By Frank Kenna
Communication technologies have exploded over the last decade and continue to evolve at a breakneck pace. Just when we think we’ve figured out the right vehicle to communicate with our employees, something new hits the scene. This article reviews the pros and cons of the most common major communication technologies, and offers steps for deciding which choices are best for your organization. So here we go.
Email - The original ‘new’ technology, email was invented in 1971, but didn’t start to spread widely until the late 1980’s.
Pros: everyone uses email and checks it frequently.
Cons: Employees are so deluged by email today that it’s difficult to get a particular message across, especially one that requires thought or concentration. Open rates are low, and spam filters are getting pickier every day.
Digital Signage - Starting to appear about 5 years ago, this technology is still pretty new, and is currently gaining widespread adoption in the corporate world.
Pros: Gets information in front of most employees regardless of title 24/7. Logistically much easier than printing memos, metrics and posting on cork boards. Digital signage can be extended across an enterprise for instantaneous communication. Content can be colorful and animated making for engaged employees. Almost anything on a user’s computer can be posted quickly.
Cons: Voracious appetite for content can be daunting. Getting large networks up and running is time consuming and expensive. Installing and maintaining equipment is an ongoing commitment.
Intranets and SharePoint-type programs - These are “mini Internets” that exist within a company’s network, with content intended only for employees. Often they are document repositories for files and basic collaboration at the department level.
Pros: All documents can reside in one place; people accessing them will always get the most current version. Can be relatively easy and inexpensive to set up, depending on complexity. Good repository for company documents that can be made available to employees at any location. People accessing them will always get the most current version.
Cons: Need constant administration to make sure documents are current. Can be difficult to make compatible across PC operating systems and networks. No good way to get employees to proactively go there to see information other than what they’re specifically looking for. Support from the IT department needed. Complex systems may be expensive to implement and/or have significant recurring expense.
Text messaging - This has grown in leaps and bounds since being invented in 1985. In the last 10 years, texts sent per month have risen from 33 million to almost 200 billion, making this a fast and accepted way to communicate.
Pros: Fast, easy, cheap. Employees already have the hardware (their phone).
Cons: Many systems limited to 160 characters. Users are inundated with texts, those with per-text charges may be annoyed that their company is costing them money, and they may feel that this is an intrusion in their personal life. Limited graphics and document transmission.
Social Networks - LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are some of the more popular social tools in use today. It’s hard to believe that they have been around less than 10 years (Facebook about 6) and the way they have become part of everyday life for a majority of North Americans. More than half the U.S. population on the web uses Facebook.
Pros: Fast growing, dynamic way to reach employees, especially younger ones. Users check in often, so will see your message. Immediate.
Cons: Getting invited to a user’s networks is problematic. Maintaining lists is difficult. Sending business information to private accounts may be resented. Technology and user preferences change quickly (remember Friendster and My Space?). Types of content that can be transmitted are very limited.
Choosing your Tools
So what does all this mean? That changes from month to month. Many of these tools weren’t in widespread use even a few years ago, so creating a long-term communication strategy based on specific technologies is difficult at best. Instead, base your strategy on what you need to accomplish, and then apply the technologies that best fit your message, mission and audience.
For example, if one of your goals is to get weekly production metrics in front of your people, then Twitter isn’t going to hack it. In this case you’d want to use an intranet, digital signage system or some combination thereof. But if you wanted to send out brief daily sales alerts, Twitter could be perfect. Most companies use a combined strategy, along with some old-world techniques such as bulletin boards and company newsletters - which still do work after all!
Steps for defining and implementing your employee communication plan:
1. Figure out who your target audience is, along with major demographic subgroups (age, role, location, etc.)
2. Note where employees work - geographically, at home, or by department.
3. Collect and sort your various communications needs by issue, how often messages need reinforcing, and who the “owner” of each is.
4. Outline these facts in a position paper, creating a communications strategy that looks at the big picture.
5. Lastly, decide which technologies are the best fits for your strategy. Keep your plan flexible and adaptable, as communication technologies are evolving rapidly.