open communication"Trust happens when leaders are transparent, candid, and keep their word. It's that simple."  -- Jack Welch

We’ve been talking about transparency in business for decades, if not longer. It’s now common wisdom that a more transparent organization builds trust with its people, and keeps them more engaged.

But organizations are changing. Transparency is passive. It’s a mindset and an organizational value. It’s rarely implemented as a method or a specific set of tools, and it’s typically a top-down effort by executives hoping to keep up employee morale.

Transparency too often presents itself as a one-way road.

Meanwhile, the modern business has expanded internationally. Typical companies have employees in multiple countries, working from remote office locations, from home, and from co-working facilities. Modern businesses hire freelancers and outside firms to augment their teams. They have scores of temp workers, contract employees and summer interns.

Transparency, in the context of this modern workforce, simply isn’t enough to create new efficiencies or support productivity.

In order to succeed in a global economy, businesses need to adopt open communication methodology throughout their organizations. The two may seem similar, but the distinction is critical for today’s big businesses.

Without a coherent approach to open communications, businesses can’t leverage a distributed workforce. Everything from your values to your productivity tools need to encourage participation and engagement -- otherwise you’re teams can’t work towards a collective goal.

Sound a little too cuddly for you?

What if I told you that low employee engagement is estimated to cost the US$ 370 billion per year?

What the Heck Does Open Communication Look Like?

While transparency provides access to information, open communication encourages participation and engagement.

Think about the last time that your boss shared a candid recap from the latest executive strategy meeting. Did she ask for your opinion on the matter?

If you’ve had enough experiences like this, you’re probably not going to be very engaged in your job. Everyone wants the opportunity to contribute, but few employees ever get the chance.

Open communication means implementing tools and processes that displace corporate bureaucracy in favor of open dialogue across departments and across all levels of the organization.

New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has embraced this approach wholeheartedly ... even gaining some attention for his “bullpen” style office setup which eliminates any closed offices, and puts the senior leadership right in the center of the action:

As a work space, it is something that you do not think that you can ever get used to,” says a former bullpen resident. “But when you see the mayor hosting high-level meetings in clear sight of everyone else, you start to understand that this open-communication model is not bullshit. And that it works.”

Open communications can be implemented with a variety of methods ranging from a Bloomberg-style office layout, to adoption of new software, to a set of training sessions for managers to help encourage and understand open communication principles.

But at the end of the day -- it requires a holistic approach. You’re evolving your communication systems and contending with what could be decades of organizational and cultural inertia. If you’re going to enact change, you need to find the right open communications tools for your specific organization, and implement them in a clear, appropriate manner.

Let’s Get It Started

As with any cultural change, it’s easy to talk about what you should do, but it’s not very easy to identify and take the appropriate action. Pushing your organization towards a new communication method is going to require blend of tools and concepts catered specifically to your team.

However, there are a few steps that are helpful for any business to consider at the outset.

1. Review Your Tool Set

This process starts with a series of questions for most businesses:

Does our organization use email for the majority of your communication? Have we adopted one of the social business collaboration apps available today? Can our employees easily initiate verbal conversations over the phone or a VoIP service?

Look closely at the software that your employees are using to collaborate and communicate today. If most of your tools are “closed” systems like email or private instant messaging tools, you need to consider creating a “keep” and “replace” list.

You’ll always need some amount of closed systems for private and confidential communication, so this is about optimizing the mix of tools to favor open communication -- where other employees are provided not only visibility into the conversations around them, but the ability to chime in if they can add value.

You also need to think of your office space as a tool. An office can send very strong signals about transparency and silos. Do you have a lot of closed doors and cubicles? What about distinct dividers between different sections of the office to mark the areas that belong to each department?

Consider investing in a rearrangement of the office. If the costs are too high for your business, consider some creative options. Some companies like to play “musical desks” -- a game where every few months all the employees are asked to move to a new desk near someone they haven’t worked next to in the past. Or maybe you can conduct a “DIY” session on a Friday afternoon to have the team redecorate in a way that creates clearer lines from person-to-person.

Whatever you end up doing, remember that your environment has a tremendous impact on collaboration and productivity, and even the smallest visual indicators can have a big impact on the bottom line.

2. Get Executive Participation

Executives have the ability to set the tone within the organization. Your team looks to them for leadership. Get them onboard and involved early in this process. But be careful not to use executives to simply mandate that your people communicate more transparently. Executives need to lead by example -- and that means they need to use the same tools and methods to communicate as everyone else, particularly at the very beginning of a transition.

3. Assemble a Pilot Group

It’s very difficult to get 2,000 human beings to adopt something new all at once. Instead -- try to pilot your open communications strategy with a small group of 20-30 people. Once they’re seeing the benefits of this type of collaboration you can slowly roll it out to the rest of the company. The point is to create a group of early adopters and organizational evangelists that will sing the praise of this new method to their colleagues. It’s bottom-up adoption at its finest.

4. Leave Room For Employee Input

While you’re probably doing quite a bit of work to move the organization in a new direction, it’s important to leave room for employee suggestions and feedback during the rollout process. Employees are much more likely to adopt technology and methodologies if they feel they had a part in the decisions about each. If your open communication strategy was partly their idea, they’re want it to succeed as much as you.

5. Establish Ground Rules

Once your rollout is gaining momentum, you need to start thinking about ways to reinforce the values that you've been championing. For some that might be a charter listing the ways that you want to engage with colleagues. For others it could be a video that is shared internally, voicing a variety of employees sharing their experiences of more open and transparent collaboration. Choose the medium that works best for your organization, but remember that the goal is to get your team to agree to a set of principles for how you’re going to collaborate moving forward.

Why Bother?

The immediate benefits of open communication can range from improved knowledge transfer, better employee engagement, employee retention, faster decisions and reduced re-work and waste.

Open communication means that you’re teams understand the broader context within which their work happens. It means that any employee has access to the right expertise and information at any given moment, without having to spend hours searching for it.

Every business has unique challenges and the outcomes depend entirely on the nature of your work. For most information workers, these benefits bubble up to one thing: productivity.

Productivity, for any executive, is a means to an end. It’s a way to grow revenue, to reduce costs, to engage employees, and to hit goals.

Or as Peter Drucker said:

The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers. The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company was its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution (whether business or nonbusiness) will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

Transparency might win trust in your organization. But if you’re looking to boost productivity, you need to take action with an open communication strategy. This isn't just an evolution in corporate culture, it’s a fundamental reformation of how we do business, and the driving force behind successful players in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Image courtesy of pio3 (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: This wraps up our month long look at what the future of the social enterprise holds. You can read all of the articles here