Subsidiary to HQ – you are shouting. Please listen as well

by | Nov 7, 2017 | Collaboration, Digital workplace, Information Management, Intranets

I’ve listened to many presentations and read many posts on ‘how we sorted out internal communications with our subsidiaries”. I have yet to hear a presentation from a subsidiary, especially one located outside of the HQ geographic area, on the same subject. In the course of my work only one of my intranet clients specified that user interviews needed to be undertaken in locations outside of Europe and North America, resulting in us undertaking around 140 interviews in eight languages. Apart from the information collected it sent a clear sign that HQ wanted to include geographically distant subsidiaries. Perhaps it is just a coincidence but the client was Boehringer Ingelheim, which is privately held.

I’ve been reading a very detailed (14,000 word) case study of the challenges that both HQ and distant subsidiaries face in maintaining a dialogue about opportunities and challenges. In the case study is this quotation.

“Seventeen languages are used and the home pages are available in every language spoken in the company. ‘It is an open system: everyone can really do everything’ claims the communications manager. However, upon asking how subsidiary managers use the intranet in practice, it becomes clear that all published messages are first checked and edited by the headquarters, and decisions whether or not to publish are made at the highest level”

This situation comes as no surprise after two decades working with global companies. The case study goes on to note that the only regular channel for subsidiary managers in these [more distant] regions is through organisation-wide conferences that take place every six months.

The case study I am referring to can be found in the Journal of World Business, perhaps not the place you expect to find an internal communications case study. The authors consider in some detail the concepts of attention perspective, attention engagement  and attention selection. Don’t think for a moment that this is just academic gloss – the concepts are fundamental in the development of effective communications channels in multi-national organisations (MNC).The researchers from Sweden and the Netherlands found that a change in strategy by the business towards exploiting markets in Asia and the Americas was not reflected in the internal communications strategy. “The Indian perspective is difficult to pick up. Unless they have come here, been here and understood this place, it’s really very difficult” was a comment made by a Financial Manager in India. Indeed one of the values of this case study are the direct quotes from interviews often lasting two hours or more and conducted on a face-to-face basis and accounts for the level of detail in the information collected and the depth of the analysis.

Of course this is just an account of communications asymmetry in one company, but I would agree with the authors that the core issues are present quite widely in MNCs with HQs in either North America or Europe. The framework mentioned above of attention perspective, engagement and selection is certainly an effective way of recognising the issues and their potential impact. Section 5.2 on implications for practice is especially valuable.

“Any contradiction between the actions and words of HQ may lead to a sense of confusion in the subsidiaries, making them behave in a way that is different from how HQ wants them to behave” In other words, HQ should stop shouting and listen far more. One of the challenges for intranet managers is that intranets are fundamentally publishing/shouting platforms and perhaps far more attention should be paid to supporting communications back to HQ from subsidiaries.

Note – at the time of writing this blog post the paper referred to above was on open access. This may not always be the case.

Martin White