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When a client asks two different people in your firm the same question — and is given two different and conflicting answers, you might get the idea that maybe the concept of internal communications is more than just a management cliche. When an instruction from the managing partner is completely diluted as it goes down the line, then how can we dismiss internal communication as inconsequential? Why is it so often taken for granted? Why does internal communication rarely work to anybody’s satisfaction? In fact, internal communication rarely works when it’s random and disorganized. It inevitably fails when it focuses on mechanics rather than content. It does work, though, when there’s a clearly defined plan and a program, realistic objectives and meticulous methodology — all based on content management. If there’s no clearly defined internal communication plan, the most urgent direction, no matter how clear or simple, gets garbled and distorted as it goes down the management line to the people who have to act on it. The foundation for an effective program resides in realizing that everybody in a firm has to know something, but not everybody has to know everything about everything. Not every one has to know the same things. There is a difference between an internal communications program that works, and one that just spins wheels, and leaves the firm vulnerable to inefficiency and chronic misinformation. GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE There are compelling reasons to sustain a high level of internal communications, in even the smallest company: • If everybody who shows up for work every morning has a different view of why he or she is there, then there’s no cohesive motivation. Motivational programs don’t help here. Communication does. • The most effective marketing promise you make to clients or customers is useless if the people who have to make the promise a reality don’t understand and accept it. • Firms function on several levels — the management, the professionals, the administrative staff and so forth. Without a defined program, without common understanding, information conflicts and there’s chaos. With a good program, there’s increased productivity. • Most companies today, regardless of size, are dynamic. People move around a lot. They go to clients and customers, to the offices of other firms, to other cities. A good program brings them together. • The nature of business today requires that a great many people within a company be in touch with a great many people outside the company. It’s crucial, then, that as many people as possible in the firm be appropriately informed and knowledgeable. • There’s always the double-edged sword of e-mail, which communicates faster, but also spreads rumors and misinformation faster. With today’s technology, misinformation flies around the world at lightening speed. • And don’t forget the vital function of feedback, from the bottom up. While the experienced communicator will find nothing radically new in the mechanics of an internal communications program, we now find that the key to successful internal communication lies not in the mechanics, but in the content. Shaping the content depends upon the program’s objectives. THE OBJECTIVES The objectives are predicated on a basic question — what do we want people to know, think or feel as a result of our internal communications efforts, and why? Some possibilities: • The firm’s goals(e.g., share of market, level of professionalism, leadership, value to clients, increased productivity and so forth). Keeping people on all levels informed and involved adds a new dimension to firm management. If you have a clearly defined marketing position, for example, you’d better explain it to the people who have to make that position a reality, and breathe life into it. • Firm business. Pension and health benefits, holiday schedules, expense rules and other housekeeping information, rules of confidentiality, software piracy regulations and payroll deduction information. • Technical information. To remain competitive, key people have to know the latest rules, regulations, laws, findings, results and techniques. They also have to know how the new billing system works, company rules, how to deal with client complaints and so forth. • Morale factors(e.g., social news, company’s progress and what everybody has contributed to it, addressing adverse rumors and so forth). Specific opportunities at every level (e.g., marketing incentives, regards for increased productivity and so forth). • Crisis control(how to handle inquiries from the press, how to handle rumors and so forth). A prime consideration here is the concept of no surprises. People who might have to deal with others outside the firm (such as the press) should be aware of crisis information and the process for dealing with it. Crisis management, as everyone knows, is a function of anticipation and planning before the crisis. Internal information is an integral part of it. • Client and customer information. Who the clients and customers are, who the key people are, who does what for each client or customer, matters pertaining to best serving the client or customer. Some of this may be sensitive; some may be housekeeping. The housekeeping information goes to everybody administratively responsible; the sensitive information only to those who must perform for the client or customer. WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE? Viewed in the context of objectives, it becomes clear that, as in any marketing program, the target audiences must be defined. Obviously, not every message is for everybody on the payroll. These audiences might include the professional staff, upper echelon management, middle management, department or practice group heads, staff people within these categories and individuals with special responsibilities. By defining the audience, you begin to see how different messages must be tailored to fulfill the overall communications objective. What is to be communicated is a function of a policy predicated on clearly defined objectives, defined for specific audiences. With a well-delineated policy and clear objectives, the how is relatively easy. Internal communication, long a thorn in the side of management in every profession, has too often been practiced in the breach. Given its importance to successful firm management, particularly in a highly competitive environment, it’s amazing that so little attention has been paid to it. To many a managing partner, internal communications is a murky forest of doom, in which information enters in one shape and emerges at the other end as an unrecognizable blob. One reason for its failure, we know now, is that communicators concentrate on the mechanics of communication, rather than the nature of content. INFORMATICS 101 But when the attempt is made to understand a bit of basic theory in knowledge management — or informatics, as it’s now being called — firms can readily turn data into information that goes to the bottom line. Knowledge may be defined as information that is now, or may be in the future, useful in a specific context. Knowledge may also be abstract, with no immediate use or application, in which case it may serve as a foundation for an ultimate use. For example, when the laser was discovered in the AT&T labs a few decades ago, it was merely a scientific phenomenon, with no apparent practical use. The uses emerged and were developed much later. In a business or firm management context, knowledge is information that can be applied for a specific and useful business purpose. For example, the demographics of a particular market area is raw data. Analyzing that data in terms of the ability to make decisions about serving that area is information. Knowing how to apply that information to make those decisions is knowledge. Knowing how to deliver knowledge to those who can use it most effectively to meet a specific objective is knowledge management. We are concerned here with the use of knowledge in a business context — gathering, formulating and applying knowledge to the uses of managing a company or professional firm, and using knowledge competitively. People process information differently. Each person receives information through a screen of personal experience and prior knowledge. Give two people the same information about a company and its investment potential, for example, and one will choose to buy the stock and the other to sell it. Another form of knowledge is tacit knowledge — what we know only intuitively, but can’t test pragmatically. For example, Freud’s hypothesis of infant perception and psychology could only be surmised, but not tested. But if we build a system predicated on that intuition, and the system works, then we may assume that the intuition may be valid. Understanding the dynamics of knowledge allows a firm to develop a system that defines information in a more focused context. It lets recipients help define what they need to know and helps communicators define what information is genuinely useful to those who receive it. It helps management bring knowledge to the bottom line, which, after all, is the purpose of knowledge. Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms and the editor ofThe Marcus Letter On Professional Services Marketing,” on www.marcusletter.com. His e-mail address is [email protected]. This article originally appeared in Law Firm Partnership & Benefits, aRecorder affiliate. • Practice Center articles inform readers on either developments in substantive law, practice issues or law firm management. Contact News Editor Candice McFarland with submissions or questions at [email protected]or go to www.therecorder.com/ submissions.html.

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