conversationYour employees very much want to be involved in your company. They know a conversation is occurring in the halls of leadership, and they know that they are affected by those conversations. Not surprisingly, they want to be involved.

The idea isn’t all that new.  While the Cluetrain Manifesto is credited with coining the term “Markets are conversations,” employees have wanted to engage with their organization on a deeper level for a long time. The shift away from the expectation of long-term employment means that each individual is in the driver’s seat for their own careers, and so they want to be as involved in the conversations that shift their fate as possible. And, as in all things these days, the internet has only sped that process up.

So the question is, if employees want more participation in the corporate conversation, to understand the contextual environment, the competitive landscape, the regulatory and legal battles being waged, where is that conversation supposed to happen?

Commonly, what is happening would hardly be called a conversation. It would be called a one-way news channel. The CEO’s office or the corporate communications department issues announcements as often as it deems proper or necessary. Perhaps they deliver quarterly financial results or outline a policy shift. It’s how companies have been communicating down the ladder for more than a century.

But that’s not true anymore. You’ve got a corporate intranet, designed to turn that century-long process into a two-way discussion.

Let’s have another look at that last sentence. Is that the goal of your intranet, to build a two-way conversation? Or was it designed to make it easier for a given department to publish new policies or procedures? Was the intention to facilitate discussion, or to lower the cost of publishing centralized content? While content management systems love to advertize that their enterprise systems as platforms for inclusive communications, I bet the purpose was to make it easier for every department to publish minutes of their departmental meetings. The best way to prove this contention is to look on your intranet right now and find a conversation. Not a comment to edit content, but a real dialog, where people are not just editing or fixing, but learning about something?

There’s a fresh new $20 bill with your name on it if you can find one.

So…

  1. If there are conversations taking place on both the executive level and the non-executive levels, and those conversations aren’t happening in the place where you assume they should be, where are they happening?
  2. Can you shift where they are happening to where you want them to happen?

The first part is hard to answer, because without a centralized channel for those conversations, they are happening anywhere and everywhere. They happen at the water cooler, at the coffee stand and in the hallways. But they are also happening on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, where people will discuss their day-to-day work activities, how much they like working for you, and even the questions they have about your overall strategy. Go to glasssdoor.com and look up your company to see all the anonymous reviews posted by actual employees. There they will talk about their bosses, their hiring processes, whether the company is worth working for and if they’d recommend working there to their friends. These are just a few places these conversations are happening. Not to mention forums, emails, custom Facebook pages, Ning sites or even news sites.  They are public, searchable, and influencing untold numbers of people and most importantly, they are anonymous and user friendly platforms where your employees are voicing their opinions.

If you’d like to bring those channels into a more useful, effective space for both employees and executives, you need to build a space where conversations can really happen. That space can live on your intranet, but needs to move beyond “post and allow for comments” models.

Remember, it’s not a surprise that your intranet isn’t facilitating those conversations. It simply wasn’t designed to do so. So you need to make some adjustments to encourage interaction, and only some of them are technological in nature.

conversation2Step one: Pick your platform. Will people have to log in and show their identities, or will it be an anonymous space? Will people be able to post just a sentence or two, or will they have room to stretch out? Will the platform tell them (and encourage them) to engage in feedback and responses? Will someone be able to make it obvious that they’ve posted a big idea for discussion, or will it just end up in a pool of other questions and ideas? There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions, but you need to be aware that the choices you make in the platform will inform and influence how people feel about it and how much (or if) they use it.

Step two: Define policy. Place a plate of donuts in a closed conference room. How long will they last before someone eats the last one? If you leave them in the kitchen, you will need to get out of the way, sure. But in  a closed conference room? They could be there all day, even in plain sight of everyone. Why? Because you haven’t made expectations clear on who those donuts are for. And if there is a question, most employees will assume they can’t do something. The same holds true for your conversation platform. If you don’t make it clear who should use it, why they should use it, how they should use it, what they should put on it and what happens when they do, everyone will shy away from it. So determine and publish (and announce) policy on the intranet. A draconian policy is better than no policy, in terms of getting compliance and use.

Step three: Listen and engage. Constructive conversation has to be encouraged and practiced from the top of the company down. Without, the C-suite’s complete support of this process, the freedom to communicate openly, candidly and without repercussion will never exist. They must lead open conversations, regardless of whether they are positive or negative in nature. The more transparent they become in their dialogue the more others in the organization will follow that lead. Every company will have their thresholds of what is appropriate and what is not. How much they can open up and how far they are willing to allow constructive criticism to permeate the culture. Nevertheless, the executive must convey a sense of safety in order for employees to share their true colors.

Step four: Incentivize. In order for that snowball to become an avalanche, you need to get that snowball rolling. A contest, a prize, a word of encouragement to get people to learn how to use the system and take a peek at how it could help. Those are the things that turn potential energy into an avalanche. Don’t worry, you won’t have to offer cash every week, but once the prizes end, the encouragement, questions and initiating posts need to continue.

Step five: Feedback. Make it very clear how the conversation that started on your new platform turned into action. Draw the line between idea and outcome. This makes your platform the best tool to create real change, giving everyone even more reason to stop engaging in the idle gossip sites from which little can develop.

So if you’re ready to grow the conversation already happening around the office and channel it into valuable insight, you need to use a mixture of tech and process to make it happen. Don’t rely on your intranet to do all the hard work for you.