Brace yourself … L O N G P O S T

Below is a paper I started in October 2004. I just re-read it, and think more than ever it still holds merit.

In essence, it’s about engaging people genuinely in running the business that they are a part of, and that collectively they know more about how to better run it than their management could ever dream of; that organisations can and should use this information to perform better.

Here it is:

Is it time for a ‘New Engagement’?
Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Keohane.

Current internal communication practice increasingly focuses on ‘engaging’ people, which suggests a renewed focus on face-to-face and other more interactive methods. But how is it possible to genuinely engage people in a complex and often culturally and geographically diverse workforce? At the same time facing the very real issue that not every employee wants (or is able) to ‘live your brand?’

Even if the strategy demands that employees deliver an ‘on-brand,’ aligned customer experience, and even knowing the links between employee satisfaction and behaviour and customer satisfaction and behaviour, as the saying goes: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

With the proliferation of technology-enabled communication approaches, from e-mail and web technologies to online meetings and desktop video conferencing, as well as innovations such as Open Space meetings and Real Time Strategic Change, you’d think the organisational communication engagement challenges of the early 21st century were all in the bag.

But of course, that’s not the case – ask anyone struggling to involve and engage, or in some cases to simply inform, a geographically distributed employee population. It seems the more technology and tools we have at our disposal, the more challenging the task becomes when we try to genuinely get people to ‘engage’.

This is to a large extent because how we define and talk about ‘communication’ has subtly shifted in organisations. Communication was originally defined at its most basic level as ‘sharing’. Over time, as a noun, it’s turned into technology, channels, and tools. As a verb, it’s turned into a mix of doing broadcast, publishing and feedback. ‘Engagement,’ on the other hand, has quite accurately emerged as the better term since it accommodates a wider range of complex social transactions from promise, obligation, and participation through conflict, attracting and holding attention, even arranging the use of resources.

Interestingly, the 19th century use of the word ‘communication’ in the context of transport and commerce –activities related to managing the movement goods and services – has largely disappeared. Yet this is precisely where it is most accurate in its modern context.

The risk, and it is a substantial and potentially career-ending one, is that we search-and-replace the word engagement to replace communication without shifting — or at least really challenging — our assumptions, methods, approaches and beliefs.

The New Engagement is about shifting our attitudes, practices and assumptions as business communicators – to stop relying on the ‘tired and true’ (that’s not a misprint) tools and to start leading our organisations to a new place. The New Engagement is about the intersection of three key elements: new thinking about virtual collaboration and teamwork; our use of technology (including face to face methods); and our methods of so-called two-way communication in organisational decision-making.

Collaboration and Connectivity vs. Content Management
One issue is, as it has been for some time, that organisational perspectives on technology are generally not aligned with the actual requirements and desires of the users of the technology. The nature (or intention) of a technology shouldn’t always determine the nature of its use – the telephone, for example, was originally intended as a broadcast medium. Its designers were focussed on delivering content, while its users sought – and still value – connectivity(1).

It’s arguable that this quest for connectivity should be the focus of communication technology within organisations. In the meantime, though, organisations continue to obsess about providing content – seeing the technology through the eyes of the designer. Delivering (or making easily available) the right content at the right time to the right people using the right media has become the mantra of employee communications.

The availability of webcasting, for example, has led to significant corporate investment in web broadcast technologies. While some forward-thinking organisations realise that web broadcasting can have benefits when applied purposefully, many organisations seem intent on pursuing video-style conferencing from the desktop — despite the fact that there is ample evidence demonstrating that the use of video reduces, rather than enhances, both the quality and quantity of interaction in many situations(2).

Many organisations have experienced similar issues with their intranets and portals. As web technology continues its penetration into virtually every facet of organisational life, the focus has generally been on publishing models as opposed to interactive models. While some organisations are realising the benefits of collaboration and workflow online, there is still a significant focus on publishing and managing content, generally using complex and expensive Content Management Systems. There has been less focus on how to build capability in virtual collaboration and working online. This is not to say that content management and robust governance is unimportant – it is critical. Rather, content management must go hand in hand with the use of that content and enhancing collaborative working … and most organisations have not managed to make this a reality.

There is a great deal of potential within organisations, using their existing technologies, to derive cultural and performance benefits from re-thinking how they communicate, make decisions and work virtually. And the good news is that it’s about behaviour and practices, and not all about technology. It’s about re-thinking what channel is the most effective, for what purpose, for which users – and which processes.

The Changing Face of Engagement
Let’s be honest: conventional wisdom and ‘best practice’ in organisational communication hasn’t changed much in the past ten years. In essence, we focus on balancing several elements:

• messages the organisation needs to communicate to people
• messages the organisation wants to communicate to people
• information people in the organisation need to know
• information people in the organisation want to know
• what tools are best to deliver these, and for people to use to find these
• what feedback should be sought and provided – and how
• what management metrics should be captured and considered.

Within many organisations, particularly larger and geographically diverse ones, the model tends to include a certain amount of ‘telling’ at the global and local level. Generally, a smaller amount of ‘real’ dialogue with employees (3) takes place, with feedback approaches based on periodic employee survey results and qualitative research methods.

Of course, some organisations (Sears in the late 90s, UK retailer Tesco more recently) have done good work in developing metrics linking improvement in employee attitudes and satisfaction to customer satisfaction and business performance. And the best way to build employee satisfaction is to ensure the right drivers are being managed – broadly, some of which are reward and development based, and some of which are cultural and participation based.
Technology has had an impact on how all this is delivered (e.g., online surveys instead of paper based where possible, and the use of webcasting and similar technologies for important news and messages, use of email and intranets instead hardcopy). But the model itself actually hasn’t changed much. We still treasure what we call ‘two way communication’ — and seem happy to qualify ‘feedback’ as completing the communication loop.

Recently, however, the trend in organisational communication has centred on the idea of ‘engagement.’ The new buzzwords are employee engagement, brand engagement and how to ‘engage’ people in change.

While this is both admirable and conceptually correct, in reality you can’t ‘engage’ people any more than you can ‘participate’ people.

Getting a person’s ‘buy in’ is fundamentally different from their deciding to participate or ‘engage’ in the matter at hand — to form awareness and, perhaps, alter their attitudes or behaviours. ‘Buy in’ is still about selling and influencing through the use of the medium and the content. It’s internal marketing.

Is Virtual Collaboration the new engagement?
Real engagement is a different kettle of fish. Yet most ‘employee engagement’ approaches assume just this – that providing a new and different way of participating is the same thing as genuine engagement. Certainly, providing a more interactive experience is a better approach than command and control directives sent down from The Top. But if involvement is just repackaged ‘telling and listening’ it isn’t necessarily motivating people to become engaged. Calling this ‘employee engagement’ is disingenuous at best, and cynical spin at worst.
Engagement can only occur where it is ‘genuine’, and ideally where it has been designed as an intended part of the process from its inception and not as an afterthought. But these approaches are usually tried only during times of crisis, re-invention or on ‘special occasions.’ Large group involvement such as Real Time Strategic Change and Open Space Technology are exceptional, effective, and highly recommended approaches (4) – but they remain for most the exception to the norm, tools held in reserve for those critical moments where innovation and ‘a different approach’ is seen as the requirement.

Making this level of involvement and genuine collaboration the norm is the new challenge. New attitudes and approaches to ensuring this is going to require communicators at all levels to re-think and even tear down some of the assumptions and infrastructures that they have, perhaps, just helped to build.

Apart from focus group testing, the most common kind of involvement occurs where approaches or decisions have for the most part already been made. Then workshops interactive sessions are deployed to create understanding, a feeling of participation and shared purpose. All too often, much of the content and output is a fait accompli and there is no real scope for the sessions to actually challenge the desired outcomes of those sponsoring the activity in the first place. Again, the approach is commendable in that it is better than many traditional methods of ‘telling,’ and in many cases there is some scope for participants to have a hand in shaping the change. But it is still telling or selling, without the genuine engagement and empowerment that comes where decisions are made which have an impact on operations, as opposed to providing feedback related to the agendas of the powers that be.

The role of fostering improved virtual collaboration methods cannot be over-emphasised in helping deliver this new vision of real engagement in organisations. Does this mean the answer is to run out and invest in the latest collaboration software and get everyone trained in it? No! To return to the hackneyed horse-to-water analogy above, that’s about as sensible as building a new platinum trough to replace the old wooden one the horse isn’t drinking from.

It’s about the horse, not the trough.

What it does mean is that the answer is to begin assessing where we can analyse, influence and shape some of the work processes within our organisations to demonstrate that how we communicate and provide access to both people and information has a profound impact on the level of engagement and involvement in the business. And there are certainly ways to make virtual collaboration work better that have to do with behaviours, not technologies (5).

Technology can indeed play an important role in delivering this – but it might not be in the shape we expect. It is essential to be clear first on the differences between involvement, decision-making and consensus building, and second on how technologies (face to face and online) affect these stakeholder interactions.

The Startling Truth About Group Decisions
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds (6), James Surowiecki discusses how, given the right circumstances, decisions made by groups are often far more accurate and effective than decisions made by the smartest individuals within those groups. Surowiecki suggests that if a group makes decisions in an environment of diversity, independence, and decentralisation, their decisions can be incredibly accurate and powerful. Importantly, he doesn’t say crowds are always smart – rather, they can be remarkably so if they are asked to make decisions using their own information, without outside influence, and that their ideas are effectively aggregated to produce a true collective judgement. Surowiecki points out that group decisions sometimes don’t work so well where there is simply consensus and compromise.

This provides an interesting opportunity to consider how in our organisations we can create a context where this can happen. While the power of large scale, collective decision making (Open Space Technology etc.) sometimes may provide highly beneficial involvement and participation, it also includes the potential diluting effect of consensus thinking and compromise. Any group, despite the best facilitation, will be swayed by the beliefs and opinions of its most influential members. And we all know that sometimes the most influential members aren’t necessarily the best informed, competent or qualified.

It is for this reason that approaches like Open Space meetings, workshops and focus groups, while valuable involvement tools in their own right, aren’t always the right choice for involvement in decision making processes – despite their tremendous value in generating consensus and the important ‘feeling’ of participation in what is essentially the telling process.

It’s about Virtual Involvement, then?
Virtual team working in general and group decision-making in this context is nothing if not counter-intuitive. Researchers in the psychology of virtual (online) behaviour are discovering some amazing things about who we are, who we appear to be, and how we work outside face to face and ‘in the office’ contexts.
The virtual environment provides a potentially favourable place for capturing the power of collective decision making, while retaining the benefits of delivering real involvement and genuine engagement. Research indicates that virtual teams often generate a greater number, and a higher quality, of good ideas that face-to-face brainstorming methods. In addition, teams who work effectively online often report significantly higher perceptions of their group’s overall communication effectiveness. (7) And as Surowiecki’s many examples bear out, collective decision-making can provide remarkably good results, given the right circumstances.
For example, we are more trusting and likely to be more honest and disclose more in the virtual environment than in the face-to-face environment (or, from another point of view, we tell the same amount of lies and about less important things online). And that we are less likely to say what we really feel when we see the other person (e.g. webcast) than if we are using a ‘chat’ type facility or typing an email. We simply tend to disclose more and ‘be ourselves’ in the virtual environment – amazingly, even where the presence of authority and hierarchy are explicit and present ‘risk.’ (8) And while sometimes this can cause issues (9) (many companies have had to shut down bulletin board style sites), it can also provide tremendous energy and resource to organisations willing to ‘take the plunge’ and trust the research, rather than rely on opinion, assumption and intuition.

The long and short of all this is that we don’t need new technologies to leverage the benefits of both group decision-making and the increased effectiveness of virtual teams any more than we need new kinds of paper, books, screens or water troughs.

Quite the opposite. What we need instead is to create contexts, environments and norms of behaviour that recognise and encourage new ways of working and getting input into decisions from a broader and far more vibrant and diverse range of decision makers. Instead of isolating decisions among a select few managers who may be ‘out of touch’ with the situation at the coal face, or who may be missing key pieces of information, or who may have other agendas, there is a compelling case for genuine engagement of a type most of us have never envisioned, witnessed or experienced.

There may or may not be a technological component to such efforts. It’s likely that some face to face and group approaches to deliver this will work, if carefully designed and implemented, but given the complexity and scope of many organisations, it’s just as likely that some relatively simple online tools will prove effective. It can be as simple as virtual meetings or web-enabled blog-style pages, or something more: The end objective is the same.

What does this mean for business communicators?
As communicators, the primary focus must be not only on understanding the operational aspects of the business, but on being absolutely clear about what engagement approach is required and what will deliver the appropriate results.

This will be a difficult transition for many of us as communicators, let alone for the leaders and decision makers to whom we will suggest what will appear to them to be ‘surrendering’ decision-making power. The positioning and careful planning of the discussion will be an exercise in genuine engagement involvement itself. Not only will it require ever greater cross-functional working, but it will also require additional effort in educating and influencing those leaders who have probably only just ‘bought in’ to the value our existing models of communication – which are not as genuinely engaging or context-sensitive as we might have just convinced them.
It is just as important to remember the fundamentals as we consider approaches to ‘the new engagement.’ As we noted above, there is always the stuff that people need and want to be told, information they’ll require, content to be delivered and knowledge and information to be managed. This will remain a huge part of our jobs, and getting it right may be a full-time challenge in and of itself.

But if we are genuinely going to engage people – and this ‘engagement’ might be best defined as real involvement, commitment, personal identification and motivation to act – then individuals must be given meaningful and effective ways to harness their collective energies, ideas and information, without imposing the traditional ‘power’ obstacles of influence and hierarchy. Pursuing how we do this and creating such an environment is an amazingly powerful and worthwhile opportunity.

Challenging? Of course – the moment power moves in an organisation, we are in for, as the Chinese proverb states, “interesting times.” However, for organisations managing to implement such ‘genuine’ engagement processes, the rewards and advantages will be nothing short of inspiring, transformational — and highly profitable.


1. Understanding the psychology of online behaviour: From content to community, a presentation by Dr. Adam Joinson Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, 2002.
2. Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity Adam N. Joinson Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University
3. In the European Union, Employee Consultation is a legal requirement.
4. See Owen,Harrison. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Berrett-Koelher Publishers, San Francisco, 1997 and Bunker, Barbara and Alban, Billie, Large Group Interventions, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, 1997.
5. M Lynne Markus, Brook Manville and Carole E Agres What makes a virtual organization work? Sloan Management Review Cambridge Fall 2000
6. Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. Little, Brown; London: 2004.
7. An Initial Examination of Observed Verbal Immediacy and Participants’ Opinions of Communication Effectiveness in Online Group Interaction, Paul L. Witt Texas Christian University.
8. Joinson, A.N. (in press) Internet Behaviour and the design of virtual methods. In C. Hine (Ed.). Virtual Methods: issues in social research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
9. Kiesler, S., Siegal, J. and McGuire, T. W. (1984). Social psychological aspects of computer mediated communication. American Psychologist, 39, 1123-1134.


3 thoughts on “Brace yourself … L O N G P O S T

  1. A very useful piece, which addresses a potentially viable approach for internal communicators to address the marketplace’s call for “engagement solutions”.

    But as you know, things haven’t quite followed that direction. Companies that once adopted (and consultants who once sold) one-size-fits-all approaches to internal communication are now adopting (and selling) one-size-fits-all engagement.

    One-size-fits-all engegement is essentially internal marketing on steroids. But it appeals to clients because of its apparent simplicity, and, I’d posit, the promise of producing disproportionate results for modest commitments.

    The danger–if the current “engagement” trend backfires, it will be the communications folks who pay, either with slashed jobs or dumbed-down roles. It’s a risky game we are in–can we win it?

  2. Great points. I think we can “win” if we only work with organisations willing to “morally” commit to it.

    We might also get very hungry.

    I suppose my approach is give the best, most honest advice possible and aim high, but help move the organisation as far forward as you can.

    This stuff often works in theory and black and white. The difficulties arise when human beings and the Real World intrude on our nice little models and philosophies.

    I don’t think it will backfire … at least while business is good.

    But you have to start somewhere!

  3. I think we can win either way–but only if we know what the game is and what the rules are. A big problem with “engagement” is that there no shared, actionable definitions. But the good news is that there’s still time for us to come up with tools and approaches that address where organizations are in the arena of engagement–as opposed to forcing them towards a fixed view of where they should be.

    The new edition of CommsOffensive325 takes a critical look at “employee engagement” and offers some alternative models and definitions. It can be found at

    Keep up the good work–and I promise to stomp on anyone using the term “internal marketing” in the meantime.

    All the best,

    Mike Klein
    Washington, DC

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