Declining trust defines new role for intranets


The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, published last week, finds a deepening sense of distrust in governments, businesses and institutions. The annual global study, which questioned 30,000 people in 25 countries, reveals a dramatic shift in the value people place in information sources – which, in turn, has some interesting implications for communicators and intranet managers.

Across the globe, blame for the financial and political chaos of 2011 landed at the doorstep of government, as trust in that institution fell nine points to 43 per cent. In seventeen of the 25 countries surveyed, government is now trusted by less than half to do what is right. In twelve, it trails business, media and non-governmental organizations as the least trusted institution.

The private sector fared slightly better: trust in business fell from 56 percent to 53 percent, with countries like France and Germany, in the heart of the Eurozone economic crisis, experiencing double-digit decreases.

“Business is now better placed than government to lead the way out of the trust crisis,” said CEO Richard Edelman. “But the balance must change so that business is seen both as a force for good and an engine for profit.”

One of the biggest changes over the past year is the decline in trust in CEOs, which fell by 12 points. Faith in government officials fell like a stone too this year, down 14 points to just 29 per cent. It’s not unreasonable to assume this is reflected inside organisations too, so many will want to look again at CEO blogs as a means of increasing visability and trust in senior leadership. Over on Intranetizen, Jonathan gives some sterling advice on making executive blogs work.

Employee advocacy could be one way out of the mire. The survey found that credibility in average employees rose dramatically this year, so they are now the most trusted resource within an organisation. To capitalise on this, organisations must work harder to ensure their employees are informed and engaged – and then trust them to talk on the company’s behalf. This approach – what Edelman call radical transparancy – empowers employees to drive the conversation amongst their peers.

But to do this, organisations and leaders need to trust their employees first; companies which block access to social networks are preventing their employees from advocating on their behalf, and so missing a huge opportunity to engage with customers.

The barometer found people need to hear the same information about a company three to five times before they will believe it. This emphasises the importance of a proper communciations strategy which mixes on and offline channels to ensure the message gets out there. 

At the same time, trust in social networks as sources of information grew  by 75 per cent over the past year. Smart companies, then, will take advantage of this and embrace the value of conversations (by employees and the public) as a means of establishing identity and trust.

One corollary of this is that the growth in use of social networks, both internally and externally, means news travels fast. Employees can easily find information about their own company online, and all too often will hear (and believe) news from external sources before they do from their own manager.

This has huge implications for company transparency; corporate communciations structures need to keep pace with the changes. A good, social intranet – and improved access to these from a range of devices – gives organisations the means by which they can get their message to staff before they hear it from elsewhere. But this isn’t just a case of building it – leadership buy-in, and changes to the way corporate comms work with social intranets are essential to make it work.

Edelman’s report sets out long- and short-term approaches to rebuilding trust. In the short term, trust in a business is firmly tied to the bottom line. But future trust is more strongly linked to softer, societally-focused factors such as business ethics, placing customers ahead of profits and treating employees well. In the current environment, informed, engaged employees are best placed to communicate that message to the public – and intranets have a vital role to play in building that engagement.

Photo credit: Thorinside on Flickr

The Social Organisation

It was just coincidence that I began reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody on the tube on the way to the recent FutureGov Consultancy/Huddle event on internal collaboration, but a fortunate and relevant coincidence nonetheless. Shirky argues that the web can enable people to self-organise, and in turn will transform our world. The event’s speakers argued that those same ideas of self-organisation and reduced costs can – and should – transform our bureaucracies.

In a small group everyone is able to speak to everyone else to organise their time and resources. Once an organisation gets beyond a certain size, management is needed. But managing resources itself takes resources, and these costs tend to grow faster than organisation size.

This makes organisations quite inefficient. Like all large organisations, councils use quite a lot of resources on managing and communicating internally.

Huddle’s Charlie Blake Thomas told an all-too-familiar story: Someone sends around a Powerpoint Presentation by email to ten people. People make their changes and send it round to the group again. Soon you have eight or nine different versions in circulation. Version control goes out of the window. Inboxes are clogged up with crap.

In the past this was neccessary, but these days there are better ways of collaborating. Huddle is one of them, but other collaborative software is also available.

However, technology is no panacea. Becoming more collaborative requires cultural change. Councils are rigidly heirarchical structures and quite set in their ways. We’re used to working in silos, and many prefer it that way.

But as Bob Dylan so famously sang, the times, they are a changin’. It’s clear the public sector as a whole has a few turbulent years ahead as a result of tight public finances and changing demands.

In addition, local authorities are increasingly delivering services in partnerships, thanks to initiatives like Total Place. All of this means becoming more collaborative is not a choice, it’s a neccessity.

Anne McCrossan argued that old boundaries – between and within organisations – are increasingly irrelevant. The emphasis shifts from org chart structures to informal communication networks and those individuals within organisations who act as gatekeepers, hubs and pulse-takers. Organisations need to take advantage of these tacit information-sharing relationships in order to build effective networks.

Moving away from rigid structure towards a more collaborative way of working brings big benefits for organisations. First, it fulfills those needs that sit at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy; social participation gives people the power to self-actualise. By sharing information more widely, we present opportunities to learn. A social organisation is, by definition, a learning organisation.

Most importantly, it makes us more efficient. By reducing the costs of communicating and managing, we free up resources for service delivery. Private sector organisations thrive when they bring down management and transaction costs. We need to learn from their best practice in order to make the most of our resources.

McCrossan’s presentation echoed in many ways the work of employee engagement guru John Smythe. Smythe argues for employee engagement programmes aimed at moving employees up the engagement ladder – that is away from old structures of command and control towards a culture of co-creation.

Like Smythe, McCrossan emphasises the role of leadership in bringing about change, with a focus on behaviours and relationships rather than command and control.

Affinity, she contends, is stronger than structure. Organisations work best when they share a common purpose, comunicate that purpose, and bring colleagues along towards the common goal.

This is something local authorities ought to be good at; those of us who work for one know that ultimately our job is to make life better for people in the borough. But all too often we’re guilty of focussing on our own work and not the bigger picture.

Becoming collaborative organisations gives councils an opportunity to redefine their purpose. By focussing on working together with residents and partners towards our common goals, we can become more efficient and effective, as well as becoming better places to work.

Over the coming months and years local government will be asked to redefine its own purpose in order to become leaner and more efficient. That means rediscovering those shared goals and giving people the tools to work more efficiently towards them. Structures are inefficient: harness common purpose, though, and organisations can achieve more efficient delivery.

Leadership: why Greg Dyke is like the Wizard of Oz

In an interview with Management Today this week, former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke said the key to building up a high degree of trust and loyalty among employees is to make sure that they say the right things about you to others:

‘Leadership is about the stories that are told about you – both positive and negative’, he said. ‘You’ll be judged by those stories more than anything you say or write, and people will need to like what they hear about you. The most effective leaders are the ones who are loved by their staff. Always think as a leader: how will this be seen?’

His words echo those of the Wizard of Oz, who said ‘ A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others’.

In all but the smallest companies, it’s not possible for the CEO to develop a personal relationship with all employees, so instead they rely on internal communication (as well the informal networks of office rumours and gossip).

But is it really the job of communicators to present their Chief Exec as a loveable kind of guy? Or does that risk leading us, David Brent-like, to confuse popularity with success?

David Ferrabee cautions against what he calls the ‘Wizard of Oz approach’: ‘If you do put employees in front of the CEO a lot, they might find out he/she is not actually the Great and Powerful Oz, but just a WC Fields lookalike’.

And therein lies the problem. It’s not a leader’s job to be liked; it’s their job to lead. Most CEOs are affable kind of people. Most are good communciators – they need to be so to have reached that position. But it doesn’t follow that they have to be the kind of person colleagues would be happy to go for a beer with.

In the introduction to the recent MacLeod Report on Employee Engagement, Peter Mandelson says ‘organisations that truly engage and inspire their employees produce world class levels of innovation’.

What inspires people is encouraging innovation and ideas in the workplace that are focused on competitive advantage or shared vision. That means engaging with colleagues and managers and bringing them along with you on a journey, communicating honestly and clearly.

Arguably, building a personal mythology for a leader could stifle rather than encourage innovation. After all, how many colleagues would be willing to challenge the Great and Powerful Oz?

Dyke’s job as the leader of a quasi-public sector organisation in the midst of bitter battle with senior government figures meant he slipped easily into the role of staunch defender of his organisation and his staff.

But few other leaders are in such a position. Most answer to shareholders, or in the public sector, elected leaders, so simply presenting yourself as likeable is not a viable leadership communication strategy.

So while Greg Dyke inspired extraordinary loyalty from his staff, his strategy’s not goingto hold water for many others. Other leaders wishing to develop their own organisational profile need to communicate in the way that suits their organisation, their objectives, and their own leadership communication style.