As part of the celebration of International Women's Day in 2010, the Town Hall in the city of Manchester displayed a wonderful 'photo-mosaic portrait' of Emmeline Pankhurst. Viewed from a distance, artist Charlotte Newson's impressive work clearly showed Manchester's famed suffragette, but a closer inspection revealed thousands of smaller images of other inspirational women from around the world.
As a piece of art it was impressive, but it also struck me that the Pankhurst mosaic was a useful metaphor for business communication, more specifically of an organisation who gave its individual employees a voice but at the same time presented a unified front.
In my role as a consultant and trainer, I get involved in all manner of communication issues within businesses. But one concept that excites many of my clients is the idea of a 'connected workforce'. To understand what I mean by that, consider what a disconnected workforce looks like.
Employees might be very task-focused, with very little concern for, or awareness of, the wider implications of their work for the business. They might claim to be "laying bricks" whereas the connected worker would be "building a cathedral."
You also see a lot of silos within organisations, where departments operate like isolated islands with little or no awareness of the inter-connected nature of their work.
The concept of connection can be taken externally too – how connected is the business as a whole with its clients and wider stakeholders? Is the relationship deep and inter-dependent or shallow and transactional?
At this stage I'd like to make a case for allowing the entire workforce (not just an elite few) to have a voice. I'd like to suggest that encouraging employees to share experiences and insights should lie at the heart of an organisation's communication policy – and provide a solution to the connectedness issue.
You can do this via intranets but this is often just a channel for management to dump information on its workforce. An alternative would be to encourage employees to blog. Southwest Airlines have an award-winning blog (Nuts about Southwest), produced by a cohort of employees ranging from pilots to baggage handlers. They're on the lookout for stories or insights from the world of air travel, and it's a good read. From the outside world, South West comes across as a customer-focused, caring organisation with a personality. But within the business, the employees feel valued and involved, almost as guardians of the brand.
Company executives are often reticent to allow this level of transparency in the business and worried, too, about losing control of brand communication. But as David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of PR & Marketing told me recently, "This is really a trust issue. If you extended that same argument you wouldn't let the employees talk to clients on the telephone. Blogging and social media is just a different technology."
Interestingly, Scott also points out that companies who have their own blog often appoint the wrong people to do the writing – marketing folk and copywriters. In his view, you need people with a journalistic mind-set who can sniff out an authentic story rather than a thinly-veiled product push.
Organisations should also encourage staff to share experiences face-to-face. It's important you create the right environment for this (safe and facilitated is best), but sharing stories can reveal some fascinating gems. My business partner Sara told me of the Monday morning huddles which worked fabulously well at her former employer, the British Council, something she replicated recently with great success in the World Health Organisation.
Sharing stories in this way can help drive innovation, break down silos, stimulate cross-referrals, improve employee engagement and generate fantastic stories for external marketing. In other words, improved communication creates more 'connection'.
There is one form of storytelling which is well-established in business and that's the case study. The problem is, case studies are often stories with the soul sucked out! They're often written in way that's sanitised and therefore less believable. Don't be afraid to explain how you had to adapt to unusual circumstances and find a new solution. Most clients like to work with companies who are innovative, determined and ready to listen.
Giving employees a voice and letting them share experiences is a smart move. When it's championed from the top it creates an environment where people feel safe to question, share, collaborate and innovate. It encourages an empathic and inter-connected culture where individuality is celebrated, but at the same time contributes to a common purpose.
Author Terrence Gargiulo once said, "The shortest distance between two people is a story." Sharing experiences is a wonderful way to develop new and existing relationships, transfer knowledge and galvanise the entire workforce behind a common cause.