Best Practice

Communicators, it’s time you thought like business people!

Communication professionals have an opportunity to improve their organizations’ business performance and get paid for doing it.

Customer demand for higher quality, speedier delivery and better value requires every function to help meet customer requirements and add value in the process.  The communication function can take the lead in these efforts, but to do so most need to change the business they’re in.

“The signs have been in front of us for years,” says Bob Kula, vice president of communication at Kiewit Corporation. “We need to stop focusing on communication as an art form and start addressing the everyday communication breakdowns that impact our organizations’ bottom lines. We need to ask whether we’ve stepped back and adjusted our communication strategies accordingly? Our jobs may depend on doing this.”

How do communication practitioners get started in the performance improvement process?  

“It’s not very complicated. It’s about saving money or making money,” says Teresa Paulsen, a senior communication professional in Omaha. “I look at the big chunks of the business and see if there’s a way to help the business save or make money.  What costs are controllable? Is something driving those costs up in terms of employee behavior that we can help impact? Is there a way we can help sell more?”

Many communication professionals are making this trek to a more performance-driven role.  Here are steps that have worked for others.

Get leaders on board early

Introducing the performance-based communication concept to senior business leaders is surprisingly easy for many communication practitioners because senior leaders’ goals and pay are typically based on adding value. The more value you add, the more the leaders gain.  Getting leaders on board early provides support as you tackle the next steps.

Assess your value to cost

A value-to-cost assessment helps you assess the value you create and ways to increase your value.

Most business leaders regularly use tools similar to this to assess and manage their businesses. It’s smart to build your business case using analytical tools that business leaders understand.

Build a business case for the function

Your future depends on your ability to convince people that you do produce more good for your function than it costs.

A business case should include a value proposition, a statement that summarizes how you’ll add value to your customers—the people who buy your organization’s products and services. It also should clarify the work you will and won’t do.  

A project with a projected 90 percent ROI represents a higher priority than a project with a 50 percent ROI.  

Assess communication capabilities

Capabilities are the combined skills and knowledge of a function. As you define your business, you’ll need to identify the capabilities that are important to your function and how well you do on each. This may surface gaps that need to be filled as you pursue your new role. For instance, where capabilities associated with formal channel delivery, activity and event coordination or technology were needed, future capabilities may need to include change management, internal consulting and building business and financial literacy.

Measure the right things

What counts is what you count. Historically, communication managers focused on output or process measures such as informing people or building awareness and understanding.  Today’s focus needs to be on outcomes–improving the way work gets done in the organization—because results don’t change unless work changes.

If safety, quality, delivery and productivity are key business measures, why shouldn’t they be key communication goals?  Poor communication is a notorious contributor to quality, service and cost problems. It needs to be managed to remove these problems.

Some have made the shift.

  • Owens Corning, the building materials manufacturer, has seen significant improvements in accident reduction and product changeover time in their plants due to communication projects focused on those issues.
  • Sara Lee’s Bakery Group’s internal communication director helped reduce waste 18 percent in one of its Chicago operations
  • ITT Corporation’s communication professionals improved on-time deliver by 38 per cent which in turn increased sales by 30 percent.  

Build the supporting infrastructure

Shifting your role may require building or refining your function’s underlying infrastructure. This includes how you plan, learn, measure, reward, recognize and organize the function. Work processes need to be efficient. Some process may need to become standard.  Standard work is how lean companies define their best practices to maintain a consistent and repeatable level of quality.

Courtney Reynolds, vice president of communications for Northwestern Mutual, emphasizes the point. “Our team made it a practice to start conversations and relationships with the question of ‘what are you trying to achieve’ versus ‘what do you need?’ Not only does this reinforce our role as counselors, but it gets everyone to a better end product.”

Start Small: Pick a Pilot

Reinventing the communication function can seem like a mammoth task. Some departments begin by focusing on one geographic area, department or high priority issue. These pilots prove winning is doable and lead to similar successes across the organization.

FedEx Express focused its initial effort on improving US exports in Los Angeles.  The first effort increased revenues by 23 percent and generated a 1,447 percent ROI.  Subsequent pilots in five other locations increased sales by $6.1 million and generated at 1,660 percent ROI.  

Introduce the new way

Leaders throughout the organization need to understand the communication function’s new direction, especially when it intends to discontinue work that may represent someone’s sacred cow or pet project. Frequently communicate the function’s new direction and its business case so the organization understands that you’re increasing the value you add to the enterprise.

You’re thinking and acting like a business person.


Note: If you want to learn more about this process, join us at our one and one-half day workshop, “Managing Communication for Results and Value October 4-5 in Dallas, Texas. It’s hosted by A&T&T.


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