Article: Conducting a communication audit

Strategic HR

Conducting a communication audit

This is a simple guide which explains how one should go about conducting a communication audit for one's organization.
Conducting a communication audit

Communication remains, perhaps, the last of the amorphous disciplines in most organizations. Most all departments wish to claim it – marketing claims it as an organic constituent, HR appropriates it as it is in line with internal growth and development, and the CEO wants executive control as external messaging directly impacts stakeholders and corporate image.

What makes it even more confusing is that most all divisions do not express a clear understanding of its function, especially internal communication. Perhaps the only time communication within the organization gets sufficiently noticed is during regime change or merger.

In this hazy scenario, the favorite gripe, ‘we have communication issues’, remains suspended, unattended to.  Among the audits that are either mandatory/stipulated or favored by the management, the communication audit is quite unheard of. Perhaps the difficulty is not so much in conducting it but understanding the modus operandi.  In my view as a practicing communication specialist, there are two major limbs of the audit: first, the mapping of communication gaps within the organization and, second, the remedial measures. 

And here is how it is done

1. A series of simple, standard questionnaires are circulated within the participant group/s.
2. These are, then, collated, painstakingly analyzed and interpreted for information.
3. The questionnaires are followed up with one-on-one interviews – recorded anonymously – sampled randomly or with all participants.
4. The audit is designed to alert for communication gaps as well as understand real and perceived (communication) strengths.

Simply put, this is what the flow of the show looks like:

I. Questionnaires to participants.*

- What does your organization look like? 
- What should it look like?
- Are you reporting to the right person? [Yes/No]
- Do you believe you are a resource for those working below you? [Yes/No]
- Do you believe your boss is a resource for you? [Yes/No]
- What %age of your departmental conversations/meetings productive? [ _% ]

II. Interviews with participants*

- Three points to make communication with senior officers productive and smooth.
- Three points to make communication with junior officers productive and smooth.
- How many times have you acknowledged that a team member is correct? (As against yourself.)
- Do you always know what is happening within the company, largely? How often do you receive such news from the outside?

III. Analysis*

- Intradepartmental communication is below par/fair/good/excellent.
- Interdepartmental communication is below par/fair/good/excellent.
- Senior management needs to communicate more down the line.
- There are too many cultures operating within the organization.

IV. Summary and report

V. Suggested way forward > Establishing timelines and corrective measures. 

Let’s preempt the first question: why ‘recorded anonymously’? This begs a quick retelling from a colleague’s attempt to make the process transparent by attributing specific names to filled questionnaires. No sooner had the organization got its hands on the data, it went on a witch-hunt overdrive. It was no so much the bloodbath that followed but the instant demise of any such exercise within the organization for all times to come. Lopsided interpretation of critique results in devastating mistrust; organizational memory is not as fleeting as most would like to believe. Succinctly, the answer to this organization’s communication woes lay in the way it handled its respondents’ views. 

During pre-audit discussions, some of the most common misbeliefs (top to down)

‘It seems I/we are unable to relay appropriately what we expect of THEM.’                                      (Meaning: THEY don’t understand me/us.)

‘I/we need to share more information and synergize (sic) more effectively.’                                     (Meaning: We do the best we can but THEY don’t.)

‘I/we are not sure where we are headed in the future.                                                                             (Meaning: THEY haven’t given us a personal growth plan.)

The communication audit is not a challenge due to the size of the organization - as is mistakenly believed - it addresses: it is mainly the kind of culture the organization has created for itself

Assuming that all organizations wish to better their performance, we are left with merely transcribing desire to action. Here, sadly, several fail to bite the bullet. An industrial/corporate anthropologist working in India would be as astonished as bewildered by the sheer diversity of cultures. In some cases, it would not be unrealistic to find different cultures within the same organization: the C-suite strutting to their own tune while the rest languishing under a more obsequious status quo.

The audit has its job cut out: to seek and redress these issues. That is if at all there is a possibility to do so. Experience proves that it is easier to read a report, however uncomfortable than do something corrective about it. Halting a communication audit at the ‘report’ level is a financial luxury that many corporates afford with not much conscientiousness. For the brave and undaunted, it is a veritable Wikileaks of sorts.

Specific audit requests

There are requests of conducting a communication audit specifically for a single division, e.g. for marketing or sales. The argument proffered is that these are distinctly consumer-facing employees, ‘for them to get along as a team is critical’. In other words, productivity is seen (only) as revenue oriented. The management just confessed that there are blue-eyed boys and then the regular eyes ones and perhaps even the one-eyed ones … disparity on the basis of who brings home the bacon is already set. It is the beginning of the corporate caste system and prepares a fertile ground for rot to begin. The communication audit will merely put that in black and white, perhaps highlighting it.

How much information does the organization wish to share with its internal stakeholders? And how?

Are there instances when an employee gets news of the organization from the outside? Are these instances frequent? Does the Intranet (or the primitive newsletter) act as a purveyor of all kinds of information (vital to the employee) within the organization or does it merely showcase the nice and the happening? Is the Intranet a vital part of all employees’ to-do list? This is the beginning of a broadcast culture with the aim of creating empathy and goodwill toward the organization. However, not all aspects of the individual’s performance and reward rest on communication solely – to analyze that is not the purpose of this piece. 

The engaging poser is: Is the organization communicating well and productively? Among the deterrents to productivity, is communication a critical factor? This is the orientation of the communication audit.

Seek assistance with the analysis

The questionnaires handed out seek to understand how employees perceive the organization. But it is not looking for the bland yes or no; it is seeking if even the negative is reflected consistently across either a division/vertical and across, affecting all. Likewise, are the positives constant too? If there are huge shifts in perception, then there is cause for worry. The consistency of perception is a sure marker that the organization remains egalitarian in its approach, however right or wrong. Maintaining the anonymity of the respondents is, thus, a blessing.    

Not long ago, analysis of such sort would find its way into the hands of only (strictly) the owner or the managing director or whoever considered him/herself as the plenipotentiary. S/he would view the analysis as a personal report card. And it was true too. It should not be so now. (Of course, there is always the risk that HR misinterprets this report as its performance report!) So, while the way forward is suggested via remedial workshops, counseling sessions, back-to-school lessons, departmental secondments, mentorship tutorials, perhaps even exit options etc. there is merit in seeking the assistance of internal human resource executives and managers. 

Measurability is important

As insight finds itself transformed into action, the focus is now on measurability - a sore spot for both, the external auditor and management. In many cases, this is what stymies the entire exercise. The wise recommendation is to allow learning/curative programs to continue periodically to nourish the workforce. The audit should not be viewed as a once-upon-a-time initiative. It is part of the maintenance process of the corporate machinery.

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Topics: Strategic HR, #Communication

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