Not so long ago, power within organizations emanated from the commands of top executives. Those leaders drove organizational performance by devising strategic objectives, which they translated into directives that passed down through a hierarchy before reaching employees, whose job was merely to take orders and to act on those orders. Today, that model of organizational life has essentially fallen apart. At more and more companies in more and more industries, leaders recognize that driving their company in a traditional command-and-control manner doesn’t work anymore. To an ever-increasing degree, people—and the energies and capabilities that lie inside them—are the ultimate source of optimal performance and sustainable competitive advantage. Yet the kind of value that people now deliver to an organization isn’t the kind of value that leaders can leverage simply by issuing orders from the executive suite. In an environment where employees have that much power to determine the success or failure of an organization, the ability of leaders to command grows weak and their sense of control grows weaker still.
For most leaders, that story will have considerable resonance. Even those who retain a firm grip on the main levers of activity within their organization will sense, deep down, that their ability to harness the creative and operational energy of their people has grown more tenuous over the years. Yet, as familiar as the loss-of-command story has become, leaders continue to grapple with the question of where that story ends—or, more pertinently, the question of what comes next. Now that the model of driving a company from its commanding heights has become obsolete, what will take its place? How, in this new era, should leaders seek to power their organization?
In Talk, Inc., we argue that a new source of organizational power has come to the fore. Our term for that power source is organizational conversation. Instead of handing down commands or imposing formal controls, many leaders today are interacting with their workforce in ways that call to mind an ordinary conversation between two people. What’s more, they are fostering and facilitating conversation-like practices throughout their company—practices that enable a company to achieve higher degrees of trust, improved operational efficiency, greater motivation and commitment among employees, and better coordination between top-level strategy and frontline execution. The power of organizational conversation isn’t the kind of power that manifests itself as control over a person or a process. Rather, it’s the kind of power that makes a person or a process go. It’s energy, in other words. It’s fuel. In organizational terms, conversation is what keeps the engine of value creation firing on all cylinders.
Simply put, organizational conversation isn’t “just talk.” To understand why, think about the way that start-ups and other small companies have come to embody an ideal of organizational excellence. Then consider that one hallmark of a high-performing small company is the eminently conversational mode in which its people operate. In the old business world, organizational success was largely a function of organizational size. As companies grew bigger, their leaders were able to issue orders that reached ever-larger workforces, and employees in turn were able to generate more and more products for a wider and wider share of a given market. Nowadays, by contrast, it’s small companies that often demonstrate a superior ability to mobilize resources optimally and to target fresh markets quickly. What accounts for the relative success of relatively compact organizations?
It’s a matter of scale: In a small company, leaders remain close to employees—close not just in terms of space, but also in terms of spirit—and employees trust them as a result.
It’s a matter of structure: In a small company, physical proximity and an open culture allow people to share key insights and crucial data, and information moves freely and efficiently in multiple directions.
It’s a matter of participation: In a small company, cumbersome divisions of labor are rare, and a wide range of employees are able to play a part in accomplishing major tasks.
It’s a matter of focus: In a small company, all employees enjoy a clear line of sight on the guiding plans and priorities that their leaders have developed.
Look closely at those elements of small-company success, and you’ll note that they correspond to elements of a good person-to-person conversation. When two people talk with each other, and when that talk is at its most robust, the scale of their conversation is typically small and, indeed, intimate; the structure of their conversation is dynamic and interactive; their participation in the conversation is equal and inclusive; and their approach to the conversation is focused and intentional. Those qualities (as we will explain more fully in a moment) also correspond to the defining elements of organizational conversation. Through conversation, we contend, a big or growing organization can retain or recapture much of the nimbleness, the cohesiveness, and the raw, productive energy of a well-oiled small company. That, at bottom, is the core promise of this book—that leaders, drawing upon the ideas and practices that we present in the pages that follow, can tap into this new form of organizational power.
The I’s Have It
Organizational conversation, in our use of the term, applies to the full range of patterns and processes by which information circulates through a company—all of the ways in which ideas, images, and other forms of organizational content pass between leaders and employees, or from one employee (or group of employees) to another. It occupies roughly the same space that “corporate communication” has traditionally occupied in organizational life. Yet, both in spirit and in practice, organizational conversation is quite different from corporate communication. The latter function grew naturally out of the command-and-control model. Top-down and one-way in its orientation, corporate communication aptly suited the needs of large, hierarchy-driven companies by serving as a central organ for distributing news of corporate activity to internal as well as external audiences. In effect, it served as a vehicle for making human conversation all but unnecessary, at least from an organizational perspective. Departments of corporate communication remain in place, of course, and that legacy term remains in common usage. No company (to our knowledge) has yet created an “organizational conversation department” or hired a “chief conversation officer.” Nonetheless, those phrases hint at the new approach that many leaders at many organizations are beginning to take.
Where organizational conversation flourishes, it involves up to four elements. These elements reflect the essential attributes of interpersonal conversation, and likewise they reflect the classic distinguishing features of a high-flying small company. In developing our model of organizational conversation, we have attached to each element a word that begins with the letter I.
Intimacy: Conversation between two people both requires and enables its participants to stay close to one another, figuratively as well as literally. Only through intimacy of that kind can they achieve a true meeting of minds. In organizational conversation, similarly, leaders reduce the distance—institutional as well as spatial—that would normally separate them from their employees. They do so by cultivating the art of listening to people at all levels of their organization, and by learning to talk with those people in ways that are personal, honest, and authentic. Conversational intimacy equips leaders to manage change within their company, and it helps them to solidify buy-in among employees for new strategic initiatives. In short, it allows them to build trust through talk.
Interactivity: Talk is a two-way affair—an exchange of comments and questions, of musings and mutterings. The sound of one person talking, whatever else it may be, is not a conversation. Following that same logic, organizational conversation replaces the traditional one-way structure of corporate communication with a dynamic process in which leaders talk with employees and not just to them. Changes in the technology of communication, especially those that incorporate emerging forms of social media, support that shift. Equally important, though, is the emergence of cultural norms that favor dialogue over monologue. The benefits that accrue from conversational interactivity include lower transaction costs, an easing of the pressure caused by information overload, and an increase in employees’ ability to respond readily to customer needs.
Inclusion: At its best, interpersonal conversation is an equal-opportunity proposition. It invites all participants to put their own ideas, and indeed their heart and soul, into the conversational mix. Organizational conversation, by the same token, calls upon employees to participate eagerly in the work of generating the content through which a company tells its story, both internally and externally. People in frontline and midlevel posts act as semiofficial company bloggers, for example, or as trained brand ambassadors. By empowering employees to communicate in that way, leaders relinquish much of the control that they formerly exerted over organizational messaging. But they gain a great deal in return. Through conversational inclusion, leaders are able to boost employee engagement, to spur innovation and creativity, and to improve the branding and reputation of their organization.
Intentionality: Even in the most casual two-person chat, the two people in question will each have some sense of where they want the conversation to go. Talk that’s truly rewarding is never truly “idle.” So it is with organizational conversation, which puts a premium on developing and following an agenda that aligns with the strategic objectives of a company. Over time, the many voices that contribute to conversation within an organization must converge in a single vision for that organization—a single understanding of its mission in the world and its place in the marketplace. While the elements of intimacy, interactivity, and inclusion serve to open up that conversation, the element of intentionality serves to “close the loop” on it. Among the outcomes that conversational intentionality helps to promote are a keen focus on driving business value and a more effective approach to strategic alignment.
Leaders who power their organization through conversation-based practices will not always “dot” all four of these I’s. But as we’ve discovered in our research, these elements tend to reinforce each other. In many instances, they overlap with each other significantly. As we address each element in turn, it will be apparent that our model of organizational conversation is (like conversation itself) highly iterative: Some ideas will recur, in slightly or more-than-slightly altered form, as we move from one element to the next. In the end, these four elements coalesce to form a single integrated process—a single source of organizational power.
Talking About Talk, Inc.
When we began the project that led to this book, the focus of our research was fairly narrow. One of us, Boris Groysberg, is a business scholar and an educator with a background in studying organizational dynamics. The other, Michael Slind, is a professional communicator with an interest in organizational strategy. Together, we fastened on the idea of investigating how people in organizations communicate internally in the twenty-first century. Our initial guiding questions were straightforward enough: What are the current activities and norms, the prevailing aims and objectives, that characterize the way that companies manage the flow of information to, from, and among employees? How have those activities and aims changed in recent years? Are there developments in this area that qualify as being particularly innovative? Our research consisted chiefly of interviews with communication professionals at all manner of organizations—large and small, blue-chip and start-up, for-profit and nonprofit, U.S. and international. (We spoke, in all, with nearly 150 people at more than one hundred organizations.) Before long, we discovered that something greater was afoot than what our original research design had allowed for. The field known as “communication,” which had long been a discrete institutional function, was evolving at many companies into a constellation of practices that extends across the entirety of organizational life.
We had hit upon a development that goes beyond the traditional scope of what communication leaders do, and we therefore widened our research to encompass interviews with other organizational leaders, including senior executives with general-management responsibility. Those interviews crystallized what we had begun to see earlier. Certain recurring themes had become apparent, and they now coalesced into the overarching theme of conversation. More and more leaders today, we found, place a high value on forms of discourse and styles of interaction that have far more in common with the model of two people talking than they do with standard-issue corporate communication. In implicit as well as explicit terms, the leaders whom we interviewed spoke of their efforts to “have a conversation” with their people, or their ambition to “advance the conversation” within their organization. They described steps that they had taken to make that conversation (as we would now put it) more intimate, more interactive, more inclusive, and more intentional. They suggested that maintaining organizational conversation is a task that top executives must adopt as their own—that delegating it to professional communicators is no longer a viable option.
Our findings also revealed that the shift from corporate communication to organizational conversation has occurred because of several long-term changes that have affected the business world profoundly.
First, there is economic change. As service industries become more economically significant than manufacturing industries, and as knowledge work supplants other kinds of labor, the need for sophisticated ways to process and share information grows more acute.
Second, there is organizational change. As companies become flatter and less hierarchical in structure, and as frontline employees become more pivotally involved in value-creating work, lateral and bottom-up communication comes to be no less important than top-down communication.
Third, there is global change. As workforces become more diverse and more widely dispersed, the challenge of navigating across lines of cultural and geographic division entails modes of interaction that are fluid and complex.
Fourth, there is generational change. As millennials and other younger workers gain a foothold in organizations, they bring an expectation that peers and authority figures alike will communicate with them in a dynamic, two-way fashion.
Fifth, there is technological change. As digital networks make instant connectivity the norm of business life, and as social media platforms grow more powerful and more ubiquitous, a reliance on older, less conversational channels of organizational communication ceases to be tenable.
Finally, there is the brute fact that all of these changes have steeply accelerated the pace at which business gets done today. As the time available for decision making becomes shorter and shorter, a commitment to engaging employees in that process becomes a make-or-break imperative for leaders.
One of those changes in particular—the rapid adoption of social media technology among both consumers and businesspeople—has received a lot of attention in recent years. There are, indeed, several books that deal centrally with that topic. Talk, Inc., is different. It’s not about social media. Instead, it’s about (among other things) what leaders and their employees do with social media. It’s about the increasing tendency among people in organizations to put conversation at the center of their work lives. And it’s about the way that conversation-based practices both generate and release organizational energy.
We’ve divided the book into four parts, with one part for each of the four elements that make up our model of organizational conversation. Each part includes a series of three chapters, and those chapters conform to a simple template. The orientation of the first chapter in each part is analytical: We define one of the four elements, outline some of its key dynamics, and delve into a few broad topics that reflect the conversational turn that many leaders are now taking. (In a couple of instances, we stop to take an “In Depth” look at a relevant practice that the leaders of a particular organization have adopted.) In the second chapter of each part, we shift toward a descriptive orientation. Under the banner of “Walking the Talk,” we present a discussion of one company—a full-dress case study that not only highlights one element of our model, but also illustrates how multiple elements gel into the unified pursuit of organizational conversation. The last chapter in each part offers a prescriptive coda to the preceding chapters. Called “Talk, Inc., Points” (or TIPs), this chapter provides brief take-away ideas for you to keep in mind as you explore our model. Think of these TIPs as conversation starters—as practical insights on how to set in motion a vibrant conversation within your own organization.
Throughout the book, we draw extensively from the conversations that we have had with people who took part in our research. Unless otherwise indicated by an endnote, every quotation in the pages that follow comes from one of those interviews. Some of the people quoted here, as it happens, no longer work at the organization whose communication practices were the focus of our interview with them. Nonetheless, in discussing their views and experiences, we follow the same approach that we use elsewhere—an approach that treats all such material as being relevant, and relevant now, to our model of organizational conversation. (In other words, even though each of our interviews with organizational leaders clearly took place in the past, we refer to their comments in the present tense.) We should also note that in preparing the book for publication, we took care to confirm with each interview subject the accuracy and current relevance of the comments that he or she shared with us.
We end here with one last thought: There is a conversation that takes place within every company—whether company leaders know it or not, and whether they like it or not. At the nearest water cooler or at the virtual rumor mill, employees chat about the state of their organization, and that chatter has a bearing on the company’s operational performance. Is the company doing well? Does it treat its people well? Is it heading in the right direction? What people say when they talk about those issues, and how they say it, will affect the capacity of leaders to drive their organization forward. Smart leaders understand that they can’t avoid that conversation for very long. Nor can they fully control it. But if they engage with it in the right way, they have the potential to unleash organizational energy of a sort that no leader could ever command.