Designing a high performance communication department

Hi folks, as you may know I’m doing a master in Corporate Communication at RSM Erasmus University and want to share with you the structure of my master thesis and would be very nice to receive some feedbacks. I hope you enjoy it!   

The eternal search for excellence

Organizations and managers all over the globe have been pursuing the Holy Grail of business for decades and restlessly trying to find the formula which will increase their performance year after year.

The market is awash with a number of different concepts, methods, theories, studies and bestsellers claiming the golden formula of HPO (High Performance Organizations). The identification of the set of characteristics commonly found in successful organizations became an obsession, in particular in a world where companies are struggling to differentiate and compete.

However, by comparing the theories and methods published regarding the subject it’s possible to identify some regular patterns among them that recognize the importance of concepts such as: people management and development, systems and process, structure and resources, strategy, values & leadership.

For instance, Peters and Waterman (1982) indentified the role of culture as the key variable in achieving high performance. They recognized that consistently successful companies in the Fortune Top 500 had strong alignment between their business strategy, and internal elements such as their systems, structure, leadership style, and the skills and style of staff.

Collins in “Good to Great” suggests that truly “great“companies practice timeless principles of good people management and are concerned with keeping the right people “on the bus” in the right seats for a long time. Only when you have the right people on board is it time to focus on the strategy.

And Pfeffer and Salancik (1978) defined organizational effectiveness as “…external standard of how well an organization is meeting the demands of various groups and organizations that are concerned with its activities”.  Those groups and organizations are known as strategic constituencies, who have the influence or power to decide whether the organization thrives or fails.  

It’s clear that the organizational effectiveness covers a comprehensive range of aspects. However, the effective management of communications is essential to help the organization to achieve greater organizational effectiveness. Farace, Monge and Russel (1977) said: “The communication system of an organization is an increasingly powerful determinant of the organization’s overall effectiveness, and may have a limiting effect on the ability of the organization to grow, to perform efficiently, or to survive”.

If communication is important for the organizational effectiveness as pointed out by many authors it becomes important to define the concept of “communication excellence” and its characteristics. According to Grunig (1992), “communication excellence is a powerful idea of sweeping scope that applies to all organizations, large or small, that need to communicate effectively with publics on whom the organization’s survival and growth depends. The essential elements of excellent communications are the same for corporations, not-for-profit organizations, government agencies, and professional trade associations; they apply to organizations globally”.

Given that every company needs an effective communication department to develop a strategic and integrated communication program, we should than be researching what exactly characteristics of HPO need to be present in such departments to make them successful and competent to deliver “communication excellence”.

Designing a high performance communication department

To identify the set of shared features commonly found in successful communications departments and categorize it in a way that makes it possible to any practitioner to reproduce and design an effective communications department, it was necessary to conduct broad research. Review the literature and compare the different authors and theories of excellence in Corporate Communications and Public Relations and frame the common key values presented.

As a result it’s possible to conclude that the equivalent broad spectrum of patterns applied to the HPOs (High Performance Organizations) also can be applied to create a HPCD (High Performance Communication Department). Literature points out the importance of the same set of values:  people management and the need to have an empowered and highly skilled team, systems and process to guarantee quality, structure and resources to delivery results and strategy.  We will focus on these four drivers:

  •  Skills & Capabilities: this drive emphasizes the importance of constant development of an efficient team with the right set of profile, skills and capabilities, a strong fit in the company’s culture, a deep understanding of communications disciplines and business acumen that leads to strategic thinking.

 Regarding the potential of the public relations department we can conclude that “potential depends in large part on the body of knowledge and professionalism that practitioners bring to bear on public relations problems” and also that “practitioners with more education in and knowledge of public relations are more likely to be in the dominant coalition, to be in the manager role, and to practice two-way symmetrical model of communication – all attributes of excellent public relations” (Grunig, E. James – 1992)

 For Joep Cornelissen (2004) “what people bring to the communication job in terms of expertise, competences and skills is a crucial element in the effective functioning of corporate communication and influences how corporate communication is being seen by managers from other functions within the organization”.

 Therefore, the accurate recruiting, training and development of skills and capabilities of the communication’s team is an essential element to ensure excellence in communication.

  •  Strategy & Alliances: the communication practice needs to be aligned with and contribute to the corporate strategy with the purpose of building, protecting and maintaining the company’s reputation by creating and retaining strategic partnerships and delivering consistent messages across the company and its strategic constituencies.

It’s easy to conclude that “if public relations makes organizations more effective by building long-term relationships with strategic constituencies, it is only a small logical jump to deduce that public relations must participate in the organization’s strategic planning and that communication programs must be managed strategically to have that effect”. (Grunig, E. James – 1992)

 For that reason “companies that continue to take a tactical short-term approach to communicating with key constituencies will find it increasingly difficult to compete. Developing an integrated, strategic approach to communications will be critical to success”. (Paul A. Argenti, Robert A. Howell and Karen A. Beck – The Strategic Communication Imperative)

For that reason we can conclude that an effective communication department is expert in the strategic management of communication and its alliances, contributing to organizational effectiveness, adding value to the business and supporting the corporate strategy.

  •  Structure & Management: how the department should be organized and situated inside the organization is another factor that impacts on the reach of communication effectiveness. This also determines the level of strategic contribution in the decision-making process and the integration and alignment of communication. Both critical for a successful planning and management of communications programs.    

It’s a well accepted concept that “how companies organize corporate communication is of crucial importance to the strategic planning and coordination of communication programmes towards different stakeholders. Organizations that have not adequately organized their communication often send out conflicting messages and fail to make a consistent and strong impression on their stakeholders”  (Joep Cornelissen, 2004).

In conclusion, we can state that in order to create a High Performance Communication Department (HPCD) – capable of delivering an excellent communication program – it’s necessary to provide a proper well-functioning structure. Overall, it’s important to understand how the HPCD should be organized and where it should be situated inside the organization, also how its resources and services should be managed.

  •  Process & Protocols: clarifying process and protocols guarantees the quality of communications practice, promoting integration and improvements. The documentation and standardization of the communication process enables benchmarks and sharing best practices, cost and timing reductions and also constant improvement. That process includes the constant measurement and evaluation of communications programs and activities.

Findings of the Excellence Study prepared by the IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) supports this general idea of the importance of establishing and developing internal process in communications and suggests that “every public relations process, especially the technical ones, should be improved constantly in an excellent department” and that “public relations departments, like other organizational units, must develop internal systems for implementing and monitoring their activities. Planning, monitoring and evaluating are as important for public relations as for any organizational function”.

As communications is a practice naturally related to creativity and subjectivity, it’s not easy for many practitioners to understand the value of routine, process and measurement. However, for any organization, individuals or departments striving excellence, quality and results this is essential. It’s unquestionable that the implementation of a standard processes and constant measurement and analysis play a vital role in the HPCD as it adds credibility along with top management.

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