For a large corporate company, to become an innovative company, the involvement of the employees is an important key to success. Old school corporate communication is not sufficient anymore. New ways of internal communication need to be explored to involve employees and to get them committed to innovation.
Corporate innovation is hot. In more and more industries, companies make the turn from a silo based old fashioned company into a “start-up” like company where innovation is top priority. Thought leaders in corporate innovation like Eric Ries (The Lean Start-up) and Gary Hamel (Leading the Revolution) are popular speakers in board rooms and at different management events. Top management in industries like automotive, appliances and banking are well aware of the challenges their companies face in the next decade. They have set innovation as the top priority in their corporate strategy, they hired the best consultants to support this strategy and freed up the budget that is needed. Their slogans are: “better to disrupt, than to be disrupted” or “Moving the world together”. However, to be successful in innovation and to really turn a corporate company into a lean start-up, you need to do more. The full commitment of a significant part of the employees is needed. In fact, it are these employees that will come up with ideas and who need to support the project teams working on the “crazy” projects. To get this commitment, to have the willingness to change the company and to change their selves, a real sense of urgency is needed. No panic, but the feeling “change is going to come, and I am part of it…” should be in place. People need to know what is happening outside, which developments in technology, regulation and customer trends could disrupt the business and could jeopardize their job. Only with a strong sense of urgency the employee will open up, embrace innovation and wants to be part of it.
As mentioned before, in many companies senior management is fully aware of the discontinuities that affect their business. The CEO spreads the word of innovation like a true evangelist. He tells the outside world (press, stock analysts) that the company is fully aware of what is happening and that measures are taken. Inside the company he encourages his employees to engage in innovation, everybody needs to join.
This is okay, but it is not enough.
The CEO of a company lives in a glass house. His messages to his employees are not private. Everything can (and will) be shared with the outside world. Social media like Twitter and LinkedIn spread news very fast nowadays. So the CEO always needs to be a bit careful when it comes to tell what the real disruptors are and what the scenarios for the company could be. Maybe there is also a psychological element. Senior managers are used to give guidance: they have access to the information, they are supported by the best consultants and they set the strategy. Their role is to communicate the strategy, set the KPI’s and monitor the progress. But in our world of rapid change, more is needed.
Of course, the experts in the company know what is going on out there. They do their research, go the seminars. They write their reports, but their message reaches only a few people: their peers, their managers and sometimes senior management. But usually not the “ordinary” employees. When the report is out and published on the internet, communication usually stops.
Employees, of course, know that things are happening in the world. They read their newspapers, watch TV and surf on internet. However, specific developments that especially touch their industry do not make it to the main stream news. They have no easy access to special sources, like reports from Gartner and McKinsey. The hurdle to actually build up knowledge on special topics will get higher and higher in the future. And, in addition, lack of time is also an issue. Reading books and articles needs to be done in the evenings or in the weekends. Often there are other important things to do in the weekend.
And what about “corporate communication”? Of course, they take the lead to spread the word of innovation in the company. They organize events, put intranet pages with nice content online, and communicate the new way of working. But it is not enough. Before people feel committed and take the step to change, they need to know the “why?”. Why do we need to become innovative, what has it to do with me?
Communicating discontinuity and disruption is a delicate thing. Top management needs to be careful, and the experts and corporate communication have little impact. The result is that not enough people get involved. The gap between experts and the rest becomes bigger while the speed of technology increases. Without involvement of enough employees, it is impossible to change a corporate into a “Lean Start-Up” company. The change gets not enough support and old behavior continues.
To get full commitment more should be done. Employees need to start sharing and discussing knowledge among each other. Not only experts and senior management should be part of discussions. Many more employees should be encouraged to do the same.
What can be done?
A. Continue the good things we are already doing It is obvious that some of the things we already do should be continued. Even more, some of them should be enforced. The CEO and his management team should of course continue to spread the urgency of innovation, experts should even intensify their research efforts.
B. Social infection Next to the top-down approach a system of “social infection” should be built. A corporate should find a way to empower and support the distribution of knowledge and information throughout the company. Knowledge on technological trends and other developments should be shared between colleagues. The information about all the exciting developments is not only something for the CEO, the experts or corporate communication. Social infection means that employees tell each other what the important developments are. In their own language, with examples from their own context. They collect information from experts, the internet and from events. They translate this information and tell the story to those colleagues that are interested. Mostly not by writing a blog or sending newsletters, but by personal communication in team meetings, town halls, stand-ups, during lunch and at the coffee machine. Social infection is a good addition to the current communication channels. Because it comes from a colleague, it is understandable and it makes a better connection to day to day work. It encourages people to deep dive in specific content, it makes “innovation” to something that is important, something that touches all employees: they can take ownership.
How to start “Social Infection”?
Social infection cannot be “implemented”. You cannot make a week to week plan for it. It varies from company to company. The first step is to make the connection between the innovation team or experts and corporate communication. Use the principles of innovation to start Social Infection: Build, Measure, Learn. Define experiments, execute them, gather data, analyze the data and design your next experiment. There are a lot of things you can use to build your experiment and to determine what works best for the company.
Some elements to start with:
- An expert presents trends and developments to employees at least once a week in a team meeting or a town hall somewhere in the company. Make this one of the KPI’s of the experts.
- Use a daily stand-up meeting to see if one of the attendants has picked up some interesting new article, website on a special topic. Takes only 5 minutes.
- Start a “Innovation Guild”. A guild is a group of employees with the same interest. They share knowledge and best practices without being part of the same team or business unit. Find some heroes to start this community and who also have the perseverance to extend it.
- Organize a Daily clipping service, newsletter, created by employees.
- Develop customer journeys, including cool demos that show how customer interaction could look like in the future. Demonstrate these demos in your innovation lab or at a town hall.
- Invite you interns or students and teachers of a local university to give a presentation about a special topic.
To become an innovative company also internal communication needs to innovate. The standard top-down communication of a corporate will not be sufficient to get enough commitment to change to “Start-Up”. You have to make people feel the “why” of innovation.
The focus for internal communication must shift to peer-to-peer communication. The story needs be told in the context of what is important and must be understandable for many employees. Also for those not directly involved in innovation or innovative projects.
The innovation team, together with corporate communication need to take the lead to find the best problem/solution fit by doing the right experiments.
Social Infection needs to be on top of the fob, next to the normal work. Management needs to give employees the opportunity to step in.