Why communicative participation of employees is so important for businesses

Series: Participation in the intranet, part 2

There are at least three good reasons why many companies can benefit from increased employee participation in the intranet: used properly, it leads to an increase of productivity, agility and controllability.


After consulting firm McKinsey  had  analyzed several thousand enterprises worldwide for five years, they published a study in 2012 drawing the conclusion that knowledge workers could increase their productivity by 20 – 25 percent, if they made proper use of social software. They found that two thirds of the potential added value of social technologies resulted from improved internal communication and collaboration, leading to employee skills better finding their way to the departments where they are needed most (‘matching talent to tasks’).

It is important to note that successful participation in the intranet doesn’t only depend on technology but on quality and quantity of social interactions. While IT is necessary to facilitate the required speed and coverage of interactions, the exchange will only take place if supported by a culture of cooperation and  the willingness to participate. According to McKinsey, this willingness to participate is decisively encouraged when executives act as role models and the use of software becomes a regular part of the work process.


Participation has, however, not only the potential to increase productivity, but it can make companies much more flexible. Change management expert John P. Kotter thinks it is critical because in times of constant change hierarchically dominated management methods aren’t fast and agile enough. Hierarchical processes work well for the recurring demands of daily control of a company, but when it comes to being continually on the lookout for new solutions, they are too clumsy.

Hierarchy and network_11072015

Exhibit 1: hierarchy versus network

As a result, Kotter proposed to introduce, parallel to the traditional hierarchy, a second ‘operating system’ for companies that works like a network. While hierarchies proceed according to established rules and processes that have been optimized for the most efficient handling of known tasks, network resources can be re-assembled again and again responding to changing requirements. In a hierarchical organization, the management focuses on administration and control of the system. The management of a network, however, motivates to find new ways and  is more fault-tolerant.  In a hierarchy, communication is mainly top-down, in directives which are sent via the cascades of the organizational chart. The communication in networks on the other hand runs in dialogues that, according to requirements, may run criss-cross  through the organizaton. What matters here, is how valuable the contribution is for the new requirement, not where it comes from.

Hierarchy and network as dual operating system

Kotter’s point is not to replace hierarchies by networks, he rather wants to create a ‘dual operating system’ in which both organization models complement each other. Reliable day-to-day business and ongoing innovation should be able to coexist. The participation of employees plays a crucial role for the success of the network. To allow for rapid change, Kotter recommends  to involve as many employees as possible on a voluntary basis. Volunteers set to work with a ‘I want’ instead of ‘I must’ attitude and contribute to cost-containment to boot. In return, they want to be involved in change, not only be affected by it. To this end, it is necessary to exert a leadership style that  works with motivation and appreciation instead of delegation and budget control. According to Kotter, leaders on all levels must be involved to establish the network as legitimate part of the organization.

I consider Kotter’s approach very productive because it reflects the reality of business. Every business needs hierarchies to remain efficient and capable of making decisions, especially when it has reached a certain size. And every business needs network structures in order to adapt to the ever-changing environment. Kotter presents a model in order to mediate this conflict of objectives and illustrates the crucial role of participation for companies to cope with the constant pressure to change.

However, what Kotter describes as ‘dual operating system’ also seems to be dualistic, because network and hierarchy are working  in parallel without being truly integrated with each other. The connection between the two is primarily  based on the personal union of employees  who play a role in both systems and as a result have to settle the conflict of objectives in themselves. I believe that decision making hierarchy and networking culture can be reconciled in another way and by doing so improve the controllability of the organization.


Increased employee participation allows for management to gain new insights into the state of things and based on that for making more informed decisions. More informed decision making improves the controllability of the organization as a whole, but it also brings a new quality to communication controlling in particular, because with participative internal media it can be measured how messages resonate in the organization.

Closed loop of internal communication

Exhibit 2: Closed loop of internal communication

Exhibit 2: Closed loop of internal communication

Traditional internal communication mainly serves as the mouthpiece of the executive board. It shapes messages dealing with the ‘targets’, the goals and plans that management want to reach with the organization. And it coordinates the distribution of these messages along the hierarchy, from top to bottom, through the cascade and traditional internal media such as the staff magazine. While this management of messages is well tested and established, internal communication so far had little opportunity to find out how they resonate in the organization.


With the participation opportunities enabled by social software all this has changed. Now it can be determined how much of the messages has actually come through and where there is still need for reinforcement. Horizontal networking makes opinion-shaping processes visible which were in the dark before . With employees openly cooperating on the same project or exchanging views on the same field of interest (‘peer-to-peer’), new internal publics emerge which serve as means for knowledge exchange but also show where the organization stands with its projects. Depending on the internal social media landscape, the actual state of things can directly emerge from observing the exchange or can be purposefully collected as social intelligence from the bottom up. Thus a targets-actuals comparison is facilitated that shows how far apart plan and reality are and what is needed to close the gap between the two. Through the communicative participation of employees a loop is generated that makes the internal communication significantly more controllable than it was with a silent audience.

However, participation in the intranet doesn’t work like grasssroots democracy. There are different levels of participation and formats with active influencers and more passive followers. Internal communication has to adjust to that with appropriate models of participation, and we’ll look into those over the next couple of posts in this series.


Loss of control on the social web is a myth

Exhibit 1: The art of clean-up (source Ursus Wehrli)

Over the last 6-8 years, I have heard it again and again: organizations entering the social web will lose control of their message. As a result, the fear of losing control has had – and still has – many corporations hesitating to communicate via social media platforms. Today, I will argue that this loss of control is a myth. In fact, the new ways of online communication even enable a gain of control which can potentially be scary. When I recently found Ursus Wehrli’s fantastic photos presenting his “art of clean-up”, they not only made me laugh, but also reminded me how artificial the idea of control in human relations is (see exhibit 1).

Let’s start by clarifying some terms involved. When thinking about the meaning of control within the context of (marketing) communications, I find it helpful to differentiate channels. Market research firm Forrester provided a nice little framework defining the boundaries between owned, paid and earned media (see exhibit 2).

Exhibit 2: Forrester defining owned, paid, earned media

You do have “control” over your messages in paid media like display ads or owned media such as corporate web sites, but it is merely the control over your own monologue. If control means “to exercise restraining or directing influence over someone or something“, controlling your message in paid and owned media isn’t more than “self-control”. This is true for traditional and social media. However, the control ends with people’s reactions to your message. And again, this is true for traditional and social media. While you can control the content of your ad or your blog post, there is no guarantee as to how your audience will respond to it. The difference between traditional and social media is that you can easily see the response in social media whereas you can’t see it in traditional media. You don’t see what people think of your TV ad or if they care at all, but you can see what people say on the web. Hence, you actually have more control in social media, since you can monitor what the issue is and respond to it. Knowing what your stakeholders think of you all the time is a huge advantage, in particular for your messaging.

What people say about you is what you earned in terms of reputation. And again, this is true for traditional and social media. However, the reach and speed of earned media was much smaller before social media existed. Earned content was limited to independent journalists writing about your organization after checking multiple sources, or people promoting your brand offline through word-of-mouth after having an exciting experience. Since the arrival of social media, word-of-mouth is on stereoids, which makes reputational issues and wins earlier visible and actionable. This is not bad news, but very good news for communicators who want to be in control. In fact, the problem is not that communicators lose control over their message, the problem is that they possibly gain too much control by tracking every step of their audiences on the web. With that kind of knowledge, you might be in a position to communicate as targeted and relevant as never before, but you might also creep silently under people’s skin without having their consent. This is what Facebook users fear when they complain about intransparent privacy settings on the network.

It is one of the ironies of our time that corporate communicators fear loss of control on the social web while at the same time social web users fear loss of control over their personal data because of commercial (or political) interests. It is one of the great challenges of our time to balance the commercial interest in providing targeted and compelling content with the personal interest in privacy. We should rather focus our attention on this issue than on the loss of message control, because it is a myth.

Georg Kolb


Meet me at conferences

May will be a pretty busy month for me in terms of conferences. I will speak at three German and one international convention:

May 2nd and 3rd in Munich: Social Media in Unternehmen 2011 (Social Media in Corporations 2011). My talk will be on how to make the new feedback culture corporate ready.

May 10 in Amsterdam: Social Media in a Corporate Context. Stefan Kruijer and I will speak about Many-to-One communication fostering one global company culture at Airbus.


May 12 and 13 in Frankfurt: Tagung Interne Kommunikation (Internal Communications Convention). My workshop will be on social media policies.





26.05. in Dusseldorf: K2-Tagung Interne Kommunikation (K2 Internal Communication Convention). Frank Weber and I will speak about Many-to-One communication for leadership and change at Wüstenrot&Württembergische Group.


Would be great to meet some of you there!

Georg Kolb


Book review: From Lincoln to LinkedIn by Mike Klein

From Lincoln to LinkedIn. The 55 Minute Guide to Social Communication by Mike Klein is a quick and fun read, making three great points that are relevant to any organisational communicator’s strategy:

1) Communication has always been social, and influence has always been exerted through word of mouth. It didn’t take social media to make that true.

2) Organisational communicators can learn from political communicators who understood early on how to leverage word of mouth in social networks. Abraham Lincoln in particular was a master of social communication we can learn from in very practical terms.

3) It is key to map the “tribes” of your organisation, those communities of interest and networks of trust driving communication socially. They are the real influencers beyond the orgchart that will help you win. Social media might be a great way to identify them and work with them, but social communication is not dependent on any particular channel.

I do highly recommend this book. Mike Klein is an inventive thinker, a great writer and a healthy pragmatist.

Georg Kolb


Some thoughts on the future of PR

Social Web World in Germany did a series of interviews on the future of PR. Here is an English summary of my bit:

What is the main task of PR chiefs today? What will it be in five years?

Let me just make a preliminary note on questions regarding the future of communications. Back in 2004, “blog” was the term most searched on the US online dictionary Merriam Webster. Five years later, 15.8 % of Fortune 500 enterprises had a corporate blog. In 2004, at the peak of the blog hype in the US, many would have expected a higher rate than this, but from a long term perspective it can still be seen as a remarkably fast adoption. In other words, at the peak of a hype – as currently is the case with social media in Germany – it’s easy to fall into one of two traps: you either underestimate the change (“it’s all hype, nothing will change”) or you overestimate it (“everything will change”). The truth is generally somewhere in between, and that’s where my attempts to touch on the future will go, more like a compass than exact directions.

Today, the main task of PR chiefs is to build and protect the reputation of their companies or organisations, with the perception by traditional media being the major focus, considering the company as a whole, its products, its economic situation and – not the least – its leadership. A significant part of the attention is also dedicated to planning, resource management and leading the own team or external service providers PR chiefs are working with. I do believe that all this won’t change over the next five years, but I also do expect an extension of duties and considerable shifts in focus:

  • More direct communication: With the advent of social media, everyone with internet access potentially has a public voice. As a result, the one public determined by traditional media is complemented by many new publics influencing the perception of companies. These new publics expect to be addressed directly. As a result, PR as a whole is getting more interactive and more holistic. It again has to deal with all publics, not just the media. And in addition to the publics of the old school of PR, new, virtual publics are emerging that didn’t exist before. This results into two important questions for the PR organisation: 1) Which online voices are at all relevant for the company? 2) How is efficient communication in this environment of potentially thousands of voices possible with limited ressources?
  • More technology: In the future, PR chiefs don’t have to be nerds or software developers, but they need to know on which platforms new publics emerge, which of those are relevant to the organisation,  and how they can be used for efficient communication. Being familiar with communication technologies will be of growing importance for PR chiefs both for daily work and for education. This development is fostered by communication technology more and more becoming a life style, not only for the young.
  • More integration: More direct communication also entails more integraton. If companies increasingly communicate with all publics directly and interactively, there is more coordination needed between the departments involved, in particular between PR, marketing, and customer relations. This will also change the organisational line-up. Large enterprises such as IBM and Bosch have already integrated PR and marketing, with former PR chiefs being in the lead. I expect this to see more often.
  • More governance: More direct communication – this has been pointed out time and again – results in loss of control. I’d like to distinguish that a bit. If corporate communication is not just a one-way street of press releases, advertisements and brochures, you will certainly lose a part of the control over the content, because suddenly many can chime in, be it employees, customers, partner or other stakeholders. However, such a democratisation of communication doesn’t necessarily lead to anarchy. We will need a communicative constitution allowing for civilised interaction with relevant results for all, a communications governance all employees have to adhere to.  It will probably be coordinated by communications chiefs working with HR, Legal, and IT. With the number of participants communicating demand for communication trainings will increase, too, not only for spokespersons, but for all employees. So the loss of control over content will be counterbalanced by increased control over the framework of communication. We can observe first signs of this development in “social media policies”.
  • More internal communication: Employees have always had an impact on the reputation of a company, but with the advent of social media their influence has grown massively. They are becoming brand ambassadors, good or bad. In addition, companies are under increasing pressure to change as fast as their markets. Employees have to support these transformations, if their company is to stay successful. That’s only possible, if the demand for communication generated by transformations is addressed in an interactive way, otherwise employees will only be affected by the change rather than actively engaged in its success.
  • More internationality: The globalisation of the economy results in a globalisation of communication. Even small companies are joining internationalisation earlier and earlier. However, the different publics you have to deal with are rather getting smaller than larger, since it’s easier to reflect and organise special interests online. With the expansion of total reach comes a fragmentation of the parts. The PR organisation and its chief will face demands that won’t be met with previous habits. Without going into details, I would argue that tomorrow’s communication department needs to be ready for decentralisation, virtualisation and cultural adaptability.
  • More value: I expect requirements for evaluation and controlling of communication to increase even more. That will be good for our discipline, because its value beyond media reach will become visible. Increased cost pressure concurs with some of the other change factors mentioned above. E.g. the impact of communication can be better derived from direct communication than from indirect communication via traditional media. At the same time, everything happening online can be better documented. And the integration of PR, marketing, and customer relations will allow for significant synergy effects.

Is the press release dead? What will be the tools of the future?

No, the press release isn’t dead. To some degree we are even seeing a renaissance of the press release. It’s easier to distribute than ever before, both online and offline. Offline, editorial offices are being more and more centralised, so that local media can’t produce much content anymore. Online, there are more spaces for press releases than ever before, and despite an early social media myth many blogs are happy to accept them. In terms of its format, the press release as we know it, will stay mostly the same in regulated environments such as financial communications. In less regulated environments the press release will get shorter, multimedia-based, and modular, as we can already see with today’s social media releases.

We will also see new communication platforms. I can’t foresee which ones will have survived in five years from now. Let’s just consider: Facebook is around since 2004, YouTube since 2005, Twitter since 2006. I believe we will see new players we don’t know yet, in particular in the mobile space. Real-time communication will certainly play an important role for news creation. But there will also be continued demand for reflexive communication providing backgrounds and context, I actually believe this demand will increase, so as to offer orientation in an ever growing information glut. Regarding particular tools, I expect the use of images and moving images to go up dramatically, since their cost of production and publishing has gone down dramatically.

Traditional PR is built on a story. Will that still be the case in the future?

Yes, the story will always be the driver of organisational communication. I expect, though, that stories will have to be less narcissistic and more audience focused, because the audience doesn’t have to suffer in silence anymore what’s been thrown at it. The recipients are able to express their opinion and they do it. The story development will have to revolve around connecting company stories to topics audiences care about. Theoretically this has always been the case, but the practical necessity to make it happen has increased significantly. In particular in product communications I expect less feature talk and more meaning to users’ life.

PS: If someone needs a good read on the future of PR, I do still recommend the “Authentic Enterprise” report of  the Arthur W. Page Society. It’s three years old, but still worth reading.

Georg Kolb