Reigniting the Culture Conversation – Internal Communications and Storytelling

‘Culture alignment is what makes organizations successful’. This message stuck to my mind like never before!

I attended one of the best sessions ever on a topic often considered to be ‘esoteric’ and ‘abstract’ – culture. This post is to share my personal take-aways.

Conducted by a senior leader this session had no presentation slides and no fancy video. He simply focused on one topic, weaved in three interesting stories,  told them well with a personal flair and gave each one of the participants something to reflect on for posterity.


Let me ask you – which of these two do you remember?

Your company’s vision statement that your leader shared to drive ahead or the great work your team mate did that received accolades which reflects the recognition culture in organization?

He shared three stories – the first about the movie Nemo (where the fish decides to get everyone aligned to a direction and therefore escape capture).

The second on a fire department study in the US which figured that storytelling and sharing knowledge helped differentiate a particular set of fire fighting professionals stand apart in performance from the rest.

The third from an organization infamously making news which harped on profits, productivity and revenues while a core value like safety got very little mindshare during team meetings. No points for guessing what employees considered important.

Here is what I learnt – and although they sound simple it is to me the way forward to help your employees believe truly in your culture.

–          Culture is a continuum – there are varying degrees of alignment. Employees can be completely aligned on one end and non-aligned at the other. Leaders should look at their employees through this lens and coach to get everyone on the same quadrant.

–          Culture can be measured – when you relate it to appropriate behaviors and attributes that define what your goals are. While it may be subjective at times you can see employees living the culture if you know what your organization’s culture is.

–          Culture can be built on storytelling – we tell stories everyday – be it assessment, recognition, project work, issues with office equipment, compensation. ….just about anything. What stops us from talking about employees who live the culture?

–          Culture takes time – organizations which have lasted the test of time have invested in culture building. It isn’t a switch that turns employees on or off. If you invest time to focus on the topic your employees will understand it as valuable.

–          Culture is about alignment not buy-in – you can give all the proof points to have your employees believe in you but unless they see value you will not see synergy.

–          Culture has to be always on your radar – if it isn’t reinforced everyday it will be lost in the crowd. Take time to revisit those behaviors everyday, print a sheet and reflect on what you can do in your personal capacity

–          Culture is about each of us – it isn’t about the company since we say employees make organizations and they form part of the culture. If you want your organization to change ask the person in the mirror.

Everyone has a role to play and I am doing two things to make a change personally – read and revisit the core values and share stories about people whom I know are making a difference.

Adopting social media inside the enterprise – challenges and opportunities for internal communicators

This article featured in Simply-Communicate, a UK based internal communication publication that reaches 15,000 communicators globally.

Read on for the complete article here as well.

According to an IABC report over 79% of global companies leverage social media internally to improve productivity and engagement. India, however, still lags behind when it comes to adoption. 

To put it mildly we are still ‘scratching the surface’. After speaking with various corporate internal communications practitioners from a spectrum of industries, I am convinced that ‘getting started’ isn’t the issue; it’s about getting it right.

From an internal communication perspective, adoption is quite nascent, even in technology firms considered to be leaders in embracing new media. Still, the intent is there. An India-based social media study ranks ‘engaging employees with social media’ #3 on the list after customers and media – a good indicator of how we are shaping up. 


Seemingly, most social media initiatives within organizations in India are ‘wants’ rather than ‘needs’. Many companies have met with resistance and waning interest since programs are top-down driven – usually coming from a leader wanting to connect with employees on a blog or an overzealous HR professional trying out a new tool he/she heard about at a conference. Few firms have reached a maturity where a well-defined social media strategy guides how leaders, employees and internal communities connect for improved collaboration, better engagement and enhanced productivity.

Challenges in adoption

Among the reasons why social media adoption is still nascent in India is because of:
•    a lack of understanding and business clarity;
•    security concerns;
•    sustaining interest over time;
•    information moderation norms;
•    the inability to decode cultural nuances.

Poor understanding of the medium

Social media is understood in India as a fad, associated with a set of tools that can generate ‘buzz’, help keep up with the Joneses, make tangible progress at a minimal budget and as a way to build an ‘online’ presence. Furthermore, employees aren’t aware of how to leverage the tools and consider external channels such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Organizations fail to step back and map their goals as to how social media can be tapped. Often it’s seen as ‘IT-driven’ with only tech-savvy employees using the non-mainstream channel.

Clarity and purpose

Social media practices often don’t have a clear owner within organizations. Mostly there is a team formed from IT, Leadership, Legal, HR and Communications who converge to create guidelines and implement solutions. The purpose of social media can often be mistaken for ‘quick-wins’ that will make teams look good, have a cool quotient and demonstrate two-way engagement. This approach is usually met with skepticism from employees, surprised to see the company releasing control to enable social media.

Security and connectivity

Security is another drawback to social media integration, especially with 96% of Indian firms’ decision makers prohibiting the use of these tools in the workplace. For example, a global financial services company in India deactivated USB ports, prevented access to websites and kept a strict vigil on employees with video cameras for fraud prevention. Such restrictions only stifled employees’ interest to collaborate and made them feel insecure. Letting go of the ‘command and control’ model is crucial for India to fully realize the potential of social media. 

Issues of trust and transparency

‘If you build it, they will come’. Not so with social media adoption in India. You may have the best infrastructure and invite your employees to participate but if the culture within isn’t open to criticism and feedback, you are going to run into issues. On the other hand if you have a robust social media system in place but your IT policies block freedom of expression and access to websites then you will end up with disengaged employees.

If leaders don’t see value in social media or label it a ‘productivity buster’, employees understandably will stay away. Without a clear understanding of the medium, companies will continue to baulk at the idea of setting up discussion forums or allowing comments on blogs defeating the purpose of social media!

Lack of resources

The lack of dedicated resources within organizations to oversee social media integration adds to the problems. Mostly, it’s introduced as a knee-jerk reaction to ‘situations’. For example, a global IT services firm with offices in India recently got a wake-up call when ‘attacked’ on job portal forums and sites like for alleged poor work practices. Ignoring the issue meant eroding the value of the brand. To mitigate this ‘risk’, the firm instructed employees to post ‘positive’ messages on the forums. Unfortunately this approach backfired due to the lack of credibility, inconsistent messaging, and the inability to address stakeholders’ expectations about the power of social media.

Measurement and ROI

This is still a fuzzy subject due to a lack of understanding and approach. Therefore measurement is related to looking at usage data (hits, page views, number of comments) while organizations are still grappling with how to demonstrate ROI on social media investment. 

Best practices in India
Most benefits of social media are understood to be short term such as information sharing, faster access to experts and speed of response. In the long term, fructifying ideas and innovation that emerge from discussions and conversations are considered forward thinking. Organizations are also aware of how online reputation can be fostered and crisis averted though an in-depth knowledge of social media.

As the impact and understanding of social media continue to grow, a handful of organizations are now seizing the opportunities. For example, Bharti (Airtel), a leading telecom organization with over 20,000 employees switched to an SMS based intranet based on an IBM tool called me-tize. The move did away with e-mail, got employees connected, increased productivity, added convenience and also contributed in a ‘green’ way.

Searches on social media trends in India will lead to examples of how the big IT names – HCL, Infosys, Wipro, Tech Mahindra and TCS are online and engaging with customers either with leaders sharing information via Twitter or a group of bloggers connecting with audiences. However, those organizations who have made inroads have invested in crafting a policy (surprisingly only 29% of organizations seem to have a formal policy in place!), building a culture of collaboration, empowering users on tools and benefits and inculcating a habit of leveraging tools irrespective of career levels.

Blogging by leaders within the organization is on the rise as a way to connect and energize staff. These instant communication tools provide a sense of transparency and ownership. Intranets and microblogging tools are picking up too with ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions such as Yammer, Jive and Chatter popular among companies who are keen to experiment. However the concern of security issues and safety of internal content on an external network are driving most to create in-house assets with ‘packaged’ options such as Microsoft’s SharePoint. Virtual events and webcasts via Webex as well as user generated content around campaigns are also gaining ground as relevant communication channels.

In the area of intranets, there is a shift towards giving more control and accountability to local communication teams with independent pages ‘localized’ to connect more closely with employees. Staff are invited to share informal personal information and contribute facts to ‘get to know you’ pages.

In a leading innovation firm, the social media strategy to connect leaders and provide a platform for employees resulted in healthy conversations taking place internally. The objectives were to build a ‘great place to work’ atmosphere, up the ‘cool’ factor and attract the best talent from the market.

Apart from the corporate intranet which serves as the central channel for communication and hosts tools such as blogs and wikis, the company also invested in recognizing employees for participating. Some blog contributors were even rewarded with gift vouchers and trophies for their effort. 

Measurement via organizational health surveys and engagement studies gave communicators and leaders a fair idea on how social media has impacted culture.

Role of the internal communicator in driving change
Internal communicators are associated with promoting culture by leveraging social media, demonstrating value, creating processes around IT support and building guidelines and content moderation. They are expected to monitor, facilitate, coach and work with managers to get buy-in and time from employees within their teams for content generation and sustaining interest.

They are known to look for opportunities to leverage social media tools, encourage leaders and managers to share content often by pointing to relevant themes from an organizational context and mapping out priorities.
Looking ahead: strategies to improve adoption

Those successfully implementing social media have taken the time to absorb the various elements surrounding this phenomenon and create stringent policies and guidelines to protect IP and the organization’s image.

To achieve employee buy-in, consider the mix of age groups within the company and explain the rationale and thinking behind why the company is investing in social media internally and what you expect from your staff.

Communicate the do’s but stay clear from policing them. These policies should cover what the user can or cannot say in public forums, sites to avoid, and tips on how to avoid putting the company at risk. The message needs to be that social media is a win-win scenario for the company and for the employee. 

I blogged about quick-wins that can get a social media plan going within an organization. These include arriving at a base document, auditing the talent within, starting a conversation and then involving employees. My recommendation is that organizations begin with something non-controversial – such as health and wellness, sports (e.g. cricket) or work-life balance. Get employees to converse, release control gradually, observe how they interact and pick insights that you can bring to other forums where you can leverage social connections. Whether you create digital stories on these topics or run a contest to get user generated content, the possibilities are endless. 

To groom a pool of social media champions, find employees who are interested in contributing to the social media space either as a content provider, moderator or a guide. Tap into this pool of media enthusiasts and coach them with bite-sized chunks of messages. 

Overall, I see a bright future for social media penetration in India. To move forward, there are some issues that need addressing first:

1. Social media ROI

To measure the actual ROI it is important to match it to the appropriate objective and result.  For example, if the objective is to create a culture of knowledge sharing then the only tangible way to measure it by putting a number against transactions, improvement in organizational knowledge and learning gained.

2. ‘Readiness’ factor

One aspect which most organizations haven’t figured out yet is using social media in crisis communications – internally and externally.    Right now it’s a scramble to get messages out with the help of PR agencies but it’s time that communicators realize that ‘speed’ and ‘honesty’ are the drivers when it comes to overcoming online reputational concerns.

3. Know your employees

Without understanding user aspirations and needs, social media penetration within organizations may take longer.  It helps to conduct an audit of all the social media skills your staff has and leverage them on sites they are on.

4. Internal communicators as social media coaches

I believe that internal communicators must be experts at social media to be acknowledged as partners in this process of transformation. Why would a leader or an associate listen to you if you haven’t blogged or know how to start one? How can you be credible if you are unaware of recent trends from industry leaders?

In short, for companies to successfully integrate social media into their internal communications, they need to look inward and address cultural differences, have a plan, be open to accept and acknowledge feedback and criticism, build and leverage robust enterprise-wide systems and empower employees to experiment.