Focus:  e-Communication October 1999

Executives continue to tell us that “getting the message out” is one of their critical needs.  Senior managers of an organization establish new directions and visions to chart their future.  Their business units respond with new structures and missions.  But, too often, the message of where they want to go and how to get there is not communicated effectively throughout the organization.  This is a common change management issue...we’ve all seen it occur many times.

Now additional help is at hand.   The Internet, Intranets, and Extranets are becoming widely available.  They offer text, graphics, video, and audio to support organizational change in a variety of ways.  For example:

1.      Broadcast communication.  Senior management messages to everyone in the organization telling them what is happening and why.

2.      Personal communication.  Messages that address individual and group specific issues.

3.      Web-training. Development of employee skills and knowledge needed to realize the change.

4.      Documentation.  Materials delivered when and where needed to support new job tasks and newly introduced application software.

5.      Performance support tools.  Web-tools to support on-the-job performance when questions arise.

6.      Question-and-answer forums.  On-line “chat rooms”, “bulletin boards”, etc. to allow free exchange of questions, concerns, issues, and the like.  Such forums provide employees with answers and management with the opportunity to understand unanticipated concerns and problems.

7.      Customer communication.  Messages that help your customers understand changes, the impact on their relationship with your organization, and how they will benefit.

What’s really new here is the broad availability and accessibility of the Web and the relative ease with which this medium can be integrated into your communication plans.  I call it e-Communication.   With thorough planning and a focused development effort, this medium will help you “get your message out” more effectively.

In the At Issue section, Tony Karrer, President of Technical Empowerment and a member of the FLI Professional Affiliates Network (FLInet ), discusses some of the issues you should consider if you want to use e-Communication effectively.

                                                                                                John C. Wills, President/CEO

At Issue: Effective e-Communication

Effective e-Communication can help to transform businesses and their employees.  In this brief article, I want to share an example as a way of demonstrating the value of this approach.  I'll begin with some background, then describe the process that we use to build effective e-Communication systems.  Finally, I'll suggest some general tips for effective e-Communication.

Background

A large European bank found that the key driver of profitability among their upper middle class customer segment was customer retention.  They had spent considerable money on data mining[1] to identify the profitable customers most likely to leave the bank.  The problem they faced was how to get their financial advisors to act differently in order to retain these customers.  Elements of this problem were:

        Teaching advisors the importance and financial impact of retention

        Delivering the information about which customers had been identified as likely defectors

        Helping advisors formulate actions for these customers

        Providing additional training on demand so that advisors could practice before dealing with actual customers

        Capturing and reporting metrics to evaluate the performance of these activities

        Continuing to change the performance of advisors as policies and models change

Initially, the approach was very simple.  The bank established a control group from the list of the bank's customers who were likely to defect over the next six months.  They distributed this list to their advisors and the related managers.  The advisors were asked to contact these customers and make sure that the bank was meeting their needs.  Interestingly, the experiment showed that the data mining results did accurately predict that these customers were likely to leave.  Unfortunately, the actions of the advisors with the control group customers did little to retain them.   Predictably, some advisors had very good success retaining customers while others seemed to encourage defection.

Process

At this point in the story, the bank gave us a chance to go in and try a new approach.  In looking at the problem we realized that a more holistic communication strategy was needed.  We also decided to use the web as a means to communicate with advisors.  The good news is that much of the process for using the web for communication is similar to processes we've seen before in software engineering, training development, etc.

The process starts with analysis.   During analysis you take a more detailed look at the customer’s needs.  The focus here is on the “requirements” for the product.  This is the what and not how.   In other words, don’t worry how you will satisfy these needs, only what the needs are.  The specifics of analysis vary with different project types, but it often includes:

        Audience Analysis

Who is the audience for the program and what are their likes and dislikes?  The audience may be employees, partners and/or customers.  The analysis uncovers demographics, computer skills, age, and other attributes that help us to understand who we are ultimately developing the system for.  We are trying to learn how the program can strike a bond with the audience and engage them.

        Needs Analysis

A key ingredient to a successful needs analysis is effectively questioning the client to understand their business goals and how the system can attain these goals.

        Task Analysis

Once you know what you are going to build for whom, the next step is to figure out what they will do.  Normally, I recommend doing this through job/task analysis.  Using this technique you identify important user groups and figure out what specific set of tasks that these users will need to accomplish.  You analyze those tasks and determine how the software can support those tasks.

        Technical Analysis

What is the target platform?  What is the best delivery medium given technical constraints?

        Content Analysis

What content should be presented?  What content exists?  In what format?

Out of the analysis phase a specification and work plan should result in one or more projects.

Normally, projects follow a series of stages as outlined below...

        Infrastructure Development

The goal of infrastructure development is to quickly pull together the core elements of the system in order to generate feedback.  The purpose of the infrastructure is to solicit feedback during early stages and to test the viability of the technical approach. It is not intended as a "usable product" and thus will contain little content.  However, it is our assumption that the infrastructure will serve as the basis for the development of the remaining content.  This is different than a typical prototype.  The goal with a prototype is to quickly build a smoke-and-mirrors version that gathers feedback.  While we hope to gather feedback with the infrastructure, we don't generally plan to go back and rebuild.

        Alpha

The Alpha version is the first full delivery of the software.  It is intended to be feature complete, but awaits thorough testing.  There may still be significant bugs.  The goal of this version is to provide an opportunity to "exercise" the entire program.

        Beta

The Beta version is intended to be a final product.   However, changes made during the Alpha bug fixes may cause unintended problems in the Beta version.  Thus, another round of testing is needed that focuses on those areas that were fixed following Alpha testing.

        Final

The Final version is just that.  It will contain all fixes of bugs found in the Beta testing.   No further work should be required.

        Post-Delivery Support

One of the goals of this project was to effectively transfer maintenance of the system to our client.  In our experience, the most effective transfer mechanism is to provide clients the ability to call the developers of the product to ask questions or get help.  Thus, we typically include post-delivery support as part of the work plan, where we are accessible to the client.

Keys to Effective e-Communication

In addition to following the process outlined above, we have found several keys to building effective e-Communication.

 

1.       Integration

For the communication to be effective, the information must be a natural part of daily work activity.  In other words, if a user will visit a known page every day (their intranet home page or other start-up page), then the important communication points should appear there.  For this reason, we feel that devices such as portals, performance metric tools, and learning analysis tools are important.

2.       Effective marketing

Users must be made aware of the availability of this information.  "Build it and they will come" doesn't work.  There is a lot of valuable information that is buried in web sites, but is seldom, if ever, accessed or used.  Several projects that we have been involved with were to find this buried information, create a front-end that is easily understood, and then market this front-end as a "portal" to important information users need in their jobs.

3.       Professional appearance and function

Unfortunately people do judge a book by its cover.  After you've spent a lot of time and effort putting together a great source of information, the last thing you want people to do is discount the value of the content because it doesn't look valuable.  One of the things that made Microsoft successful was their attention to the visual appearance of their programs.  Look at each icon.   Those things are crafted pixel by pixel to get just the right look.  Put their program next to a shareware program and you can immediately tell which is which.

4.       Zero Latency Communication

Gartner Group coined the "zero latency" term to describe immediate change.   In networks, latency is the length of time it takes for a small message to travel to the destination. Because "zero latency" sounds so techie, I of course like it.  My point about zero latency communication is that update of information should be immediate.  In other words, if a manager makes a decision on Thursday about a new policy that responds to a competitive threat, how long does it take for front-line employees to know about and act on that decision?  Zero-latency would say that it should be Friday.  Most companies would be ecstatic with Monday.

5.       Don't overwhelm the user

A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th Century England.  Ouch!  Don't contribute to feelings of information overload.  Rather, segment information according to who needs it.  Make sure that important stuff occupies an important location and unimportant stuff can be found, but doesn't occupy eye space.  Better yet, allow each person to control what they see or don't see on start up.

6.       Test early, test often

As you go to the web, it is critical that you don't get bitten by the technology problems that run rampant through web space.  Each browser version and each operating system act a little different.  If users see poor results or crashes, they won't come back.   This is closely related to making your system appear professional.

The Result

So what did we do for the Bank and their advisors?  We pulled best practice ideas from the top advisors and built this information into the desktop of each advisor.  We built a system that showed performance suggestions for each likely defector.  Each advisor was provided with two or three "performance suggestions" that gave helpful hints about how to try to help them keep customers with the Bank.  These hints were attached to training that allowed the advisor to practice their pitch on simulated customers.   We tracked performance of the advisor in terms of calls made, products offered, products sold, and retention rate.  These performance metrics were also tied to training examples that would exemplify particular products.  Prior to roll-out we heavily marketed the approach and trained advisors on the importance of customer retention.  As performance suggestions changed, communication was delivered to the desktop and advisors could literally see the impact on their day-to-day activities.

 

Results will vary from situation to situation to situation...but it is becoming clear that e-Communication can be a  very valuable tool to support the implementation of changes in many organizations.  Have you tried it in your organization yet?

Tony Karrer, President, Technical Empowerment, and FLInet Affiliate

 

Volume 10, Number 4 - 1998  |  Volume 11, Number 1 - 1999
Volume 11, Number 2 - 1999  |  Volume 11, Number 3 - 1999

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