Faster, Better Corporate Correspondence: 5 Things We Learned from 2 Humongous Projects
“The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” - Joseph Priestley
Communication is one of life’s most important skills, as well as the lifeblood of modern organizations. In fact, it is so important that how well you communicate as a business internally, as well as externally with clients and other stakeholders, may influence whether or not you can be successful at all. Of all the variables related to organizational success, communications is the one most closely connected with the work of leaders because, as described by James Humes "the art of communication is the language of leadership”.
Since 1996 we have had the opportunity to work with many leaders striving to improve their corporate communications processes, especially where those processes interact with external clients and stakeholders. Few organizations are more exposed to the glare of public scrutiny and, as a consequence, are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of slow, poorly crafted communications than those in the public sector. More than ever before, organizations are being held accountable for their actions by, or are engaged in some kind of discourse with, a myriad of external individuals and agencies. Most often, a large proportion of these transactions take the form of written correspondence largely because, as noted by L.C. Powell, we “write to be understood, speak to be heard and listen to grow.”
Over the years we have served many clients in the public sector, helping them increase the effectiveness of their official correspondence processes. Two of the largest are the BC Ministries of Health and Education. Together, they represent approximately 50% of the total Provincial budget of $47 B. Nearly half the public servants in the BC government, about 12,000 people, work for these two ministries in some way. These staff interact regularly with over 4 million British Columbians about the two government services that are most important to BC’s citizens.
Do they have a big communications job on their hands? You bet.
Taken together, these two ministries manage tens of thousands of communications transactions annually in the form of telephone calls, emails and, even in the computer age, actual paper letters . It’s not an understatement to say that the people in these, and other, ministry correspondence units are some of the hardest working office staff in BC.
With the involvement and passionate commitment of these staff, we have been fortunate to be able to help them simplify and streamline their correspondence processes while, concurrently, building stronger, higher performing internal correspondence management teams. Average staff satisfaction with our approach was scored at over 80%. We were able to help them reduce process steps by up to 50% while increasing product quality and overall service standards: so something must have gone right.
What did we take away from this experience? Here are five things we learned from these humongous, complex assignments:
1. You have to take it personally.
When a citizen of BC writes to their provincial government, it’s almost always notbecause they want to thank them for doing a good job.
Many pieces of communication are related to various problems people experience during normal interactions with a huge system. Everyone has a different experience, and it’s hard to template a standard response. Consequently, staff make sure that each and every piece of correspondence is considered from the point of view of the writer. On the one hand we found this inspiring: everyone is entitled to an objective hearing, and a response, based on their particular issue. On the other hand, from a process efficiency point of view, this produces a vast and complex array of responses that can be impossible to quantify, synthesize and streamline. Nevertheless, as a principle, it is important to honour and preserve the importance of this personal touch.
2. Involve everyone.
Because this is such a personal process from the point of view of both the citizen and the civil servant, it is important to engage everyone who participates in the correspondence process in some way. This includes anyone who is involved in writing, administering or approving correspondence, at all levels in the organization from the Minister on down.
Responses to complex issues also require a strong team approach to the problem solving process. This was one of the key benefits we were able to realize: sharing the responsibility for correspondence from a small group of burned out individuals to a broad cross section of subject matter experts drawn from across the ministry. It’s also important to note that citizens themselves also have an important role to play in supplying complete and clear input to the process e.g., a good letter. It was therefore important to give them an opportunity to employ simple, easy to use formats with which to submit enquiries.
3. It can take time.... a lot of time.
Once, at the request of a client, we tried to short cut the process. Never again.
Mapping the current process can take the most time as it is usually very complex, steeped in history, very personal, and not usually something that is easy for only one or two people to fully describe accurately. Hence, our unofficial motto ‘go slow now to go fast later,’ and taking enough time to develop a good understanding of the current process, its strengths and weaknesses, will always pay dividends later.
Similarly, rolling out and implementing any redesigned processes or tools can take time primarily because you are trying to change one of the strongest corporate paradigms for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. It’s therefore important to recognize that fact up front, plan for it, and support your work with broad, deep and varied methods of communication and engagement.
4. It helps if it is important to the Boss.
Official correspondence is not a sexy topic and tends to be consigned to the dry and dusty realm of red tape management. During one engagement, our client’s Design Team had trouble getting people interested in the project.
Staff in the divisions were busy and had other fires burning that needed attention, and correspondence wasn’t considered to be a priority in comparison to other work. However, in the middle of the Redesign stage the ministry experienced a crisis. A constituent had sent a letter to the minister responsible regarding an urgent matter and it languished in an in tray somewhere. For months and months. This was brought up in the legislature by the Opposition and, lo and behold, ministry correspondence instantly became a top priority.
All hands were on deck for a week while the ministry worked together to clear the backlog of correspondence and, while this was a stressful week for all concerned, it gave their correspondence improvement efforts a much needed higher profile within the ministry.
5. Never – Stop - Improving.
We asked our clients what improvements they had realized as a result of their project. These are some of the benefits they shared with us:
However, any project involving tens of thousands of transactions can never really be ‘over’. There are too many uncontrollable variables involved that will soon conspire to nudge you out of any premature sense of relief that you are now ‘done’ with your redesign work. It is important to adopt a culture of Continuous Improvement to simplify your approach on an ongoing basis. During this journey, leverage the teamwork you have already built to sustain you along the way because, as Henry Ford once said, “if everyone is moving forward together, then success will take care of itself .”
“We used to have lots of overdue correspondence. Now we have very little.”
“I have more time to write a good reply, and there are fewer steps involved in the approval process.”
“We now have better tracking and reporting for everyone, including the executive level.”
“We have improved knowledge sharing across the ministry.”
“Our clients are happier now that we can get them a better response, faster.”