How to get your house in order

Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of restructuring your department



To take on responsibility for the reorganisation of your communications department can be equal parts a daunting prospect and an exhilarating challenge.

Who doesn’t like the opportunity, to arrange the toys according to one’s own preferences? But who wants to be burdened with all that hard work and all those tough decisions? The intimidating prospect can be softened if you consider the reorganisation as a chance to broaden the range of available skills within the department, to broach a more strategic role for the function, and to promote a different model for communication within the organisation. In this article, we'll look at a few ways in which to explore and exploit the various opportunities presented by the prospect of a departmental restructuring.

Reasons for a reorganisation: time for a change?

There are several indicators that might suggest to you as, head of your department, that the time is due to look again at the team’s structure. These indicators could include legitimate complaints from team members that they are overloaded with work (or that they do not have enough work to do during a work day); that their designated tasks overlap with those of other employees, or that they are responsible for wildly disparate tasks (for example, a complicated and demanding task such as social media strategic planning and a routine or recurring role such as answering enquiries about the website’s user interface). Reporting to more than one boss can also be a source of dissatisfaction in need of a remedy, as well as recurring problems such as high staff turnover.

Strategy determines structure

But above and beyond these office problems, the most likely candidate for an opportunity to reorganise your communications department is with the occurrence of significant changes in the company’s organisational structure or strategy, or an evolution in the size of the company and growth in its activities.

The link between structure and strategy is a deciding factor in the development of the department. As Laura Illia, professor at the IE School of Business, Spain, explains:  “Communications follows structure and strategy. This means that a centralised organisation of a communications department is justified when the structure and strategy of the company is centralised and formalised; similarly, a decentralised structure of the department is justified when the strategy and structure of the company is specialised. If these things do not fit, then the communication department might have little power in the organisation and might not be efficient.”

Increasing efficiency at fortum

One example of organising a department to fit a company’s new shape and direction occurred around October 2009, when Finnish-based energy company Fortum set about creating four new business divisions (power, heat, Russia, and electricity solutions and distribution) and four new staff functions (finance, corporate relations and sustainability, corporate human resources, and corporate strategy). I asked Anne Brunila, Fortum’s executive vice president of corporate relations and sustainability, to describe how the company’s communications department changed in the wake of this reorganisation. The first clue is in her job title: corporate relations and sustainability was a completely new function created to cope with the new demands – previously, communications (branding and marketing), public affairs and sustainability were three separate units under three different leaders. According to Brunila, bringing the three together in one department has resulted in a “more integrated and collaborative system. The way of working has changed, so that we are very much working as a matrix, from the corporate centre to all the business divisions, all working together on the various tasks and duties of these three issues.”           

Stating the case for a ringmaster

Another cause of a structural rethink is the evolution of communication and media. In an article in the December 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, Patrick Spenner called for “a new media ‘Ringmaster’” to coordinate the joint efforts of communications, marketing and brand management in order to play catch-up with the challenge posed by social technologies that necessitate a rethinking of the traditional division between communications and marketing. Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes, professor at the Paris campus of the ESCP business school, agrees with the article’s argument. “People working inside the communications department need different kinds of knowledge”, she believes; “traditional communication knowledge, social media knowledge and marketing and brand knowledge.

So the difficulty of the evolution of the marketing and communication department today is that we don’t speak anymore about marketing and communication but ‘marketing communication’. So how to translate the idea of this mix in the organisation, that’s the main difficulty. Because now there are many different departments within a company; if you’re a small company it’s quite easy, but a big company needs different departments. So I like this idea of a Ringmaster, somebody able to understand, to present and to coordinate the different activities of marketing communication.” A ringmaster need not be weighed down with a large team. It could just as easily involve working with different departments through regular meetings and new tools like wiki or video conferences. A reorganised function could leave space for a director to coordinate, push forward new ideas, and intuit areas for development.

The planning stage: time for decisions

However, on the bottom line, a reorganisation means that practical decisions need to be made. Planning should not occur in a vacuum – a new organisational chart should be put together with input from as many sources as possible. As Professor Craig Carroll writes elsewhere in this issue, a communications audit will teach you how work really gets done in the organisation, how employees and departments interact, what are the engines and motivations behind decisions and strategies, and how the communications function can make the strongest impact. Several tools are available that can help plan a reorganisation and communicate the results, while final organisational charts, created during the modelling and decision phases, can be instantly published to corporate intranets, or circulated in other forms. Managers should not only communicate results, but confidently discuss the objectives and methods in reaching them.

Aim for clarity and minimise hurt feelings with a step by step approach

Any process of change can involve heart-wrenching decisions that ride roughshod over people’s sensitivities. However, by planning your restructuring around function – around the purposes and goals of the department – you can create a clear programme, based on self-evident logic, which will avoid the pitfalls of politicking, interpersonal problems and muddled direction. Danny Langdon and Kathleen Whiteside of Performance International have written about a “Language of Work” model that helps achieve a departmental reorganisation (their ideas form the basis for the following points). Here are a few pointers that should help you bear in mind that the purpose of the shake-up is to maximise the department’s efficiency and align it to the organisation’s overall goals:

  1. Define your department’s value proposition - ie mission statement
  2. Define core processes. Outline how the department achieves and will achieve the goals set out in its value proposition
  3. Name jobs needed. Perhaps in collaboration with human resources, you should detail and outline jobs needed to carry out the value proposition. The department’s current list of job titles can act as a starting point, but should not limit your imagination
  4. Model each job. Banish uncertainty about the new jobs by carefully planning their requirements and responsibilities based upon their role within the newly remodelled function
  5. Collect culture data. Organise an audit of the entire company, find out what impedes progress and what can be introduced to make people’s jobs easier
  6. Load the work. This means determining how many people will be needed for each job position
  7. Identify organisation structure. Link the jobs to the objectives, showing how they will satisfy the demands of the value proposition, and explain how this fits within the organisational culture. This will effectively and efficiently determine the department’s reporting relationships
  8. Define the work groups. Delineate the sub-departments based around the communications function and how individuals will work together in it
  9. Develop the implementation. The last stage of the planning period could be defining the roll-out of the reorganisation. Some aspects will take longer to achieve and will require careful thought. The previously-achieved definition will inform the implementation – who fills which role, what culture issues need to be addressed. Changes should be prioritised, and a plan of events, dates, and responsibilities formulated and agreed upon

Making room for social media in the new department

Resistance or reluctance to change is part of human nature, and should be handled with sensitivity. New training for established members of staff, particularly in the field of social media, would seem to suggest itself, but here too, sensitivity is called for. In January this year, the Institute for Media and Communications Management at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen conducted a survey in collaboration with the European Association of Communication Directors on the role of social media within European organisations.

The survey (of 1383 communication professionals from 30 different European countries) found that, although many practitioners find social media useful and increasingly relevant to their jobs, it is still “often superiors who actively encourage and drive the use of social media in the workplace, thus creating a certain pressure to engage in the social web.” More respondents tended to agree that social media added to their workload and had a disruptive affect on their work patterns, with more than half of all professionals displaying signs of overload and stress when dealing with social media.

Discovering hidden competencies

But reorganisation can also represent a process of discovery, bringing existing hidden competencies that have lain obscured or overshadowed within the company to the surface. Anne Brunila recommends actively encouraging people to “collaborate, share information, best practices, find new ways to work and operate.” Her recommendation is based on Fortum’s experience: “We tried some new developments and new ways of working, testing and trying, so it’s also an exciting time for the people.” This has led to a more flexible task force and a stronger and more varied set of skills within each worker: “We have much more flexibility when facing challenging tasks, people can move to various tasks and develop themselves and their competencies, we are learning a lot from each other. I believe that the quality and impact of our work has improved.”

And Brunila points to an unexpected, bonus side-effect of framing a reorganisation as a process of discovering hitherto untapped competencies: Fortum were able to increase efficiency by reducing the amount of consultancy hires, having found sufficient competencies within the new matrix. Not that outsourcing is necessarily the more expensive option: it may be too expensive for a small to medium-sized company to maintain a permanent audiovisual production department.

Outsourcing: looking outside for inside knowledge

Indeed, the benefits of external support should not be overlooked in a restructuring process. When considering possible staffing models for structuring your corporate communication function, you may benefit from a combination of inhouse and external support. The need for looking outside the organisation depends, of course, on a case-by-case basis. But the value of fresh ideas and expertise in specialised areas, or support for particularly complex developments or changes that are simply too demanding for your company’s resources, speaks for itself. Furthermore, external consultancies should be approached for internal communications audits (or at least the first in a series of audits) for a number of reasons, not least that respondents may feel more comfortable and free in their answers. And as Nicolas Trad of the Reputation Institute, the global private advisory research firm specialising in corporate reputation management, points out, “external agencies are often used to quantify the ROI of communications – an element which is all too often overlooked by communications departments and branding for that matter.”

Telecommuting: in search of a flexible work model

Further draughts of fresh air can be let into the restructured department by increasing the flexibility of the approach to work. So-called ‘telecommuting’, the work arrangement in which employees enjoy flexibility in working location and hours, grows in popularity in tandem with the rise of enabling social network tools. Physical proximity is no longer a cast-iron prerequisite for close collaboration; telecommuting could be of benefit in the wake of budget cuts by cutting down on overheads, and it will help employees strike a better balance between their private and professional lives. Again, the driving force of social media seems destined to shape the future of how we work - in an article published in Communication Director’s first issue of 2009, Professor André Lafrance and François Montreuil wrote: “Communications instruments create a centrifugal force. The possibility of maintaining constant, albeit virtual, contact between workers and the decision-making centre exerts a pressure that scatters business physically”. Robin Boon, group director of corporate relations at Dutch international transport and logistics corporation TNT, is an exponent of this approach, as he explains in detail in his interview in this issue.

Nicolas Trad is in agreement with him, believing that the future will see an increase in the number of professionals working from home (or in a bar on the beach, for that matter): “Employees want more flexibility and ability to plan their work themselves. I think that it is a positive development as telecommuting brings new opportunities and has more advantages than disadvantages, it makes it easy to communicate with employees all over the world in real time and provides organisations the possibility of doing webinars and presentations via the internet.”

Although he does suggest a downside, namely the lack of a human element and its attendant challenges. Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes seconds this motion, recognising the benefits that being able to respond to events around the clock through “continual communication”, but insisting on the necessity for balance: “it’s also important to be together sometimes, because to understand what the brand is, what the main actions are, how to work together, then it’s really important to ask in team meetings and also to work together in order to feel the atmosphere. You learn a lot of things in companies, not only in meetings but also in corridors.”

Bringing the department closer to the CEO

A reorganisation is also an occasion to ask questions about the location of the department within the organisation’s hierarchy. Access to the CEO (and as we have learned from the growth of telecommuting, “access” no longer necessarily means “physical proximity”) has become an increasingly visible issue as more and more communications heads are granted access to the management board.  In her article for this issue, Andrea Danihelova of Slovakia’s VSE energy company writes how her department is part of the CEO division, giving her direct access to the CEO and putting her team in a powerful position to quickly obtain and spread key information. Nicolas Trad says, “it is imperative to get buy in from senior management as it will otherwise have too much difficulty implementing ideas in the business. Apart from buy in, being close to senior management helps the speed of execution and ensures alignment.”

Professor Laura Illia agrees, seeing this proximity as crucially important in allowing the communications function to fully reach its potential: “Nowadays corporate communication has not only the important function to inform on what the company does, but also to discover  the company’s identity and culture, or avoid credibility crisis from emerging. If the communication department does not have proximity to the senior management team, then a big opportunity is lost for the company to proactively address important communication issues. Recent studies show that this is a growing trend.”

However, Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes suggests a balance between proximity and distance: although she agrees that communication directors need to work closely with the CEO to understand the CEO’s vision, “the danger could be to be too close and communicate only on CEO matters. So you need both proximity and a small distance, because you need not only communicate for the CEO but for the whole company. And this distance is subtle”

Against ‘silofication’: putting together all the pieces of the puzzle

A restructuring is also the ideal time to reconfigure the relationship between the various functions associated with communications, such as corporate reputation, corporate branding, employer communications, corporate social responsibility, and so on. In his work with the Reputation Institute, Nicolas Trad frequently finds organisations that have run into trouble due to the way subdivisions are organised. “The risk of silofication”, he explains “is “that functions work and communicate too independently from each other – very focused on independent goals and key performance indicators rather than on the overall common good of the company or a shared key performance indicator. The idea should rather be that the silos work in sync with the overall idea and that transparency exists in regards to what each silo is doing and communicating.” He believes that the correct approach is to place these functions “in one function in order not to create confusion about the message Companies work more and more in committees (teams) that span across functions to ensure buy in, alignment and consistency.”

Alignment with other departments

Anne Brunila confirms the benefits of this kind of approach. One of the reasons for the reorganisation of Fortum was that there were “too many silos in corporate functions”, and therefore the decision to bring communications, public affairs and sustainability together was a way of combating ‘silofication’, an approach that continues with the new structure. Now, she explains, “we have been able to establish a very good way of working with human resources and other functions – finance, investor relations, strategy and research and development.” Again, the relationship between job competencies, function, and restructuring are clear: “We try to look at the core people who are working within these areas so they can work closely with each other in every country, and we also looked at how people are situated in various buildings, our headquarters, and so on.”

Should this year be the year that you are asked to lead a restructuring of the communications department, clearly, you have your work cut out for you. Careful planning, including researching similar changes at other companies, is a prerequisite, as is clear and orderly communications throughout the process. But recognising the manifold opportunities that are presented by this change is the first step towards improving the efficiency of the function, and affirming the communication department’s central role in success of the organisation.