Among the many misunderstandings that may slow adoption of new practices and tools, there is the fear communication managers may have of what is often presented as a new freedom of speech for employees.
Nothinb but logical : the role of a communication department is to spread the corporate message and avoid any kind of interference. The fact employees could speak spontaneously is something that is neither expected nor conceivable and that is the incarnation of the worse kind of interference.
Being interviewed about this issue a few weeks ago, I tried to dispel what is, according to me, a pure misunderstanding.
I think that a mistake is being made on both the notion of communication and the context of the so-called freedom of speech.
The purpose of communication departments are is corporate communication. The company’s word. And most often, political messages?
Employee’s communication, as envisaged in an enterprise 2.0 or a service oriented organization, is mainly utilitarian, functional. The purpose is not to deliver any message, it’s to send a “social signal” in an operational context, rather something like “I did…”, “I need…”, “who knows…”, “who did already try / experience…”, the related answers and all what is about contents co-creation as it’s always been the case when teams have to produice documents together.
In brief, it’s about two radically opposite kind of communication and, unless you consider that a conversation between two workers about “do you know where is the screwdriver” can be destabilizing enough to needÂ the corporate imprimatur, there is nothing dangerous for the organization.
Two other situations may be taken into account : employees hijacking corporate tools and the case of a company using social tools to start a conversation with its employees on a very sensitive issue.
By experience I can tell the first situation is conceptually possible but I never had the occasion to witness such things. I think the reason is obvious : employees haven’t waited for web 2.0 to have “incorrect” conversations and words. It always happend by word of mouth, by email, by means allow them to control their audience. Never with tools that can allow the company to identify the message and its author. What I’ve been seeing for years is that employees are using internal web 2.0 tools to promote themselves, show what they can do, show their best,Â be the one that bring solutions, never to be seen as the ones who have a negative attitude. Of course, at the beginning, companies try to prevent this kind of things from happening, but, quickly, they realize that the point is more about making people participate more, not refraining them from doing so. Slips are management issues, not tool issues.
The second is the consequence of a corporate decision, with a known purpose, what implies that receiving a negative feedback in the conversation is accepted. Something that is never pleasant but is sometimes necessary to make the organization progress. It’s the only case when employee’s speech on internal social tools may have a negative impact on the corporate climate. But such topics will never emerge if the company didn’t start the discussion itself, so it’s up to communication manager to make things according to what they are ready to accept. A last point : even if this kind of situation, people tend to be positive and never criticize too much, even when companies expect them to tell what they really feel. They really don’t want to let any visible negative trace.
So, the so-called freedom of speech doesn’t have the same meaning for employees on their intranet than for internauts on the web. It’s about exchanges that help help getting things done, and not about taking a stand or delivering a kind of “political” message.