September 24, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Chats with Chip: Ryan Williams on Internal Communications and Measurement

Chats with Chip: Ryan Williams on Internal Communications and Measurement

The most recent episode of Chats with Chip featured a conversation about internal communications and measurement with Ryan Williams, a partner with Tekara Effectiveness. Ryan, who has 20 years of experience in this field, illuminated trends, difficulties, and advantages of formulating a regular plan to measure and implement internal communication tactics.

Chip opened the conversation by pointing out that organizations largely neglect to give internal communications and measurement, specifically surveys, the attention they deserve. According to Ryan, organizations should survey both employees on the front lines of the business and senior executives. Surveying the general population of employees tells the organization if their needs are being met, while surveys of senior executives show the effectiveness of their transparency and communication tactics.

Despite the positives of internal communications strategies, Ryan recognizes the difficulties. Surveying employees about sensitive questions can produce unwillingness to provide true responses. Ryan believes that companies can design their own surveys for simple questions, such as lunch options for a meeting, but companies should enlist third party intervention for more sensitive questions, such as the performance of a manager, to ensure confidentiality and honest answers.

The conversation progressed to discuss trends and commonalities among different organizations’ internal communications tactics. Ryan describes these commonalities by stating, “We are looking for more open dialogue. We are looking for more transparency. Having positive conflict. If we’re not actually having open dialogue in the organization and some debate [then] we’re actually not making good decisions collectively.”

Chip and Ryan concluded the conversation by discussing the best strategies for beginning this activity and finding an appropriate timeline. Companies should establish routine communications activities to guarantee open lines of discussion for employees. Additionally, Ryan provides advice on the best ways to implement communications strategies. “We need a lot more formal processes that force us to engage, share, and understand the views of others. Which is different than just having others contribute to our work,” says Ryan.

Check out the full recording to hear more about the specific trends and changes in the field, how to schedule and implement surveys, examples of successful internal engagement, and what every organization wants from their internal communications strategies.

Unverified Transcript

Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unverified transcript.

Chip Griffin: Hi. This is Chip Griffin and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. My guest today is Ryan Williams. He’s a partner with Tekara Effectiveness. Welcome, Ryan.

 

Ryan Williams: Hi Chip. How you doing?

 

Chip Griffin: I’m doing very well, thanks. Really looking forward to this conversation and bringing our two nations together because there’s all this tension that exists between the US and Canada, right?

 

Ryan Williams: We do amass around the border. That’s for sure.

 

Chip Griffin: In any case, if you could tell people where they can find you online and then we’ll start our conversation.

 

Ryan Williams: Certainly so tekara.com is our main website, but also TWI surveys, which is another company we have. That’s also a dot com. You can find me there or on Twitter @Willy26 and always happy to engage with folks there as well.

 

Chip Griffin: Fantastic. Surveys. Survey research is something that I think doesn’t get as much attention as it should. Perhaps in the over all mix for public relations pros as they’re doing measurement, but in particular surveys of internal communications. We spend so much time talking about how’s our media coverage going? How can we get better coverage improve the messaging out there? There’s not as much time spent on internal communication. It strikes that we probably ought to spending more time investigating the quality of our internal comms.

 

Ryan Williams: I would agree. That’s my passion. There’s been an evolution over the last number of years where the importance of our internal communications to how we reflect to the world has increased. Now, with our most creditable sources are those folks working the boiler, they’re on the front lines, they’re in store rooms, and they’re talking about us. How well we’re being able to engage with them and understand them and meet their needs really dictates how well they’re going to represent us out in the community.

 

Secondarily to that, or maybe primarily, is actually the executive teams and senior management groups. How well connected are they? Are they actually open and transparent enough to be able to reflect our brands externally? Do they understand the communication environment we’re in now? How do we as communicators influence them? I think it really starts by us understanding them first and listening very carefully. That’s where surveys that wonderful tool where we can ask everybody. Everybody can get in the room. If we do it well, they’ll feel heard and we’ll get great insights from that information. Internally, surveys are much more effective than what we have in poling.

 

We’ve heard a lot about poles in the last few weeks. Poles are always scratching the surface. They get a little bit of the general. They have to have all these fancy formulas now to try to get an intention or reduce the bias in the pole.

 

When we do internal surveys we have very low bias. In fact, we know who our whole audience is and we can compare to our HR demographics. We can get fantastic data. The confidence level and the validity of the surveys of the internal are much stronger than what we’re used to using externally. For that reason I think it’s low hanging fruit. Doesn’t cost as much. We have a captive audience and they want to share with us what they think. It would be a shame if we didn’t ask.

 

Chip Griffin: As we talk about quality of data, do you find that employees are generally honest in these surveys are far as you can tell? They’re not either afraid to alienate management or perhaps they throw a few too many punches because this is their opportunity to get a few things off their chest.

 

Ryan Williams: You know, methodology matters. We have to communicate in advance what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we’re going to handle the data. I think there’s many things that can be done internally organization as well. If you’re surveying about what you’d like the next meeting or what’s for lunch, you’re going to get candid and honest feedback. If you’re getting into is my boss good? Okay well, having third party support and a lot of controls around how we handle data and confidentiality is incredibly important. Otherwise you will get biased results because there’s a political reality to having a job. We don’t want to call our own security into question.

 

Chip Griffin: What you’re saying is that it would behoove someone who’s really looking for honest feedback to use a third party as opposed to say just setting up survey monkey, and trying to get employees to be honest that way?

 

Ryan Williams: Oh yeah, that’s really topic driven. I would encourage internal communicators to survey about many things. What’s the most preferred source of information, what type of stories are you interested this month in? There’s very low risk in that. People will be honest about those kind of topics. If you’re going into more HR oriented, how well do people communicate, what do I think of the CEO? Those types of things that need a much stronger and formal methodology so people feel comfortable. Then you need a good communication plan to go along with it. That they know they can feel comfortable.

 

Chip Griffin: Right, right. If I’m an organization and I don’t want to deploy and outside consultant either for budget reasons or who knows why, will I get valid data if I’m using something like survey monkey to talk to my employees? Or am I better off just sort of having conversations with my employees and picking up anecdotal things at that point?

 

Ryan Williams: I would probably use a metaphor a kin to, when would you have a manager write their own material and when would you bring in a professional? To make sure it’s clear and consistent done well. It is a profession. It does take a certain amount of skill set. That being said general surveys and general topics of interest, everybody should learn that capability and that skill. If it’s of strategic importance to the organization and there’s risk involved, you can actually lose employees or put someone’s character at risk, then you need the professional help.

 

We don’t want to do harm. That should be the first rule. If we don’t think we can do this safely for the people involved, then we shouldn’t do it. Measurement involves that, because people might disclose stuff that they didn’t intend to. We want to be sensitive to that as well.

 

Chip Griffin: Right. As someone who’s done a lot of internal communications, analysis, survey research of employees, et cetera. Are there trends that you’ve noticed over time? Particular areas that most organizations should be working on or looking at more closely at least?

 

Ryan Williams: Yes, there’s a couple. One, just about every organization people feel like they don’t have input into decisions that impact them directly. They may feel like they have a good relationship with their boss. That they ask the right questions. They don’t a kin that to, I have input. We as communicators, the systems and things that we build around, that give people a sense of input and influence will go a long way to them feeling empathy and trust within the organization. We can do that on our intranets, our town halls, our different meetings. That sense and feeling of having input and influence is incredibly important. It’s systemically a problem.

 

The other question that we actually don’t ask as often anymore, because it just became a static is it’s safe to say what you think around here. When we ask that question it’s almost universally low. It’s always been a curiosity because I thought, well, why can’t that be higher? I think there’s a lot of reasons, even in very trustworthy organizations, that people say, “Well, no. You still can’t say everything you think.”

 

Chip Griffin: Right.

 

Ryan Williams: Because it’s a work environment.

 

Chip Griffin: How many of us at home always say everything that comes to mind? Right? There is value in having that little governor on what you’re saying.

 

Ryan Williams: Yes, yes. Which makes it a little more difficult to say, okay do we actually have an issue here? Is it just people using good common sense and reflecting that in their answers. We are looking for more open dialogue. We are looking for more transparency. Having positive conflict. If we’re not actually having open dialogue in the organization and some debate, that we’re actually not making good decisions collectively. How do we actually create that environment? Having that governor in your head still is important for that.

 

Chip Griffin: Right.

 

Ryan Williams: The surveys show us really a predominance around, are they open to that? How far away are they from that? Under what conditions would they actually share and engage? Around our plans, our ideas, our operations, what we can do for our customers.

 

Chip Griffin: I’m intrigued by the first point that you made about the sense of involvement in decision making and input in things that directly affect the employees. This is something certainly anecdotally I’ve seen in many of the organizations that worked for or with over the years. Have you noticed a difference in that based on the size of the organization or is that really something that no matter what size organization you have, people still feel that way?

 

Ryan Williams: I’m getting to the point, I’ve done this for almost 20 years now. I’ve worked for the Pepsi Cos and the United Technologies all the way down to Mom and Pop shops in the local gym. Little non-profits, government, and what I’m starting to learn is I think that’s just a human truism. That we as people, if we can be in a room with two people, we still might feel like we didn’t enough input into the decision that impacted me. That truism, while it’s universal is also an important part of our communication process. The more I feel like I have input, the more autonomy I feel the more open I am to change. The more open I am to being involved and actually taking ownership in whatever the decision was. While it’s universally true that I’ll never feel like I have enough input, the more we can do to influence that feeling, the more effective our communications can be.

 

Chip Griffin: Based on those decades of experience would you say that people saying they don’t feel like they’ve had enough input, is that simply a proxy for I disagree with the decision? Or do you think it’s really a reliable indicator of how they … Do people say, “I disagreed with it, but I felt I was able to give my input,” I guess is really the question I’m asking.

 

Ryan Williams: We do see many instances where both those things happen, but we have is really effective communication going on there. The input wasn’t only sought, but after the input was given and the decision was made there was a lot of effort gone back in to say, “This is why we made the decision. This is how we used your input. We understood that you don’t like the decision. We’re going this way anyway.” What happens many times is we do the consultation then the decision’s made. No one ever knows why the decision was made. Then they say, “You must not have heard me.”

 

Chip Griffin: Right, right. It’s a challenge because ultimately whether you’re a business or a non-profit or government, your organization is not a pure democracy. We don’t get to raise our hands and say this is what the policy to be or the decision to be. Somehow you have to be able to accept that input, but then communicate the rational for the decision to get buy in from even those who were opposed to it from the get go.

 

Ryan Williams: I think you hit on a critical point. We don’t want a democracy in our organizations. Our consensus doesn’t make the best decision.

 

Chip Griffin: Right.

 

Ryan Williams: Now the question is, are we having that nice tension where we’re actually seeking great information and understanding of each other? Those experts that we have in our organization be it those are closest to the customer or those who are specialists in communication, or legal or finance? Who should make the decision? When the decisions are made, do we feel like they were informed decisions? Would we support the decision? Which is very different than did we all agree with the decision? I think that’s a great bridge into surveys because many times when I work with communicators they want to do a survey. Then they’ll say, “Well, how did everybody feel? I guess we should do more email, because they said email. I wanted to talk mostly with my manager. I guess we’ll make sure that we do a lot of manager tool kits.”

 

That’s how they feel. That actually served them well. Do they already get too much email? Have we already inundated their managers with too much information and too many responsibilities? What’s an effective communication strategy given their preferences for those two things? It’s not possible to do that effectively or well. As professional communicators we have to step back and say, “Well, we can’t just do what they ask for. We have to have a really good communication plan informed by what they asked for.” That’s a rare thing.

 

Chip Griffin: As you look at doing employee surveys, have you developed best practices on what the frequency should be? If you do them more regularly does that have a positive impact on the input question?

 

Ryan Williams: Yes and yes. Let me expand. The first question is what frequency of survey should we use? If it’s relevant to the audience, high frequency works. If we have very targeted surveys about specific events and activities, and they go just to the audience that’s fully involved in those. You can do those weekly. As long as they’re short and easy to take and people love them.

 

Chip Griffin: Really? Weekly?

 

Ryan Williams: No problem. Because you’re talking about what we’re doing next week. You’re getting a feel, maybe it’s only one or two questions.

 

Chip Griffin: Sure.

 

Ryan Williams: That’s why that if you’re the internal person running a program, you’re project manager or the change management allotment program you can go out very quickly to the people that are most impacted. Now, that group might only be 10 or 20 people. You’re regularly checking in with them and confirming what you’ve heard and where they are. You know, how you did last week, where you’re going next week. That frequency makes sense.

 

Other frequencies are dictated by how long it takes for you to go through the system and the process of using the information. In fact, like an employee engagement survey may be done annually. It may only be done every two years. By the time people get the information and go through all the corporate processes programs have changed, people have actually received it. You can actually get into two full economic cycles before you actually get to the end of the process. In that case if you did it quicker people would start saying, “Well, you never hear my feedback. You never use my feedback.”

 

The question is if you only can do it every two years because that’s how long it takes you to do the whole process, what are you doing in between to make people feel like they’re heard. That’s where you come in and say, “Are we having open dialogue? Do we have iterations, or idiation going on, on our internet?” What other ways do we do this, because the survey is just one tool. Engagement and listening should be happening all the time, and just be part of any healthy culture and organization.

 

Chip Griffin: That’s a great point. I think that one of the things that’s over looked whether you’re doing survey research or other forms of measurement internal, external however customers … It’s how you use the data that matters. Right? I remember in the old days when I started out in PR, we used to assemble those giant clip books in binders. My first job in PR like most people, young people in PR was taking out the exacto-knife and cutting out the story, putting on a piece of paper, and putting a nice binder that quarterly we’d deliver to the client and say, “Look what we did!”

 

It would just sit on a shelf. You’d go to the client’s office on a regular basis. You’d see the shelf just gets heavier and heavier. It’s really what you do with that. I think you’ve really hit a key point which is particularity on internal communication where you’ve got people right there on top of you and they’re … If you take feedback from media research, nobody really knows whether you ever acted on it, but your internal constituency certainly does.

 

Ryan Williams: Yes, yes. That role of the research and what you’re trying to inform is incredibly important. There’s times as the communicator you would like feedback. It’s like you and your programming. There’s other times as a communicator in the organization that you’re trying to facilitate internal dialogue that your role is actually to enable others to have great conversations and decisions around the strategy, around the plans of the organization, where you’re going. In that case you’re partnering maybe with HR or other internal services to say, “Okay. How do we make sure localized discussions with managers and supervisors are happening?” Here’s some material that’ll help those conversations. Here’s a frame to do that really well. Here’s a channel for them to feed stuff back through. All those groups need support because they don’t know how to run the communication process. They’re the ones that are going to make the operational change. They’re the ones who are going to decide to treat each other differently in a given situation or circumstance.

 

For us, we’re really trying to facilitate effective management conversations, and leadership conversations, and peer-to-peer employee conversations. Like we would see in social media, now. That influence of how we feel happens more so at that localized level between the two colleagues after the meeting than it was in the message during the meeting. Our opportunity is always, where do we influence all those conversations. Surveys and survey data is one way of saying, “Okay. Here’s the data, but this is what I’d like you’d to do it. Here’s your opportunity and here’s what I think you can benefit from.”

 

Chip Griffin: How important do you think it is to tie together your internal measurement with your external measurement? In other words, should you be sinking up some of the questions you’re asking? Obviously not from an HR perspective. Those kinds of questions, but sort of messaging values, all that type of thing?

 

Ryan Williams: In an ideal world, it would all be really simple and they would all be the same. Then we get into the maceration and complexities of the organizations and our structures. Who owns what and the diverse audiences that we’re meeting. I think our struggle is always to try to come back to that simplicity of what is our vision mission values? How does everything frame underneath those elements? If we have key priorities. Sometimes our management teams might give us 10 and we say, “Well, which two should we focus on this quarter?”

 

If we try to communicate everything we can … I think that just extends that conversation. Which is if your external and your internal match, you’re going to be more successful in both. Otherwise, you always run that risk of looking like you’re not saying what you’re doing.

 

Chip Griffin: Right. It’s difficult to make a prospective costumer believe that you are something if your own employees don’t believe that that’s what you are.

 

Ryan Williams: Because I advocate for internal communication, I would say to start internally. If your employees don’t believe your brand, if they don’t live your brand, if everything’s aspirational, but nothing is core, it’s going to be really hard to communicate to the world that’s who you are. It does start effectively. You can’t wait till all your people are on board before you start communicating to the world. I also understand. That’s why I say it’s attentions, dynamics. In an ideal it would be synced up. In reality, we’re always muddling between the two and trying to make sure that we get as close as possible with that.

 

Chip Griffin: We’ve talked a little bit about some of the trends you’ve seen as far as results of surveys and internal communications research, but are there specific internal communications tactics that you’ve seen as a result of these things that work more effectively than others? Obviously, I’m asking you to generalize here which can be a challenge because every culture is different. Is it email? Is it intranet? Is it some sort of a customized app? We have all these tools now a days to communicate and we have different approaches. We have all hands meetings, we have more one-on-one type things. Are there trends that you’ve seen along those lines that help with internal communications more so than others in today’s day and age?

 

Ryan Williams: The interesting part that I’ve discovered … I’ve had the opportunity … The International Association of Business Communicators for a number of years was allowing me to research their membership. I went into topics like intranet, I went into topics like email, and then tried to understand what the practices where. I was seeking for best practice at the time. Then as a pollster, I learned something. That surveys don’t get me best practice.

 

Even though I knew that, I had to do the research with that method only to find out, “Oh, I’m learning a lot of common practice.” Common practice isn’t always best practice. What are the common practices? Well, the common practice is to have a mix of email, town halls, intranets. What I’m seeing is consistently a dissatisfaction of intranets. From the introduction of intranet in the mid 90s to today, we took a lot of publishing type techniques, applied them to the internet and then it became very static and stale, in most organizations, not all. Now, those that they didn’t become static and stale and had cultures that were predisposed to a lot of sharing.

 

I think about my wonderful client, Mount Clinical up here in Canada. They do outdoor sport equipment, and these kind of things and they share. Their store staff shares, everybody shares. It’s not because the organization made them that way. They wanted to know about their gear, and about the discounts, and everything that goes with it. 85% of folks are on their internet outside of work weekly.

 

Chip Griffin: Wow.

 

Ryan Williams: Because they’re just sharing about their next adventure, their next time out in the woods. “Hey. Did you know we have this new product coming online? We want to try it out. Do we get a chance to use it?” They’re just interested and that’s part of who they are.

 

We can go to another organization and they can create all the context and put all the tools in place and you’ll have zero share. It’s just not part of what makes them excited or passionate about what they do. That wouldn’t be how they express themselves.

 

In that case, to your point, they’re very different organizations. The [inaudible 00:20:30] that we applied a lot of old technology practices to a very new place. We’re still struggling, even though it’s been a long time now. What should this look like? How do we enable it for most organizations as opposed to some organizations?

 

Chip Griffin: [crosstalk 00:20:44].

 

Ryan Williams: I think it’s the insight one. The insight one I’ve seen with email. Is our executives are stuck and they’re trapped, and it tends to go across professions. I’ve also been fortunate where I do research on physicians, on lawyers, and also on the accounting profession. Across the professions is just like across our senior executive teams. They’re so busy. They communicate with email. That’s their behavior. They don’t have the capacity or space to experiment or try, so they don’t evolve. That’s why email’s been a problem for over 10 years now. It’s pervasive and systemic. I’ve seen no evidence of change at that level, at that management level and at the professional level because they’re tied to the behavior. It’s what pushes them forward. Even though we’ve had many new tools that are more effective come out, there’s no adoption.

 

Who adopts is what we’ve seen in some of the research in very large organizations are front line employees. They all have their smart phones. They already set up all their online banking and they download apps to help them get around yards and coordinate with their colleagues because they can. The corporate tools don’t provide it so they just do it on their own. They move, and evolve, and adapt. The presumption might be that the higher end folks, in the suites would be the ones who might try, or experiment, or be more knowledgeable about these things. They’re actually the least likely to change when it comes to technology.

 

Chip Griffin: Right. We’ve seen a lot of changes that technology has facilitated whether it’s more tele-work, partial tele-work, people working from home some days a week, coming into an office, hoteling within office spaces as opposed to having a dedicated cube or office, more internationalization of businesses because global borders really are breaking down from a business perspective. How have these things impacted internal communications and how does it impact the need for measurement?

 

Ryan Williams: I guess there’s a great opportunity in that, but we’re not there yet. Which is the more we digitize and the more we do everything online, the easier measurement is. It all becomes observable. [inaudible 00:22:59] we put the practices and protocols in place and people understand how and why we observe and what we collect and what we don’t because we can. The more that everybody moves into the digital channels, the more measurement becomes achievable.

 

The random conversations at the water cooler now become things that we can all see. What should our protocols … I think this is a great conversation for the legal, and the communicators and HR and everybody to get together and come around and say, “What should our culture promote and what degrees of privacy should we maintain and when do we need to really clearly communicate that this is a public forum? That we’re going to measure it and we’re going to track it because we’re going to try to utilize it. We’re going to try to enable it and we want it to be.

 

I guess one side is the more we move online to those ways of working, we actually have great opportunities in measurement that way. The other side though is that we’re community people. As much as many of us are introverts, seeing people, proximity to people, it matters, makes a difference. As we move away from that, it does impact how we do work and what collaboration looks like. Our work flows change and depending on our task it can either create great efficiency or really reduce innovation.

 

I’m in my home office as you can see behind me today. I’ll get more done before noon today than I will if I go into my downtown Vancouver office because I won’t talk to anybody. I’ll read things. No one will interrupt me except my dog. I’ll get lots done. Getting lots done is different than collaboration, being aware of what other people are doing and those things. We need a lot more formal processes that force us to engage, share, and understand the views of others. Which is different than just having others contribute to our work.

 

Chip Griffin: Is there any way to generalize in the quality of internal comms for an organization that’s more centrally located? You know, the 1000 person campus. Everybody’s sort of on site versus those that are more distributed? I can see it going either way. I can see distributed organization sort of being compelled to find new and more innovative ways to communicate. Or I could see it being sort of a, “Geez, we can’t figure out how to do this.”

 

Ryan Williams: You know what the most interesting part about that is? I see the trend is based on leadership. The leadership of groups like communications, HR, IT, and if that leadership is keen and aware that the way that they can be successful in the future is through facilitating the process, then it’s there. If that’s not the way they see their work, if they see their work as [inaudible 00:25:43] as the next big deal or doing the next MNA or something along those lines, then what you see is a very tactical professional driven organization. It’s more about results and less about process and then it breaks down. What I have seen is, I can be in a global organization and the story will be, “Well, we’re all around the world. We better focus on our communication locally and get that right before we get good at it in every other country. I’ll have a lot of US first policies.”

 

We’re going to experiment with this in the US first and then we’ll try it abroad. Okay. Let’s start. Let’s see what happens. Then that’s the story. That’s an organization that’s in a single building, but they have 9 floors. They’ll say, “Well, let’s get this right on the 9th floor because then we can try it in other places.”

 

Then I get an organization that has 1 floor, but has 3 distinct areas. They’ll say, “Let’s get it right on the right side of the building before we go to the left side of the building.” The story is the same. The question is how do we view communications? How do we view that information flow? If we carry the story over, it really does matter how big we get or how distributed. It’s just a question of do we value and do we believe that the others are equally able to engage with us? Or do we believe we knew something they didn’t? When we get it right then we can let them be involved. It’s very much a cultural mindset.

 

Chip Griffin: I think that’s a great note to end on. I think regardless of whether someone listening is with a small or a large organization distributed or all on site … I think there’s a lot of insight that can be taken away from this. I know you and I could go on for quite a bit longer talking about this, but unfortunately we have come to the end of our allotted time. Ryan, I appreciate you being my guest today. Again, my guest has been Ryan Williams with Tekara Effectiveness.

 

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About The Author

jordan.gosselin@carma.com'

Jordan Gosselin recently began her career in marketing and communication with CARMA. Her experience includes social and digital work, creative content production, and marketing operations.

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