Fans of Boris Groysberg’s brilliant and data-rich Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance (Princeton University Press), which I reviewed for s+b as 2010’s best business book on human capital, may be surprised by the nuts-and-bolts approach of the Harvard Business School professor’s latest effort. But what Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations, which is coauthored by former Fast Company editor Michael Slind, lacks in academic heft and quantitative scope, it more than makes up for in practical relevance.
Talk, Inc.’s guiding premise is that the strength and consistency of an organization’s culture can be judged by the quality of its communications. The “organizational conversation” not only manifests the culture, it also plays a key role in shaping it. Talk, therefore, is a powerful tool for creating and promulgating more powerful and more aligned cultures.
Groysberg and Slind distinguish organizational conversation from corporate communications, noting that the latter function grew out of the command-and-control model and served in part as a means of controlling talk. They note that people today require a less hierarchical approach, one that acknowledges and supports how information actually circulates through a company. Leaders can’t control this kind of talk, but they can engage in it, and in the process unleash an energy greater than any leader can command.
The authors believe that effective organizational conversation always involves a combination of four elements: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. They fully describe each element, and provide case studies and actionable takeaways.
Intimacy means that talk takes place face-to-face: informally, between two people or in small groups. Leaders who communicate intimately do so by talking to people at every level of the organization in ways that are personal, authentic, and transparent with regards to intent. They address real concerns in direct language that avoids euphemism and condescension. Because it is rooted in relationships, intimate talk demands that leaders “get real,” meaning that they have to listen and to be willing to examine their own underlying motives and presumptions about the people with whom they are engaging.
Interactivity means that talk is two-way: there is a give-and-take. Profoundly social by nature, interactive talk both elicits responses and provides a means for participants to pass on information. The authors note that interactivity is well served by social media platforms, which facilitate and sometimes mandate two-way communication. But they caution that such technologies are tools that, if misused, can just as easily be counterproductive. Chat windows, for example, are highly ineffective at generating interactive communication because participants perceive one another as “people in a box” rather than partners in an authentic conversation.
Groysberg and Slind offer Cisco as a robust example of a company that successfully uses technology to keep the talk flowing and the culture coherent. Cisco’s development and use of TelePresence — which simulates in-person meetings by beaming high-definition, life-sized video feeds between locations — is especially instructive. To create it, the company’s engineers extensively studied the conditions that spur interactivity in videoconferencing sessions. They discovered that scale is critical — an on-screen person needs to appear at 80 percent or more of his or her size to spur active engagement. Exchanges at eye level and unobstructed views of body language are also essential.
Inclusion means relying chiefly on employees’ talk to generate ideas and content. “If you let them build it, they will come,” write Groysberg and Slind, who then provide dozens of examples for putting this principle to effective use, focusing in particular on the EMC Corporation. When the data storage giant’s leaders needed supporting content for their submission to an annual Best Companies to Work For survey, they didn’t ask corporate communications to prepare the materials. Instead, they community-sourced it by putting the request out on their intranet. Employees presented and documented their own experiences, posting photos and videos and speaking through blogs, and EMC used their content to support the submission.