Louise Dickmeyer strikes me as a game communicator. So I see this blog post not as a final judgment, but as the bracing beginning of a public conversation.
I've read Dickmeyer's series of blog posts over the last month in praise of my 2009 white paper, Employee Communication Is Different. I've appreciated that she, unlike many readers of my white paper, did not find it insanely idealistic. And I've considered her claims that her company exists to carry out my most idealistic notions about making corporate life more meaningful and corporate work more dignified.
And I believe Dickmeyer, her company People Driven Performance and their EmployeeCommunicateOmeter called rHub—aren't curing the cancer that eats corporate cultures. They're engaged in the variably honorable and opportunistic work of making a better bedpan.
Dickmeyer sings the proper praises with the perfect pitch: She lauds my white paper and its subject, the Alexander Heron book, Sharing Information with Employees. In fact, she calls her discovery of Heron "PDP's Holy Grail. This is our watershed moment—this is PROOF—that what we stand for has basis and was validated decades ago. It's almost like our founders read the 1942 text at some point and then developed the PDP solution in response."
People who read the white paper or the Writing Boots series from which it was drawn will recall that Heron called for management to have an "aggressive willingness" to communicate with employees in the industrial age so thoroughly that they understood the economics of their business as well as employees did in the much simpler pre-industrial age. To illustrate his point, Heron described a small furniture shop where eight men work for a boss and customers who they know as well as they know one another. They understand everything they need to know about the boss's finances, the costs of production, the supplier's economics, the customer's needs, the character of everyone involved. "They know" everything there is to know about the business, Heron writes. "Because they know, they understand. And in that full and simple understanding they 'put themselves' into every job."
The problem, as Heron describes it, is how to translate such an understanding into the much more abstract world of great big modern companies.
Now here comes Dickmeyer, who like all employee communication types, professes to know something about business that corporate leaders don't: That if they'd only communicate more frequently and "effectively" with employees, they'd have a more productive, more sustainable workforce.
Dickmeyer seizes on Heron's term "aggressive willingness," which she defines this way: "Aggressive willingness is talking about what is—and what is not—going right in the company."
So far so good.
"It’s recognizing employees, at every opportunity, for doing a great job."
Wait. Aggressive willingness is employee recognition?
"It’s making employees so comfortable in the communication environment that they share information with each other in their weekly digital newspaper, when for example they did something that triggered a safety incident. They want to share because they are engaged with their work and their fellow employees, and they want to make sure no one else is hurt. It is what we see every day with our PDP clients."
Woah! That preposterous safety story aside—hey, I lopped my finger off! somebody call the paper!—how did we get so quickly from communication philosophy to a "weekly digital newspaper"?
Well, because a weekly digital newspaper is what Dickmeyer sells. Or as she calls it, "software, hardware and a service set to create highly effective internal communications."
PDP’s communication vehicle is a SaaS (Software as a Service) product with multiple modules. One module is a digital newspaper (called rNews) that publishes each week and is available on touchscreen kiosks in key locations in our client’s organization. The content of each client newspaper is driven by a cross-section of the employees themselves, and each edition includes topics that speak to the interests of the organization and its employees.
• Human Resources – Drills, Medical, United Way, Insurance, Recruiting efforts
• Kudos for achievements, Service Anniversaries
• Executive Communication via brief CEO messages
• Fun stories, Contests
• Management and Production, Building updates, Equipment upgrades or changes, Teams
• Employee Profiles
• Human interest stories on vacations, new babies, marriages, graduations, hobbies, fishing and hunting
• Training and Safety, audits
• Sales performance, new customers, Customer profiles
• Quality and ISO certifications
It appears Dickmeyer has invented a machine to replace a run-of-the-mill 1970s employee communication department. And though she claims her employee communication machine measures its own results—"PDP's solution includes a feedback module that monitors employee absorption and produces a report to reflect that activity back to our client"—the best case study she can offer is airless at best:
In one of our early installations, I remember the CEO of a client of ours sharing his awe at the difference PDP was making to productivity. His firm was only a few months into using the PDP system, but using PDP’s weekly news and information metrics, he had already gotten many new insights into how his messages were getting through to his employees. The content of the news was broad, touching on quality issues, safety, customer profiles, leader profiles, stories of human interest, and unique pieces submitted by his employees. The CEO told us that when he “walks the floor now—the production floor—employees would approach him differently.” In the pre-PDP days, the employees would have that oh-here-comes-the-boss look. Today, they say, “now that I understand what we are trying to achieve, how can I contribute?”
Aw gee Eddie. You mustabeen reading the weekly digital newspaper again.
Dickmeyer concludes her last post on Heron by quoting from my last post on Heron, wherein I expressed gratitude to him for preemptively reinforcing "my belief that employee communication is a discipline that can make American work life—and the life’s work of Americans—more meaningful.”
"PDP makes Murray’s dream a reality, incorporating his principles in the technology solution we have developed and which our clients rely on every day," Dickmeyer claims. "Are you ready to take the next step? Are you ready to examine a new way of communicating with your employees, to make the bold move for change, and to increase productivity and profitability?"
To claim PDP is "incorporating" Heron's and my principles in its "technology solution" is fine as far as it goes. I imagine an employer sincerely committed to making employees understand every aspect of the business—and to helping them share ideas too—could use Dickmkeyer's product to aid in the effort. Anyone who's ever discovered only crackers and Cheez Whiz in the cupboard will tell you that employee communication in a can is better than no employee communication at all.
But somehow I imagine that a truly communication-minded employer would be more likely to create their own means of communication, tailored to their workforce, their marketplace, the rhythms of their business. I also believe that such an employer would consider the communication media as the least important detail of what really is a tremendously complex intellectual exercise: Helping employees in a huge global enterprise feel like they work in 19th century furniture shop.
This is the job for a communication genius. Not "software, hardware, and a service set."
Now, all of that said: I imagine that I have in some ways misinterpreted, oversimplified and unfairly dismissed PDP Solutions and Louise Dickmeyer in this post.
Because I am not an entirely ungrateful bastard—I do appreciate Dickmeyer's appreciation of my appreciation of Alexander Heron—I will post Dickmeyer's initial response not in the comments section, but in the post proper, so no one can miss it.
OK—I am struck by a few things here.
1) At least we didn’t get fried too badly! Having read many of the posts by Mr. Murray—yikes.
2) I still argue for tools to create structure for how a business communicates. A structure that gives you a feedback loop so the “truly communication-minded employer” doesn’t have to guess if Employee A, B or C did look at that bulletin board as they walked by, or that they were for sure listening to my quarterly meeting presentation. Or that my manager communicated down through the ranks exactly what I meant—that is when I was truly trying to communicate—because I am communication-minded darn it.
Come on. This is what is missing. Towers Watson, in their internal communication ROI study report, Capitalizing on Effective Communication. How Courage, Innovation and Discipline Drive Business Results in Challenging Times (2009/2010), notes three critical elements needed. Courage, Innovation and Discipline. Let’s face it. The last element is sorely lacking. PDP enforces discipline through the use of tools and approach. And it works. It gets employees involved in generating content and greater understanding; engaging in performance metrics; and building community. And, in “a tremendously complex intellectual exercise” PDP tools make it easier so maybe, just maybe, communications won’t continue to fall by the wayside—because “I have better things to do.”
Case in point, production trumps performance. Always. If a machine breaks down, it gets fixed before Bob gets the "at-a-boy" that the manager was just about to offer and will forget to do so later. We ensure that recognition, focus on safety, attention to what PPM and quality and LEAN is all about, never gets left off the table, because the culture of the company shifts with its commitment to share information weekly—on the business, the people, the organizational metrics. Employees over time, learn a good deal more about their business and are more apt to "'put themselves' into every job."
As far as, “Helping employees in a huge global enterprise feel like they work in 19th century furniture shop,” while you are cynical, you’d be surprised how effective this approach is. We have quantitative proof, however, I relish the anecdotal. We hear firsthand from the maintenance guy, the welder, the paint shop supervisor, the nurse, the teller, the HR manager, the foundry melt deck employee—while they may have been skeptical of the tools initially, they would hate to see them taken out. They would hate to return to the time when information eked out, and usually only when there was a problem—if at all.
We’d argue, in a place where no bedpan exists, PDP is way better than changing the sheets.
Readers, what do you think? Let's keep talking, in the comments section, below.