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Bosses should learn to listen

Few senior executives these days would deny that communication has a vital role to play in introducing initiatives, whether they be different methods of working or mergers and acquisitions, writes Roger Trapp. Yet it appears many are paying lip service to the notion.

According to what is claimed to be the most comprehensive qualitative survey of attitudes on internal marketing and communication undertaken in private- and public-sector organisations, British business leaders have an over-reliance on "outmoded `top-down' employee communication techniques".

That is why, to put it simply, there are plenty of organisations spending small fortunes on employee newsletters, which push positive messages about how well the organisation is doing in the lean and mean business environment, but little internal marketing or collecting and disseminating of information that is not directly related to the management's preoccupations.

Kevin Thomson, the chairman of the Marketing and Communication Agency (MCA), which commissioned the research by Salford University's BNFL Corporate Communication Unit, said: "For the last two decades, British business has been stuck in a time warp, struggling to make do with an outdated approach called employee communication that many managers see as a way of transmitting information rather than a means of getting their people's commitment.

"Vital corporate change initiatives, such as business process re-engineering, are not achieving success because British business leaders are failing to achieve the necessary employee `buy-in' to change proposals."

The findings, published last month, come weeks before a conference on the subject organised by the Centre for Communication Development - the management education arm of Smythe Dorward Lambert, a firm of communication consultants.

The event, to be held at the Ashdown Park Hotel, East Sussex, on 25 and 26 June, comes with its own research suggesting that many businesses are at least aware of the problem revealed by the MCA. More than two-thirds of them, it says, are making line managers' communication skills a high priority.

John Smythe, chairman of Smythe Dorward Lambert, who will be addressing the conference along with leading academics and other business people, sees encouraging signs in the type of people employed by organisations to carry out the communications role. Increasingly, they are trained in behaviour skills rather than being "just external public relations managers becoming internal PRs".

Moreover, the use of Mr Smythe's consultancy in central London in six recent mergers - including Glaxo-Wellcome and Lloyds-TSB - suggests that executives see an important part to be played by communication in key developments for their organisations.

Mr Smythe, who agrees with the organisations that believe involving line managers is vital, also sees another emerging idea: the move from concentrating on groups to looking at the individual in organisations. This is because individual members of staff have the power, through their attitudes, to make initiatives successful or not - even though it is essential to share information with groups.

Moreover, if organisations are to benefit properly from real communication by having information, and views, passed up as well as down the line, each individual must be involved. They all must be made to feel they can make a difference.

However, the MCA research suggests that this may yet be some way off. Only a minority of the respondents describe employee communication as interactive or two-way. Most senior managers still view it as a way of transmitting information from the top and providing staff with the information they need to perform their job properly rather than as a tool to involve staff in the aims of the organisation.