Organizational Listening: A Framework for Revitalizing Co-operative Engagement?

Amanda Sampson

“Communication is a two-way street” is often touted as a guiding principle of success. Public and private organizations, including co-operatives, invest large sums in public engagement and rely on social media to allow stakeholders to “have their say.” Yet, do organizations actually embody this two-way street by responding to what their stakeholders are saying? As participation-based organizations, co-operatives should be aware of recent research that argues industry communication standards are perpetuating a “crisis of listening” that undermines key stakeholder relationships.

In Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication, Dr. Jim Macnamara examines government, corporate, and nonprofit organizations in three countries — the US, UK, and Australia — to discover how well these organizations listen. Macnamara’s study reveals that 80 percent of communication resources are devoted to “speaking out” or “informing” (e.g., advertising or press releases). When organizations do seek feedback, their listening is highly selective: they target preferred answers by engaging the “usual suspects,” or intervene only when their legitimacy is at risk. Standard engagement tools, such as surveys, are designed to passively collect information, not motivate strategic action. Macnamara also observes that current social media initiatives are used to publish messages rather than create opportunities for stakeholder-led dialogue.

Why is organizational listening important? Simply put, a “deaf” organization risks alienating the audience necessary for its continued operation. The findings from the Organizational Listening Project’s analysis identify a lack of listening as an underlying cause of falling participation rates, declining levels of trust in politics and business, as well as increased polarization in the public sphere. Additionally, failure to accurately assess the needs of stakeholders signifies an inefficient use of resources, which can restrict the organization’s capacity to innovate and provide other services effectively.

Image source: http://centerforriskcommunication.org/

To address this problem, Macnamara proposes a shift from an “architecture of speaking” to an “architecture of listening,” which consists of “the culture, policies, structure, processes, resources, skills, technologies and practices.” The eight elements of Macnamara’s recommended architecture are meant to prevent organizations from implementing singular solutions to problems that require transformative change. Operationalizing the concept requires an openness to public participation, a willingness to understand and consider alternative perspectives, as well as an active commitment to respond appropriately in each conversation. The responsibility for engagement should not be isolated to a single department; the entire organization must invest in creating an environment where listening is a mutual goal.

The organizational listening framework is highly relevant for co-operatives. As the Top Co-op Issues 2017 illustrates, member engagement is a pressing concern for co-operative leaders, with public awareness and youth engagement also ranking high on the list. One reason for this focus is that lack of engagement can have significant repercussions. For instance, the closure of Co-op Atlantic in 2015 has been linked to a lack of listening. In a study titled “The Failure of Co-op Atlantic: A postmortem on one of North America’s largest co-op federations,” Tom Webb notes that the question, “What do our members need that we are not providing?” was rarely asked. Instead, members were isolated and viewed as disloyal for questioning the direction chosen by the leadership. This lack of consultation deepened divides among member co-operatives in different communities, which undermined confidence and “created a weak sense of we.” Ultimately, Co-op Atlantic’s struggles with member engagement led to a crisis of legitimacy from which there was no return.

To avoid repeating similar mistakes, co-operatives can begin by implementing small changes identified by Macnamara’s project. First, co-operatives can close what Macnamara calls the “listening loop.” Essentially, this means identifying those engagement techniques that passively collect information and replacing them with tools that mandate responses and action items. The focus should be on a multi-step conversation, not multiple attempts at outreach. Closing the listening loop would prevent co-operatives from simply broadcasting information and instead, allow members to see their efforts reflected in the engagement process. The validation achieved by closing the listening loop will support and further legitimize the co-operative principles in the eyes of the membership, thus avoiding the weak sense of identity that pervaded Co-op Atlantic.

Next, Macnamara recommends altering the “evaluation factor.” Current evaluation standards are determined by the organization’s desired outcomes, leaving no room for stakeholder input. Instead of evaluating criteria such as the number of social media platforms used, organizations should evaluate themselves on how effectively they respond to stakeholders. By ensuring that the evaluation factor is defined by stakeholder input, the organization is working to permanently close the listening loop. The evaluation factor is also necessary to ensure voices other than the usual suspects are shaping the organization’s identity, thus creating a more equitable organization. Overall, co-operatives that alter their evaluation factor will be better prepared to respond to stakeholder concerns and maintain these key relationships.

Amanda Sampson is a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives and a master of public policy student at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy

The findings of Macnamara’s Organizational Listening Project reveal an urgent need for all organizations, including co-operatives, to stop and listen. Benefits of large-scale listening include renewed trust, increased loyalty, more efficient resource allocation, and a more equitable organization. Organizational listening does not promise to increase participation levels overnight, but it can prevent disengagement from spreading. Co-operatives that seek to embody the “co-operative advantage” can do so by truly embracing the two-way street of communication.

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