Are we listening?

Ben Hornbrook, 4 February 2016
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There is growing evidence that listening is increasingly becoming a key driver of organisational success because it’s critical to being ‘agile’ – that is, having the ability to sense, decide, and act quickly.

However, a new study by Professor Jim Macnamara from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has revealed a “crisis of listening”, finding that most organisations listen “sporadically, selectively, or not at all”, and that 80 per cent of communication resources are invested in speaking.

Professor Macnamara argues that improving organisational responsiveness, stakeholder engagement and trust relies on organisations developing and maintaining an “architecture of listening”.

Key to this is acknowledging that listening is work, and that it cannot be achieved through technology alone. Rather, organisations must consider culture, policies, structures and processes, technologies, resources and skills, and analysis in order to listen effectively.

Writing in Forbes Magazine, American entrepreneur and business commentator Tina Sharkey agrees. “The most fundamental thing to remember about listening is that it’s not a job you can assign to one team. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Simply buying a monitoring tool won’t do anything to make listening a truly integral part of the way you do business — and that’s what it takes to create the kind of authentic relationships people now expect,” she says.

In my view, too many organisations are focusing on generating activity and ‘deliverables’ (such as creating and distributing content), rather than fostering a greater understanding of the issues, nuances and agendas at play (as well as what audiences need and want) and developing a strategic approach.

I think it’s also important to remember that genuine listening requires a range of interpersonal and qualitative skills including empathy, probing and clarifying – beyond simply assessing metrics or data – and involves rigorous analysis, or “panning for the nuggets”, as one CEO puts it.

Retired U.S. Army General Stan McChrystal goes further, saying that data or information without context is meaningless, and that the ‘human filter’ is what gives information meaning. He recommends using the refrain: what, so what, therefore — this is what happened, this is why it matters, and therefore we should take this action — especially when dealing with complex information or data.

While effective organisational listening requires significant resources and attention, it is important because it helps align people, decisions, and agendas. It is also vital to ensuring organisations are more responsive and strategic.

For these reasons, it’s important to ask: is listening important to your organisation? Is your organisation empowering people to listen and share? Does your organisation have a listening strategy or architecture of listening?

If the answer is no, you have no time to waste. Given the rapid and immense change underway (with some suggesting that as many as four of the top 10 incumbents across all industries will be displaced in the next few years) organisational listening must become a priority, because the cost of failing to listen is potentially very, very high.

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