Where does engagement start?

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Engagement is the new black in 2014. Organisations talk about engaging with their audiences. Some create a position of Community Engagement Manager. Others discuss the importance of big data and understanding what's really going on with customers’ interactions (read purchasing, donating, membership, volunteering, following ...). It's part of the seismic move from mass marketing to one to one relationships and the transition from organisation based power to customer centric organisations where customers co-curate experiences and content. In spite of all these good intentions, we can only lead a horse to water as the saying goes. Engagement starts within.

Should we expect folk who have a limited relationship with the organisation to be engaged if our own staff aren't? How many of your employees purchase your goods or services or donate to your fundraising? At your events, do your workers participate in full force? Do your employees follow your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn platforms? When you're recruiting, do you get many candidates put forward by staff?

For me, engagement is part of everyone's responsibility. As citizens in Australia we have rights and responsibilities. Rights include to vote, work in the public service and gain an Australian passport. Responsibilities include to obey the law, defend Australia, serve on a jury and vote. I believe the same sense of rights and responsibilities is true with 'citizens' of organisations, including the responsibility of being fully engaged with the organisation as a staff member.

One definition of engagement is the act of interlocking. This implies a balance or sharing of responsibilities. And we know it takes two to tango. One firm going through some tough times decided to pay its warehouse staff a bonus to turn up to work. Another organisation reminded staff of the agreed working hours. Some managers find surprising responses when they come to employee review time with mixed understandings of expectations and what’s been delivered. And what about those firms where the leaders work much harder than the staff? Or those organisations where volunteers are more motivated and committed than employees? To me, if staff don’t ‘own’ the responsibility of fulfilling their obligations of turning up to work and meeting their Position Description and KPIs, it is unlikely they will be engaged at a higher level and advocate in their ‘spare time’ for the organisation.

Speaking of definitions of engagement, while there are ones around connecting, interlocking, contributing, I found, though, some curious definitions ranging from a pledge, an obligation or agreement to an encounter, conflict or battle. At the less innocuous level the sense of having to rather than wanting to be connected comes across. At the more extreme is the idea of confrontation and difference. This suggestion of an adversarial relationship runs counter to the need for organisational stakeholders to be aligned with an organisation’s mission and values in order to be engaged. Is there an inherent conflict with our concept of engagement, that it isn’t quid pro quo, that people want to be individuals and fear the Big Brother idea of organisations? Is this part of why some membership organisations are seeing a freefall in their membership numbers? Or why some event organisers are struggling to get attendees? Or why some airlines aren’t facing the same queues at their check in counters? Or why some mass retailers have empty stores?

I don’t support the adversarial definition of engagement. I believe in communities and think we’re seeing a return to community in our daily lives. This is the central theme in Hugh Mackay's recent book, The Art of Belonging. In addition to social networking enabled with platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, the popularity of sites like Spotify and Instagram facilitate a greater sharing of ideas. Village bakeries, delis, cafes and florists are back – even if in some communities it’s at the local grocery store. Councils are now providing natural spaces such as parks, walking tracks and meeting areas. Dog walkers are enjoying public spaces and are often stopping to chat to other dog walkers. Laneways with a hub of activity are developing in some of the big cities across Australia.

For organisations, I think it’s about understanding who are your diverse audiences, what are their motivations for engaging and then making it easy and rewarding to participate. There’s no one size fits all and it’s important to consider everyone as an individual. This can be an exciting but tenuous time for firms and it might need to start with looking inside your own organisation. The best thing to do is to bring your teams along for the ride. After all, they might just be your most important audience.

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