Communication Measurement: State Of Play

Rodney GrayAf Rodney Gray, Employee Communication & Surveys, Sydney, Australia
Publiceret torsdag 27. januar 2011

Many years ago I was asked to write a few words on “what’s happening in internal communication measurement in Australia these days”. My immediate reaction was to volunteer that nothing much was new, for this is how it seemed to me working daily in the area.

Now, at least 10 years on, I’ve got similar feelings. Not a lot has changed.
In my experience, some (few) organisations are still doing communication audits by way of questionnaires, focus groups, and sometimes both. These are extremely useful, but you can’t do them more than annually. So it’s not surprising that some less formal approaches have been developed (such as the “quick diagnostics” mentioned below).

Over the past five years or so, the global emphasis on measuring “employee engagement” (i.e. “discretionary effort”), typically by way of the Hewitt Engagement Survey or the Gallup Q12, means that many organisations are simply measuring communication as part of these, if at all. Other organisations are doing other types of employee opinion surveys and the global consulting firm seem to be doing very well.

The use of engagement and employee opinion surveys means that very few measures are made of perceptions of internal communication in most organisations. This is not a serious problem if qualitative research is undertaken every few years by way of focus groups with typical groups of employees in typical locations.

Focus groups can provide actionable feedback in an economical and relatively speedy manner. But it becomes more difficult if you have employees in far flung locations who speak different languages.

Just as an aside, in recent years I’ve been asked to investigate employee engagement in a number of organisations. Almost all of these projects have arisen after Hewitt engagement surveys in which the findings have been unfavourable (e.g. one bank subsidiary discovered that only 25 % of its employees – mostly lawyers and accountants – were “engaged”.) Because the reasons why people score engagement poorly are sensitive (and usually to do with the style of one or more senior managers), it is necessary to do personal interviews rather than focus groups in such cases.

But it has not been all bad news. A couple of “excellent” organisations have asked me to investigate employee engagement so that they can identify any issues that would prevent them winning a Best Employer Award. Focus groups can be used when employees are quite positive.

Understanding who employees want to hear from and about what

The premise expounded by T J Larkin in Communicating Change (McGraw Hill, 1994) that employees mainly want to hear from their immediate supervisors (face-to-face about local work issues), has been shown to be rather simplistic and potentially misleading.

Taking up the idea presented by Angela Sinickas (in IABC’s Communication World, November 1992) I’ve been using a simple instrument to get employees to match their preferred communication sources with particular information topics.

Fifteen years later I’m able to draw some conclusions. Every organisation has been somewhat different. But the common themes seem to be:

  • Employees want the chief executive to keep them informed about the future direction and strategies of the organisation and how it is performing.
  • The CEO and other senior executives are expected to be the key communicators when there is a downsizing, restructure, merger, or other major change.
  • The immediate supervisor is preferred for communication about the job (expectations, performance feedback) and training opportunities.
  • Team meetings are liked for local issues such as new products and services, interaction with other teams, and the competition.
  • Information about job vacancies is usually preferred by email or in regular publications.
  • Sponsorships, community activities, social activities, staff benefits and the organisation’s people can go in publications.
  • Professional employees are far more likely to want to hear from senior people rather than their supervisors. Blue-collar workers are often, but not always, the reverse. Technology specialists are more inclined to prefer email and intranets than others.

I have not yet had the chance to measure interest the use of social media inside organisations. But I’m sure there are many younger employees who appreciate this.

Incidentally, if you’re going down the route of using social media internally, I’d suggest you have a look at IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines and Oracle’s Social Media Participation Policy. Both are available publically online.

Measuring change communication

One approach I’m still keen to try is that used by the Body Shop. Many years ago I heard that this company used a “control group” of stores (which did NOT receive the communications being measured). The behaviour (e.g. sales of particular products) of employees in those stores which did receive the communications being tested was compared to that of the control group. The effectiveness or otherwise of the communications is pretty clear if you do this.
This is similar to the “before and after” measurement some people use, but less intrusive as you don’t need to survey the same people twice.

“Quick diagnostics”

Increasingly I’m finding that ongoing feedback, especially about change communication, is necessary to refine the communication approaches being used.

For example, I once phoned 20 “opinion-leaders” (trade union delegates) throughout a newly corporatised government transport utility to informally check how the CEO’s roadshows had gone. Very valuable qualitative information was obtained in an inexpensive and timely manner which enabled us to plan our next round of communication. (This built on the information I’d gained in 10 focus groups conducted earlier in the year to examine communication in detail across the whole organisation.)

I also helped a consumer goods client conduct a telephone survey of 100 employees (using their usual market research firm) to assess their impressions of recent senior management communications. We designed a 15 minute question format and obtained a huge amount of useful quantitative and qualitative information. (Again this followed a 10 focus group survey some months ago.)

My colleague Gerard Castles discussed how to do quick diagnostics in the chapter we jointly wrote on “Communicating Major Change” which was published in The IABC Handbook of Organizational Communication (Tamara Ellis, Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2006).

The ultimate communication measure

Organisations are formed and sustained to achieve particular objectives. An organisation will achieve these objectives if it “performs”. In turn, an organisation will perform if the behaviour of the members of the organisation is appropriate.

We communicate to help organisations “perform” and achieve their objectives. So internally we communicate to change behaviour. We are not in the entertainment business. So the ultimate measure of communication effectiveness is the extent to which we change behaviour.

With before and after measurements we can assess the impact, if any, or our communications with employees.


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