Parkinson's law, the message expands to fill the available space on-line. Closed circuit television, video, and teleconferencing, can be very effective when several cities are involved, and a new process --the extranet -- allows firms to integrate their own intranets with the client's.
o Bulletins. Distributing advance copies of an ad campaign, for example, makes people feel part of the campaign, and privy to something positive before the public sees it. Distributing copies of press releases internally informs and energizes people.
o Policy manuals. Sometimes policies and procedures are too complex not to put in a manual. Still, manuals are not a prime communications document -- they're a reference tool. Any policy that's active should be communicated by newsletters, bulletins, and meetings.
o Memos. As terse and succinct as possible, to the point and focused, memos impart specific and cogent information. Memo writing may border on art (or, as Lord Chesterfield said, "Had I but the wit to be brief..."), but people can learn to write better memos, sans platitudes and clichÃƒÂ©s.
o Practice group meetings. The practice group concept is becoming increasingly popular in professional firms. A well-run practice group is a laboratory for certain kinds of internal communication. Practice groups, formed by a firm's professionals with the same practice areas, skills, or markets, are distinctive units within a firm that serve a number of important needs. Properly managed, and integrated within a firm, they address best practices, strategic plans, marketing to target audiences, and both external and internal communications. The members of the group share the group's purpose in common, and each member is generally aware of the information he or she needs. A monthly one-page summary of each group's activities circulated among all groups is an excellent way to keep everybody informed of what each group is doing.
o Training programs. A training program is its own form of communication, assuring that within the subject of the program, every participant is learning the same thing.
o Word of mouth and rumors. This is the form of communication that prevails when there is no other communications structure. It's ultimate effect is to breed discontent; it's result is to distort. It can destroy the best of firms.
These are the key methods of communicating internally. There are, of course, other devices. The bulletin board at the water fountain and coffee machine. Faxes. Computer to computer transmissions of data and text. With today's technology, there's no shortage of internal communications devices.
Success, remember, is not in the mechanics. It's in the policy and the planning. It's in the effective use of each vehicle. Without clear objectives, without a plan, without managing the plan to meet the objectives, internal communication becomes simply messages written in chalk on the sidewalk on a rainy day.
Effectively imparting information depends upon better understanding the nature of all firm information, the value of each kind of information to each segment of the firm, and the structure to categorize it. It's the information that matters, not the vehicles to convey it.
Ultimately, the basis of successful internal communication evolve into two areas - motivation and information management. It is here, not with the mechanics or communications vehicles, that the process should begin, if there is any progress to be made in successful internal communication.
Bruce W. Marcus is the author of twelve books, including COMPETING FOR CLIENTS -- THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO MARKETING PROFESSIONAL SERVICES (Probus, 1986, Rev. 1991); NEW DIMENSIONS IN INVESTOR RELATIONS (Wiley, 1997); COMPETING IN THE NEW CAPITAL MARKETS (Harper Business, 1991); and THE NEW PROFESSIONAL FIRM -- COMPETING FOR CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY (Haworth, 2000), as well as numerous articles, studies, and position papers on business, finance and marketing. His writing has appeared in major business, professional, and financial publications, and he is a regular columnist for several Microsoft industry pages. He has been a speechwriter for many of the Fortune 500 companies, and major national political figures, including Robert Kennedy and Senator Jacob Javits, and was the author of a major report for President Carter. He is on the advisory boards of Accounting Today, Partner-to-Partner, and Practice Development for Solo & Small Firms and writes regularly for these and other publications.
Visit Bruce at www.marcusletter.com