In Episode 6 we speak with the CEO of Integral Communications Group Ethan McCarty and answer the question “What’s the Future of … Employee Communication?”
A former journalist, Ethan joined IBM in early 2000 to manage the web presence for IBM’s $6 billion a year research division, he also co-authored their groundbreaking blogging guidelines, launched IBM’s intranet podcasting platform and worked on IBM’s award-winning annual report to shareholders.
He is now the CEO of Integral Communications Group, a consulting firm specializing in employee activation, as well as a masters-level lecturer on digital media and employee communications for Columbia University.
We spoke to Ethan from New York where he lives and works.
We discussed a range of topics relevant to companies of any size including:
More information and show notes can be found on the episode page.
For more on Andrew - what he speaks about and replays of recent talks, please visit ActionableFuturist.com follow @AndrewGrill on Twitter or @andrew.grill on Instagram.
Welcome to the Practical Futurist Podcast, a biweekly show all about the near term future with practical advice from a range of global experts to help you stay ahead of the curve. Every episode answers the question, "What's the future of ...?" with voices and opinions that need to be heard. Your host is international keynote speaker and Practical Futurist Andrew Grill.Andrew Grill:
Welcome to episode six of the Practical Futurist Podcast, where, I'm joined by former IBMer and Bloomberger Ethan McCarty. A former journalist, Ethan joined IBM in early 2000 to manage the web presence for IBM $6 billion a year research division. He also co -authored their groundbreaking blogging guidelines, launched IBM's intranet podcasting platform, and worked on IBM's award winning annual report to shareholders. He is now the CEO of Integral Communications group, a consulting firm specialising in employee activation as well as a masters level lecturer on digital media and Employee Communications for Columbia University. Welcome, Ethan .Ethan McCarty:
Thank you so much Andrew, it's a pleasure to have an opportunity to talk with you.Andrew Grill:
So we've both worked at IBM and you also worked at Bloomberg. For those who don't know you, what's been your journey here and why did you set up a firm that's focused on employee engagement and activation?Ethan McCarty:
Well, you know, I've kind of been in the business for, you know, I mean more than 20 years of kind of inspecting the space and optimising and activating in that space in between organisations and their people. It wasn't some grand plan or anything. I have an undergraduate degree in creative writing and a master's degree in liberal studies, which was kind of like theories and, you know, philosophy and economics and stuff. So there's not like a job path where you're like, oh, go do that. You know, I've had this by luck really, rather than by design this opportunity to work on one project after another over the course of my career. An organization desires some kind of outcome and they need their people to do it, but it's not clear who their people are. You know, is it the employees, you know, is it alumni of the organization, the customers , is it communities? And so that space, you know, whether you're, developing what's so-called externally communicated versus what's internally communicated is really blurry. And I think that's a function of a digital transformation that's been taking place over the last 20 years. And so I had those roles at IBM where, simultaneously I managed, an intranet for a business unit for the research division at IBM as you mentioned. And then at the same time I managed ibm.com the external facing website. And then I had a time when I was running IBM's intranet and at the same time around the alumni program which we grew to over a hundred thousand members. And so it's like these spaces that are like, well, is that internal communications, external communications? And again, and again, that's been the kind of recurring theme, you know, at Bloomberg I had similarly, you know, these kinds of internal responsibilities, so-called internal communications, responsibilities with executive comms and so on. And then I also had a public relations component and multimedia production. So again and again, these things get conflated that are very often hardwired organisationally. So you'll have like a marketing department or a PR department that's focused externally and then an HR department or an internal comms department that's focused internally at many organisations. And it's that space in between where I think there's tremendous opportunities for organisations to really differentiate themselves and grow.Andrew Grill:
Why I'm so pleased that to be talking to you not just because you're a great guy and a friend of mine, this is a subject really close to my heart. Like you, before I joined IBM, I had my own social presence. I had some level of notoriety around the world and when I joined IBM it was like, well, how do we harness that? How do we bring that external and internal view together? And in fact, I wrote a blog post a few years ago entitled "Employee Advocacy Beyond, please retweet this". And I think in 2019 it still resonates. I read on your website, you are quoted as saying employee engagement means much more than just communicating to employees. It drives employee behaviors that enhance sales, attracts and retains talent, makes the organisation more secure and maximises the return on the firm's investment in its people. So if this is true, how do you measure employee engagement?Ethan McCarty:
Well, I think it's a really good question. You have a lot of different ways to gauge whether or not the workforce is , is engaged at all? There are some kind of, let's say standard methods or methods that have become standards that I think are useful. There's a poll that you can buy , that you can run it or a survey that you can run at whatever frequency every other year or once a year. You know, they asked some of these questions like, do you have a best friend at work and do you think the company's best days are ahead of it? And so on. And I think those are really, really useful measures. You know, when I think about employee engagement, I tend not to think of it as a single number.Andrew Grill:
The other thing I think is a proxy. We can look at, I'm sure you measure this as well as if like you and I, when we were at IBM and Bloomberg, we would put that we worked there on our Twitter profile. So someone wanting to say what's it like to work at IBM or Bloomberg would look at us as a proxy and say, Andrew and Ethan seem to be having a good time, they talk about the company organically and authentically. So if I work there, I might have a similar experience. And I think a lot of companies, they're trying to force their employees. You know, like I said, please retweet this, but if you put it on your bio and you're proud to work there and you say great stuff about being there, that can only help attract new talent to the firm.Ethan McCarty:
Oh that's, that's absolutely the case. And , and I think, you know, one of the trends, we have this kind of 10 trends thing that we talk about is that so-called internal communications is the new killer app for recruitment. You know, that was certainly the case at IBM and at Bloomberg, you know, many of our clients. So , you know, the work that we do starts off as a recruitment effort and how do we externalise, so to speak, some of the great things that are happening inside of a company as a way to make it clearer what the benefits are for working there. And , and it works both as an attractor and as a useful passive filter. You know, so for example, if your company has a very strong culture of a nonhierarchical leadership and the employee shared Ephemera, you know, the videos, the tweets, the blog posts, the speaking engagements, the open houses, like all those things where , you know, employees have a chance to represent what life is like at that company. If all of those things depict that accurately and authentically and somebody who really craves a hierarchical working experience and really likes that, sees that, and they decide, oh, that place is not good for me, that's actually a wonderful outcome. That's a great positive benefit. Just as much as the opposite is true. You know, like you may like just by doing those same behaviors and enabling employees to authentically represent their work and their work style and how they view their relationship to that organization, that may just as well function as an attractor for other folks who are like, man, I've been suffering under the thumb of this hierarchical company over here. I could really shine at that company that doesn't have a very hierarchical culture.Andrew Grill:
So Integral [Communications] looks at employee engagement and activation. So how do you activate employees?Ethan McCarty:
When we talk about activation, we generally think about in terms of our company's offerings. We think about in three ways. And the first one would be the work that has historically been called internal communications that we kind of turn it on its head because we really, really focus on listening first as opposed to talking first. So one dimension of activation is this idea of, you know, you've got two ears and one mouth, use them in the proper ratio. You know, as you're developing communications plans, and so much internal comms at big companies tends to be, okay , here's the message, let's kind of interrupt the audience of employees with this message. And it misapprehends the workforce as kind of passively awaiting interruption when actually we know that degrades the employee experience significantly. So our practice of internal communications as part of activation generally leans heavily on both passive and active listening at higher frequencies, shorter intervals, lighter weight touch points . So that's one dimension of it. That can relate to any of the traditional ways that we do internal comms . So whether that's an executive speech at a town hall or an intranet redesign or an installation of digital signage or the work that happens around using collaborative tools like Yammer or Slack within an organisation. so all of that listening first kind of activity. Then introducing some big beautiful ideas. The second dimension of activation that we look at is digital transformation, which I know is a topic close to your heart. And there's two sides to that. There's the marketplace disruption that happens within pretty much every industry as you know, as the incumbents are challenged by new entrance because of how digital can change business models. So contending with the change that happens around that, but then also many companies are taking or in a moment of introducing a broad array of new technologies, you know, and whether that' something as "simple" as rolling out a mobile employee experience or something much more, let's say complicated like rolling out intelligent agents that might operate in a chat to answer questions for them. Those new methods of work, accommodating that kind of digital transformation as a point of employee activation that I think is absolutely critical. And then the last is we look at culture within organisations and the relationship between culture and brand. And you know, you have a real opportunity right now to create organizations that people want to feel like they want to be a part of because they total up to something greater than just my daily wage. And that idea of purpose led organisations of organisations that have a culture that is an attractor that is in and of itself a benefit to the employee to be a part of that. That is a very powerful place for activation. What are the behaviors that should or could emerge from the work that we do in that area? And so those three areas, that kind of artist, formerly known as internal comms , the digital transformation stuff and culture as brand, those are the three areas that we really look at as the points of activation. It can manifest in so many ways and that's what's kind of, I think very exciting about it.Andrew Grill:
The whole thing about culture and purpose, I covered that back in episode four we had Dom Price on from Atlassian and he spoke a lot about the future of work. And I think its's the three P's: people, place and purpose and we're told that millennials want a sense of purpose. That's important. One thing that struck me though when I joined IBM way back in 2013 I was struck that there and then were what they called the "social computing guidelines" essentially the social media policy. I understand you had a big hand in getting them developed and they were crowdsourced, but in the age of the employee advocate where people like you and I have a very strong external presence, do these policies need to be updated or are they now obsolete because everyone's an advocate or an influencer?Ethan McCarty:
I think it's a really great question and what we're finding with our clients is it goes a little bit industry by industry. I mean, you know, the work that we did with IBM and establishing the kind of rules and norms for employee use of social media was very much informed by the business model of the company. And the business model of IBM is, it's a knowledge company. We are going to have all this expertise and we're going to be able to implement it and we're going to have the best practitioners, so it made a lot of sense. It was very aligned with the business model to put up a blank Wiki and invite a bunch of people to write the guidelines, we wanted to encourage those behaviors in a fairly free and open and exploratory way because there would be benefit in being able to advise our clients on that. And so you have, as a result, even if you go look at those social computing guidelines today for IBM, they still are very, let's say permissive or encouraging of authentic employee advocacy. And the kind of rhetorical move that we made, and that I think is correct for a company that's in the services business, like IBM is to say your eminence in your field as a practitioner, if that's demonstrated, if we sort of highlight that, that accrues to the benefit of the IBM brand. And so it's very synergistic. However, you know, you have other organisations where that's just not the case. And in fact , in other industries, let's say organisations have to move with much greater care because of, well , not that we were careless at IBM, but like a different kind of care because they might be operating in a highly regulated environment like insurance or healthcare and so on. And we've worked with organisations in the insurance industry and in the healthcare industry where we've helped them to find their way for what's right to get their people talking about what makes it so great to work there. And then also set the rules of engagement for how we interact with customers in these spaces given the regulatory requirements. So you know, for example, an insurer in the United States while globally, but one operating in the United States has very specific record retention requirements, has very specific expectations set from a legal perspective on what they can and can't claim or offer. And so the behavior set has to be true to that. So we spend a lot time kind of working with companies to do exactly what you said, revising their social guidelines or social media guidelines in order to have a more contemporary disposition. And I think, you know, there are many companies that they more or less came up with, you know, blogging guidelines or social computing guidelines in 2008, they were kind of one word, don't just like don't get us in trouble. And what's interesting now is that you have, you know, the leadership of those companies who are engaging on LinkedIn or you know, or whatever, even a very prescribed way who are , they are actually out of compliance with their own policies. And I think some of this advocacy at the leadership level is helpful now in driving a necessity to change it so that deeper into organisations you can have authentic advocacy.Andrew Grill:
Brings me onto an interesting topic. We talked about eminence and the whole notion of advocacy, that leadership level, so where's the line between personal brand and company brand? I have a view on this and I've been in the middle of it a couple of times, where do you sit there?Ethan McCarty:
Well, for me personally, there is no line, as a founder and CEO the brand and me, we're very cozy. But I recognise that that's not the case for everybody. I think it ends up being a personal call, though I think the higher you are in an organisation's kind of leadership, in my estimation, it's incumbent on the leadership of organisations to associate themselves very publicly. It's not just a marketing tactic, but it's a signal of leadership. One of our clients is a company called PVH. They own well known brands, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Speedo and some heritage brands, they are really a great company and they've done a lot of work and we've had the privilege to help them with activating their employees around things that they know, that their employees care about and truing up the company's policies and support so that in the moment of advocacy, you don't feel like a shill. So we help them with a program called the PVH power players, which is a social media ambassadorship program. But even before that, if you look at the hashtag #wearePVH, you will find an extraordinary amount of employee advocacy around environmental issues, LGBTQ rights and pride , career opportunities at the company and so on. I mean, I think it's really phenomenal, and many of the people who are contributing to that, there are hourly workers that are retail positions and so on, but they, you know, it's like, it isn't, I don't think, you know, a job description line item for them to advocate. And yet that company has made the policy decisions to be the kind of company where if you feel passionately about those issues, the company's platform becomes your platform. And so as an advocate of LGBTQ rights or of environmental protection, it's actually a benefit to me as an employee there to to use the PVH platform to advocate for those issues. And I think that that's, to me that's the kind of new value exchange that has emerged where an organization, you know a big brand, you know multi, multi, multi million or billion dollar brand like PVH can confer this kind of authority and the employees can in return confer authenticity. That's the kind of sweet spot, if you will.Andrew Grill:
Well I think it's a value exchange and I often talk about the fact that when you go to work now you're kind of renting your brand to an organisation. You asked what my view was on personal versus company. I've got a little bit of a different attack because of my experience. So those listeners may know that back in Australia I worked for a couple of large Telcos, then I spent 12 years running six startups, then IBM. And of the 6 start-ups, there were two where I had some very difficult conversations with the founders because these were companies that were basically started from almost ground zero. They had no presence and I had this existing social media presence and like you I was an early adopter of Twitter and LinkedIn. So at some stage the founder would sit me down and say, Andrew, are you out there for your brand or our brand? And I said, I'm here for both. And that the problem was that eventually the company brand would start to be as large as mine and I might compete. When I joined IBM, there was no chance that I could ever be as big as the IBM brand. So there wasn't any sort of differential. But I suppose when you have a board and people that are seeing what you're doing publicly, they want to know that if you're out there speaking at an event or doing a blog post, it's not to promote Andrew Grill or Ethan is to promote the company. And I think there's a fine line there and I don't think any guideline could say you can or can't do that. What I want to talk about though is eminence because I think eminence is a little different from advocacy and I want you to either correct or confirm my view, I think eminence is kind of the gold standard. You've probably got 1% of people in your organization that are already eminent . The example is if you have a Nobel Peace prize, your peers think you're eminent and you are recognized globally, and I had this discussion recently with a professional services firm that was scratching their head. They're well established consulting company, they've got people that are eminent , that have their own podcasts, they do public speaking and the firm doesn't know what to do with them. And even at IBM we struggled, you had all these people, what do we do with them? The advocacy I think is probably broader. You want as many people as possible to advocate. But do you see also that eminence is that gold standard and you maybe only have a small percentage and if you coach them, mentor them, put a bit of advertising money behind them, they may be even more successful in spreading the message than the broad base.Ethan McCarty:
That's exactly right. And I think just going back a little bit to your earlier point about, you know, showing up with your network and what that means. I mean, I think that's a factor of eminence. You know, you can't, be eminent, without having networks that you work within and through and so on. There's definitely a tight correlation between those who are good at fostering network effects around their work and those who gain eminence. What we're seeing and what you a re experiencing there, particularly in the early days of, it was this emergent idea of network portability in relationship to work. This w as one of the various dimensions of asymmetry of power that's breaking down i n between, particularly knowledge workers a nd their employers. When I show up, I don't just show up with my skills and the hourly ability to do those skills or my expertise even and my ability to offer that understanding, but I show up with a network and that network is available to me and how much am I going to make it available to my employer is a question. And then when I leave, how much of that network growth if it has grown, belongs to the organisation, if you will, and what belongs to the person who's network it is. And I think to look at it through this kind of black or white lens of who owns what and who gets all the value I think misapprehends the opportunity.Andrew Grill:
Well, that's why I talk about renting, that basically while you're there for the two, five, seven years, you're working for it. There is a value exchange. I will do a great day's work, you'll give me a great day's pay, I will loan you my network, but you're just renting it because when I leave, I'm leaving with my brand intact and I move on to something else.Ethan McCarty:
So this idea of network portability is so important because it's the opposite of the tactic that most organisations have employed historically, which is network lockin . And historically it's been all right, come work for this company, we'll give you a set of sales leads, we'll give you a Rolodex, we'll give you access to the employee directory and if you leave, we're going to take all those things away from you. And so that becomes an incentive to stay and a disincentive to leave. And anybody who's a Facebook user, LinkedIn user or a Netflix watcher or whatever, you get what it means to have your network and your world of kind of all the things that you've tuned within it taken away from you. It's, it's not a very attractive proposition. However, I think this is going to play out differently or can potentially play out differently for big companies because no big company is big enough. Not even, you know, Walmart with you know, millions of employees, no company is big enough to say we're going to be the most valuable network of work and if you're a professional like we will be the most you know, conclusively. I think the strategic approach, these are the employee communications is to design your workplace and your value proposition of employment to be network permeable. You can bring your network and integrate your network with us and then when you go, if it's grown or improved or whatever, that's good for you. And that's good for us, so we're going to make it as easy to leave as it is to come. Whether you like it or no, that's happening within companies. Just to look at one particular or two particular platforms with Linkedin and with Slack, the global opportunity for networking with other professionals is pretty much unlimited and also you take it with you. So your ability to log into, you might get tossed out of a certain channel or something like that. Within Slack you also might have 50 different organizations that you're affiliated with through Slack and all of your connections, their professional connections and your ability to reach and reconnect with people might be reflected at this point in LinkedIn. And so there are these networks of professional life that are now so totally outside of the control of any one enterprise. I think you kind of have to, as a employer, designing a communication strategy, to try to circle the wagons, well, that has a very limited future.Andrew Grill:
Final question before I ask you for your three top tips for next week. At Integral [Communications] you also look at digital transformation, which is one of my pet's hot topics, what's the first step in getting your internally facing digital tools and platforms fit for purpose so employee voices can be heard?Ethan McCarty:
Well, I always think we got to start with listening. And in this case the listening is not just with your ears, but one of the things that we've done for a number of clients is an audit of the employee experience and the employee experience, not just through do they enjoy what's stocked in the pantry and that kind of thing. But what is the actual digital experience that people are having every day , with communication systems, with systems of authentication and identity, with their ability to collaborate with outside parties like clients or suppliers and so on. Let's take a look at that and see where people are today experiencing joy and where they're experiencing hardship. And one of the things that's kind of incredible and this goes back to this idea of what the digital workplace is. When I started doing employee communications years ago it was not unusual for us to deploy some kind of enterprise software that required hours of training, or a 20 minute video and step by step and all this kind of stuff. That's still the case at a lot of organisations and I think for very specific tasks , when there are tools that are very specific to an expert system that makes a lot of sense.Andrew Grill:
As this is the Practical Futurist podcast, what three things can listeners do next week to start an employee engagement program?Ethan McCarty:
Well, the very first thing is to start talking with employees. That might be all three, I'll see if I can come up with another two. But the first one is, if you're often headquarters, you're at a company that has a couple of hundred, couple thousand or a couple of hundred thousand people , you can even a very small organisations say nothing of those larger ones, start to have a rarefied experience of work that is very different from what most people are experiencing. The other thing I think we can do is we can really reinspect the kind of measures of our work. And you know, very often, folks who are in communications roles misapprehend the goal to generate awareness and awareness as I have now learned again and again is not a business outcome. It just isn't. And it is a necessary antecedent to generating business outcomes often. But what needle are we actually trying to move? If you can, as a professional in your organization identify what are some of the key pain points of the organization? Is it about security? What can we do? What behaviors can we change that relate to some of these measures? So is it about security? Is it about volume of sales or customer churn is it about being an innovative place where people can take some risks and try some ideas. If you can reorient around some of those observable behaviors that are actual outcomes and work back from there, that'd be a great thing to do starting tomorrow for anybody. The third one that people can do immediately is inspect their own practice of iteration sort of like planning and, and design time versus execution time and testing and learning time. This was one of the things in my last role at IBM that I learned and came to deeply appreciate. I ended up becoming a certified scrum product owner and managing a lab of agile teams that were on very short cycles, two weeks cycles. We would produce something, get it out the door and see how it performed, which was so different from how i'd spent most of the beginning, like more than half of my career, coming up with these big plans and doing these big launches that might take months or even over a year to do and just never went right. The world of digital environments has enabled us to de risk a lot of projects by getting smaller increments of value into the marketplace and seeing if they actually produce the value that we thought they would. That's something that we can all do tomorrow. And you could start by going ... it's not a communications document. It's a software development document, but go to the agile manifesto. It's a one page website. I think it's dot org actually agilemanifesto.org, and read that foundational document. It'll take you 10 minutes, but it might change the next 10 years of your life.Andrew Grill:
So there's a great tip for comms professionals, become a scrum certified person and run things in an agile way. Great tips, great discussion. Etha, where can people find out more about you and your work?Ethan McCarty:
Well, I'd love to connect with your listeners and thank you for the invitation to do so. On Twitter. I'm @EthanMcc. Happy to connect with you on Linkedin, and my company's website is integralcoms .com.Andrew Grill:
Ethan, great chat. Thanks so much for your time today.Ethan McCarty:
Andrew. Thank you very much, this is such a pleasure.Outro:
Thank you for listening to the Practical Futurist Podcast. You can find all of our previous shows at futurist.london, and if you like what you've heard on the show, please consider subscribing via your favorite podcast app so you never miss an episode. You can find out more about Andrew and how he helps corporates navigate a disruptive digital world with keynote speeches and c-suite workshops at futurist.london. Until next time, this has been the Practical Futurist Podcast.