Rebuilding Babel: 7 ways Internal Communications can break down silos

One of the more well-known stories from the Bible is the Tower of Babel. In short, generations after Noah and the flood, a united humanity in the land of Shinar decided to build a tower to reach the heavens. God didn’t appreciate the arrogance of this effort, but instead of destroying the tower or killing all the builders, God makes it so that everybody speaks a different language. Unable to understand one another (it sounded like “babble”), they stopped building and went on their separate ways to form different nations.

I have always heard that the purpose of this story was twofold: (1) to show that there is a limit to the arrogance of man that God will tolerate; and (2) to explain how humans separated into different languages and nations. However, as a communicator, I see another lesson: the most effective way to stop humanity from achieving the creation of something so monumental that it was offensive to God was to cut off their means to communicate with one another. It is a story about the power of communication. The bricklayer didn’t lose his ability to lay bricks; he just lost his ability to coordinate and communicate with other builders.

Fast forward to the modern company; particularly the modern global company, which may contain world over the same amount of people who were building the Tower. Either from a lack of a strong central culture creating what I have heard called “functional or cultural fiefdoms” or poor hygiene in integrating acquisitions, many companies have evolved into silo’d entities that have strong identities that are separate from the global culture of the company.

And this is a problem because?

Do I even need to convince you that silos are damaging to business outcomes? That from an efficiency and productivity pov, they create redundancy and poor collaboration? That from a broader perspective, they can create a state of unaligned priorities across the organization that may actually conflict?

In an era of increasing market, geopolitical, environmental, and competitive disruptive forces, it means that while parts of your company may be agile, silos make it very hard to turn the tanker of your entire company to stay ahead of these disruptors. Thinking about it less reactively, and especially with the advent of employee advocacy, you are not punching at the weight of your entire corporation and instead function as a loose partnership of smaller businesses and brands.

Time to bust the silos

Communication can do so much to help to break down the silos, especially cultural ones. Of course, let’s acknowledge that changing structure and incentives are often needed to create a more unified organization. Also it doesn’t hurt to have a leadership team that acts like a true operating committee when they get together and not as a meeting of the five families from The Godfather movie. Also, technology is making collaboration easier, including forming cross-company communities on your intranet, or on specialized collaboration tools such as Yammer or Slack. However, even with those changes, Internal Communication is needed to bring the culture along with the structure and the leadership.

There are countless tools and ways of creating a more common culture and bust through silos, but I have seven favorites. You’ll notice the first four are focused on breaking through the silos using common interests as the hook.

  1.  Doubling down on business resource groups. To those who may not know, business or employee resource groups (sometimes called affinity or diversity groups) are collections of employees that are organized around a common identity: for example, gender, race, sexual orientation or where you are in your career. They are created to empower these groups within companies, giving them a voice and early opportunities to lead. With the disbanding of these groups at Deloitte, there is some debate over whether they are a good strategy to achieve those means. Without getting into that, I can say confidently that they are an internal communicator’s best friend when it comes to communicating across silos. Because they are formed on commonalities outside of what business or geography employees are in, they can help you reach across organizational boundaries. So for instance, I recently wrote about multi-office internal campaigns; in one of the more successful ones I was part of, we worked closely with the rising professionals BRG to help find volunteers across offices. Because these mostly young professionals were not only scattered across offices, but were also, within an office, scattered among the sub-businesses, they were able to cast a much wider net in getting people to participate in that campaign.
  2. Getting well together. Wellbeing or Wellness initiatives also cut across geographies and businesses. For example, we had (as many companies have had) a step challenge where teams were formed and competed against other teams across the company on average weekly steps. While it was a competition, there was no prize and the step counts themselves were mostly on the honor system, so it was meant to be, and taken to be, a fun competition that didn’t create a serious “us and them” atmosphere that would work against breaking down silos, generating more fun taunting than anything else. But it did bring people into contact with one another that would never have crossed paths. We could have taken the added silo-busting step of forming the teams centrally to put strangers across offices and countries on the same teams, which I believe other companies have done. (We didn’t opt for it because we thought that people choosing their own teams would be part of the draw in participating). Also we launched a wellbeing site on our intranet, where you could find other people interested in things like yoga, or running, or eating healthy.
  3. Forming a community to take care of a community. It is typical workers from the same company will work in that same location, possibly seeing each other day after day for years, nodding hello in awkward familiarity, and have absolutely nothing else to do with one another. In terms of silo-breaking, this would be what I would call low-hanging fruit. Now you can get those colleagues together for events or even mixers, but if you really want them to bond, then there is nothing like a group volunteer event. Participating together in an activity for a worthy cause will bring people together, get them to learn each other’s names, and just chat. The event can then live on through pictures on your Intranet, shared stories, communal pride, and hopefully some new friendships. It is a powerful silo-buster. The one restriction is that corporate social responsibility events tend to be local in nature, so it is difficult to use them to bring together people across larger geographies that cannot possibly spend a day together (unless you fly them there).
  4. Jamming and hacking. Whether they are called idea jams, innovation challenges, or hackathons, the crux is to get disparate groups of employees together for the purpose of crowdsourcing a solution to an issue. The issue needs to be specific enough that it elicits specific solutions. The problem may require certain technical expertise to solve it (e.g., solving a particular product design weakness) or be general enough that everybody can participate (e.g., coming up with the best ideas to celebrate International Women’s Day across the company). They can be competitions where ideas are voted upon to find the “best” solutions or group exercises where people can build off of others’ ideas to come to a specific solution. Since you can find great articles on how to run one of these, I won’t go into more specifics, other than to say that to me, this is the best kind of silo-buster. It allows people to interact across a platform, such as your employee social network (although they have, for a price often, specialized platforms and agencies created for these efforts) to solve a problem. I tend to like Hackathons and other more technical problem-solving events, because it gets people together who have specialized skill sets and often common interests, and that interaction is more likely to lead to further interactions after the event is over.
  5. Sharing the same experience. Working closely with your HR team, internal communications can help ensure that whether an employee sits in a 10 person office in Indiana or a 3000 person office in Brazil that they are having common employee experiences unique to your company. This starts with a common onboarding experience, but includes similar experiences in those touchpoints where employees interact with the company as an employee (e.g., performance management, learning & development, etc.). This is where having a strong employer brand is helpful to tie all these experiences together and give them a similar feel even if they are not exactly the same country to country. I have already written about the ways I screwed up implementing an employer brand, so will leave it at that. Suffice it to say that sharing a common experience doesn’t necessarily create moments of collaboration and interaction across silos, but it does set the stage for it because employees feel like they are a citizen of the larger company and not just a member of a specific team or office. It is easier to find commonalities when you see yourselves as common citizens.
  6. Illuminating goals horizontally. This is another one that needs a strong partnership with HR. When we set goals at the beginning of the year, you may hear a lot about vertical goal alignment, which is making sure that my goals are aligned with my boss’s goals, and my reports’ goals are aligned with mine. However, you rarely hear about horizontal alignment. It starts with the CEO; her goals should reflect the company’s strategy to fulfill its business objectives. Her executive team’s goals should be aligned with her goals, which is again vertical alignment. However, what you don’t see often is the executive team sharing their goals with each other and the rest of the company. Now all employees can see how different parts of the business are contributing to the company’s priorities and how they may (or may not) be aligned with each other. Depending on the size of the company, you can even share horizontally the goals of the next level down from the executive team; although, you may not want to go too far down the chain because then it becomes an overwhelming amount of goals. However, illuminating the top goals, helps everybody see how their leaderships goals and ultimately their own goals fit in with the larger priorities of the company. It makes the employee appreciate that even if they are all doing different things, they are all rowing in the same direction. Again, feeling like you are all on the same team working towards the same priorities can weaken the silos between you and your colleagues. Which brings me to the last and most important method to break down the silos . . .
  7. Working towards a common purpose. When your company has a strong common purpose, and you communicate it loudly and embed it throughout your communications, you are integrating a shared mission in your culture that is, I believe, a necessary pre-cursor to really uniting your employees in a positive way. It is not just a tactic; it is table stakes. Tactically, one of the great ways of reminding your colleagues of your purpose in a visceral way is bringing your customers voice into your communications. Having all employees hear from customers about what the company is doing for them and how it is solving their problems can be a powerful way to unite people in the most important common cause.

These are far from the only ways of breaking down the silos in your company, but they are ones I have used and can recommend. I’d love to hear what you have done. As internal communicators, we have to bring the Tower back, and help our employees reach the sky together.

 

A Guiding Principle for Employee Communications in 2018 (OK, three of them)

Among our internal team, and my follow travelers in employee communications, I have had more than a few discussions about new guiding philosophies to create better employee experiences in 2018. These “resetting” conversations should be happening all the time (and they do), but the beginning of a new year is an optimal time to turn these conversations into something that actually shapes our plans. These conversations are difficult at times because they challenge our fundamental beliefs as communicators.

In the past, these guiding principle conversations shifted us from trying to “control” information flow to favoring transparency. They moved us from one-way communications, to two-way conversations, and ultimately to a multi-directional flow of information. These conversations drove us towards images and videos, as well as from a centralized writing-only mindset to one of broad curation.

Before I reveal what I believe is the core guiding principle for 2018, let me acknowledge that if I allowed myself three guiding principles for 2018 (which I could because there are no rules to this game), it would be an easier exercise since I am not convinced that the one I chose is so much more important than the ones I did not. So I will half weasel out of choosing one, by briefly describing the other two “runner ups:”

  • Internal is external and external is internal. We have always assumed within internal communications that anything we communicate to employees is likely to go external since large corporations are leaky. However, today we have accepted the increasingly blurry line between external and internal as not just a precautionary assumption, but as an engagement strategy. As such, for my team, our partnership with our social strategy group is stronger than it ever has been, with both of us sharing common goals around employee advocacy. In fact, our work in preparing for our firm’s efforts at the World Economic Forum, has been a hand-in-hand campaign in recruiting an employee group of advocates we call the #DavosSquad. In addition, as I have mentioned in this blog, we have created an entire role, the People Marketer, around this blurring line.
  • Every great decision should have analytics behind it. We have been talking about importance of data for a long time, so it feels evolutionary that the idea of People Analytics, which has also been discussed for years, seems like it is coming in for a real landing in2018. According to Josh Bersin, 69% of companies are integrating their data to build a People Analytics database. And much of the same data analytics that will change HR will also change internal communications. Conducting what was once traditional customer analysis (e.g., conjoint analysis) on employees to find out what makes them more engaged, happy and/or productive in their job can only improve our decision-making ability on how, when, why and what to communicate.

Arguably, both of these guiding principles will impact the future of employee experience and communications, and frankly, the future of work. However, the one principle that I chose was more of a philosophical shift than these other two. Like any principle, it is something that has been evolving for a while, but at least for me, it was going into this year when it (finally) fundamentally changed my planning. For those of you who have been living this principle for many years, I salute you.

  • It’s time to go where employees already are. I came to this principal partly because I finally acknowledged that employees now control their channels, not us. I also came to it out of exhaustion; I got tired of working so hard with so little return to get employees to come to the channels we created for them. I do remember that when I finally adopted this principle, I felt the relief of a person who had finally stopped swimming upstream.

    Driving people to the channels we chose used to be so much easier. It used to be (back in the early days of 4 or 5 years ago) that our technology at work was more advanced than many our employees had back home. Also, people at work weren’t inundated with information, so their attention was easier to attract. Most people were tied to a particular desk in a particular office making them truly captive audiences. I won’t say that they read whatever we wanted them to read, but we were able to limit where they could read information (which sounds sort of authoritarian, and maybe it was).

    All of that has changed dramatically, and the degree of difficulty in getting employees to focus on the channels (let alone the messages) you want them to focus on seems to jump a level every few months. And it is not that smart engagement efforts to get people to come to your channels today have stopped working; it is just . . . well, why bother? If they are already all on WeChat in China, why are we trying so hard to get them to use Slack? If they are all trying to build their brands on LinkedIn, then why are they forcing them to read articles only on our Intranet?

    Of course, there are good answers to those questions. Having everybody on the same communications system allows for enterprise-wide collaboration and easier alignment in a much more efficient way. And frankly there is still plenty of information that is not appropriate for external social channels, especially if you are a publicly traded company.

    However, what we can do is to present better channels that are more mobile and cloud-based to acknowledge that people are mostly checking their smart mobile devices every few minutes. We can replicate the features of popular external social platforms within firewalls (FaceBook Workplace, anyone?). And we can, while we build a more sophisticated cloud-based system, find ways to use channels in the interim like WeChat, Slack, Dropbox, etc., that employees are already using.

    Of course that means Communications has to develop a more sophisticated content engine and distribution process to go along with the use of multiple channels. Feeding everybody through one door didn’t need as sophisticated a distribution system as a strategy that involves multiple doorways. We also need to work closely with our technology group to understand the usage, integration and security limitations and risks of using such channels. Finally we need to define what channels are fulfilling what needs the best: which are being used for collaborative working, for information sharing, or to read the latest company news?

For those of you who are new to internal communications, the idea of going to where employees already are may not seem like a shift at all. In fact, it must seem almost embarrassingly obvious. However, it really is a fundamental philosophical shift as many veterans know. It goes along with the other shifts happening in the workplace that allow employees to have a more personalized experience and creates choice where there was none.

The future of work contains many elements that can make some nervous: AI, robotics, and the implications of longer lifespans. However, one that is more universally exciting is the increasing autonomic power of choice that digital tools offer. And we in employee communications must embrace and enable it or continue to swim upstream until the current over takes us.