It's 11 am on a Wednesday, and Dan Hunt, 42, president of Caribbean and Latin American operations for Nortel Networks, is live and on the air! Seated behind a stage-prop desk in the company's South Florida TV studio, the slender, articulate executive stares into a camera as he fields questions from Nortel employees — an audience every bit as tough as any that shows up for a taping of Oprah or The Tonight Show. A caller from Mexico wants to know the implications of a joint venture between Nortel rivals Motorola and Cisco. Hunt delivers a detailed answer. Someone asks about the new competitive threat posed by Lucent Technologies. After taking a breath, Hunt answers. Next comes a query about Nortel's new branding strategy. Hunt smiles and defers to the host of this corporate talk show, Emma Carrasco, 39, vice president of marketing and communications, whom Hunt laughingly introduces as "the mistress of all branding."
Hunt isn't your standard talk-show guest. And this isn't your standard TV talk show. But it is an important corporate conversation. Once a month, Hunt and Carrasco broadcast the "Virtual Leadership Academy," an hour-long program that presents company spin and in-depth, highly usable information in an interactive, talk-show format. This morning's audience, consisting of 2,000 employees in 46 countries, has been treated to a conversational stew featuring industry news, a surprisingly interesting discussion of international-tax strategy, and a chance to pepper Hunt and other Nortel executives with direct questions about the company and its competitors — all from the comfort of their regional offices. "We're always looking for ways to break down barriers in the company, and people are comfortable with the talk-show format," says Carrasco, a self-confessed "talk-show junkie" who designed the program to tap into what she calls the "talk-show culture" of her audience. "People watch talk shows in every country in the region, and they've learned that it's okay to say what's on their mind. In fact, it's expected."
Nortel isn't the only company that is borrowing from talk-show culture to improve internal communication. Breaking the centuries-old convention of one-way, top-down, rigidly formulaic corporate monologues, smart organizations are experimenting with new, more interactive, less formal modes of talking to — and listening to — employees and customers. Not every company takes the talk-show model as literally as Nortel does — with its set, its TelePrompTers, and its commercial breaks. But at a time when all kinds of other boundaries in business are being bent, blended, and broken, the new metaphor for corporate communication is best described as "edutainment": the company as talk show.
Think about it. In the Information Age, organizations that succeed are those that can quickly and effectively communicate critical knowledge to their people. And the best way to do that? Traditional top-down communication techniques — from shotgun memos to routinized meetings to heavily touted "knowledge management" systems — seem either heavily bureaucratic or unnecessarily technocentric. In the new workplace, rigid hierarchies are giving way to informality and networks — which is another way of saying that the most important elements of any organization are personal relationships: between management and workers, between colleagues, and, of course, between a company and its customers. And how do you build deep, valuable, personal relationships? Not through formal memos and structured meetings but through repeated personal contact. Through informal contact. Through talk.
"Humans create, reinforce, and disseminate knowledge through — guess what? — conversations," says Bill Isaacs, founder of Dialogos, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts that practices the art of organizational problem solving by fostering careful, in-depth conversation. "It's something we forgot, and it turns out to be at the very center of the new economy. Companies that perform better in the marketplace are the ones that do a better job of conducting these conversations," adds Isaacs, who is also the author of "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life" (Doubleday, 1999).
In other words, successful companies, like successful talk shows, are those that talk about the right things, to the right people, in the right way. Just as Oprah, Larry King, and Jay Leno know instinctively how to draw out their guests — encouraging a flow of ideas, keeping the conversation focused, interesting, and fresh — so "talk show" companies keep their own conversations flowing, not only among employees but also between employees and customers.
Of course, even Isaacs wouldn't recommend that you immediately rush out and hire Jenny Jones as your organizational consultant, or that you structure your next meeting around such hot-button themes as "Employees Who Covet Their Boss's Parking Spot and the Women Who Love Them." But by looking at the company-as-talk-show model, you can discern some of the fundamental elements of that model — and you can then adapt those elements to make your company, division, or team communicate more effectively.
For example, every good talk show, like every good talk-show company, has a great host — a strong personality who has a vision for the show and who can set the tone; someone who understands that good conversation must be facilitated; someone who asks the right questions, who makes guests comfortable, and who continually reestablishes links with the audience.
Every good talk show also has a great set — a stylish, fun, and highly functional environment that is familiar both to the guests and to the audience, and that encourages casual, spontaneous interaction. Finally, every good talk show has an effective, recognizable format — a set of guidelines that let guests and audience members alike know what to expect: what kinds of guests will appear, where they'll sit in relation to the host, who will get to talk and when, and whether and when members of the audience will participate. Taken together, these elements create an inviting, evocative, and familiar space that puts guests at ease while priming the audience for something new — a new talent, a new joke, a new idea — all in an atmosphere that blends entertainment with education.
Broken down into these component parts, the talk-show model hardly represents breakthrough stuff. Managers and executives have always known that important decisions are made through casual talk, rather than at formal boardroom presentations. For that matter, employees instinctively know that organizations have two distinct communication networks: the formal and the informal. And they know to rely on the informal part — the rumor mill, for example — when they're trying to find out what's really happening.
What is new, however, is the argument that informal conversation should assume a more formal status; that it should be promoted as a key component of an organization's business model — that companies should actively assume the role of talk-show host.
In fact, some companies have already begun experimenting with the notion of informal conversation — among them, the design firm IDEO Product Development, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, and the Home Depot, an Atlanta-based hardware chain with stores in more than 800 North American cities. Together, their success stories serve as a guide for running your own company talk show — and for getting the kind of ratings you need to keep your show on the air.
Ideo: All Great Talk Shows Need a Great Set
According to David Kelley, 48, president of Palo Alto - based IDEO Product Development, the best talk shows are those that expose the host to the most possible abuse. "You see a lot of hosts sitting behind their desks, hiding their body language from the guests and from the audience," says Kelley. "You've got to take away the desk, expose them, lower their status a little, so that no one feels uncomfortable asking questions."
Kelley is intimately familiar with the concept of exposure. For the past several years, the firm that designed cutting-edge products for such clients as PepsiCo, Apple Computer, Steelcase, and Eli Lilly has been looking hard at its own work environments, searching for ways to blow open the hierarchical barriers that thwart the flow of creative conversation. As a result, IDEO's work spaces are multidisciplinary and almost entirely devoid of special executive areas or status symbols, such as a conference table with a reserved seat for the boss. "The way I measure a good meeting is by the number of people who speak, who feel comfortable enough to ask questions," says Kelley. "And the way you encourage that is by lowering the status of the person who is leading the discussion."
IDEO's devotion to unfettered conversation isn't surprising. Like any creative enterprise, the $50 million firm depends on intensive collaboration among a diverse workforce of 350 industrial designers, electrical engineers, manufacturing specialists, and experts on "human factors." The more these people can cross-pollinate their talents, the better IDEO's projects will be. Yet, in a company that also depends on rapid iterations — moving from concept to mock-up to finished project as quickly as possible — getting together every member of every discipline and every project solely through conventional means is impossible. Instead, IDEO banks on randomness, using its talk-show set — that is, its carefully stage-managed physical environment — to increase the likelihood that individual interactions will happen on their own.
"There are many points where people can come together," explains Aura Oslapas, 42, managing director of IDEO's San Francisco office and head of the company's environments practice. "We can link up across projects, disciplines, areas of interest and expertise, or technical knowledge. And the more we keep ourselves open and available, the more opportunities we will have to leverage each person's resident knowledge."
That means creating an environment that "maximizes the 'surface area,' exposing as much of the work to as much of the internal audience as possible," explains Peter Coughlan, 39, a linguist and behavioral scientist who is helping IDEO to redesign its "set." To maximize each project's visibility and to increase the number of opportunities for random input, IDEO's set design includes the placement of common areas, such as worktables, in or near high-traffic areas. Throughout the office, visual connection is critical. For example, the walls of meeting rooms are translucent, so that passersby can see who's inside — and, if necessary, pop in or pull someone out for a quick chat. The studio's work areas are open, allowing colleagues to "visually eavesdrop" on other projects and groups, as well as to plug into neighboring conversations. It's not uncommon for workers who find themselves struggling with a project simply to shout out a plea for help — and to draw a crowd of interested coworkers.
Other, less traditional physical elements also play a part in opening up IDEO's offices. In one studio, for example, each worker is given a cubbyhole on a special wall, which they fill with objects that reflect some aspect of their work, professional history, or personality. The result is a kind of three-dimensional employee directory. IDEO designers have encrusted individual cubicles and workstations with artifacts — models of past projects, toys, posters — that not only signal who "owns" the space but also serve as conversation starters, grabbing a colleague's attention and sparking a productive dialogue. In fact, some employees keep huge collections of stuff on hand that they use as props when they're trying to describe a design or engineering concept to a colleague. "Often, it's much easier to show people what you're talking about than it is to try to tell them," says Coughlan. "This place is full of icebreakers and conversation pieces."
IDEO's set design may exude a playfulness that suggests that the workplace environment is whimsical and almost random. But, in fact, it's all quite calculated. Just as successful producers know exactly how to build a set that encourages guests to mix it up, so IDEO has worked hard to analyze precisely how a company "set" affects worker interactions. For example, rather than design an environment that "ought" to promote interactions, IDEO carefully observed what its employee communities were already doing that worked, so that it could design components to support those practices. Coughlan's team sent out surveys asking employees to indicate which areas in the office were most conducive to productive interaction. But survey data is notoriously unreliable: Most people significantly underreport how much they collaborate. So Coughlan sought out objective data, suspending video cameras from the rafters above work areas. These cameras allowed him to watch traffic flow and usage patterns and to measure the precise frequency of interactions. The results have the richness of an anthropologist's report, providing detailed descriptions of how various spaces, objects, and people alter the frequency of interactions and thus the flow of information.
Despite all of this formal methodology, however, Kelley remains adamant about the importance of informal interaction — about the kinds of unscheduled conversations that traditional managers have long dismissed as time wasters. That lesson was driven home recently when an important Japanese client came to the IDEO studio for a design meeting. For hours, with the help of translators, the two parties discussed a project. Yet IDEO's people still weren't clear on the client's expectations or concerns. It took the equivalent of a commercial break to clear things up. "When we had a break and everyone went to their own 'corners,' our Japanese-speaking people could tell us what was really going on with the client," says Kelley. "Only in these informal spaces can you find out what people are really thinking."
In fact, no matter how casual and relaxed a company tries to make its formal gatherings, it needs those "corners" — those accidental, informal places where employees can separate themselves from the organization and debate the implications of larger events. Too often, companies, like talk shows, "are just faking an informal conversation," says Kelley. "It's staged. It's not spontaneous, so you never really know what's on anyone's mind."
The best talk show, says Kelley, would be one that let you see and hear what was said during commercial breaks, after the camera is switched off and the host and the guests have gone backstage. "I'd much rather be in the greenroom," says Kelley, referring to the pre- and post-talk-show space where guests wait their turn to go on and where they cool off afterward. "That's where the real talk show is."
Home Depot: All Great Talk Shows Make Their Guests Feel at Home
Like the consummate talk-show host, Greg McMillan is a master at getting his guests to disclose their fondest hopes and deepest fears. Eight hours a day, five days a week, McMillan roams the aisles at a Home Depot outlet in Seattle, scouting out anxious home improvers, helping them overcome their biggest do-it-yourself worries. "People come in with a lot of fear — fear of water, fear of electricity, and, if they're trying to put together a barbecue, fear of gas," says McMillan, 33, head of the Seattle store's garden department, who has a background in retail, child care, and education. "All I'm doing is empowering them."
At this particular moment, he's empowering a middle-aged couple who are starting a plumbing project. It's a relatively simple faucet installation, but McMillan is the picture of solicitude, gently probing the couple's grasp of plumbing — which turns out to be essentially nil — and then patiently going over every step of the procedure. In especially hard cases, McMillan will write down instructions, or suggest that customers attend one of the many free how-to clinics offered by the store. "You've got to find their comfort level and work from there," McMillan says.
It's a time-consuming approach, but it's one that has helped give Home Depot's 867 stores a $30.2 billion chunk of the $160 billion home-repair market — and it illustrates how the talk-show model can work as brilliantly with customers as it does with colleagues.
Nearly three-quarters of Home Depot's customers are nonprofessional do-it-yourselfers who have a lot of questions. What the Atlanta-based company has done is to create a how-to culture in which customers feel comfortable asking those questions: It's audience participation - as - retailing. From the moment they enter one of the chain's cavernous stores (whose average size is 110,000 square feet, with another 28,000 square feet in the lawn-and-garden department), customers are drawn into casual dialogues aimed less at selling a particular product than at establishing a long-term relationship. "It looks informal, but it's a very deliberate part of our culture," explains Don Harrison, 54, manager of public relations.
For example, unlike other warehouse-style retailers, Home Depot doesn't use "greeters" — employees who intercept customers at the front door and then direct them to items in the store. "We don't want customers simply being pointed to lumber on aisle nine," Harrison says. "We want employees to take customers to aisle nine and, along the way, to engage customers in a conversation and to find out what they really need."
The basic message: Putting on a good talk show is as much about listening as it is about talking. Just as Oprah and Leno listen carefully to gauge a guest's mood and then shift an interview accordingly, so each of the roughly 150 floor reps at a typical Home Depot outlet must be adept at sizing up customers. In split seconds, a floor rep like McMillan has to assess everything from the customers' mental state (gardening customers, for example, are nearly always in better moods than those who have plumbing questions) to their competencies and expectations — usually by asking questions that draw customers out, without embarrassing them or exposing their ignorance. What is the customer building today? A deck? Well, just how familiar is the customer with pressure-treated lumber? Or with the benefits of brass screws? McMillan often takes his cues from the products that customers already have in their carts or in their hands. "Then I just expand on that," he says.
The key, says McMillan, is to recognize that most customers are as anxious to get good information as they are to buy a particular product. "People will ask, 'How do I install a dimmer switch?' " says Harrison, "and I'll say, 'First step is, turn off the power.' And they'll say, 'How do I turn off the power?' So I'll say, 'You turn off the power at the electrical panel.' And they say, 'Where's that?' "
Such exchanges serve a dual purpose: They save customers from having to make extra trips for so-called secondary purchases (which, according to company research, are almost always made at neighborhood hardware stores, rather than at Home Depot outlets). More important, they establish the feeling that employees are there to answer a customer's questions, even if that means not making a sale during the customer's first visit to the store.
This low-hassle, free-information attitude also shows up in Home Depot's regular how-to clinics — mini talk shows on plumbing, tile work, or lighting, along with seasonal and regional topics, such as deck building during the summer or hurricane preparation for customers in coastal communities. Home Depot promotes and plans its clinics with the same kind of care that goes into marketing and staging a successful talk show: It advertises them on signs near store entrances, it holds them at night for maximum convenience for do-it-yourselfers with day jobs — and, as a result, it draws good audiences. For example, one recent clinic on hurricane preparation in Florida attracted more than 100 customers. The format and the hands-on setting of the clinics encourage attendees to ask questions of the company's experts — and, at the end of each clinic, customers leave with the understanding that any unasked or unanswered questions can easily be followed up with a phone call to the store the next day.
And for customers who can't wait for a scheduled clinic, Home Depot staffers like McMillan give impromptu private lessons in the aisle. One of McMillan's most ambitious lessons involved showing a home owner how to rewire his entire house. "It took about an hour and a half," says McMillan. "But he got it."
Xerox PARC: The Best Talk Shows Are MultiMedia Events
Walking into Xerox PARC, a low, bunkerlike building carved into a Palo Alto hillside, is like entering the set of a science-fiction movie: "Office Workers of the 21st Century." In a conference room on the main floor, a digital camera high in one corner automatically records everything that a small group of conferring researchers have scrawled on a whiteboard. Along the hallways outside, wall-mounted, touch-sensitive computer monitors give wandering researchers instant access to a listing of future meetings and seminars.
Welcome to the high-tech company talk show. Just as TV talk shows use video, music, and even phone and email to keep the show moving and to stay connected with guests and audiences, so PARC is a humming, beeping demonstration of how talk-show companies can use multimedia technology to keep the talk flowing. But the key, says Jack Whalen, 49, a research scientist in PARC's Scientific and Engineering Reasoning Area, is to make sure that everyone is clear about priorities: The technology follows the talk. "Instead of saying, 'Here's some technology. Let's see how we can use it to help people work better,' " says Whalen, "you have to look at the systems that people have invented to get their work done, and then ask how you can support those systems with technology."
In other words, smart talk shows use gadgets to amplify and improve the ways that "guests" and "hosts" already interact. Studying the links between technology and talk has become a PARC specialty. Whalen, for example, is a sociologist and anthropologist who first examined the links between technology and informal communication when he was working on a project to improve the effectiveness of 911 call centers. Whalen learned that many 911 operators communicated with one another constantly — not by phone or email, but through an informal system of verbal and visual cues. By keeping one ear tuned to the background noise of the call center, operators could quickly tell when a colleague needed help.
Later, at PARC, Whalen found that similar systems had developed among the Xerox technicians who helped customers over the phone or in the field. In all cases, workers had leveraged their personal relationships to jury-rig systems that helped them do their work — systems that were invisible to management and that management could inadvertently disrupt or undermine through ill-considered (if well-intentioned) changes. In one case, Whalen recalls, managers of a West Coast 911 call center decided that the noise of an open-office environment was too distracting. To remedy the problem, the managers built high-wall cubicles — which cut operators off from the verbal and visual cues that they had come to rely on.
After much experimentation, PARC has been able to support informal networks and casual conversation throughout Xerox. Take, for example, the company's use of whiteboards. A highly sophisticated version, known as the "zombie board," uses a camera that not only records whatever scribblings go on the board but also scans, prints, and even pans across the room to a second whiteboard. And users can make all of this happen via quickly drawn symbols.
The low-tech version, found in nearly every public space in PARC, has no recording cameras, but it is huge — usually running from floor to ceiling. Because of the board's size, researchers can talk and scribble for a longer period of time before they have to erase, and colleagues who pass by can see the evolution of the conversation, without having to ask to have everything repeated.
In designing these technologies, explains John Seely Brown, 59, director and chief scientist at PARC, "We're looking for a way to support a constantly evolving conversation in such a way that we don't have to reset it each time someone comes along." The key to informality lies in giving people a degree of freedom to pick and choose which interactions to join. And that, says Brown, requires a physical space that "allows people to move easily from the periphery to the center of a conversation, and back out again."
In its search for other ways to use technology to support its talk shows, PARC sees live video as a promising avenue. Many organizations already use videoconferencing, but few have had much success in using it for informal collaboration and conversation. "When people meet on video, they often try to use the same resources that they use during face-to-face meetings — the body language and visual cues that are so important to conversation," says Whalen. "On video, those cues don't always come across."
Whalen argues that this difficulty stems partly from the low bandwidth of current video technology and partly from the inherent conflict between virtual communication and true informality. Yet he and others at PARC readily concede that, when it comes to using technology to support informal interactions, even the best technology can be rejected outright — or put to use in an entirely unexpected way. "No one anticipated that computers would be used as a communication tool," says Whalen. "Computers were supposed to be for data processing and analysis: Who would have thought that email would be the real killer app?"
Hewlett-Packard Laboratories: The Following Talk Show Is Brought to You by Your Local-Access Channel
Think of a talk show. What comes to mind first are the big-budget extravaganzas, complete with a slate of sponsors, a list of nationally known guests, and a host with star power. But for information on local issues, you turn to local shows — small-time productions that may suffer from poor production values but that offer up-to-date information about issues that matter.
That, at least, was the idea when Chandrakant Patel launched the equivalent of a local cable-access talk show at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories (HPL) in Palo Alto several years ago. Patel, the 39-year-old leader of hp's thermal-research lab, was starved for talk. A few years earlier, he had transferred from the company's PC division, where he designed disk drives for computers and where his work environment had been constantly abuzz with conversations among colleagues. By contrast, the HPL division seemed to be as quiet as a museum. Most researchers and engineers were grouped by discipline, and there was little interaction among them — which meant that Patel, as the division's only cooling expert, was cut off from the daily discussions that he'd come to love. "I was dying," jokes Patel. "Who was I going to talk to? Myself?"
So Patel started a kind of garage talk show. Whenever the affable engineer encountered a coworker at the coffee station, he introduced himself, discovered his new acquaintance's research expertise, and then invited this coworker to give an informal lecture, or "chalk talk," to other hp employees. Some people balked, but most were eager to share their expertise. Over the next several months, hp staffers from the lab's 14 divisions were treated to lectures on everything from Inkjet technology to error analysis to "The Future of Silicon Technology" to "How Big is the Universe?"
The results exceeded Patel's expectations. For their efforts, "guest lecturers" received vigorous, informal peer reviews of their work. Researchers were able to mingle after each chalk talk, taking part in dozens of spontaneous conversations — in effect, spin-offs of Patel's original talk-show idea. New relationships formed between individuals and entire divisions, and some of those relationships have since yielded key product developments. Patel, for example, was able to hook up with cooling experts from HPL's other divisions, and they have formed a permanent research network. Nicknamed the "Cool Team," the group has (among other accomplishments) completely changed the design of hp's computer-cooling systems.
The success of Patel's chalk talks points up a key rule: "Local" talk shows succeed by tapping into needs that traditional corporate-communication systems simply can't meet. "There's a real hunger for a much richer, messier, more ad hoc form of interaction," says Barbara Waugh, 53, HPL's manager of worldwide organizational development. "There's a hunger for a diversity of perspectives — and for a chance to bring them to bear on people's research questions."
More fundamentally, the success of chalk talks and of similar talk-show formats reflects the inadequacies of the old command-and-control communication approach, in which information typically flows up and down (mostly down) within confined hierarchies or corporate silos. Projects are conducted and reviewed within the same discipline or group, with little opportunity for outside analysis. The silo model is bad news for any organization that needs to capitalize on all of its talent. But it's especially detrimental to an organization that is dependent on innovation — such as HPL. Chalk talks change the internal conversation within a company, cutting across the organizational grain, rupturing silos, undermining hierarchy, and creating interaction across disciplines and ranks.
Local talk shows may appear to be spontaneous, but to succeed, they require carefully managed conditions. First, local talk shows need to develop from the ground up. All of HPL's grassroots forums, for example, coalesced around questions or issues that employees genuinely cared about. Chalk talks tapped into researchers' natural tendency to highlight their own triumphs and capitalized on their curiosity about what others are up to.
Second, despite their "outlaw" attitude, local talk shows can't survive without at least the tacit approval of senior management. At HPL, top managers have made it clear that they consider the forums to be worthwhile. As a result, skeptical middle managers do not actively thwart the chalk talks.
Third, local talk shows need ways to feed their discussions back into the company. Discussions initiated by Patel's Cool Team, for example, led hp to reexamine and then to improve the way it designs cooling systems for high-end servers. More often, however, the value created by the talk shows is less direct: Managers who depend on informal authority attend a forum on new styles of teamwork and apply the newly learned lessons to their work.
Fourth, local talk shows need their own "ratings." Even the most supportive manager has to be convinced that these time-consuming forums help the bottom line. The challenge: knowing where to look for payoffs and having the patience to wait when results take longer to materialize than you expect.
Live! From Your Desk!
The next time you're tuning into your favorite talk show, pause to consider that you're also looking at the corporate-communication model of the future. For all the lowbrow theatrics and celebrity obsession that mark the worst of today's TV talk shows, even the lowest of the low manages to disseminate information and to get audiences thinking — and it does so with an effectiveness that most companies can only dream about. Wouldn't it be great if all of your meetings were that interesting? That informative? That edutaining? Maybe it's time to get behind that prop desk, in front of that fake New York skyline, beside those comfy guest chairs, alongside that handpicked orchestra and those plastic potted palms, and kick off your own corporate talk show: "Live from your desk! It's the company talk show!"
Paul Roberts (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a frequent contributor to Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.