Improving the Quality of Organizational Decisions and Accelerating Their Time of Implementation: An
Riportiamo un articolo di Toni Muzi Falconi sul ruolo strategico delle relazioni pubbliche.
da www.newcommreview.comThe Argument
If I had ten savvy CEOs from the private, public and social sectors of the economy around a table and, at a certain point of our conversation, I asked them:
"Amongst the following three challenges you face today, which, in your opinion, is the one that deserves your priority attention?"
... and the three challenges were:
- Identify, attract, retain and capitalize talent;
- Improve the quality of management decisions and accelerate their time of implementation;
- Effectively integrate the best of technology into day-to-day activities...
...which of the three do you believe would receive the most points and which the least?
I have tried this test three times on different occasions and in different countries in recent months, and the results have been always the same. The third challenge is always last, the first comes in second and the second choice, is always selected as the highest priority.
In short, I have reason to believe that to "improve the quality of management decisions and accelerate their time of implementation" is at least more important than the other two and possibly, today's single most relevant challenge to organizational leadership.
Let us investigate why this is so today, and was probably not so ten years ago. In my view, the fundamental reason is that in this last decade society at large has sparked a new pervasive activity amongst an increasing number of relevant subjects, which may be defined as 'participation in the decision-making process of organizations' in which these subjects are conscious of holding a stake, either because the organization causes consequences on them or vice-versa.
From a more general perspective, sociologists suggest that intermediate bodies in society -- from political parties to public institutions, from banks to investment consultants, from distributive channels to other areas of professional or commercial intermediation -- have greatly suffered from this widespread push toward direct relationships between stakeholders and public, private and social sector organizations. This dis-intermediation process has resulted in strong pressures on organizational leadership and on its traditional and normal day-to-day processes of decision-making. Moreover, another significant contributor is the fact that, even more than making individuals think that they are similar, the current communication-driven process of globalization has evidenced how diverse each of us is in respect to others, and accentuated our desire to make these diversities publicly detectable.
Therefore the dilemma facing organizational leadership in a global market which constantly accelerates its competitive dynamics is to produce better decisions in a shorter time-frame, while, at the same time stakeholders are increasingly raising their expectations to have a say in that organization's decisions and contribute to the inevitable delay of their implementation. This in turn implies that if organizations only listen (lip-service-style) to stakeholder expectations (and not many do), but fail to make the effort to understand, interpret and integrate those expectations into their decision making processes, there is an added high risk of paralysis-by-analysis.
Any organizational function that can suggest operative measures to accelerate decision-making processes, while taking into consideration the expectations of stakeholders, will inevitably raise the quality of those decisions. Also, those stakeholders whose expectations are taken into consideration will support the implementation of those decisions or, at the very least, reduce their opposition, thus accelerating the process, while greatly contributing to an intelligent mapping of the priority issues of concern to both internal and external stakeholders, which need to be constantly monitored by the organization.
As much as this argument may sound rational, there are many caveats to consider, even before investigating how to operatively approach it. The first and foremost is that stakeholders naturally tend to express attitudes and expectations that are not necessarily consistent with the interests of the organization, and that neither the interests of the organization (in the rare case in which these are clearly defined and stated) nor the conflicting interests of stakeholder groups, are always consistent with the public interests. Organizations need to take this into consideration because they are often controlled by laws, regulations or other constraints, or because it is clear that should the organization decide one way or the other, there is always the risk of inducing a new law, a new regulation or a new constraint which will again delay or impede a decision's operational implementation.
The argument therefore is that by integrating the more advanced management theory as it relates to decision-making and operational processes, and the more advanced public relations theory, as it relates to the practice of a global model based on generic principles and specific applications, it is possible to develop a more effective approach to face the challenge with a comprehensive methodology that allows organizational leadership to improve the quality of its decisions and accelerates their operative times of implementation.
If this argument is sound, the public relations profession will have found at least one good reason to attract the attention of organizational dominant coalitions, and this would be a major breakthrough for a profession which has certainly increased in relevance, at least as much as it has attracted social and management criticisms for the (mal) practices it often adopts to pursue organizational objectives.
A possible process (1)
If one takes a systemic-and-relationship-based view of the organization, a necessary pre-phase for getting ready to tackle a decision-making process, is to be clear about the general goals the organization intends to pursue (not only among the organization's leadership but also, increasingly, among other internal and external stakeholders). It so happens that at a certain moment, different subjects performing different roles (investors, management, employees), decide to join forces and accomplish a specific common aim and, while in bureaucratic terms this is usually reflected in the statute of the organization, in a more sophisticated language, it is often expressed in a mission statement: "Who am I, what am I, what do I do." It is generally accepted that whoever I am or whatever I do, just by my very existence, I produce consequences on others (active stakeholders); and if I also clarify who and where I want to be in the next three to five years, I will have also defined a vision statement. The pursuit of this vision (called strategy) will inevitably create consequences on other subjects who are not necessarily aware of it, nor necessarily conscious of the organization's existence, or even particularly interested in discourse (potential stakeholders).
Finally, this envisioning process (as it is sometimes called) transits through at least another step: "Which values, rules and behaviors does the organization pledge to respect while moving from mission to vision?" To implement its general strategy, the organization's leaders decide which specific objectives are better suited to ensure that transition from mission to vision, also by considering alternative options (if...then...), and how it will go about pursuing those objectives in the quickest and most effective manner. Before making those decisions, a wise organization will move out of itself' and listen to those active stakeholders, while attempting to understand and subsequently interpret their attitudes, expectations and opinions on each of the potential options. And this, for two already-mentioned, rational reasons, here reframed in the effort to make the process as clear as possible:
1. In listening to stakeholders, the organization may decide which, if any, of their expectations are to be integrated into the final decision, without necessarily and/or abruptly modifying the specific objective and, in most cases, improving the quality of that specific decision. Should the organization realize that this can or should not be done because those expectations may not be integrated without abruptly modifying the very objective, then it will need to decide on whether to step back and rethink its options, or proceed in any case. This dilemma falls into the managerial principle of responsibility: i.e., it is up to the organizational leadership to make the final decision, and this is one of the reasons why that function is compensated;
2. If the organization decides to integrate at least some of those expectations, it is only rational to presume that those stakeholder groups will support the operational pursuit of those objectives, or at least will reduce their hostility, thus allowing the organization to accelerate the implementation process of the single decision. What's more, the organization will also have a clearer idea of the resistance it will encounter from those stakeholder groups whose expectations it will have decided not to integrate into the decision, thus gaining more lead time to prepare to bypass, overcome or deal with the obstacles more effectively than if it had not anticipated them in some way. This also helps explain the apparent paradox that if one listens to stakeholders before deciding, as much as this might improve the quality of the decision, it is bound to cause a delay, and this inevitably defeats the purpose. However, the fact is that organizations already, at least formally, listen to many more stakeholder groups today than they used to listen to, even recently: if the process is well-refined and well-conceived, then time will also be saved in this decision-making phase and, rather than only paying lip-service to stakeholder engagement practices, the organization will have received a detectable value from it: the improvement of the quality of the decision as well as its quicker implementation.
It's relevant at this point to underline that it is the active stakeholder who decides to be one, and not the organization who decides that someone is an active stakeholder. The implication is that the organization must make the effort to listen to all active stakeholders, and not only those it wants to listen to. The risk of doing the contrary (as so often happens) is for the organization to mirror itself and to listen only to those who confirm its opinions.
This, once again, does not mean that the organization's listening necessarily implies that the decisions about its objectives will be adapted to accommodate all of the stakeholders' expectations. In the end, organizational leadership must exercise its discretionary power of decision-making (the principle of responsibility), but this power can only be effectively exercised if all active stakeholders have been listened to.
Thus, at least from this perspective, it is highly relevant for the organization to carefully identify who the active stakeholders are, and to constantly update this active and essential database. One must specify that while all other influential publics described below are 'situational' in the sense that they change according to each specific objective, the organization is attempting to achieve, this first active stakeholder' group is 'a fact' 'a given' and composed of subjects who have an "institutional interest" in the organization and therefore demand and require constant dialogue and confrontation.
The Role of Public Relations
But who in the organization should be entrusted with this listening, understanding and interpreting process, and how should this function operate effectively? There are at least two organizational options: diffusive and/or centralized:
-One is to distribute this specific responsibility to each manager of the organization's principal functions, i.e., the chief financial officer listens to stakeholders from the financial community, the human resources director listens to employees or their representatives, the marketing function to distributors and customers, the purchasing one to suppliers and so on.
-The other is to entrust one horizontal function with this task, obviously to be performed in cooperation with each of the vertical functions.
Whichever the choice, it seems rational to collect and store this wealth of information somewhere centrally in the organization, as it often happens that many of the emerging attitudes and expectations are horizontal and cut across more than one function. In a complex organization, the second (centralized) option is more desirable, because it at least ensures that the process is activated by adopting comparable and homogenous methods, and therefore results are likely be more coherent and comprehensible to the dominant coalition, which is the one who ultimately needs to make the final and specific decision.
If all stakeholder groups of an organization are carefully mapped according to each specific objective, it is very likely that the public relations function (communications, public affairs, external, institutional relations or whatever one prefers to call it) emerges as the function that is normally entrusted with organizational relationships with the maximum number of stakeholder groups, and therefore becomes the natural candidate for this essential pre-decision monitoring activity. This, of course, may vary from organization to organization according to their corporate culture, tradition and the personalities of the managers involved. But, in most cases, at least with regard to relationships with the media, the public policy process, the local community and other opinion leaders and influencers (such as activist groups or industry associations, the PR function is entrusted to manage the relationship. And, in some cases, internal, financial, environmental, as well as (but mostly in non-consumer goods organizations) marketing relations are also added on as extended competencies to the same function.
The Process (2)
But how will the public relations function effectively listen to stakeholder expectations, understand them and interpret the findings to improve the quality of the organization's decisions? This is what the more progressive scholars describe as the true strategic function of public relations in an organization, called the reflective/reflexive role, which in turn inevitably integrates (as we will see) with the educative role. This process has traditionally been part of the core professional competencies of public relations (also known and described as environmental scanning, boundary spanning and issue management).
There are, of course, many diverse ways to listen effectively, and a competent professional uses all of them according to the required time frame, the available resources and the relative specific relevance of each single issue and each of the involved stakeholder groups. Ranging from an attentive desk background analysis; to the collection of direct and indirect positions expressed by the interested stakeholder groups on comparable issues; to the attentive study of the identity and the influencing agents of that same group; to one-with-one and/or one-with-few face-to-face, telephone or digital dialogue/conversation; to an attentive identification of the group's alliances and coalitions; to the adoption of participant observation; the application of network analysis techniques; to actual interviews; focus groups; on or off-line questionnaires; applications of tarot (trend analysis by relative opinion testing) and/or Delphi predictive models, there is a very wide range of quali/quantitative research paraphernalia. All of these may be used, and public relations professionals, if they are to play a strategic role in their organizations, need to be savvy on how to adapt them to very specific, contingent and often urgent needs.
But, the mere act of listening does not necessarily imply the understanding of what one is listening to. In fact, and not only in the marketing arena, much research is conducted by organizations for two underlying reasons:
1. To confirm existing management opinion. In this case it is likely that sample groups and questionnaires are, more often than not, structured in order to pursue exactly that objective, even if this it not always overtly stated;
2. To understand how the organization could be more effective in crafting its communication contents, programs and tools to better induce receivers to change their attitudes, opinions, behaviors or decisions, rather than (and also) to change itself.
It then seems clear that, in the case of listening before decisions are defined, the organization needs to adapt existing research tools to align with a true understanding of stakeholder expectations relevant to the specific potential consequences of each different decisional option. In many cases this will lead the organization to change itself, rather than to only to adapt its communication to stakeholder needs.
This implies that the public relations function not only supports organizations in modifying the external scenario by influencing stakeholders. (This is the most commonly understood and more operative role.) But also, and perhaps more importantly, the role of public relations is to support organizations in modifying themselves by correctly interpreting stakeholder expectations. (This is the least commonly understood and more strategic role.)
According to many prominent psychiatrists and philosophers (the late Franco Basaglia and the philosopher Aldo Rovatti), to properly understand the real expectations of others, the listener must step back from its pre-formed knowledge and competence base, only to return to that same base when it interprets the contents collected in the act of listening. This 'back and forth' motion helps reduce, dilute and possibly dissolve those typical embedded and preconceived notions the listener naturally attributes to the group being listened to, and which inevitably filter the true meaning of collected contents. It is of course only natural and necessary that these layers of notion, as well as others, will also influence the interpretation of the contents, but the contents themselves need as much as possible to be listened to with the least interference.
The subsequent interpreting phase implies instead that the public relations professional, fully aware of not being an internal stakeholder ombudsman (the so-called Stockholm syndrome by which the public relations function is often reputed as being 'on the other side' and therefore not apt to be sitting at the decision-making table), but simply and only a peer member of the dominant coalition, thus fully representing its interests, will rationalize and argue to other management peers the consequences the organization will induce in and/or receive from the complex mix of different and often divergent stakeholder interests, actions and reactions.
The Necessary Competencies
One might at this point legitimately ask, "Are public relations professionals sufficiently competent to perform this function?" Admittedly, not many are, but there is a good chance that they will be more horizontally competent than other vertical functions, as well as more vertically competent than other horizontal functions; and that if organizational leadership explicitly places a premium on those competencies, these will improve more quickly in public relations professionals than in others, as these are more naturally and supposedly accustomed to effectively govern stakeholder relationship systems, because of the very nature of their profession.
One needs to reiterate that this reflective/reflexive role needs to be activated in tandem with the specific function more directly responsible for managing relationships with that single stakeholder group. This is not only essential to be better able to listen, understand and interpret but also to better integrate into the more general strategic role that public relations should play in an organization, an educative role that is highly complementary to the former. Basically, no central relationship or communications function, however competent and powerful, can hope to manage more than 15/20% of an organization's overall communicative and relational behaviors, and all attempts to centralize the control of these organizational behaviors has not only failed, but also frustrated others, because it is more and more frequently recognized that heads of managerial functions cannot effectively perform if they are not empowered to manage their own stakeholder relationship systems and, on the other side, no contemporary manager in charge of whatever function may effectively operate if not communicatively competent.
In turn, while centrally performing the reflective/reflexive role in cooperation with the specifically competent vertical management function, the public relations function will also be able to assist these peers by providing them with adequate resources, competences and tools to enable a more effective governance of their respective relationship systems. A further organizational added value deriving from this educative role is that it indirectly empowers the public relations function with the necessary monitoring and information apparatus to allow a fourth leg (following the now well established financial, environmental and social ones) to its constant corporate social responsibility reporting table, specifically focused on the organization's overall communicative behaviors which, for many reasons, has recently become a highly relevant feature of organizational impact on sustainable development.This managerial shift of the public relations function will lead the organization to bridge rather than to buffer relationships with influential publics.
The Process (3)
Having, at this stage, contributed to improving the organization's decision making process by activating, in an integrated way, both the reflective/reflexive and the educative roles specific to the public relations function, the next step in harnessing and fully exploiting the potential value of this function relates to the acceleration of the implementation process of those improved decisions. Active stakeholders (subjects who are aware of, who create consequences and/or receive consequences from the organization as it pursues its goals) have already been carefully identified, and with these the principal communications format becomes logical direct, pull' dialogue and negotiation, based on specific to-the-point contents, with little if any need to invest time/resources in attracting their already certified interest and attention, nor in employing persuasive messaging options.
However, as the organization's general goals need to be segmented into defined and specific operational objectives in parallel with those active stakeholders, there will be other influential publics who by their attitudes, opinions, behaviors or decisions, can 'make or break' the achievement of each one of those objectives. This second group of influential publics is formed by what one might call 'potential stakeholders': subjects who are not aware of the organization's goals, but if they were, would be eager to transit to the first group, thus enlarging its ranks, because of the consequences the organization would produce on them and/or vice versa. It is up to the organization (as well as, in some cases, its active stakeholders) to inform these potential stakeholders, and for the organization to utilize a 'push' and 'persuasive' communicative format. Timing here is essential because the organization needs to decide:
- When is the right time to inform these potential stakeholders?
- Do I inform them all, or only the ones who I presume might become my allies?
- If I do not inform those whose expectations may contrast with my objectives, how will they behave when they will inevitably acknowledge them?
All these decisions are included in what has already been defined as the principle of managerial responsibility and the public relations function's competence, knowledge and relationship network that will come in very handy to make the most effective decisions.
By adopting the issue management methodology, which derives from the public relations body of knowledge, it now becomes imperative for the organization to be aware of internal and external issues (economic, social, cultural, technological), which can influence each of those objectives. Real life relationship systems between organizations and their influential publics do not happen in an experimental vacuum but are constantly influenced by the dynamics of other variables (issues), some of which may be influenced by conscious and programmed relational and communicational initiatives activated by the organization.
This is the typical professional competence of an issue analyst (a specific public relations role). The analyst will attentively identify and rationally list all potential issues, selecting those valued to be most important for the desired outcome, and at the same time subject to being influenced by the organization. And this, in turn, implies identifying those issue influencers who are either direct protagonists of the process and/or other subjects who influence them. So, in addition to active and potential stakeholders, we have now identified a third segment of influential publics. In most cases, the organization relates and communicates with these stakeholders, at least in a first phase, in a push and persuasive format, as they are not necessarily expected to be either aware of, nor particularly interested in, the organization. Once their attention and/or interest is roused by the organization's public relations function then it will, again, be important to decide whether it is wise to make the effort to ease their transition to the active/potential stakeholder group. This is not always advisable, unless one foresees that those issue influencers will be such for a long time and not only relevant to a very specific and time-limited objective. The public relations function, on the basis of this analysis, will promptly adopt its well-established and consolidated dialogue and content-based relationship competencies, as well as its persuasive message based communication ones, both aimed at accelerating the dynamics of the issues which might support the defined objectives or, alternatively, in delaying those same dynamics for issues which are believed to delay the implementation of pursued objectives.
The Process (4)
During this phase of the process, it is essential to introduce an ongoing mechanism to evaluate and measure communications and relational effectiveness in order to be able to quickly and flexibly adapt to and/or introduce new variables which could be determined by the constant and rapid change of both the internal or external stakeholder expectations and scenarios. This implies that contents prepared for issue influencers and opinion leaders (subjects believed to have the power of influencing end users), as well as for end-users, and the segmentation process of an organization's influential publics is thus concluded. It is always important to remember that active and potential stakeholders may also be issue influencers or opinion leaders, and that all of these are almost always also end-users and must be constantly evaluated and measured by adopting evaluation tools normally related to outputs (quantitative), out-takes (quantitative) and outcomes (quali- quantitative); as well as pre testing a representative sample of all the above mentioned segments of influential publics organizational objective by organizational objective, using as KPIs the perceived familiarity of the content and credibility of the source, and in some instances, also the credibility of the content (this because if the latter scores a higher ratio than the credibility of the source. There is an evident need to reduce communication fluxes; while if the contrary is true, i.e., credibility of source scores higher than credibility of content, there is an evident opportunity to increase those fluxes. In parallel, it is also essential to pre-test the same sample on the perceived quality of existing relationships (outgrowths) by using as KPIs perceived trust, commitment, control mutuality and satisfaction, all strictly referred to the specific relationship.
Both of these dimensions, related to content and to relationships, will allow the organization to define and decide specific communication and relationship objectives to be pursued relevant to each operational objective. This will allow the organization to evaluate the full effectiveness, value and contribution of the public relations function both to the improvement of the decision-making process and to the acceleration of its operative implementation.
It becomes obvious that the actual roll-out of the communications and relational initiatives induced by the process so far described, be enacted by the public relations function in the attempt to pursue defined objectives based on results received from the pre-tests; and that a subsequent post-test, performed on a similar but not identical sample (to avoid the pre-test exercising an undue influence on results, which could imply that half of the sample be different from the pre-test one, also to identify the actual impact of that very pre-test) will indicate the value and measure of effectiveness of the whole process.
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Toni Muzi Falconi