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CHIPS Articles: Strategic Communication

Strategic Communication
An IT Governance Imperative
By Lt. Cmdr. James L. Fisher, Navy Information Technology Service Management Office (NAVITSMO) and Phil Withers, NAVITSMO Contractor Support Staff - April-June 2016
Most everyone is familiar with the concept of communication. We engage each other on a daily basis using the various channels of communication such as voice, email, body language, signs, social media … the list goes on.

The act of communicating is an essential element of the human condition, and it is the preeminent capability of information technology governance to promulgate its vision and policy intent both laterally and vertically throughout an organization.

In the specific case of IT Governance, communication is not just a haphazard collection of channels and capabilities that are chosen at random or situationally; it is a cohesive, structured and planned capability that distinguishes and takes into account the mission, the people, processes and technology of an organization to formulate a communication schema that is both efficient and highly effective.

Although the Department of Defense no longer uses the term “Strategic Communication,” industry continues to use it to describe its aligning elements to formulate a comprehensive message that underlies and supports what the organization is all about — and where it is headed.

However, within the best practice context of IT Service Management (ITSM), the global community of IT Governance practitioners reference and employ the term “Strategic” to refer to communication and capabilities that enable IT Governance to proactively promulgate policy and direction while simultaneously soliciting input from the enterprise being governed. It is therefore quite understandably termed Strategic Communication — an IT Governance imperative for effective implementation and oversight of ITSM best practice.

During the past glory days of long haul simplex and duplex circuits, tropospheric scatter relay stations and high frequency (HF) ship-to-shore nodes that made up part of the Defense Communication System, the Naval Telecommunications Command (predecessor of Naval Network Warfare Command) proudly displayed the motto, “The Voice of Command.”

As one might expect in the monolithic and mechanistic world of military communication, that motto spoke directly to the capability without ambiguity: Navy communication people, processes and technology existed (and still do) to ensure National Command Authority could be “heard” by all naval operating forces anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice in support of the nation’s security interests. This is a perfect example, dated as it is, of the concept of strategic communication. And just as it was in the days of the Roman Trireme, the gubernare (governor steersman, pilot) called out directional (tactical direction based on strategic requirements) orders to which the rowers would respond to steer the ship confidently into battle, maneuvering to avoid shoals and reefs.

Little has changed regarding the need for a strategic implementation of communication capability. As a best practice supporting IT Governance, the purpose of Strategic Communication is to identify key communication themes and messages and develop outreach tactics, techniques, and procedures that establish a baseline awareness and understanding of an organization, its stakeholders and end-users.

Strategic Communication, as a governance imperative, is concerned with “steering” an organization toward a future that is not yet seen but has been calculated. In this never-ending effort, those entrusted with governance and communicating organizational policy and intent are always on the lookout for new and more effective methods of outreach. In fact, there are now many more avenues available to link with a decentralized organization than ever before.

Formal memorandums, email, blogs, websites, wikis, podcasts, and the like, and let’s not forget social media with Facebook and Twitter predominating, link tens of millions of communicators. You may have noticed in these modern options that governance communication is no longer one-way. This is a key distinction of Strategic Communication as differentiated from a simple voice-of-command capability — the strategy of an organization is now constantly and immediately informed by the consumers of the information. Strategic Communication is two-way by design.

So then, how do we go about constructing or strengthening our strategic communication? As you might expect, there are plenty of precedents and boilerplates from which to choose. It is interesting to note that close to 25 percent of the International Organization for Standardization/International Electrotechnical Commission (ISO/IEC) 20000-1 – Service Management System Requirements (an international standard for ITSM) refer to communication-related aspects, not including the process integration requirements.

From a best practice perspective, ISACA's COBIT 5, Enabling Processes - Management Practice APO01.04 Communicate management objectives and direction, recommends:

  1. Continuously communicate IT objectives and direction. Ensure that communications are supported by executive management in action and words, using all available channels.
  2. Ensure that the information communicated encompasses a clearly articulated mission, service objectives, security, internal controls, quality, code of ethics/conduct, policies and procedures, roles and responsibilities, etc. Communicate the information at the appropriate level of detail for the respective audiences within the enterprise.
  3. Provide sufficient and skilled resources to support the communication process.

To properly apply these best practice recommendations requires a plan — specifically a Strategic Communication Plan. The plan should ideally be a derivative of the established organizational strategy that specifies policy relating to all facets of the organization, including information security, personnel, accounting, and more.

The Strategic Communication Plan references overarching policy and strategy and ensures linkage between its purpose, objectives, and outcomes to those of the organizational strategy. The plan should include and consider:

  • Organizational Stakeholders;
  • Strategic Communication Products;
  • Channel Analysis;
  • An Implementation Strategy; and
  • A Feedback Strategy.

Let’s examine each of these elements in closer detail.

Stakeholder Analysis

To craft specific, applicable and targeted communiques to relevant portions of the stakeholder community, a detailed analysis should be conducted to distinguish primary and secondary stakeholders. Stakeholder outreach can be shaped by understanding the intended audience, determining the right type of engagement needed, and reaching out to stakeholders with tailored communications in a timely and thoughtful manner.

Primary stakeholders are distinguished by their need for ongoing and detailed information as principal and engaged participants in an organization’s mission or business objectives. These primary stakeholders typically subscribe to and appreciate a level of detail that is ordinarily truncated for the secondary stakeholder community.

Primary stakeholders are invited to actively participate in direct feedback mechanisms that can assist governance with strategic planning. Secondary stakeholders, on the other hand, will typically receive only periodic updates or status reports that keep them informed of overall progress. Further segregation of the stakeholders can help differentiate internal and external consumers of information, managers, and partners who will necessarily require portions of information relevant to them.

Once analysis has completed and appropriate categories have been assigned, a stakeholder registry should be created that enables precise management and target communication products by command, function or other alignment. This registry can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or as intricate as an Access database. The sophistication of the Strategic Communication implementation will dictate the requirement.

Strategic Communication Products

A segment of a Strategic Communication Plan should also provide preapproved baseline messaging from which all organizational communication can be crafted to ensure consistency and standardization of information. This messaging is divided into two levels:

  • Core Messages and;
  • Key Themes and Supporting Messages.

Core messages consist of general information that establishes a foundation of understanding to include objectives, and how they will impact stakeholders. Key themes are critical messages that will be communicated to stakeholders and reinforced by the supporting messages. Supporting messages provide additional detail within each key theme that needs to be relayed to applicable stakeholders.

Channel Analysis

Nothing in the plan is more relevant to getting the word out than the channel by which it is communicated. As alluded to earlier, there is virtually no limit to the availability of channels that can be used to assist with stakeholder segmentation or broadcasting publicly targeted information about an organization’s strategy. Each channel should be evaluated for applicability to the goals of the stated plan in concert with stakeholder analysis. Methods of outreach can be channeled based on the target stakeholder audience, for instance:

-- Direct communication methodology can include email, telephone, video and teleconferencing capability. It also includes naval messaging to the extent a stakeholder community is segmented and able to use it. Training and awareness packages, conferences, and tradeshows are also avenues of direct interaction with a stakeholder community.

-- Publications are another channel that affords a targeted outreach for an appropriately segmented portion of the stakeholder registry. Magazines, both print and virtual, can be used to align with similar interests to those of your stakeholders.

-- Websites that target and segregate discrete stakeholder communities are another method for interaction. SharePoint and Wiki portals are just two examples.

Implementation Strategy

Having a stakeholder registry, preapproved communication products, segmented communities and available channels are great, but so what? It takes thought and careful review and planning to coordinate which stakeholders get which types of communication, over which type or types of channels to maximize the effectiveness of your Strategic Communication Plan. To that end, a matrix of products, intended audience, channel and timing should be created to align and logically call out the reasons for sending a particular communication to a particular audience at a particular time.

The timing aspect of the matrix will illustrate whether to engage on a calendar cycle (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.) or whether a particular artifact is sent as needed. Newsletters are a prime example of scheduled monthly or quarterly offerings that engage a total stakeholder community for general information dissemination. Scheduled events that advertise a new or improved service are an example of as-occurring interaction with a targeted segment of a stakeholder community.

Feedback Strategy

As was stated earlier, Strategic Communication is a two-way street. Organizations do themselves a disservice to ignore the input from such a rich source of experience and vested interest in the organization’s direction, goals and objectives. Active solicitation of feedback should be an integral part of each communication method and/or a dedicated feedback mechanism can be advertised that coordinates and consolidates input from all stakeholders and interested parties.

A feedback survey is a convenient and adjustable capability for garnering feedback either on paper or online. There are free survey websites that assist with survey formulation, tabulation and advertising.

Interactive collaboration channels are another increasingly relevant and ubiquitous method for collecting stakeholder feedback. Wiki portals abound, and their simplicity lends to the ease of use necessary to engage with the greatest number of stakeholders. Collaboration on wiki portals can take the form of a blog or a status update (of Facebook fame) that is created to engage an ongoing dialogue among multiple stakeholders. The organization acts to monitor and engage with stakeholders via these channels to inform steering committees and other governance bodies about the effect of policy decisions, while collecting suggestions for improvement.

Whatever method is used for stakeholder feedback, it is imperative that stakeholders recognize the organization has received their input and is acting in good faith to assimilate the information or recommendation and is working to provide an acceptable response. A tracking system can also be employed to ensure stakeholders are kept abreast of issues that transcend the input channel.

Practicing what it professes, the NAVITSMO has created its own Strategic Communication Plan based on an extensive stakeholder survey and implementation of various channel and stakeholder engagement methodologies. It is a “living” guide for outreach and organizational change management activities targeting stakeholders and organizational end-users as well as a ready template for organizations that desire to leverage the process to create their own unique plan.

The NAVITSMO Strategic Communications Plan can be reviewed by accessing the milWiki:

About the NAVITSMO
Chartered in April 2012, NAVITSMO provides IT Service Management thought leadership and assistance by creating usable products and services for the Navy ITSM community. The NAVITSMO strives for alignment of enterprise IT architecture through discreet but interlocking practice areas to help define and support organizational IT governance and management requirements. The NAVITSMO résumé boasts industry-certified expertise in ITIL, COBIT, Program and Project Management, DoDAF, IT Risk Management and Control, IT Skills Framework, Service Quality, CMMI, ISO/IEC-20000, ISO/IEC-33000, Information Security, Enterprise IT Governance, and Assessment and Audit.

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