Interview  with

ROGER  D'APRIX

Internationally recognized as one of the pioneers in shaping the practice of corporate employee communication, Roger D'Aprix talks about the challenges facing IC practitioners  today and shares his views on the profession. 

Update - Roger D'Aprix is a contributor to Disrupting the Function of IC - A Global Perspective, where he speaks about delivering meaning in a turbulent workplace (pp.20-24).

ICK - In a recent interview, you said that the number one challenge for communication professionals is related with our mission: "the proper mission is for us to deliver meaning in the face of confusion."  What do you mean by this?

RD - Employee surveys across the board tend to show a high level of confusion among members of the workforce in regard to such company issues as current and future organizational strategy, trust of senior leadership and marketplace understanding.

 

Much of this can be laid at the feet of IC professionals, who have been stubbornly tactical as long as I can remember. Instead of seeing themselves as communication strategists with the mission of enlightening employees about critical company issues, they have tended to take journalists and reporters as their proper role models and have seen themselves in the news business rather than in the business of delivering contextualized information to their audience. 

 

In the face of shattering workplace change, they have declined to answer the one inevitable question on the minds of most employees : namely, what does this (event, decision, proposed action) mean to ME ? Plus its corrollary : WHY are you doing it ?

 

Answering those two questions adds up to providing context and meaning to people’s work contributions. It also requires strategic use of every available channel, including especially team leaders, the single most neglected channel available to us.

" IC professionals...have been stubbornly tactical as long as I can remember. Instead of seeing themselves as communication strategists with the mission of enlightening employees about critical company issues, they have tended to take journalists and reporters as their proper role models and have seen themselves in the news business rather than in the business of delivering contextualized information to their audience."  Roger D'Aprix

ICK - What are the other challenges facing organizational communication professionals in 2017?

     

RD - I believe that the single most important challenge is to decide finally our proper mission as professionals. Who are we and why are we on the payroll ? Are we a bunch of reporters let loose to keep people up to date on the latest company news and announcements or are we communication professionals with a deep understanding of the human  communication process and how best to enable it for the sake of delivering clarity and meaning to our audience ? That is the question we seem most anxious to avoid. Answer that one, and a lot of the other challenges come into clear focus. 

ICK - What are the main skills and talents required for organizational communication professionals today?

 

RD - The primary talent is the ability to think broadly about organizational issues and their implications for our audiences. In a capitalistic society, what is the proper role of an organization ? Is it solely to enrich shareholders ? For a long time, that has been the operative view. Or are there other responsibilities such as the impact of its decisions and actions on the rest of society including employees, local communities, consumers and the environment we share ? Today there is also a strong undercurrent of discontent from the people who have lost out to global change. They feel overlooked and cast aside. We ignore their needs at our own peril.

 

Can communication professionals solve these weighty problems ? No. But they can make themselves aware and understand the implications for their work. They can also influence senior leader pronouncements and thinking in their various interactions.

 

As far as skills, I would put strategic thinking at the top of the list. It’s appalling that so few of us have designed a comprehensive communication strategy or even a communication plan for our work, preferring to ‘wing it’ as events unfold. That goes back to the reporter mentality. I also think that the ability to collaborate across silo boundaries is critical. The communication and business challenges facing companies are far too complex for any one function to address by itself. They require a collaborative effort among all concerned functions.

"As far as skills, I would put strategic thinking at the top of the list. It’s appalling that so few of us have designed a comprehensive communication strategy or even a communication plan for our work, preferring to ‘wing it’ as events unfold. That goes back to the reporter mentality. I also think that the ability to collaborate across silo boundaries is critical. The communication and business challenges facing companies are far too complex for any one function to address by itself. They require a collaborative effort among all concerned functions."  Roger D'Aprix

ICK - A recent global survey conducted by Gatehouse identifies the following as being the main barriers to internal communication success :

  • 52%  lack of line manager communication skills 

  • 49%  internal technology not fit for propose 

  • 44%  not being involved in strategic business decisions

  • 79%  considered employees did not understood why leaders make the decisions they do

How can IC professionals reverse the situation?

RD - It’s interesting that the respondents to the Gatehouse survey were all IC professionals and not line managers. As long as I can remember, IC professionals have asserted that line managers lacked the skills to communicate effectively. Based on that assumption, they have largely ignored this tremendously influential group as a legitimate communication channel. At the same time the people who report to those managers give them generally high survey marks for trust, access and credibility.

 

I have never believed that in most cases, the problem was lack of skills. Unquestionably, there is great variance in communication skills among line managers, but the problem  is much more an accountability and awareness problem than a skills problem. Amazingly, most organizations have not made it clear that serving as an interpreter of what larger issues mean at the team level is a team leader responsibility nor have they trained them or held them accountable for that role.

 

The ROI Communication Benchmark Report shows that only 26% of managers/team leaders understand their communication role ; only 27% of companies offer them communication training and only 18% hold them accountable for their communication behavior and outcomes. Is it any wonder that there is a price to pay for that kind of neglect ? Communication pros long ago decided to go around them with messaging, leaving team leaders to explain actions and decisions without authoritative information or other support. The result is confusion and distrust of senior leadership’s unexplained actions and what they ultimately mean to and for team members.

"I believe that the single most important challenge is to decide finally our proper mission as professionals. Who are we and why are we on the payroll ? Are we a bunch of reporters let loose to keep people up to date on the latest company news and announcements or are we communication professionals with a deep understanding of the human  communication process and how best to enable it for the sake of delivering clarity and meaning to our audience ?"    Roger D'Aprix

ICK - What is the impact of digital technology on organizational communication?

 

RD - Interestingly, that same Gatehouse report you quote in the last question has 49 % of communication pros asserting that ‘internal communication technology is not ‘fit for the purpose.’ I don’t know what to make of that since the IC profession has long been obsessed with two things—technology and social media. Either the available 

technology is not yet up to the job  or we’ve not properly applied it. Intranets in particular come to mind as the catch-all for company news and archived information. Users complain legitimately of not having the time to spend on intranets as well as the difficulties of navigation. They also complain that the information gathered is not worth the time spent. Back to : what does it mean to ME as well as ignoring line manager communication.

"The ROI Communication Benchmark Report shows that only 26% of managers/team leaders understand their communication role ; only 27% of companies offer them communication training and only 18% hold them accountable for their communication behavior and outcomes. Is it any wonder that there is a price to pay for that kind of neglect ? "                                                                                 Roger D'Aprix

ICK - How can today’s communication professionals help people connect the dots in a world changing at warp speed?

    

RD - One word : Strategy. Proactive rather than reactive communication. Make communication audience focused based on solid research of employee needs and questions. Stop feeding bits of information and news that can’t properly be assessed or assembled by the audience.

ICK - More and more we hear about "integrated communication". To what extent do you believe internal communication, external communication and marketing should be working closer together?

 

RD - For the audience, communication is of one piece. The notion of external, internal and marketing communication being separate boxes has more to do with our need to apportion work responsibilities. So integration and collaboration are no brainers. Also the intense change issues today require an integrated company story with a heavy emphasis on analysis and explanation beginning with ‘why.’

ICK - A number of years ago, you created a model describing 6 fundamental questions that managers should answer in communicating with their employees. Do you think that these questions are more important then ever? Would you add any other questions today?

 

RD - No, I wouldn’t add anything to that six-question model. The original idea was to tell managers what we meant when we said ‘do a better job of communicating.’ So I put the emphasis on the employee and his or her fundamental communication needs in a kind of information hierarchy beginning with : What’s my job ? with an emphasis first on ‘I' questions that over time evolve to ‘we’ questions and finally back to the supreme I question : How can I help ?

 

My argument is that this is the kind of communication interaction between a manager and his or her team members essential to the Holy Grail of engagement. It is also never ending.

©Roger D'Aprix

ICK - You also developed a great resource for managers Creating an Engaged Workforce: the Face-to-Face Communication Toolkit. How does it contribute to increase the efficiency of internal communication in organizations?

 

RD - That toolkit includes all the material necessary to launch the very initiative that Gatehouse says in its report is so necessary. It is focused on line managers and provides the training they need to understand and perform their communication role. It also guides the user through a step by step process essential to making such an initiative work.

As to how it increases the efficiency of internal communication, it is the answer to the very real question of how do I as a communication professional address this critical issue of manager communication in my organization ?  It’s based on my model and available from ROI Communication at http://roico.com/2014/12/07/creating-engaged-workforce-managers-face-face-toolkit-roger-daprix/.

 

 

ICK - It's been almost a decade since you published the book The Credible Company - Communicating with a Skeptical Workforce, in which you identified key elements often missing in organizational communication: helping the employee understand why his or her company is pursuing a strategy, executing a tactic or planning for change. Are we facing the same challenges today?

RD - You bet—only magnified by at least ten times!

 

ABOUT ROGER D'APRIX

 

Roger D'Aprix is one of the pre-eminent thought leaders in the practice of organizational communication. Head of his consultancy--D'Aprix & Co. LLC specializing in consultation to Fortune 500 companies in all phases of employee communication, he is also a member of ROI Communication's Advisory Board, a global consultancy dedicated to resolving the communication issues of Fortune 500 companies and their equivalents.

Recipient of the 2014 Communication Leadership Exchange's President's Award "for his impact on the evolution of organizational communication...", he was named as IABC Fellow, that organization's highest honor in 1978.

Roger D'Aprix wrote seven books on internal communication. Best-selling work Communicating for Change: Connecting the Workplace and the Marketplace (Jossey-Bass) has become a classic in change-communication practice along with The Credible Company: Communicating with Today's Skeptical Workforce, also a Jossey-Bass imprint.

 

You can follow him on LinkedIn and on Twitter @RogerDAprix.