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Talk, Inc.

By Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind

(Harvard Business Review Press, 242 pages, $30)

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*****

It used to be so easy for a chief executive. He could develop strategic objectives and send them down to the ranks as directives, confident that employees would make his desires reality.

Perhaps that was a deceptive notion – the serene view from the commanding heights rather than the cynical trenches. But even in the rarefied atmosphere of the executive suite, no one today would believe that rosy organizational communications scenario. Command-and-control is gone, and with it the top-down, one-way communications approach.

Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and communications consultant Michael Slind set out to investigate how people communicate these days, interviewing nearly 150 people in more than 100 organizations.

They found that communications revolves around conversation – dialogue between two people, rather than messages from one person to hundreds or thousands. Leaders often speak of their efforts to "have a conversation" with their people or "get a conversation going" about an idea.

And this conversation is personal. Even when the leader communicates in written form, through an online blog, perhaps, the experts interviewed said it should be in his or her own voice; the tone should be personable rather than formal or stale.

"They suggested that maintaining organizational conversation is a task that top executives must adopt as their own – that delegating it to professional communicators is no longer a viable option," Professor Groysberg and Mr. Slind write in Talk, Inc.

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Of course, a lone executive – or even a team of executives – can't have a conversation with everyone in a large company. Even in a small business, it can be difficult. But the study found a greater intent on the part of leaders to reach out, to talk to people, one-on-one at times, as well as in groups where they would take direct questions. Employees are also invited to make their views known – in a manner that is less varnished than in corporate missives of the past – in blogs, internal newsletters, and in communications to customers.

Four elements combine to allow such conversations to flourish:

1. Intimacy

Conversation between two people requires that they be close to one another, figuratively and literally. Intimacy leads to a meeting of the minds. This means leaders must learn to listen as well as talk. They must be personal, honest, and authentic, building trust through talk. Even when conversing at a distance, that feeling of intimacy can be gained.

The book describes the TelePresence product that Cisco Systems uses and sells, in which an in-person meeting is simulated through life-size video feeds between two distant locations. Each person sees the other in human scale, and there is a specially designed meeting table in each room that mirrors the table on the other end of the video link, so it feels as if they are sharing the same piece of furniture.

2. InteractivityConversation involves an exchange of comments, questions and musings.

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"The sound of one person talking, whatever else it may be, is not a conversation," the authors note. So organizational conversation must be a dynamic process in which leaders speak with – not at – employees. Technology such as TelePresence can help. But it's the cultural norm favouring dialogue over monologue that will be the determining factor.

3. Inclusion

Organizations must invite everyone to participate in this conversation, not just a chosen few. And the conversation can be outward-facing, as mid-level employees blog to the public or serve as brand ambassadors when connecting with their own friends and acquaintances.

"By empowering employees to communicate in that way, leaders relinquish much of the control that they formerly exerted over organizational messaging. But they gain a great deal in return," the authors notes.

"Through conversational inclusion, leaders are able to boost employee engagement, to spur innovation and creativity, and to improve the branding and reputation of the organization."

4. Intentionality

The talk is not willy-nilly, nor idle. The people leading the organizational conversation – and the various conversations within it – have a strategic idea of where they want the conversation to lead. This intentionality drives business value and can lead to greater strategic alignment.

It's a tall order, particularly for those who prefer control. But the book cites organizations that are thriving through this approach, in lengthy case examples that accompany the chapters on each of the four elements. The authors also end their sections on each element with tips to help you blend these ideas into your own workplace.

Talk, Inc. is easy to read, and captures an important change in today's workplace, offering a prescription for making it work.

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