What can HR learn from: The theatre?

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Ian Jessup, co-founder and senior partner of Interact, the UK's leading exponent of the use of theatre-skills in training, development and communications, explains why simply delivering a message is not enough.

One of the biggest challenges facing HR professionals today is delivering messages to employees in a way that is understandable, relevant and, most importantly, that will be positively received and acted upon.

It is precisely this challenge that has driven an explosion over the past few years in the number of internal communications specialists within HR. For example, four years ago BAA, the airport organisation had just three internal communications specialists. Currently they have more than thirty.

HR departments have become aware that if they get the message right internally, everything that flows from it will be easier, more meaningful and more focused around the aims of the organisation. Internal communications therefore helps to fulfil this need, unlocking the power of truly ‘speaking’ to the workforce and ultimately helping to cultivate brand advocates.

But we all know that delivering a message is easy, the tough part is when we want someone to act upon it. This is where theatre-skills can deliver real benefits to the HR and internal communications function.

By demonstrating your messages through the medium of theatre, they immediately become engaging, three-dimensional, interactive and above all, provide real meaning to the essence of that communication.

Internal messages can cover a variety of subject areas, including the brand, core values, change, development, leadership or more complex issue-based initiatives in areas such as diversity, bullying, discrimination or employee relations.

The use of theatre, such as scripted drama and role-play in training and internal communications can achieve success for HR departments by bringing messages alive, making them three-dimensional in order to provide meaning for the employees. The use of theatre-skills also gives HR flexibility in the delivery of a message to specific audiences, which could range from new starters to senior management.

Crucially for HR professionals, their increasing role in internal communications will give them significantly more influence within an organisation. Brand and product managers are beginning to understand that if they want their people to ‘live the brand’, they need to work closely with HR to ensure that their message is effectively communicated.

For instance, the HR, marketing, brand and product departments of a high street bank recently used theatre to ensure the communication of a new competency model was strictly aligned to the brand development. This approach ensured that participants internalised the messages by experiencing them first hand and developed the behavioural skills that would support that brand strategy. The board saw HR’s role as simply critical to the brand’s success.

The delivery mechanism for communication using theatre skills may also include interactive live road shows, conferences, film and communication through e-learning and intranet channels. But whatever the mechanism, the principles have remained the same: successful communication is achieved by telling stories and painting pictures centred on the desired outcomes of the message, which have real meaning for each and every recipient.

It is important that HR departments continue to recognise that effective internal communication involves a dialogue. Communications over the intranet should not be one-sided and should always include ways in which the recipients can voice their own reactions.

Interact has pioneered a ‘free’ element to these responses so as well as having standard multiple-choice tick-boxes, people are encouraged to write in free prose to show their underlying cultural, behavioural, emotional and attitudinal meaning. This ensures employee engagement, an exchange of ideas and ultimately continual improvement.

‘Live’ events, such as road shows, allow for another level of feedback and analysis. For example, at an event with the BBC, employees were shown a selection of dramas highlighting leadership issues and after each, asked to vote electronically and anonymously on a number of carefully crafted questions.

As a consequence, each and every member of the audience felt completely engaged in the event and believed their personal responses were valued. Voting results were collated and offered a valuable insight into the efficacy of the organisation’s internal communications.

Organisations realise the importance of employee advocates but in order to really unlock their power, they need not only to ‘show’ and ‘tell’ them what they stand for but also to allow those advocates to explore their own understanding of the messages. The only way to achieve this is through experiential learning and bringing the message alive through theatre.

An engaged workforce that understands where it is going and why it is effectively communicated with and feels genuinely listened to, is far more likely to work for the good of that organisation and will ultimately become its biggest asset.

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13th Feb 2006 13:48

To add to the above I am currently working hard in having my own book published based on the same level of thinking as the above comments.
Benchmarks are difficult to find when comparing management development principles, I believe that using the Director and Stage Management from theatre is one of the exceptional methods in using comparable processes to manufacturing. I believe this is a new concept and would encompass most manufacturing principles.
The Theatre staff would be involved with many usual and diverse processes, which align with production and manufacturing philosophies such as Recruitment
Training, 5s, Standard work, Continuous Improvement, Next Customer supply, Sense of Urgency, Zero Defects, Right First time, Leadership, Organisation, Team Management, Succession Planning, Cross Skilling, Absence,
Objectives – How to measure success.
Many Manufacturing Managers know of the above detail, however are willing horses, alas busy fools. The creation of a manager that has the following properties is top priority for any business to ensure growth and to promote good business initiatives: - Wealth of Character, Taking responsibility and Ownership, being held accountable, having commitment and drive to succeed, being able to see the vision and having a “can do” attitude, must have the creativity and passion to ensure all these areas are achievable and exceeded. The ability to step out of their comfort zone and also feel as at home in this baron area. Using passed success as a comfort pillow is not the way that business can push forward with the drive and conviction required.
Theatre Management can provide a passage and direction on how to achieve these goals, providing creative vision, the drive for continual change, constant appraisal and creating the business mind.
Anyone wishing to comment, feedback would be gratefully received
Nigel Bould

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