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.

Productivity

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.

Agility

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.

Controllability

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.