Yet despite the best efforts to report on their successes, the CLO’s story too often goes untold and under-appreciated. ROI can be elusive. Demonstrating impact can be difficult. And communicating value can seem impossible amid the corporate din.
CLOs can take a lesson, if not derive direct help, from their peers in marketing communications and PR. CLOs can effectively communicate the value and impact of learning—both inside and outside the company—by observing some basic public relations principles that are proven to work in the effective delivery of important messages. Telling a good story does not have to be the province of the communications department alone. Here are some tricks of the trade.
Keep It Real With ‘People Parables’
Nothing makes a bigger or more memorable impact than specific, real-life examples of employees making a difference as a result of learning. All the reports in the world on numbers of programs offered, hours of training delivered and satisfaction achieved pale in comparison to one well-told story of an employee using learning to make an impact. By collecting “people parables”—examples of learning in action—a CLO can bring his organization’s value to life more effectively than the best spreadsheet ever could.
During a comprehensive re-branding effort, a forward-thinking global company devised a concurrent learning strategy to create the behaviors that would best support the new brand promise. As part of the plan, they compiled specific examples of colleagues applying the learning in support the new brand. The compilation recounted stories not only of corporate impact, but also of personal growth. The compendium was given to all new employees as an orientation toward the corporate culture. But the tales were so convincing, compelling and indicative of the company’s uniqueness that the sales staff began using the books as marketing tools, introducing new clients and future prospects to the company, which prides itself on its fresh thinking. As a result, clients felt more connected to the company and were more appreciative of the importance the company placed on skill development and idea-generation.
Think in Threes
Scientific research tells us the brain’s frontal lobes can only process about five pieces of information at once. Since employees are filtering innumerable e-mails, voice mails and work and non-work issues at any given time, their ability to absorb new information is limited. Do not expect them to absorb more than three messages at once. Take care to identify a few critical messages in language that is clear, concise and actionable. Consider the public-relations tactic of “message mapping” that builds three key messages around one core theme, enabling an organization to communicate efficiently and consistently and to deliver as much or as little information as appropriate given the audience or setting.
You Don’t Have to Start From Scratch
In an attempt to stand out among the communication clutter, it is easy to want to create a new look, special designs and custom materials to announce a new initiative. However, doing so usually results in confusion, extra expense and low impact. Find existing communication channels that, importantly, are read and listened to. (Every company has many of these vehicles, but some are considered more valuable and reliable sources of information than others.) Corporate newsletters, annual reports, Web sites and e-mail forums are just a few of the many channels available. By delivering credible information through credible channels, the learning organization can demonstrate its relevance and insightfulness.
CLOs know the importance of being sensitive to various learning styles and being flexible about learning methodologies. Some learners learn best by doing, others by observing. Some prefer to reflect first, then take action, while colleagues might opt for action first and reflection second. According to research by The Forum Corp., a Boston-based workplace learning company, there are brainstormers, integrators, problem-solvers and doers.
The same principles apply to communication. Some targets prefer voice communications, while others appreciate print, and still others prefer interactive or visual media. Some prefer group meetings; others prefer to go it alone. The challenge for the learning organization is to build sufficient flexibility into the communication plan to reach all targeted audiences, regardless of individuals’ preferences.
Meet Them Where They Are
Information about new or complex learning initiatives can be daunting. Employees can feel challenged or threatened, encouraged or discouraged, excited or blasé. Just as importantly, many simply are too busy to show the initiative needed to actively seek out information about a new learning program. Communication initiatives need to demonstrate sensitivity to people’s emotions as well as their schedules. You need to meet people where they are—sometimes literally.
One company rolled out a new e-learning program by literally taking it to the people. On a given day, in each office throughout the company’s network of U.S. locations, a representative from the learning organization wheeled a desktop system through the maze of cubicles, stopping at each pod of cubicles, building buzz with free food and other giveaways, and demonstrating the new capability to the eager audience that gathered around. The effort resulted in higher awareness levels and faster adoption rates among employees.
Use Direct and Indirect Channels
Studies show most workers want to learn news from their managers, but often depend on the informal analysis of their water-cooler peers to interpret the news. Paying attention to one of those channels but ignoring the other can be a recipe for communication failure or, at the very least, message drift. Coaching managers on how to communicate important information about learning programs ensures that they present the issues in the most beneficial way. And creating peer-advocacy or peer-ambassador programs in which highly influential employees are equipped with appropriate messages can help shape informal discourse and opinion.
The ‘P’ in Marketing
Even the most compelling messages need the help of packaging—the context, or “wrap,” in which they are delivered. Packaging can take many forms—a creative treatment, a compelling context, a personalized story—but the key is to grab and hold the audience’s attention.
Beware of the One-and-Done
Bigger isn’t always better. Applying your resources, creative energy and organizational capital to the splashy introduction of a new learning initiative or the announcement of a learning organization achievement can actually have little impact. Without the follow-through needed to sustain an audience’s interest and understanding, a communications effort will fall well short of its intended goal.
Some of the world’s largest organizations have discovered the significance of promoting their HR and learning organizations’ stories. One large consumer products company dedicates a corporate PR person to serve as a contact and resource for leveraging the HR and learning organization’s new accomplishments, highlighting its people advantages and establishing the brand in the marketplace as leading-edge. As a result, the marketplace knows the company as a place where people and learning matter.
More companies should follow that lead. But until they do, learning organizations would do well to take their cue from the best-seller’s list. Well-told stories always captivate, resonate and motivate.
Kathleen Gilroy is a partner in Madison Communications, a boutique public-relations agency specializing in media relations that works frequently with HR-oriented media. See www.madisoncommunications.com for more information.