As the founder of ClarityDW, communication advisor to the UK government and the University of Bristol, the co-founder of Intranetizen, and the former Senior Manager of Digital Communications at Coca-Cola, Jonathan Phillips is a recognized global expert in digital workplaces and intranets. 

 

Chuck Gose: So I know it’s in somewhat dispute if we met years ago, but we can confirm that we did get to see each at smilelondon a few weeks back. Was that your first time attending?

Jonathan Phillips: We have 200 witnesses to our meeting (your honor). I think I’ve been to 5 smilelondons now in various capacities and I’ve always found them to be engaging meetings. I think I showcased Coca-Cola’s mobile intranet at Smile first.…in 2012 maybe? I daresay Marc Wright (the organiser) will remember!

CG: It was only the third comms event I’ve attended in London and the first in several years. It was like a super fun IC family reunion there.

JP: That’s the vibe. It’s great to see fellow IC professionals and learn what they’re up to. On stage, backchannels, and twitter—it’s a lively event.

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CG:
Lively is a good word to describe it. Did you have any big takeaways this year?

JP: I really enjoy the case studies and in particular, the growth of the out-of-the box solutions.

It’s fantastic to see real life implementations and learn from those who deliver. Pandora and Bank of England stand out for me for different reasons. Pandora had a neat ⅓ marketing, ⅓ training, ⅓ platform budget spend, and BoE had a sweet Beezy implementation. I’m not sure if the ⅓ x 3 model works for every organisation but I liked their ambition and the thinking.

CG: And it’s simple enough math for even communicators to handle. Kidding.

JP: [laughs]. Couldn’t be easier.

"There’s an assumption that big companies have big budgets and can somehow deliver the impossible, but... I’d say it was down to vision, people and sheer effort. "

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CG: You mentioned Marc Wright, the founder of simplycommunicate and smilelondon, earlier. I asked him this question and I’m curious what your answer is. Why does London seem to be a hub of IC activity, unlike any other city?

JP: Ah that’s a great question. There are a few such hubs around the world, possibly each with a slightly different IC lean. London for IC certainly, but I should also mention Aarhus/Denmark due to the work that Janus and Kurt do there. James Robertson in Sydney too, of course.

But London is a huge commercial centre that’s also blessed with some strong intranet, social and IC leaders. Bring those together and you’ve got yourself a fine community and centre of excellence.

CG: Marc provided a different spin. He said he believed it was based largely on geography, where you have a big city, like you said, but then an entire country that’s seemingly centered on it as well.

JP: As someone who doesn’t live in London, I’m duty bound to say ‘Other UK cities exist’! The reality is that with 8 million people and with huge trade, London sucks the expertise in. I’m there every week without fail.

CG: Where are you based?

JP: I live in Bristol which is 100miles to the west of London, but with most of my clients in London, I travel a lot; I’m up and down the motorway pretty regularly.

"We’re blessed with an incredible array of tools and channels but we’ve got to help employees understand what’s best to use when. Like instruments in an orchestra, each tool has a tune or purpose."

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CG: Of course. I’m familiar with Bristol from my Rolls-Royce days.

You mentioned Coca Cola, where you spent roughly 20 years of your career in a variety of roles. Do you miss parts of it?

JP: I do miss the team. There are some great people in the organisation and I miss the feeling that we could move mountains if necessary. It’s a great brand, a great organisation and has great people. People know Coke. It’s not like I ever had to explain who I worked for!

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CG: And what were some of your comms accomplishments there—things you’re proud of?

JP: I’m extremely proud of our intranet work and how we created a platform that became a critical communication channel for the organisation. That took some focus. It took the combined efforts of IC, with IT and HR to create an intranet that really worked for the company. I’m proud that we were recognised as thought-leaders and a company to follow for this kind of work.

I think it’s worth saying that there’s an assumption that big companies have big budgets and can somehow deliver the impossible, but I think if I was to distil our efforts, I’d say it was down to vision, people and sheer effort.

CG: And effort is so underappreciated. Like you said, people think “big company, big budget” but it takes way more than that to be successful.

JP: It does. I often reflect on the real sense of team we created there. A place where language, culture, geography, and function didn’t really matter. We were all focused on creating a great intranet and I’m proud of what we achieved.

"Anonymous surveys really help you understand the true reality inside a company."

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CG: And about a year ago, you left Coke and started ClarityDW. I’m going to assume the DW stands for “digital workplace” but what’s the intent behind the “Clarity” part?

JP: There are two meanings behind ‘Clarity’.

First, it’s a word I often use with clients when we look at their Digital Workplace. We’re blessed with an incredible array of tools and channels but we’ve got to help employees understand what’s best to use when. Like instruments in an orchestra, each tool has a tune or purpose. Don’t use the trumpet for the timpani line! Clarity is what I believe employees need and that’s what I aim to deliver.

The second reason is much more personal. My eldest daughter is named Clara and Clarity comes from the same source—clear. So I’m taking her with me in that way.  (Obviously this is just fine until my youngest daughter learns to read…)

"Digital Workplace: The tools and systems, company provided or employee sourced, that the employee chooses to use to get their job done."

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CG: I like both of those reasons, but sentimentally speaking the last one is great.

I think it’s interesting that you brought up the orchestra comparison. I’ve done the same in the past, but in a slightly different context. I can’t play any instruments or read music. But I’ve always been fascinated by orchestras. And I’ve always wondered, “if these are world class musicians, why do they need a conductor?” And there are studies that show that they do.

I think there’s a great business analogy between a conductor (CEO, facing the employees, back to the customer) and the orchestra members (senior leaders, each with their own expertise, facing the customer).

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JP: I think each musician (let’s say business professional) can deliver their bit, but the conductor’s role is to make sure that we’re making sense as one, rather than a lot of noise. The conductor defines speed and emotion, so your analogy works well. There’s more to this than simply following the music.

CG: Again, being musically ignorant other than simply appreciating it, it's fascinating that there are classically-trained professionals who still need leadership to create great music.

But back to your efforts at ClarityDW. What are the common needs you see organizations coming to you to help them with?

JP: I broadly put these efforts into two categories I guess—“Making things work better” and “Making things”.

Businesses often have the tools they need to help their employees work better together, or to drive communication, but these tools are not fully delivering their potential value. This is rarely a pure technology issue. It usually comes down to people, processes, and culture, so a lot of my work is spent listening to employees and businesses, and distilling out their real needs.

There are often communication and collaboration opportunities too—gaps in the channel matrix. This year, I’ve helped businesses bring brand new communication channels to life such as .coms and social amplification tools. It has been incredibly rewarding.

"A company may provide a suite of tools, but the reality is that employees select the ones that fit them and their role best."

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CG: Listening to employees is one key area where I think it’s helpful to bring in an outsider. Communicators take a lot of pride in their work and sometimes the feedback employees give can be tough to hear. As an outsider, you’re not offended (at least not professionally) by the feedback they give.

JP: Quite so, and in general, employees are quite happy to tell a consultant what they *really* think when professional courtesy would prevent them from doing so directly with the individuals in question. For the same reason, anonymous surveys can really help understand the true reality inside a company.

But ‘observing’ is also an incredibly insightful process. Even with interviews or surveys, I often feel I’m hearing what they think I want to hear, even though I’m a neutral party. Watching what really happens is so informative.

Here’s one small example: When I was at Coke, I often would do a desk walk when folks were away from their desks to take a sneaky look at the Post-It notes on their monitors. Forget surveys and interviews, if you really want to know what people want to remember, the snippets of information they need on hand, look there.

Fascinating! (No passwords were stolen in this process ;) )

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CG: That’s pretty sneaky. But also pretty smart, too.

Are focus groups still valuable? And if so, what’s your recommendation for doing them well?

JP: Focus groups do work and I use them in my discovery work but in combination with other insight channels such as stakeholder interviews and surveys. I like to use focus groups to refine and validate my working project hypotheses to help me hone in on what really matters. My advice is to be very clear on purpose and outcomes.

CG: And is there a size that you recommend? Or how to decide who’s in the focus groups?

JP: I like groups up to 12. Twelve is such a good number, but groups of 2, 3, 4, and 6 are all possible. You can cut it in many ways.

I do like to spend time with the client looking at group dynamics and politics to ensure that we get a discussion and not a diatribe. We’ve all been in groups like those…

CG: Digital workplace is part of your company name. I’ve seen a lot of definitions so I’m curious how you define it.

JP: I think there are as many definitions as there are practitioners in this space Chuck! My definition though: “The tools and systems, company provided or employee sourced, that the employee chooses to use to get their job done."

CG: I like the “employee chooses” part.

"Email is the Swiss Army Knife of enterprise communication and collaboration. One tool to rule them all, right?"

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JP: I think that reflects the reality.

A company may provide a suite of tools, but the reality is that employees select the ones that fit their role best and it takes a hell of a lot to shift them away from them.

Email is the Swiss Army Knife of enterprise communication and collaboration. One tool to rule them all, right? The IT team may provide Yammer, Lync, Skype, and more, but in the end, the employee still chooses. 

I also like this definition because it calls out, through the phrase ‘employee sourced’, that ‘shadow IT’ is a reality in many companies. This is software and platforms that have gained a hold that are not officially supported—but rather tolerated... Many organisations that I’ve worked with have this: Slack, Workplace, Trello and Google Docs are often the shadow IT platforms of choice.

CG: I’m sure shadow IT is a reality in every company, even without the employee consciously thinking they’re working around the system. There’s a reason employees choose some of these platforms and not the “official” corporate ones. And the companies that recognize this reality will be ahead of those who turn a blind eye.

JP: Absolutely. Shadow IT is the pilot for something that might become official in due course. They’re the use cases. They often become the *business case* too. With GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) on the horizon, businesses are increasingly alarmed about where their data is stored and will look to invest to get folks off WhatsApp/the application du jour.

CG: Thanks Jonathan for the chat. We’re going to conclude the way I always do. Describe your thoughts on the state of IC in emoji form.

JP: 👶  I think it’s a nascent function, even now. I think it’s still in development in regards to measurement, audiences, nudge messaging, and channels. It’s an exciting time to watch it grow.