Excellent communication departments are characterized by a close alignment of communication targets and business goals. However, several studies reveal that linking communication strategy to overall organizational goals remains an ongoing and unsolved challenge for the profession worldwide.
Alignment of communication with corporate strategy is an important precondition for contributing to corporate value creation. The Alignment Process offers a visualization of the necessary steps for the process of linking communication targets to overarching corporate goals.
How can communication be aligned with corporate strategy?
- Reflect on the organization’s current situation and strategic direction for the future
- Use the CVC to analyze where communication can add value
- Identify and prioritize business goals (inner circle of CVC)
- Derive core communication targets (outer circle of CVC)
- Break down communication targets into concrete measures
- Define KPIs and measurement methods
- Ensure that all projects are linked to your targets
- Verify that communication goals are aligned with corporate goals
- Alignment as a precondition for success: Alignment of communication with corporate strategy is an important precondition for contributing to corporate value creation. However, there is still a lack of conceptual research and empirical studies on how to create strategic alignment in practice.
- A newly developed framework: Strategic alignment must start with business goals and derive communication targets systematically. The Alignment Process offers a visualization of the necessary steps for the process of linking communication targets to overarching corporate goals. Aligning communications requires agglomerated managerial skills and will.
- Customized application: Alignment is corporate specific, so there is no one solution that fits all. The Communication Value Circle (CVC) is a useful tool for reflection on the strategic alignment of an existing communication strategy or in the development of a new one.
A successful alignment process depends on corporate-specific characteristics, structures, and the unique corporate culture. Communicators therefore need to develop specific solutions for creating strategic alignment. The following different ways exist:
- Top-down vs. bottom-up: Most organizations use the classical top-down approach, deriving communication targets from corporate goals, as visualized in the Alignment Process. In contrast, the bottom-up approach seeks input from employees and external stakeholders with the goal of integrating their expectations into the communication strategy formulation process.
- Formal vs. informal: Alignment can be achieved through formalized processes, structures and instruments, through negotiations during annual strategy meetings with the CEO and other board members. In contrast, it can also take place in informal meetings and during personal negotiations with the CEO or the executives of relevant business units.
- Centralized vs. decentralized: In the centralized approach, the corporate headquarter is usually responsible for defining the corporate strategy as well as coordinating the alignment of the entire organization. Strategic goals are typically cascaded down to business units, departments, leaders and employees. Decentralized means the alignment process is carried out more independently by the business units and regional offices.
A concise corporate strategy statement and clear business goals are required for aligning communications. However, most communication departments face a number of obstacles:
- Non-transparent corporate goals: Officially communicated goals may not reflect the real priorities of top management. Strategic goals sometimes also only exist at the level of business units, not at the corporate level. This makes it difficult to define overarching communication targets that are aligned with the corporate strategy.
- Limited access to information: Communicators are frequently not involved in the core strategy process of the organization – even if they are part of the top management team or reporting to the CEO. They might find it hard to access relevant information from the board or strategy department. In this situation, a bottom-up alignment approach could be a starting point for getting a clearer idea about the current positioning of the organization.
- Ongoing strategy changes: A fixed corporate strategy might be absent due to constant restructuring and change processes. Communication departments can rely on agile methods and emergent strategies to ensure the dynamic alignment of communication targets with changing business goals.
- Measuring alignment remains tricky: It is widely agreed that alignment has a positive influence on corporate performance. However, measuring alignment success and its impact on performance still remains an important challenge in management Research.
- Wrong reference point: Communication processes are often falsely used as the starting point for alignment, instead of business goals. Choosing the wrong starting point may result in communication goals that cannot be linked to overall business goals.
- A lack of visualization: Many companies underestimate the importance of visualizing their communication goals in the same manner as corporate goals (e.g. in structured lists, pyramids, pillars, diamonds). Communicators should be able to illustrate strategic alignment not only in the language of management, but also in the visual representation used in this realm.
- Non-dynamic alignment: A very rigid, linear alignment of communications to corporate strategy can also have a negative impact. Tight and inflexible adherence to corporate strategy may result in a lack of reflexivity or the potential avoidance and misrecognition of problems. This in turn may delay the communication department’s ability to respond rapidly to changing environments.
As a first step, an extensive interdisciplinary literature review helped to systematize existing academic knowledge on value creation. Publications from the year 2000 onwards were included and account for more than 800 academic pieces in 36 international journals.
Secondly, empirical in-depth interviews with the CCOs of ten German and international blueship companies were carried out and supplemented by a secondary data analysis of more than 50 internal and external strategy documents, planning documents, and strategy formulations in annual reports of these ten companies.
- The roots of alignment: Alignment is not a new concept in academic literature. Since the concept first emerged in the late 1970s the focus of research has tended to be within the context of linking Information Technology (IT) and business goals in the late 1970s.
- Alignment in the context of management: In management literature, alignment is generally described as the ‘link’ or ‘fit’ between key organizational components such as strategy, culture, processes, people, leadership and IT systems that are brought together for the purpose of achieving common goals.
- Alignment in the context of communication: In strategic communication literature, alignment has also received numerous mentions. Much of the research has discussed the importance of aligning image, vision, messages, corporate brands and organizational culture in the context of integrating all communication activities.
- Research gap: The concept of strategic alignment has mostly received implicit attention by researchers. It remains quite fuzzy to date. Conceptual research and empirical studies are rare, leaving many question marks about how alignment can be created and measured in practice.
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