The following article appeared
I hate numbers!"
By Angela D. Sinickas, ABC
It's ironic. Many of us have chosen communication as our life's work because we don't like numbers and math. But now, our bosses seem to expect us to quantify the value of what we're doing for our organizations. Put numbers on persuasive prose? On creative layouts? On killer Web sites?
And, even if it's possible, many of us aren't convinced measurement offers us much value.
Some communicators even feel angry when someone expects us to do research. We feel insulted, as if management has implicitly challenged how well we know our audiences or how well we do our jobs.
Yet numbers form the language that management understands best. We need to learn enough of their vocabulary to make sure they continue to provide us the human and financial resources we need to do our jobs.
Just consider how compelling your management might find the following descriptions of "measurable" results reported by past entrants to the IABC Gold Quill awards program -- unsuccessful entrants:
Why bother measuring?
Most of the decisions we make are based on our years of experience, which we have every right to take pride in. We've certainly seen and done a lot. And, certainly, most of the decisions we make are mostly right. Yet, when we're wrong, we can be spectacularly wrong with a very large audience. And management hates an unpleasant surprise, especially when it affects them or their bottom lines.
And when it comes to a debate between a communication manager and an operational manager about how to handle a communication issue, the operational manager may be swayed only if we have numbers to support our viewpoint. Saying, "I'm the professional communicator, and my experience tells me ," doesn't carry much weight with people who think that anyone who knows how to send an e-mail and make a phone call qualifies as a communicator.
Common wisdom in commonly wrong
Here's an example of how our experience, unsupported by original research, can sometimes lead us astray. Some companies have been dismantling their multi-channel communication programs and replacing them with a single channel -- face-to-face communication. They are developing programs to make first-line supervisors the primary conduits of all company information. That's because we all "know" from professional literature that employees currently get most of their business information on the grapevine and would prefer to get it from their supervisors. Right?
WRONG! That common wisdom is based on some badly designed studies that were, unfortunately, very well publicized. In fact, employees' current and preferred information sources vary significantly on different company-related subjects. And, for any single subject, they vary by company, by demographic subgroup within a company and in the same company over time.
Expecting supervisors to fulfill all of employees' information needs is doomed to become a very expensive failure. This is not only because supervisors will say they don't have time to do all this communicating, but also because they will not be the most credible source on all topics. The only way you can know the exact subjects your employees want to hear from your supervisors is through research. Research will also tell you which subjects your employees want to hear about from higher levels of management, through print and through electronic channels. This information can help you send the right messages to your audiences through the most efficient mix of channels for the greatest effectiveness.
Knowing the general can obscure the specific
Thinking we don't need to do research because we already know our audiences so well may lead us down a false trail as well. While we may be in frequent contact with our audiences, we generally hear the most from some of the same people over and over. They may not accurately reflect the views of other audience members who may be farther away from our offices, more shy or more satisfied with no reason to contact us. In addition, things we know about our audience in general may prevent us from anticipating their reactions to something specific we are about to communicate.
For example, I worked at a privately held company where we were going to conduct financial education to prepare employees to do their part in improving the company's profitability from 6% to 12% over a two-year period. From past focus groups, we knew that employees wanted management to raise pay levels, improve benefits, replace older equipment and expand building space. We feared that employees would rebel against the profitability initiative until these other issues were addressed first. We began planning the education meetings to hit these issues head-on before we could hope for employee support for improving profitability.
Fortunately, we conducted some measurement before the employee meetings. During the usual course of a week's travels and phone calls around the company, the internal communication manager asked about 100 employees at random two questions:
The most common answer to both questions was 15%, even higher than our own target. This completely changed our communication approach.
We began the meetings with management showing profit trend lines of our publicly traded competitors. When the next slide showed our own (lower) profit line superimposed over those of our competitors, some employees gasped. They immediately wanted to know what the company intended to do -- and what they could do -- to improve profitability to a level that employees perceived would provide a higher level of job security. If we hadn't done the research, we would likely have exposed our senior managers to highly negative employee reactions with our original approach.
We also added the knowledge question above to our annual employee survey to have an ongoing hard measurement over time as we continued our financial education each quarter.
Don't be afraid of measurement.
You may already be measuring when you monitor the topics coming up on a company electronic chat room or checking with people in different parts of the company to see if they received a recent mailing.
The only difference between what you may already be doing and more formal measurement is being more scientific about whom you ask questions of and keeping track of the responses more accurately. You'll learn a lot that will give you an even sounder basis for making future decisions based on your personal experiences.
Just think of it as two-way communication with your audience instead of measurement. You may enjoy the process a lot more!
Angela Sinickas, ABC, is president of Sinickas Communications, Inc., a communication consultancy specializing in helping corporations achieve business results through targeted diagnostics and practical solutions. You can visit her new website, CommToolbox.com, to see the automated planning, measurement, and benchmarking tools she has developed based on her manual, How to Measure Your Communication Programs.