Archive for September, 2009

Losing control

In my last post, I shared a video segment of an interview with David Pogue of the New York Times. In it, he cited “loss of control” as a primary reason companies hesitate before jumping onto the social media bandwagon.

According to Jon Iwata, SVP Marketing & Communications at IBM, companies can address most of their concerns (disclosure of proprietary information, criticism of management, personal attacks, etc.) by turning to existing company policies.

View: Three-minute video in which Mr. Iwata discusses the use of social media as an internal tool and how companies can manage a lack of control.

I found Mr. Iwata’s insights particularly interesting given IBM’s relatively early adoption of online social media tools. In 2005, IBM began encouraging employees to enter the blogosphere, and the company has since garnered attention for incorporating social networking and online collaboration into communications practices.

Read: Big Blue Embraces Social Media: IBM has been encouraging social networking among its employees with in-house versions of Web 2.0 hits such as Facebook and Twitter  (BusinessWeek, May 2008)

Despite Mr. Iwata’s statement, it is worth noting that IBM maintains a comprehensive list of “Social Computing Guidelines” on its website. These guidelines expressly encourage the use of social media for learning, collaboration, and community building, but they also outline how employees can engage in social media responsibly, legally, and in accordance with IBM’s principles and values.

As companies turn more frequently to the use of technology and social media in internal communications, the loss of some control is inevitable. Organizations must learn to walk a very fine line between protecting their own interests and being perceived as the 21st century’s answer to Orwell’s Thought Police. In my own humble opinion, I believe IBM has set an example for how this delicate balance can be achieved.



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A change would do you good

Ah… change. We’ve heard a lot about change lately. It’s a word that is used interchangeably with progress and at the same time causes even competent leaders to raise an eyebrow in skepticism or perhaps just plain fear.

Depending on your role and your organization’s structure and attitude toward change, incorporating social media into a stale, but probably comfortable, internal communications plan will likely be an uphill battle.

So, before we delve too deeply into where and exactly how to use social media internally, I recommend we take a couple steps back to learn more about the art of gaining buy-in from senior management.

In the following two videos (hosted by Ragan Communications), communications experts address this very challenge:

David Pogue discusses how he worked with New York Times leadership to overcome their fear of social media and tap into technology to communicate with internal constituents.

Blair Klein, Director of Corporate Communications at AT&T discusses how to get naysayers on board, and why technology makes this an exciting time to be a communicator.

Reconciling your organization’s current culture and processes with its business objectives is a great place to start. But management concerns can’t be ignored and may be a major roadblock if we don’t take the time to understand them. More on that later. In the meantime, good luck!



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In my last post, I explored the grapevine phenomenon and some of the effects (good and bad) it can have on an organization’s internal psyche and workplace relationships.

In case you missed it: online chatter and conversation has exploded. Social media and internet communications mean the spread of information (whether true or false) happens more rapidly, reaches more people, and crosses more boundaries within an organization. Trust and relationships that have taken years to build can be destroyed in mere seconds.

As managers, we have a few options:

1. Ignore that a grapevine and/or social media exist and adopt the all-too-common belief that if we ignore something, it will go away (hopefully you have learned by now that this is rarely the case);

2. Create punishments for those who feed the rumor mill (and in doing so discourage the honest and open communication social media promotes); or

3. Acknowledge and manage the grapevine, and use social media to the advantage of our organization when addressing rumors.

I’m solidly in favor of number 3. If you’re on board with me, keep reading…

Now that we know what we have to do, the big question remains how?

For advice, I turn to a couple sources:

Managing the Workplace Rumor Mill, by The HR Specialist for Business Management Daily

Dealing with Rumors in the Workplace, by Paul Brown for the New York Times

Both agree that the best measure is a preventative one: stop the rumors before they start (proactive internal communications is a subject for another day). But, even with the best internal communications practices, the grapevine will persist.

Building on these articles, and considering the constant presence of social media in our organizations, here are a few suggestions:

Listen and Learn. Social media offers managers an opportunity to watch a conversation unfold. Company blogs, Intranet posts, and corporate wikis provide insight into employee sentiment and concerns. E-mails and instant messages can help managers confirm suspicions or pick up on contextual clues (there is the added bonus of being able to reference them later).

Plan a Response. In a digital world where immediate replies have become the norm, it is hard to resist the urge to respond rashly—but you must. A poorly planned response or angry retort could easily perpetuate the rumor and do more harm than good.

When thinking about method of delivery, social media should not be excluded from the equation. Responding via social media shows that a manager is in tune with the organization and employees’ preferred communications methods (as long as social media is not a substitute for face-to-face communication – more on that later). Ask yourself whether your message is meant for one person or the entire organization, and make sure the use of social media reflects your intended audience.

And then…

Respond Directly. While face-to-face is almost always the best way to communicate with employees on matters of importance, it is not always possible (again, a topic for another day). Social media and internet communications provide a reliable way to ensure that people receive the same information from the same source at the same time. If your language is clear and your message direct, you are on the right track.

In the horticulture world, grapevines are pruned so that they yield the highest volume and quality of fruit. Internal communicators may use different tools but, if done correctly, the results are surprisingly similar.

Until next time…



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So what is this grapevine, anyway?

Dictionary.com defines it first and foremost as a vine that bears grapes (no relevance to this post). But coming in at a close second is “a person-to-person method of spreading rumors, gossip, information, etc., by informal or unofficial conversation, letter writing, or the like.”

For a rhythmic interpretation, I turn to Marvin Gaye:

“Ooh, bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew/
about your plans to make me blue
I heard it through the grapevine/
not much longer would you be mine.”

Was Gaye singing about the workplace? Hardly. But could he have been? Absolutely.

Present in every work environment to at least a certain degree, the grapevine is employees’ way of sharing and receiving information outside of a formal internal communications system. It validates feelings and draws attention to ideas and concerns that employees may be uncomfortable sharing with management. It takes place traditionally around water coolers, in lunch rooms, and at corporate picnics and softball games. It moves quickly and transmits information (or rumors, gossip, and the like) in all directions within an organization.

The grapevine has been around for a long time and some great research was done by Keith Davis back in 1953. He stated “the grapevine is a natural part of a company’s total communication system…it is a significant force within the work group, helping to build teamwork, motivate people, and create corporate identity.”

Managers can also use grapevines to take the pulse of their organization. How is morale? What are employees most concerned about? Not infrequently, grapevines help managers uncover issues in their organization that can then be addressed, and often resolved, via more formal communication systems.

But because of their tendency to spread like wildfire to all corners of an organization, grapevines can also be damaging to workplace morale, relationships, productivity, and corporate culture if they are mismanaged, ignored, or allowed to persist in all their inaccurate glory.

The use of technology in the workplace has added a layer of complexity to this issue. Grapevines have begun to take a new shape and, in many ways, are harder than ever to manage.

A 2007 Steelcase Workplace Index Survey revealed that the days of water cooler conversations may be over. Instead, employees were taking to the break room (36 percent), a colleague’s workspace (33 percent), or their e-mail inbox or instant messenger (10 percent) to collect the latest gossip.

A survey on trust and risk in the workplace conducted by Dr. Monica Whitty (Queens University Belfast in Ireland) of the same year found that 35% of women and 33% of men in the UK discussed office gossip over e-mail.

The abundance of e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking means office rumors can spread very quickly and to multiple people at once, and thus have a more widespread, detrimental effect. And watch out when it comes to office gossip that takes on a written form. In some cases it can even be used against employees or companies in legal matters.

Of course, not all office gossip ends up in the courtroom, and the likelihood of being arrested for ranting about one’s company’s policies is slim to none. Regardless, it seems safe to say that a new, virtual grapevine is here to stay. The question is whether and how managers will respond to the role of technology in disseminating gossip before it’s too late.

Until next time…



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… to Virtual Grapevine! Why, you wonder, am I here? While I love all things wine-related, that’s hardly the subject of this blog (though I admit the title was influenced accordingly).

I am working on a Master of Science degree in strategic communications at Columbia University. It follows that I spend pretty much all of my free time studying strategy and, well, communications.

My area of focus happens to be internal communications, where the “grapevine” is a common term used to describe the unofficial communications that permeate the workplace and affect corporate culture. Chances are good that at some point in your career you’ve taken part in this phenomenon.

Why virtual? Internal communications are adapting to the digital era. Now, it’s just as commonplace to communicate via e-mail or video conferencing as it is to chat with a colleague at the water cooler or sit down for a meeting with a teammate.

The grapevine isn’t the only internal communications issue I’ll tackle, it just seemed like a good place to start. In this blog I’ll try to decipher what all this technology means for an organization’s overall internal communications strategy and corporate culture. Is it good? Is it bad? I haven’t really decided, but my educated guess is that it’s going to fall somewhere in between the two.

I’ll also make an honest attempt to figure out the technology (bear with me) that has made virtual grapevines and other digital internal communications practices the norm. In doing so, I’ll tackle the critical question of how organizations can use technology to benefit internal communications and, in turn, workplace dynamics and culture.

I’m hoping you’ll stick with me as I explore this topic in the weeks ahead.



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