I had a call with a business leader last week to talk about the business horizon for 2012.

It was the first time I had spoken with this leader, who heads manufacturing operations at a major global company. One of the things I wanted to know about was his business plan for the new year. He immediately started talking about safety, quality and some other operational goals, which was expected. After a few minutes, I asked him where communications fit into the business plan and he responded that it didn’t.

It was just assumed.

The truth is, it was absent. And, the leader’s company is headed for a 2012 of dramatic upheavals in workflow and workforce reductions. Visible, painful changes will hit just about every department and level. And yet, missing in action is a game plan for openly, regularly and consistently talking about what’s happening, why it’s happening and what people need to do to stay focused and work together.

Remember, even as the status quo collapses and uncertainty escalates inside the walls of your company, customers and other external stakeholders are expecting success.

That’s really the driver for putting communications as a prominent, measurable, business imperative. Effective, two-way communications are the glue of an organization, helping to unite people through words and actions to support quality goals, safety goals and the overall company mission. Effective communication moves people from being spectators on the sidelines to actively participating in practices that yield great products, services and customer experiences – especially during times of significant uncertainty and change.

How do you get communications to be a key component of a business plan?

First, sensitize leaders to the risk of omission. Choosing not to have effective communications as a component of a business strategy is simply not good business. As proof, all you have to do is look at everyday scenarios. The one that sticks out in my mind right now is what’s happening at Penn State. You have an organization where clearly people were afraid to speak up. Instead of open and direct communications – silence prevailed.

Second, start small. Establish simple, measurable, communications standards and practices and communicate your expectations to executives, managers and employees. The best organizations have an explicit strategy for how they’re going to communicate with their customers, key stakeholders and employees. It is not something that is assumed. You can’t make the numbers, you can’t execute flawlessly – you can’t do any of that – without a clear, defined and shared communication platform. 

Third, provide a lifeline. Building open and honest relationships through direct, two-way communications takes time and training. Offer workshops, toolkits and coaching that build competencies and confidence, at all levels, for speaking up—particularly with information that may threaten the status quo. Provide time on the job for this kind of professional development. It is as critical as technical training.

Finally, measure leaders’ performance against the standards.  Start with something simple, like compliance. Are leader’s meeting the minimum requirements set forth in the standards or are they blowing them off?  Make them accountable. Make a communications compliance review part of your weekly staff meeting.

Now is the time to establish communications as one of the aspects you include in your business strategy for 2012. It will be a business imperative that will deliver positive returns for the long run—internally and externally.

Do you know a workplace Pinocchio? There’s still time to take Dulye & Co.’s Lying in the Workplace poll where we ask the question:  What is the worst lie a manager, direct report or co-workers could tell you?  Let us know at: http://dulye.com/quickpoll/.

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda founded Dulye & Co.   in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.