Is your firm a data labyrinth?
The method you use to communicate and share data with staff could be impacting your efficiency, profitability, staff engagement and overall valuation.
When was the last time you got this response from a colleague when asking a question about a company policy or project?
“Jot that question down on an email for me and I will get back to you.”
Sound familiar? It’s often the polite corporate way of saying:
“I have no idea… I’m busy and hopefully you sending me an email will buy me some time to find the answer in the information labyrinth that is our firm. Please close the door on your way out.”
How, when and where you communicate key business information with staff is critical to the innovation culture of your firm, the engagement of your staff, the efficiency it can achieve, and the overall sustainable success of your business. Not rocket science stuff, yet I often encounter firms of all sizes who, despite knowing the benefits in utilising technology to make internal company information searchable and interactive, haven’t done anything about it. With every firm seemingly busily building their own client app (because they can), it appears that digitising the front client-facing end is taking precedence over the back-office end.
Advice firms work so hard to make sure their client information is stored properly to streamline the end-to-end advice process that often the aggregation and digitisation of business intellectual property from staff desktops, emails, post-it notes, PDFs, whiteboard scribblings, ring-bound manuals and brains is often overlooked or placed in an overflowing 'too-hard basket'.
What amplifies this problem is that today’s growing modern financial planning firm is fragmenting into multiple sites over several capital cities, offshore administration hubs, and local staff working from home in their pyjamas taking advantage of flexible work conditions. The days of a single business in a single location, Monday to Friday, where everybody knows everyone and everything, is quickly becoming a memory that we will one day explain to our grandkids. This fragmentation means the reliance on effective, searchable and interactive methods of communicating with staff and storing all company data is no longer a ‘nice to have’ – it is a ‘must have’.
Whilst some firms are well down the path of digitising their data and communications to allow for this fragmentation, many of these practices are facing a new challenge normally reserved for much larger businesses. How do they operate a physically fragmented firm without fragmenting a tight-knit company culture that was historically built working side by side in the trenches, fostering loyalty, excellence, camaraderie, humour and traditions? In this brave new world, the modern manager will not only need to embody a company culture with their own actions that staff can see, but also understand how to drive the same influence digitally for the staff they can’t see.
Not sure how your firm ranks in terms of internal communication and empowering staff to find answers quickly? Go and find the last person to join your company and ask them 'How easy has it been to find basic answers on how or why things are done without disturbing someone?' The reason a new staffer needs to be asked is because as time goes on we all (consciously and subconsciously) develop shortcuts and workarounds to get things done when information isn’t readily available. This normally manifests itself in having one or two 'go-to guys/girls' who seem to know everything from the fact that the default company font size is 11.5 to the fact that the firm's largest client, Mrs Davies, has three sugars in her tea. Great if these people exist in your organisation; not so great if they leave or if the vast majority of their time is spent answering the same questions over and over and over.
If the answer from your new start isn’t great, take notice. Depending on which study you read (believe), between 40 and 70 per cent of employees report that the way companies communicate with them directly affects work fulfilment and employee engagement. An engaged, informed workforce within a great culture is a huge competitive differentiator in an industry where good staff are harder to come by than good clients (a debate for another day).
According to financial planning business broker Chris Wrightson of Centurion Market Makers:
“If a potential buyer is interested in a vendor's business as a going concern (as opposed to the assets of the business, being primarily the clients) they will typically rely more on their own due diligence than an Information Memorandum supplied by a vendor. When a vendor can provide evidence that a central digital hub for all systems info, processes and communication is in place and up to date, it supports the claim of having an engaged team with reduced key-person dependency across the business. It can often assist in commanding a better valuation outcome than other like businesses due to the likelihood of improved business sustainability and reduced business risk."
So what is the solution? There are literally dozens of technology tools ranging from out-of-the-box intranets, custom-build intranets and enterprise social networks (group email is not a strategy) and combinations of the aforementioned that can have a huge impact on a firm establishing a framework to communicate effectively across a geographically fragmented operation. However, before jumping straight into solution mode, explore with your staff and leadership teams what their needs are and seek practical examples of scenarios where internal information was slow, difficult or impossible to find. Seek out your ‘go-to guys/girls’ and get them to track all the internal queries over the course of a month to get a picture of what can and should be digitised.
A company intranet is a great start. Whilst hardly new technology, conventional intranets can be hard to navigate, hard to collaborate with and don’t deliver a competitive advantage. To address this gap, the modern intranet has evolved and can be combined with Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) technology to deliver a connected user experience that today’s workforce demands. When combined with a structured internal communication program (that includes effective staff meetings, regular one-on-one catch-ups and team sessions), an effective framework can be achieved.
A good end-to-end corporate intranet should have the following general attributes:
• Directory (staff listing, including skills, experience, training and activity status)
• Content (policies, procedures, guides, training material, induction programs)
• Communication (corporate news, strategy announcements, upcoming events, mandatory reading, problem alerts, procedure change notifications)
• Activity (leave submission, leave balance checking, expense management, resource booking, ticket raising)
• Collaboration (project wikis, team wikis, q&a, chat and polls)
• Culture (social calendars, company milestone timelines, personal milestones/achievements, photos and philanthropic activity)
A good intranet should also:
• provide a single hub source of all your training material
• be a place that staff want to log into, and not consider it a burden to engage with.
• accelerate knowledge sharing across the business
• better leverage employees' knowledge
• be simple to maintain and administrate
• be logically laid out and as ‘Google-esque’ to search as possible
If you find yourself handing a new staff member a ring-bound folder on their first day, or even worse, nothing at all, maybe 2016-17 should be the year where you build an internal platform that caters to a team eager to be engaged, and craving easier access to information that will enhance the speed and quality of what they are capable of delivering.
Michael Dwyer is the director of financial consulting firm Plannertech. Before establishing Plannertech, he was the chief operating officer of non-aligned financial services firm Stanford Brown.
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