Almost every single director or chairman maintains to people outside the company that their employees are key to the success of their enterprise. But sadly, behind closed doors, things are often completely different – as the experts at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Marketing, Logistics and Company Planning, which is based at Pforzheim University, know all too well. Sometimes people hardly talk to one another, and if they do, they switch into army general mode. “We constantly have to ask ourselves why these managers, who are intelligent and clearly successful bosses, just don’t do more to look after their capital, their workers,” says Professor Uwe Dittmann, director of the Transfer Center. “Here of all places, interaction between people should be automatic. Far from it – it’s actually the opposite. And the more time people invest agreeing on things with workers, the more they expect back from them.” To identify the strengths and weaknesses of a company, the Steinbeis experts in Pforzheim have developed a tool called dialog-based communication analysis (DCA). It involves some highly versatile methods.
The DCA can be used to observe internal or external communication at companies. It is particularly good at looking into all kinds of business processes – for example to get under the skin of a bad working environment. On one project, a client turned to the Steinbeis Transfer Center after noticing that the results of the annual employee satisfaction survey were gradually getting worse and worse. The brief for Steinbeis was to analyze internal communication and identify the reasons for the negative feedback. Another challenge would be to introduce a systematic change and improvement process, and to introduce measures to improve employee satisfaction.
To find out what areas in particular needed most urgent attention, it does not necessarily make sense to conduct a survey. Employees typically know what they are expected to answer, and the results are often superficial generalizations, which are of no use. So it makes more sense to try role-playing and to ask people to walk you through situations involving specific departments or target groups. People find it difficult to put on a brave face; in fact, they do not hold back and show you exactly what really is going on: “I’m telling you, this honestly does happen here!” Using this form of communication can work on any level of the hierarchy, under one condition: Don’t have people at different levels of the company in the same role-play. The DCA technique is not cast in stone, but it provides a useful template that can be adapted to the specific issues facing the company without missing out any of the core constituents. Long-term success comes when employees see and sense for themselves that the measures introduced are meant to last.
The dialog-based communication analysis carried out for the client by the Steinbeis Transfer Center took place in four stages. To start the process, key issues were analyzed, as part of a briefing session with the company directors. This was to make a rough sketch of the project priorities. Next, the team captured the areas that needed addressing in order to work out what the actual problems were. This highlighted initial options to address the core problems. The next step was to hold a workshop with selected members of staff. At this point it was also important that everybody was at the same level of the hierarchy. The participants started with a role-play to show their take on the problem area. The moderators documented key statements. Then people wrote their thoughts on flash cards to go on a pin board – a technique known by some as a metaplan. Once the participants’ ideas were on the cards and for all to see on the board, they were discussed, placed in clusters, and ranked in terms of priority. Before translating ideas into actions, a concept needed to be developed based on the results of the workshop. So next, a pool of possible solutions was worked up with the client company. The aim at this point was to not overlook opportunities presented by working with external partners – their advantage is that they have no history with the company so they approach things without preconceptions, a factor that positively influences acceptance.
The Steinbeis Team successfully developed a variety of possible ways forward for the customer. The key recommendations included tips on how to improve staff motivation, successful conflict management, treating others with respect, ways to stay in touch with people, and new ways – tangible and otherwise – to reward people.