Alexander Heron seems kind of bored, discussing communication vehicles. Like a lot of internal communication big thinkers who have followed him, he has contempt for the reader who demands to know exactly how to get the messages across. "Do I have to do everything for you?!” he seems to demand.
Nevertheless, his game effort to survey the hottest communication media of his moment affords us insights by comparison and contrast.
In the next-to-last installment of my series on the first and best book ever written on employee communication, I’ll take them one by one. —DM
The Bulletin Board. Heron’s tips effective bulletin boards might as well be a seminar on Twitter (or the internal communication app, Yammer). He says messages on bulletin boards must be brief, current and relevant, and he issues a final warning about bulletin boards: “Too much matter of any kind will lead to a growing disregard of the bulletin board. Then we can no longer depend on it as a medium for telling and emphasizing those things which are important to our immediate operating plans.” Got that, Kawasaki?
The Pay Insert. Yes, kids, there was a time when “direct deposit” meant you didn’t cash your paycheck at the tavern, but took it straight home to your wife. And in those good old days, the paycheck stuffer was an important means of internal communication because, as Heron points out, “it reaches every employee more surely than any other medium. It occurs at a time of automatic attention; the employee is alert to the arrival of his check or envelope, ready to look at it and check its correctness in some cases, perhaps even see if it reflects a raise. Moreover, he cannot refuse to take it. And almost always in the case of family men the envelope or check will go home and be seen by the wife.”
As old-fashioned as the pay insert is, it occurs to me that reaching spouses is one dimension of employee communication that’s been sorely neglected in recent years (though it was frequently discussed as recently as the 1990s, when I was first studying this business). Is it no longer of any importance at all to give employees’ families a little corporate news and context—or is it just preposterous to imagine they might actually read your corporate horsehockey?
The House Organ. (Not a musical instrument, peeps; the old-fashioned name for an employee publication.)
Lots of modern consultants and practitioners have passed themselves off as bleeding-edge by dismissing “babies and bowling scores” as legitimate content for an employee publication. Well, Heron was making the same point in 1942, recommending a second, “radically different type of house organ”:
When it pictures the policy of continuity of employment, dramatized by Lars Olson’s fiftieth anniversary, that policy becomes a little clearer, a little firmer, in the mind of every company agent who deals with employment.
Despite all the technology, employee publications still exist, and Heron’s description above is pretty much what the best ones are still after.
The Line Supervisor. Heron dashes through various kinds of employee meetings, direct mail, the employee handbook and the annual report on his way to making a claim that will cause a bar fight among employee communicators even today:
In sharing information, in building understanding, as in managing the daily work, there is no substitute for the line supervisor.
I’ve never been terribly interested in the ongoing debate between who’s more effective as a communicator—top management or line supervisor—because I believe both are equally necessary. (Which would you rather know before going outside: The temperature or the chance of precipitation?)
What does interest me is how Heron measures the success of all communication vehicles. Going back to the example of the house organ article about Lars Olson and his 50 years of service, Heron asks and answers, “How are we to know whether or not the results are good, whether or not the story was read and its real meaning comprehended?”
The best job of the best house organ of this type is to stir up interest in its subject, and induce employees to ask questions. If the basic relationship is right, those questions will come to foremen and supervisors. If our program of sharing information with employees has been wisely planned, the foreman or supervisor will know it.
More on those questions—and on how we know if internal communication is working—in the next, and last, installment in this series.