Creating meaning through sustainable corporate communications, part 1

To inspire dedicated employees, meaning can make all the difference

On the threshold of the modern age, numerous phenomena were at work. Among the most formative was a profound process of rationalization that touched every part of life. In its wake, many objects, events and institutions lost their mystical character. The validity of universal religious values in particular suffered a significant loss of social relevance. Scientific progress caused the world to lose its mystic as “an enchanted garden.” As German sociologist Max Weber once wrote: people “no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits. Technical means and calculation perform the service.”

In the course of this process, which Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world,” an age has arisen in which admittedly everything has a rational explanation but which seems to lack a universal meaningful order. Many people sense a “loss of meaning” and are searching for something to fill this void. The explosion of books in the areas of self-help and spirituality is only one symptom of this ongoing search for orientation. The world is acquiring “a new spirit” – but in a different way than before.

Companies too are increasingly setting goals that go well beyond the economic aspect of their business. These goals underscore the contribution each individual employee makes to the greater good – and show that they are appreciated for what they do. Employees form a large family that lives out values and provides acceptance and recognition. Obviously this is nothing new if not rather uncommon up to now. Today, this family environment has become increasingly more widespread.

In light of the “disenchantment” described above, a logical step for companies is to not only assume value-adding responsibilities but also to play a meaningful role. It is precisely because the modern working world occupies such an expansive space in the lives of so many people that a completely “disenchanted” working world would also be a meaningless one. Businesses certainly cannot aim for this or allow it to be a side effect of their activities, otherwise they risk their own success.

Companies today face an existential challenge: find the right employees and continually motivate them amidst global competition and permanent change. Generation Y – a group currently entering the labor market, makes that task all the more difficult. These young people are more apt to be loyal and committed to an employer who offers meaningful activity and contributes to society. As a result, creating meaning is not only vital for standing out from the competition, it is also key for employer attractiveness, with the added effect of having a positive impact on intrinsic motivation.

Systematic communication creates the right conditions

Rethinking your business philosophy alone is not enough to create a meaningful environment that makes a difference. Communications also play a crucial role. Communicators are the bridge between the company and the outside world, so naturally they also convey what the company has to offer people. Any sustainable communications effort to achieve this goal must first determine the best direction to take in order to get there.

You can only do this by looking at the changing conditions of the communications environment and a particular development that stands out: the ever deepening interpenetration of the social and economic spheres. Linked with this development are dense global interconnectedness and digitization, which has extremely accelerated the exchange of information. In such an environment, controlled communication from inside the company to the outside world loses its unique selling proposition.

That’s why a new logic is needed that sees communications less as a “one-way street” and more as an open dialog supported by a convincing argument. At the same time, this new communications logic requires a constant readiness to grapple earnestly with the expectations of society. In practice, what has proven most effective here is a combination of empathic external communications with demand-oriented internal communications.

Re-calibrating communications this way puts the focus on empathy: Now more than ever, you need a well-balanced sensory system to identify what’s driving society, which allows you to recognize how societal expectations form and when they change. Moreover, without an adequate sense for your environment, you won’t be able to define your role as a creator of meaning and remain relevant to your own stakeholders.

With the help of an approach that emphasizes comprehensive dialog, Deutsche Post DHL Group for example is ensuring that the company has an on-going “conversation” with all of its relevant stakeholders and that their interests and concerns are systematically noted. We have this conversation using a bundle of activities, (dialog) formats and processes that help identify the expectations within our own community as well as develop an appropriate response – be it through business activities, or appropriate communications or corporate responsibility efforts.

The new hyper-transparency, which is the result of increased interconnectedness and the accelerated exchange of information, is also changing internal communications. That’s because one thing is certain: Employees are always seeking out information on matters that concern them – if necessary on their own initiative if no official information is available. In these cases, information travels along the office grapevine rather than via official channels. To avoid falling behind the power curve, internal communications is faced with an ever greater obligation to service the demand. Here a focus on dialog is the foundation for having your finger on the pulse and always addressing employees’ concerns.

Internal communications at Deutsche Post DHL Group now relies on dialog and feedback across all channels. At the same time, a range of interactive platforms have been introduced, such as “myNet” – a modern employee portal used by some 200,000 staff that provides access to services, information, forums and applications – and the “Extranet,” which operations personnel (who lack computer workstations) can access online from their private computers at home. Some 42,000 employees are actively using this channel. Therefore, internal communications not only supports internal interconnectedness, but also its own ability to address the day-to-day needs of all staff members.

By focusing on external dialog and on internal demand, you can create a communications approach that is consistently geared toward need – the needs of your own employees as well as those of the outside world. However, this will only work if the goal is to create meaning. If you want to meet people’s actual expectations day in and day out in a changing environment, you have to focus above all on the right issues, especially those that concern your employees.

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