When built properly, an integrated communication system can dramatically improve the way you do business.
Step 1 – Build a communications framework
If you're familiar with the concept of the 'elevator pitch' you'll understand the value in being able to describe a big idea in simple terms.
A good comms framework is your business in a nutshell. It sits comfortably as a layer on top of your organisational workflow and describes all the things that have to happen, in what order and when, and lists the various resources, tools and templates available to help along the way. It need not be complicated or overly detailed but it must be accurate and up to date. Your framework serves to keep everyone within the organisation on the same page (quite literally, a lot of the time).
Here's a snippet to show you what that might look like.
Essentially it describes the workflow at a high level and lists the output (the goal of the procedure, in this case a completed order form ready for the next link in the chain) and also the resources available to help you carry out the tasks (a procedure manual and a 'job aid', which might be a list of codes that are tricky to remember, a checklist, or whatever). Now imagine this snippet expanded, beginning at the raw materials or trigger that drives your business and ending at the final product packaged neatly in your client's hands.
Building a framework is a useful exercise for another reason. The act of working out what has to happen and when often throws up the opportunity to re-address the process itself. It's amazing how often, when you ask, "So why does it happen that way?" the response is, "Well, we've always done it that way." Think of it as a chance to spring-clean your workflow and look for a better way to operate.
Step 2 – Write your supporting documentation
Once you have a good map of your core workflow you can work out what kind of communications support material you need to make it happen.
A well-written procedure manual or guide leads to faster operation and fewer mistakes, and it certainly reduces the need to bother someone else to show you how to perform a task. A flowchart to show what needs to happen at a performance review, or a clear set of instructions on how to book a vehicle, or a poster that shows how to operate the thingamajig can all save time, especially for new starters (and their supervisor!) A related benefit of a good procedure manual is that each of your staff will do things in the same way as everybody else, which leads to greater consistency across the organisation.
Well-written procedures and job aids often reduce the need for training too, or at least make the training more effective, because instructions for key tasks are right there in front of you in an easy-to-grasp format. On the flipside, a badly-prepared manual might as well never have been written in the first place.
"So, what do I write in here?" asks Barry, when faced with a particularly demanding project planning template. If the quality of information you're getting from your forms and templates isn't great, or they're riddled with mistakes, then it's a sign that they haven't been designed properly and not that Barry is an idiot. Chances are that much of your paperwork was hastily put together five years ago by Sharon in HR, and now it's not only out of date but also collecting the wrong information.
A good form or template has no need of lengthy instructions, and your staff should certainly not need guidance on how to complete it. The questions or data fields should flow logically, be right to the point, and seek only the information that's strictly needed. Good paperwork leads to a better quality of information and better organisational consistency.
And don't forget the people you do business with – they deserve intelligent paperwork too. Contracts, tender documents and job ads should be clear and unambiguous. It should be seen as a matter of professional courtesy not to create an undue workload for your suppliers, particularly when, in the case of tenders and employment ads, everyone but the successful applicant is working for nought.
Step 3 – Tell people what you do
When all your workflow and comms components are nicely lined up and everything is working efficiently then it's worth shouting about.
The tip of the communications iceberg is your front-of-house collateral. It too needs careful planning and attention. Most importantly it needs to show what you can do, or what you have to say, in a way that's meaningful to your intended audience. It should not be just another treatise on what a great organisation you are.
Website text needs to be clear and to the point, and structured in way that makes information easy to find. Reports should have a purpose, not simply be the result of a box-ticking exercise. Case studies and articles should show how you made a difference in a single instance. Social media and blog posts should be considered and informative, not just a link to a barely-relevant article.
There's someone missing from your comms team
That is the person who understands the technical nature of the business itself and can translate your activity into plain English, then develop promotional materials and stories that hit a chord with your market. Too often, the content we see on organisational websites has arisen directly from the desk of the comms team and does not necessarily reflect what the business is all about, often to the dismay of the technical folk. On the other hand, and probably even worse, technical people may be asked to post stuff for themselves.* This shows a lack of integration.
* If you know any engineers you'll have spotted the problem I'm getting at.
A good comms strategist will often be seen in the workshop or talking to your specialists, trying to understand what they're up to so they can turn it into a story or report that will be of interest to your clients. Right at the other end, he or she will be doing their market research, routinely speaking with customers, clients and stakeholders to work out what they really want from you.
Read our post on the subject
Serious stories about communication
told in a silly voice.
I dig a little deeper than most comms folk. From science at university, to a cold-and-wet career as a commercial diver, to working underground, and for the past 13 years as a communicator-at-large, I've had my fair share of weird experiences in all sorts of situations. It's given me a fair-to-middling grounding in all things explanatory.