Innovation As The Key To Success? Yes, If Communicators Lead The Way


If you translate the game of poker into a PR dialect, this would be the breakdown: You are the dealer, and your shareholders are the "others" situated around the table, peeking over their own cards and trying to guess your hand. Just as one assesses his odds at cards, the complex corporate context has prompted executives to alter their risk/reward system and to appeal to stakeholders, who have taken to playing their field instead of committing to a monogamous relationship with one product or service. Where does this leave communicators - the keepers of the brand, the corporate identity, the reputation? If all these things contribute to the bottomline (and they do), then it's time to toss traditional methods and bet on one key intangible: innovation. But CEOs and C-suite's are risk-adverse by nature, so how can communicators convince them to be skeptical of quantitative outcomes and to trust creative (read: risky) programs? Here's how. Slow and Steady, Sort Of: Getting Senior Buy-In It can't be stressed enough: corporate behemoths are risk-adverse, and change is not something that happens overnight (or over days, weeks or months). Case in point: When asked about the biggest obstacles to generating a return on their investments in innovation, nearly 40% of the global senior executives polled in the 2007 BusinessWeek/Boston Consulting Group Innovative Companies Survey cited a "risk-averse culture." (For more PR-related "obstacles," including lack of customer insight and marketing/communications, see chart on page six. Source: BW/BCG.) However, every downside has its converse: Jon Iwata, VP, corporate communications of IBM Corporation, points out that his company's business consulting unit surveyed more than 750 CEOs worldwide on the subject of innovation last year, and they emphatically agreed that it was a top priority. What's more, they see themselves as personally driving the innovation agenda. "This is excellent news for communications executives," Iwata says. "It means that CEOs are asking for help to drive systemic change across the enterprise. It means that the CEO is looking for ways to engage their employees in meaningful, two-way dialogue, and to find ways to open up their companies to collaborate with customers and business partners." The natural follow-up question, then, is how can communications executives answer their calls for help? If you consider past innovation successes and failures, one thing pops up consistently: It's difficult to get instantaneous buy-in - from CEOs, employees and consumers - when something is new and therefore unproven. But solving that challenge is precisely where communicators can reenter the picture and reinstate their worth. Look at new media platforms. Corporations approached them tentatively, and now they are becoming integral parts of innovative thinking and communications. It's just a matter of leading by example and championing those who champion change. "Innovation starts at home, within the communications department itself," Iwata says. "We have tried to create an environment where risks and exploration are encouraged. I have visibly recognized and promoted risk-takers and first-movers, changed titles to formalize the evolution of our professional disciplines, and invested in training in the new skill areas." In an ideal world, the PR/communications department has the most accurate pulse of the consumer: Its preferred way to be reached, its loyalty to the brand (for more on this, see the next section), its behavior. Bury the Dead, Resurrect the Living: The Mining Business Acronym Graveyard for Innovation Survivors CRM. DMAIC. WTH? There are enough cryptic management acronyms out there to rewrite the alphabet, and all of them have innovation implications, whether it's to facilitate the process or (as they have been accused of more and more recently) to impede it. But do communications executives know what they stand for, what they mean, and how they can interpret and apply to their business for maximum results? Knowing the nuanced language of management is key to getting the ear of the CEO. With that in mind, here is the communicator's guide for each concept's applicability to innovative communications and stakeholder engagement. CRM: Customer relationship management is one positive concept communications executives can employ to connect with their customer base in innovative ways. In fact, innovative technologies are propelling CRM into a whole new stratosphere of building better relationships with consumers. New software solutions combine contact-management databases with tools for tracking customer contact (be it via phone class, e-mails, etc.); identifying and predicting sales opportunities; connecting directly with customers; and generative reports on customer activities. All this data can be used to shape futures strategies; after all, if the customers are calling the shots, communications executives can be the liaison between them and the C-suite. Adjacent to CRM is a body of research on how customer loyalty can be defined, mapped and driven. "The value of this info is, by analyzing data, one can adjust programming, messaging, media use and - most important - use it to articulate outcome-oriented programming to leadership," says Matt Gonring, a consultant with Gagen MacDonald who currently is researching customer loyalty/employee engagement indices. DMAIC: This is the basic methodology of Six Sigma, and its letters stand for: define process-improvement goals, measure the current process, analyze to verify relationship of factors, improve the process and control to correct variances. The Six Sigma concept has been in the news recently, charged as a potential inhibitor of innovative thinking in corporations, but this doesn't always hold true. Case in point: Honeywell is a noted user of the Six Sigma process, and, from a communications perspective, its existence doesn't have to impede innovative thinking. "If applied correctly, [Six Sigma] can enhance innovation," says Dan Hare, a director of communications in Honeywell's Aerospace division. "Within communications, standardizing certain processes - our communications value model, for example - allows us to get into [an initiative] further into the process instead of starting with a blank piece of paper. Having more efficient processes gives people like me more time to devote to innovative thinking." Required Thinking: Make Innovation Part of the Culture Coming to the table with a crystal clear picture of your organization's target audience and knowing the language of management's bottomline-building regimes are good primers for fostering innovation at work, but, as the figurative pipeline of information dissemination throughout the company, communicators are poised to be the innovation champions. Here are a few techniques: Energy trumps efficiency: TQM and DMAIC are techniques aimed at streamlining processes and trimming the fat. But what good is getting products or services to customers efficiently if those customers aren't feeling the positive vibe? "There are two key points to consider," Hare says. "Are top executives asking employees the right questions to find new and better ways they can get their work done? And, is the executive leadership willing to invest in innovation, because it takes time to look for new possibilities?" When addressing employees, PR professionals should find out what energizes them to succeed at work (if getting a paycheck is the answer, give that person a pink slip). Draw on that energy to enhance the corporate culture; it will show through in all external efforts as well. Make innovation a requirement: Create internal programs that require - not recommend - innovative thinking from every department. It can be a matter of posting one innovative solution per week, or of hosting department meetings in which everyone has to bring something to the table. Jack Welch was famous for doing this at General Electric, and the effort paid off. "You have to help people step out of their comfort zones. Occasionally you have to give them a little push," Iwata says. "And when they try something new, and it doesn't quite work out, you have to not only tolerate the failures, but applaud the fact that the risk was taken. Learn and keep moving." CONTACTS: Jon Iwata, iwata@us.ibm.com; Matt Gonring, m.gonring@gagenmac.com; Dan Hare, daniel.hare@honeywell.com

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