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Management of Internal and External Networks

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Framework for Setting Up and Management of Internal and External Networks

The framework below describes how a company can manage external networks. Just as in the case of strategy, goals and objectives, the company on a strategic level (management or representative task team), would compile the framework first. After the company has decided on the general direction that external networks will be managed, each department needs to break it down into departmental external relationship management plans.

This framework can be used at company and departmental levels:

Step 1: Analyse and Map Stakeholders

Before you make contact with external networks/business partners, it could be helpful to analyse your external environment first.

It is firstly important to identify who your external networks/business partners are, in other words, who influences your business most.

The second step is to analyse stakeholders. In the analysis you need to ask the following questions:

  • What is the impact that this stakeholder would have on my department? A stakeholder with high impact would usually be allocated more time, and attention than a stakeholder with low impact.
  • How critical is this stakeholder to our department’s success? Again, a stakeholder who rates high would be allocated more time and attention than the lower one.
  • How willing will the stakeholder be to make the necessary adjustments to change if our department requires changes? It can be very frustrating to spend lots of time on stakeholder meetings which do not impact positively your business.

Step 2: Draw Up Clear Expectations In A Service Level Agreement With Both Internal Suppliers And Customers

The purpose of a service-level agreement between internal business partners is to outline key deliverables as well as the frequency of review.

Define objectives. State the results you want to achieve. These might include:

  • excellent service to customers,
  • stakeholder loyalty,
  • centralization of the communication effort,
  • increased internal and external network teamwork,
  • improved product delivery,
  • visibility for the association and the industry or profession, and
  • influence on government, media, consumers, and other audiences.

Define/review audiences. List all the audiences that your department might contact, attempt to influence, or serve. If you have already done this in your stakeholder analysis/mapping, skip this step.

Define goals. Break objectives down into smaller, doable chunks. For example, if the objective is to improve customer service, goals might include improved training for your team on quality control, a manual for handling complaints, and ongoing information to customers (refer to SMART goals in module 1).

Identify tools. Decide what tools will be used to accomplish stated goals. These tools can be anything from a simple flyer to a glossy magazine. Don't overlook less obvious tools such as posters, report covers and Web sites. Brainstorm ideas with your staff.

Establish a timetable. Once objectives, goals, audiences, and tools have been identified, quantify the results in a calendar grid that outlines roughly what projects will be accomplished and when. Separate objectives into logical time periods (monthly, weekly, etc.).

Evaluate the result. Build into your plan a method for measuring results. Your evaluation might take the form of:

  • a monthly report on work in progress,
  • formalized department reports for presentation at staff meetings,
  • periodic briefings of the chief staff executive and the department heads, and
  • a year-end summary for the annual report.

Developing a written communication plan will take effort. Plan on three or four days the first time you do it. Once in place, the written plan will smooth your job all year long, earn you respect from your managers and other staff, help set work priorities, protect you from last-minute demands, and bring a semblance of order to your chaotic job.

Step 3: Select an Engagement Technique

Several techniques for stakeholder engagement exist. Choose one appropriate for the purpose you are engaging for:

Some important guidelines on engagement are:

  • Agree on the rules of engagement and understand each party’s role.
  • Be focused yet flexible: stick to your communication plan – engagement will be most successful if you remain focused.
  • Listen and be respectful: In networking with stakeholders, you will do more listening than talking. You need to learn each other’s vocabulary and influence or respect each other’s perceptions. Where trust is absent you will sometimes need an outside facilitator (refer to module 1 for effective listening skills).
  • Operationalise: Commitment and response to stakeholders need to filter through to corporate decision-making at all levels. It is exactly this requirement that has and will convince top management to filter engagement to all levels of the organisation, i.e corporate and operational levels.
  • Follow-up: Setting targets, measuring and reporting on progress and offering an explanation on targets that have not been reached is important in meeting stakeholder expectations.

Some challenges of stakeholder engagement include:

  • It takes time and resources: If successfully managed, stakeholder relations grow, not fade. Additional stakeholders would like to engage. Some stakeholders need to be educated about the nature of the relationship. This can drain company resources as most companies are not set up to respond to all stakeholder concerns and comments. Priorities need to be set and the budget needs to be adhered to.
  • It raises expectations which can sometimes be unrealistically high. You must be clear on what you can and cannot do.
  • Getting the right stakeholder to the table can be challenging: there can be conflicting demands amongst stakeholders. Companies or departments sometimes end up in acting to resolve problems between stakeholders. Again, you should continuously ask if this stakeholder engagement assists your business to reach its goals. If not, the engagement should be discontinued. It is important though that you keep a long-term view. Some relationships can be frustrating in the short term, but in the long term, it would do more harm to discontinue it than to keep it going.

Step 4: Create and Maintain a System for Feedback and Continuous Improvement

The same as with a team and individual performance goals, business partners should agree on responsibilities, target dates/frequencies as well as how success will be measured. Business partner contact meeting frequency should be agreed upon. The meetings should be held to discuss the performance of each business partner against their agreed targets/goals. Performance improvement plans should be drawn up to foster a spirit of continuous improvement amongst business partners.

Studies on customer satisfaction have shown that dissatisfied customers seldom give verbal or written feedback to their suppliers, they simply quit buying from them. Although this is obviously studies on external customer relations, it could be applied to internal customer relations. When departments fail to deliver to their internal customers, the internal customer loses trust, engagement drops and relationships break down. In order to prevent this from happening, regular business partner contact is essential. Here are some guidelines when meeting with your internal customers:

Take one of your team members along when meeting with a business partner to assist in taking notes, ensuring that all expectations are recorded; help with understanding the customer expectations; emphasise your commitment to good service to your customer; develop your own team members to appreciate customer expectations.

Develop good questions: In your preparation for the interview, define the information you would like to gain from the interview, and then draw up a set of questions to get the information. Open-ended questions give the customer the opportunity to elaborate, discuss and give more data.

Get the specifics: If a customer makes general, abstract statements, clarify it by getting the goal-specific expectation, linking deliverables, timelines and performance measures to expectations. E.g. "What do quick turnaround time mean to you?"; "What would the ideal turnaround time be for you?”; What would the minimum acceptable turnaround time be for you?”

Listen, listen, listen. Do not use this interview to defend and market your department. The purpose of this interview is to understand how the customer regards your department. A good rule of thumb is that the customer should do 80% of the talking and you 20% mainly to clarify important points.

Avoid getting defensive: A natural reaction to negative feedback is to get defensive. Avoid this impulse. Rather seek to fully understand the specifics and how it affected the customer, and agree on performance improvement.

Summarise what you heard: This helps you to check your understanding. Emphasize what you view as the main points of the meeting. After summarising you can ask the customer ‘how did I do?’ and ‘do you have any points to add’.

Do not over-commit: Do not give the impression that ‘all problems will be fixed’ if it is not the case. Rather under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.

Provide follow-through and feedback: Make sure any promises made are carried out, and that you provide feedback to your customer. Remember to thank him/her for recommendations and explain what was done. This will assist to strengthen your relationship.

Click on the link/s below to open the resources.

Stakeholder Engagement Plan