Conversation Starter: How Inclusive Are You?

Crowd-sourcing. Co-creation. User-generated content. No matter which of those buzzwords you prefer, the underlying idea is essentially the same: In the world of commercial media, more and more companies are inviting users to help produce the content that they use. What is Facebook, after all, but an immense platform that allows users to operate simultaneously as generators of information and as consumers of information? Or think of the way that most mainstream media outlets now encourage their readers and viewers to submit news tips, video clips, and the like. In short, the line between professional producers and amateur consumers has blurred considerably in recent years.

A similar shift is under way in certain quarters of the business world. Some leaders at some companies have begun to include ordinary employees—not just senior executives, corporate spokespeople, and other authorized communicators—in the work of telling their company story. “Employee-generated content” is one term for this practice. Our term for it is inclusion, and it’s one element of a new leadership model that we call organizational conversation.

Inclusive leaders take the bold step of relinquishing some measure of control over the development and distribution of organizational content. They enable and empower a wide range of people to shape and to spread company messages, not just internally but also (in some cases) externally.

That’s a big departure from how leaders have traditionally managed the flow of ideas and information within their company. And, not surprisingly, there is a reluctance within many organizations to move in that direction. Recently, when we surveyed participants in an Executive Education program at Harvard Business School, more than half of them (51 percent) said that the goal of “encouraging employee voice” had “no priority” or had a “low priority” at their company. (The program in question, Driving Performance Through Talent Management, gathers executives from every part of the globe, and from companies large and small.)

At the level of specific practices, moreover, it remains the norm for leaders not to include employees in organizational communication efforts. We asked participants in that survey whether employees throughout their company “are able to publish original content (such as blog posts) on internal channels.” Nearly half of them (49 percent) said no. We also asked whether employees “are able to participate freely and openly in intranet-based discussion forums.” In that case, more than half of them (51 percent) said no.

The risks that come with conversational inclusion—with allowing employees to participate on official communication channels—are clear enough. But too many leaders fail to appreciate the benefits of taking that step. Better, more varied organizational content is one such benefit. Equally important, if not more so, is the boost in engagement that employees experience when they become active producers (rather than passive consumers) of that content.

Here are four ideas that will help you become a more inclusive leader.

1. Let them build it. To construct and convey key messages, smart leaders don’t always rely on professional communicators or on elaborate messaging campaigns. Instead, they recognize that often it’s front-line employees who know best how to tell a given company story. (For an example of a grassroots project that resulted in an employee-generated book, see our earlier post on that topic.)

2. Lead by following. The notion that senior executives might maintain a blog or a Twitter feed—one that employees, along with other company stakeholders, can follow—is fairly commonplace. In some instances, though, leaders reverse that equation: In a bid to share the digital limelight, they invite rank-and-file employees to become company-sponsored bloggers.

3. Send a messenger (not just a message). People today are skeptical of slickly produced brand messages. They’re skeptical of slick official spokespeople, too. Leaders who want to build public trust in their company brand, therefore, often recruit employees to serve as brand ambassadors. Training people who work for a company to speak for that company is a marketing practice that doubles as an engagement-building practice.

4. Lose control. It’s hard to break free of the mind-set that treats communication as a control function. But many leaders find that ceding control over what employees say on company channels—on an intranet discussion forum, for example—means gaining a new way to tap into the talent, the insight, and the passion of their people. They also find that self-policing by employees works to keep such discussion from going off-track.

For an inclusive leader, the term “employee communication” takes on a provocative new meaning. For generations, that term has referred to communication aimed at employees. Today, by contrast, more and more leaders are seeking ways to leverage the value of communication performed by employee

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

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Trust vs. Control

Erika Andersen, author of the forthcoming book Leading So People Will Follow, has written a piece on Forbes.com about our HBR article “Leadership Is a Conversation.” She has nice things to say about the ideas that we present in that article (and, by extension, nice things to say about Talk, Inc.). More important, she builds upon those ideas in an insightful way.

She notes, for example, that the pursuit of conversational trust (which we discuss in Chapter 1) runs counter to the pursuit of tight managerial control (a topic that we address in Chapter 7). Here’s a sampling of Andersen’s post:

[T]wo things … always seem to rear their ugly heads when a more egalitarian and collaborative approach to business is shown to be more effective: the need to control, and the lack of trust.

In order to make their own communication and the communication throughout their organizations more two-way, leaders need to be willing to cede some control to their employees. If you step down off your leader pedestal and engage with people as fellow human beings (intimacy), ask them what they think (interactivity) about important issues and decisions (intentionality) and allow them to have an impact on the outcomes (inclusion)—it means you’re no longer getting to call all the shots. Some leaders are OK with that in theory, but not in practice. …

Which brings us to the other problem: lack of trust. I’ve often seen leaders try to adopt a more open, inclusive style of communication, and then get frustrated when people didn’t immediately leap to respond. … If a leader wants to shift the style of communication in his or her organization to be more conversational, more inclusive, he or she is going to have to be both patient and truly consistent—he or she will need to demonstrate over and over that no bad things will happen to people who speak up.

In the post, Andersen also mentions that she has facilitated CEO-led meetings that incorporate exactly this kind of conversation-driven approach.

Conversation Starter: How Interactive Are You?

Until somewhat recently, organizational leaders had no choice but to rely on communication channels that were one-way in structure—and on communication practices that were one-way in spirit. In large and growing companies especially, channels such as the corporate newsletter and the executive speech have traditionally been the only practical means by which leaders could reach all of their employees. As a result, the culture of communication within organizations has tended to evolve in a way that favors monologue over dialogue.

That’s now changing, thanks in part to the increasing availability of interactive technology. Robust videoconferencing systems, dynamic intranet platforms, and software tools that turn executives into bloggers are among the technologies that enable back-and-forth communication to unfold across an organization.

Interactivity is one element of what we call organizational conversation. When that quality takes hold within a company, leaders are able to promote dialogue—dialogue between themselves and their employees, and dialogue among employees as a group. There’s more to being an interactive leader than adopting a certain kind of technology. That said, a leader can be only as interactive as the communication channels that he or she uses.

At many companies, leaders still rely extensively on traditional one-way channels. Recently, we surveyed participants in an Executive Education program at Harvard Business School on the practice of communication at their organization. (That program, Driving Performance Through Talent Management, gathers executives from every part of the globe, and from companies large and small.) Asked about the use of “letters and memos … from top executives to all employees,” the vast majority of respondents (87%) said that leaders in their company place a “medium” to “very high” degree of emphasis on that channel.

Meanwhile, according to these survey respondents, the use of newer social-media channels is considerably less prevalent. Most respondents (70 percent) indicated that the degree of emphasis placed on using a “CEO blog, aimed at employees” is “low” or “very low.” Fewer than half of them (43 percent) said that Web-based video technology is a “crucial tool for enabling communication” at their organization.

Our point here isn’t that you need to launch a blog, or to start recording YouTube videos, in order to communicate with your people. Interactivity, in fact, starts with a commitment to building a culture that supports back-and-forth communication—a culture in which people feel free not just to talk, but also to talk back. But your choice of communication tools does matter; it both reflects and reinforces your overall approach to leadership.

Here are four conversation-starting ideas—ideas that will help you become a more interactive leader.

1. Show your face. Thanks to the increasing quality and decreasing cost of network-enabled video technology, leaders today have a powerful tool for interacting with their people—even when company size and physical distance make in-person communication impossible. Virtual face-time, more and more leaders find, is better than no face-time.

2. Reinvent your intranet. Borrowing a practice that has become common on the public Internet, many leaders have installed tools on their company’s intranet site that allow employees to rate, share, or comment on much of the content that appears there. That simple innovation can turn a static message (a corporate announcement, a letter from the CEO) into the start of a conversation.

3. Cultivate conversation. Interactivity can flourish only where leaders have taken active steps to prepare the ground for it—only where they have nurtured a safe, open culture. Sometimes, for example, the most effective “open channel” that a leader can use is an open door.

4. Pull the plug. Digital technology can create a two-way connection where (as in the case of a large, global organization) that connection wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Yet it can also create a barrier—a wall of virtual chatter that ends up taking the place of true conversation. Interactive leaders, therefore, know when to leave their computer so that they can talk with their people in a direct, unmediated fashion.

The key to promoting dialogue in your organization is to strike a balance between technophobia and technophilia. Use digital communication tools to open up a conversation within your company. But don’t expect them to keep that conversation going if you’re not committed to it.

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

Expert Excerpt

Fast Company magazine recently published an excerpt from Talk, Inc., on its Web site. Offered as an “Expert Perspective” piece, the excerpt draws from Chapters 7 and 9 of the book. It’s titled “Want Passionate Employees? Include Them in Your Company Narrative,” and it begins thus:

Inclusion draws upon the two-way nature of real human conversation. Yet inclusive communication goes a crucial step further: FC cover.jpgIt extends the practice of back-and-forth interaction in a way that entitles people to give as well as take–to provide their own ideas, and not simply to parry the ideas offered by others. Within an organization, the practice of inclusion enables employees not just to interact with managers and colleagues, but also to serve as frontline content providers. In recent years, as that practice has taken hold at many companies, the overall structure of how organizations develop content has undergone a noticeable shift.

Conversation Starter: How Intimate Are You?

All too often, the root cause of organizational dysfunction is distance — the distance between leaders who communicate in a top-down fashion and employees who develop a sense of estrangement from those leaders. When that distance remains wide, the work of moving crucial information and key ideas across an organization becomes harder and harder. This gap can grow until it becomes a chasm: As leaders lose touch with their people, they lose the ability to maintain the sort of feedback process that enables organizational effectiveness. They neither truly speak to employees nor hear what employees have to say.

This communication gap is, in fact, a leadership gap. And it’s evident at all manner of organizations. When we surveyed a group of 200 hospital workers in 2009, for example, we asked them to respond to the proposition that their “organization communicates appropriate and relevant information about the organization to employees on a timely basis.” Roughly one-fifth of respondents (21%) disagreed with that statement, and one-quarter of them (25%) said that they were “unsure” about it.

We, for our part, are sure about one thing: When it comes to communication, if the people you’re trying to reach are “unsure” about what you’re telling them, then you’re not doing very well. We also know that this problem doesn’t just afflict people who work in hospitals. From manufacturing to services, in companies large and small, people frequently report that their leaders fall short as communicators.

To narrow the distance that makes real communication impossible, leaders must learn to exhibit a more intimate presence within their company. By doing so, they can set in motion a virtuous cycle: Greater intimacy will enhance the quality of their communication efforts, and better communication will in turn increase the capacity of people in their organization to work closely together.

Don’t let the word “intimacy” throw you. Intimacy is just the first element of what we call organizational conversation, and it encompasses various ways that leaders work to close the gap between themselves and their employees. (In later posts, we’ll touch on the other three elements of this model.)

Here are four conversation-starting ideas—four ideas that will help you get closer to the people with whom you need to communicate.

1. To learn more, listen better. Leaders who earn a reputation among their people for communicating well don’t just say that they listen to employees. Nor do they simply open up a Q&A session at the end of a town-hall meeting and leave it at that. Instead, they create regular, intimately structured occasions when leaders resolve to shut up, and when employees at every organizational level are able to speak up.

2. To have a big impact, meet in a small group. It’s a well-known meeting dynamic: The larger the group, the more reluctant some people will be to step forward and speak out. Leaders who want to hear about what’s really happening in their company, and to hear from more than just a few “usual suspects,” make an effort to meet with people in an up-close-and-personal setting.

3. To build trust, show trust. The main ingredient of intimacy, arguably, is trust. But conversationally adept leaders know that trust runs in two directions. Before they ask employees to trust them, they take steps to demonstrate that they trust employees — by, for example, entrusting employees with potentially sensitive financial information.

4. To be a better communicator, be who you are. One way to get close to employees is to show a willingness to get personal. Leaders who take organizational conversation seriously appreciate the value of authenticity, and they understand that being honest with people sometimes means being vulnerable. They don’t hide behind a veil of corporate authority.

Today, the limits of communicating with employees “from on high” are becoming ever more clear. Effective leaders, therefore, aren’t afraid of conversational intimacy.

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

“Talk, Inc.,” Talk (Webinar)

Want to hear some actual talk about the ideas that we present in Talk, Inc.? Starting on Friday, June 15, you’ll be able to access a webinar titled “Talk, Inc.: How Leading CEOs Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations.” It will feature a slide series and an accompanying audio presentation by Michael Slind.

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ExecSense—the world’s largest publisher of professional webinars, e-books, and related digital products—is hosting the event. It will stream live at 2:30 p.m. EDT, and it will be available for downloading afterward. (Note that ExecSense charges a fee for access to its webinar content.)

To learn more about the webinar, visit the ExecSense site (LINK).

“Leadership Is a Conversation”

HBR June2012 cover.jpgWe’ve written a feature article, titled “Leadership Is a Conversation,” for the latest issue of Harvard Business Review. It’s part of the magazine’s Spotlight package on leadership, and it offers a useful distillation of some of the key ideas that we present in Talk, Inc. In addition, it includes a great chart (“Elements of Organizational Conversation”) that we put together with help from the staff at HBR. To read the full piece, you need to be an HBR subscriber. But you can get a taste of the article at the above link.

At that linked page, you’ll also see the discussion thread that unspooled after the article went online last week. The number and range of comments generated by the piece clearly signals that the idea of conversation-based leadership resonates with a lot of business professionals. And because many of those comments resonated with us, we posted several reply comments of our own.

Here’s a taste of a taste, as it were—the first paragraph of the HBR piece:

The command-and-control approach to management has in recent years become less and less viable. Globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership. What will take the place of that model? Part of the answer lies in how leaders manage communication within their organizations—that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from, and among their employees. Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.

Changing the Conversation in Your Company

In our experience, it’s rare for a diverse group of headstrong Executive Education participants from around the globe to agree on anything. Yet earlier this month, when we surveyed a group of leaders who attended the Driving Performance Through Talent Management program at Harvard Business School, 92% agreed that the practice of internal communication “has undergone a lot of change” at their companies “in recent years.”

While the sample size in this case isn’t large — about three-dozen leaders took part in the survey — these participants make up a highly representative group. They hail from every part of the globe, and from organizations small and large (with head counts that range from about 200 to more than 100,000). They occupy senior positions in fields that include sales and talent management, and they work in industries that range from manufacturing to health care to financial services.

That survey result reinforces a finding that we’ve observed elsewhere in our research: In company after company, the patterns and processes by which people communicate with each other are unmistakably in flux. The old “corporate communication” is giving way to a model that we call “organizational conversation.” That shift is, for many people, a disorienting process. But it also offers a great leadership opportunity.

Our research has shown that more and more leaders — from organizations that range from computer-networking giant Cisco Systems to Hindustan Petroleum, a large India-based oil supplier — are using the power of organizational conversation to drive their company forward. For these leaders, internal communication isn’t just an HR function. It’s an engine of value that boosts employee engagement and improves strategic alignment.

Broadly speaking, there are four steps that you can take to make your approach to leadership more conversational. (In future posts, we will address each of these points at greater length.)

1. Close the gap between you and your employees. In our survey, we also asked respondents to name the biggest employee communication challenge at their company. In response, one participant cited the need to “move away from top-down communication.” Another highlighted a “disparity between the senior management team and middle management due to low transparency.” Trusted and effective leaders overcome such challenges by speaking with employees in ways that are direct, personal, open, and authentic.

2. Promote two-way dialogue within your company. One survey respondent lamented “a lack of understanding in management of the need for communication,” adding that “the traditional practice” of communication at his or her company “has been one-way.” Leaders can show that they appreciate the value of real communication by adopting channels that allow ideas to move in multiple directions across their organization, and by working to create a truly conversational culture within that organization.

3. Engage employees in the work of telling the company story. The need “to get more participation from employees,” according to one respondent, is a pressing challenge at his or her company. People in that company “tend to shy away from speaking openly.” The practice of organizational conversation alters that dynamic. Where that practice has taken hold, leaders encourage broad-based employee involvement in a wide array of communication efforts.

4. Pursue a clear agenda. One participant expressed concern about a “lack of consistency” in communication. Another mentioned a tendency among top leaders to generate “too much communication.” Yet another voiced this complaint: “The strategy is only discussed at the management level and is never cascaded to all staff.” To deal with such challenges — to prevent the communication process from becoming diffuse and ad hoc — effective leaders take steps to ensure that their conversation with employees unfolds according to a clear strategic plan. They also seek to align that conversation with organizational objectives.

Underlying these four elements of organizational conversation is a deeper emerging truth: Leadership is conversation. So start that conversation now.

[Cross-posted on the Harvard Business Review site. Quite a few readers of that post offered comments on it—and we, in turn, posted several comments in reply. Note, by the way, that we’ll follow up this post with items that give HBR.org readers a bit more insight into each of the four elements of organizational conversation.]

Including Women in Your Conversation

Every day, of course, is a good day to work on improving the way that you engage and communicate with your people. But it never hurts to have a special reason to start (or to restart) a conversation with employees—the sort of conversation that builds real connections with them, the sort of conversation that builds real value for your organization.

IWD logo1.gifNext Thursday, March 8, people all across the world will celebrate International Women’s Day. In some countries, International Women’s Day is a nationally observed holiday. For business leaders, it provides an occasion to think with renewed urgency about the goal of including women fully and productively in the life of their company.

What are the essential ingredients of inclusive leadership? Most executives who take that question seriously recognize that communication ranks on any list of such ingredients. It’s a lesson about the soft side of management that many leaders have learned the hard way: You can’t work with people successfully if you don’t talk with them.

But there’s more to it, we believe. Truly inclusive leadership entails not just talking with your people, but also letting them do much of the talking. By enabling employees to contribute actively to what we call organizational conversation, leaders can substantially boost the quality and the effectiveness of their communication efforts. Just as user-generated content has revolutionized the consumer Internet in recent years, so does employee-generated content invigorate the conversation that unfolds inside an organization.

Which brings us back to International Women’s Day. More and more top leaders today understand that women as a group face particular challenges in the workplace—and that companies benefit from acknowledging (and, in some cases, accommodating) those challenges. Many women, for example, find that meaningful inclusion in the life of their company is largely a function of how easily they can juggle the demands that come with being a working mother. In an organization where leaders pretend that those demands are irrelevant, women aren’t apt to feel very welcome.

In our new book, Talk, Inc., we describe how leaders at one company—EMC Corporation, the world’s largest computer-storage provider—found a way to enhance organizational inclusion by promoting conversational inclusion. They encouraged a group of employees who are also mothers to produce rich content about “the working mother experience” (as those women call it). That move sent a message to women throughout the company: At EMC, their day has come.

Here, excerpted with slight modification from our book, is a story that we’ve titled “Mothers of Inclusion.”

The real work of engaging employees “has nothing to do with technology,” says Polly Pearson, EMC’s former vice president of employement brand and engagement strategy. “It’s all about behavior.” As if to prove that conversational inclusion at EMC isn’t dependent on using the latest digital gadgetry, the company in 2009 published a traditional printed book—a soft-cover tome of coffee-table-book size, just shy of 250 pages in length, written by and for EMCers. It’s an old-media monument to the idea of letting employees tell the EMC story, and to the related idea of letting them tell their own story. Called The Working Mother Experience, the book gathers personal essays by ninety-seven EMC women from fifteen countries (along with one essay by an EMC man).

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The essays deal with the highs and lows of being both a successful EMCer and a mother (or, in that one case, a single father), and they cover personal and professional matters alike. In one contribution, an EMC program manager discusses her telecommuting regimen, her use of the company’s backup child-care service, and other factors that make her “daily balancing act” possible. In another essay, a member of EMC’s legal team writes: “It is remarkable how much like my two-year-old many of our sales reps can be—they need it now, they need it right, and they often don’t understand how they reached their current predicament!” The book also features a chapter titled “Tips and Best Practices,” in which EMC working mothers distill the wisdom that they have accumulated over many years of negotiating the ever-shifting line between work life and home life.

Producing a book of this kind isn’t out of the ordinary for a big company like EMC. In a standard corporate communication model, however, such a book would emerge as part of a top-down, professional-driven campaign to promote a specific organizational objective. Not so in this case. “It was a peer-level idea, and the people ran it,” Pearson explains. “It wasn’t the corporate inclusion office, it wasn’t the corporate communications office, it wasn’t HR. It was born from the passion of people, from friends talking to other friends at work and saying, ‘Hey, let’s give this a try.’”

The prime mover behind the book project was Natalie Corridan-Gregg, who today serves as a director of technology analysis at EMC. Frank Hauck, executive vice president of global marketing and customer quality, had expressed an interest in efforts to “make women feel connected to each other and to EMC,” Corridan-Gregg recalls. So she took her idea for a book to him. “This was not going to be a rah-rah book,” she says. Instead of offering a PR-spun feel-good message, it would present (in her words) “a snapshot in time” of the way that working mothers at EMC live now. Hauck immediately signed on to the idea. “It was a request and a yes. Within twenty minutes, he was saying, ‘I’m going to fund it. Go do it,’” Corridan-Gregg says.

EMC has distributed copies of The Working Mother Experience both internally and externally, and on each front the book has attracted enthusiastic attention. Inside the company, the book has helped EMC women to send a message to their leaders—and especially to the men in that group. “It’s a decoder ring for male managers,” Corridan-Gregg suggests. By reading the stories that women tell in the book, men come to a better understanding of what makes working moms at EMC tick (or, in some cases, what ticks them off). The book also lets men send a message of their own to colleagues. “Male managers can project concern by putting the book on their desk,” Corridan-Gregg notes.

The physicality of the book, in fact, makes it an ideal tool for starting a conversation. William J. Teuber Jr., vice chairman of EMC’s board of directors, describes one such encounter: “I had that book in my house. A woman I know was there, and she picked it up, and she immediately bonded with it. She said, ‘You know, this personalizes EMC in a way that I had never understood.’ I said, ‘If you like the book, you can have it,’ and she took it home with her. She doesn’t work for EMC, but she’s a working mother, and she identified with a lot of stories in the book.”

In casual interactions like that one and in other settings as well, The Working Mother Experience has had a wide-ranging impact on people outside EMC. Out in the talent market, candidates have seen the book and have responded well to it; according to Corridan-Gregg, some female recruits have chosen to work at EMC partly on the basis of what they have read in its pages. Pearson argues that precisely because the book was a bottom-up operation—because “it reads so genuine and true”—it makes a powerful case for EMC as a women-friendly workplace. “This is doing more to serve that purpose than any artificial, consultant-oriented powwow that tells people, ‘Inclusion is important. Hire women, and treat them with respect,’” she says.

Customers have received a similar message from the company. “Our people are using the book to reach out to customers,” Corridan-Gregg says. “Connections are happening that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” More generally, people with an interest in “the working-mother experience” have taken note of The Working Mother Experience. Professionals from other companies, for example, have contacted people at EMC to gain insight on how the book project has helped to further a conversation about women in the workplace. In response to those queries, Corridan-Gregg offers up a simple lesson. “It couldn’t be a corporate mandate,” she says. “It couldn’t be a top-down thing.”

To get a copy of The Working Mother Experience, visit the EMC Web site (PDF). For further insight on the life of a working mother at EMC, visit Natalie’s Corner, a blog produced by Natalie Corridan-Gregg.

[Cross-posted on the Harvard Business Review site.]

About the Book

How can leaders make their big or growing company feel small again? How can they recapture the “magic”—the tight strategic alignment, the high level of employee engagement—that drove and animated their organization when it was a start-up? As more and more executives have discovered in recent years, the answer to that conundrum lies in the power of conversation.

In Talk, Inc., Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind show how trusted and effective leaders are adapting the principles of face-to-face conversation in order to pursue a new form of organizational conversation. They explore the promise of conversation-powered leadership—from the time-tested practice of talking straight (and listening well) to the thoughtful adoption of emerging social media.TalkInc72dpi.jpg And they offer guidance on how to balance the benefits of open-ended talk with the realities of strategic execution.

Drawing on the experience of leaders at diverse companies from around the world, Talk, Inc. offers provocative insights and user-friendly tips on how to make organizational culture more intimate, more interactive, more inclusive, and more intentional—in short, more conversational.