McKinsey at the digital crossroads

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by Marc Wright

They advise the world’s largest companies on strategy but how do McKinsey use internal communications to support and engage their own consultants?

Back in July 2012 the global consulting firm McKinsey published a white paper called The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies. It was a highly influential report among the internal communications and social media communities setting out a future many recognised and believed in:
”The most powerful applications of social technologies in the global economy are largely untapped. By using social technologies, companies can raise the productivity of knowledge workers by 20 to 25 percent…”

So almost 4 years later I decided to follow up with Cabe Franklin, Director of Global Internal Communications at McKinsey & Company to see if they were following their own lessons.

Interestingly what I discovered was a communications function that is caught half way between the traditional channels of internal communication and starting to experiment with the possibilities of social. Cabe and McKinsey are a living example of the many large and successful corporations that understand the promise of social and collaborative channels, yet have not yet fully integrated them in a practical sense. In the case of McKinsey it could well be that good is the enemy of great. By any criteria they have a very successful comms strategy informing, engaging, and motivating McKinsey’s 22,000 employees across 123 offices in 62 countries.

Cabe and his team were responsible for the revitalisation of the company’s main internal communications channel, McKinsey News. They developed a new content strategy, staffed up an editorial team to deliver, and managed an external agency and developers to build successful new digital formats such as video and a nascent app platform for mobile. Under his watch, readership has gone up more than 180%, with 95% of readers saying they trusted the publication and 71% reporting that they had tried something new in their work as a result of something they had read.

But when I asked him why McKinsey aren’t leading in the field of social collaboration compared for instance to PwC who have had great success with Spark – their Jive collaboration platform – he admitted it was a fair question but defended McKinsey’s pace of adoption of social technologies.

“I think that collaboration is so deeply baked into McKinsey’s culture that we have so much infrastructure already in place to support it – whether it is our online knowledge library, expertise search, internal video conference channels or the internal regular practice meetings.

“I was told this when I was recruited, and I thought it was ridiculous but it has proved true: if you email someone on the other side of the world with a client question then they will pick up the phone and call you that day. There is a real sense of helping each other out because that is what we do.”

Culture is key here – just putting in Yammer or Slack will not make a siloed organisation more collaborative. So how does a business built on knowledge sharing and a culture of picking up the phone to help out a fellow consultant adapt to the new tools that are now available? Indeed does it have to? Maybe that 2012 report painted a solution looking for a problem rather than an evitable future for knowledge-based companies. Certainly the internal directory at McKinsey works very effectively – giving access to world experts on almost any subject within 30 seconds.

If there is a chink in Cabe’s communication armoury it is the use of mobile. He did introduce an iOS app for internal news but it has had modest take-up with only a few thousand staff using it so far. McKinsey has had more success with its mobile knowledge app, with over 70% of its consultants using it regularly to search for documents or internal experts while on the move. However, I get the distinct impression that Cabe’s technical infrastructure is straining at the limits to keep up with the quality and demands of the conversations that circulate inside McKinsey. And he is aware of this when he talks about the Microblog – their nascent social channel.

“The Microblog is in a grey area between communications and IT. There is a big initiative within the firm that is looking at transforming how teams work using social technology such as Slack and looking at cloud-based technologies such as Box and using more forward-looking analytics. It’s happening in pockets but we want to figure out what is working and standardise it and blast it out to everybody. But that goes far beyond communications.”

Indeed, McKinsey’s knowledge-sharing team, which is separate from the internal communications team, is about to launch a new social platform for conversations that might typically happen over email lists. “The plan is to create something more open and searchable that is not so email dependent – but to balance that with the primacy of email and yet not create another space where people have to go to know what is going on.”

Although many of the big decisions about collaborative platforms may be being taken elsewhere, the comms department does have credibility thanks to Cabe’s emphasis on proving the results of better communication.

“It’s my biggest point of evangelism – to use analytics to figure out what is working and to do more of that; conduct experiments that you then learn from. So the fact that we have been able to demonstrate our success has caused more investment to flow to us, because we have been able to deliver on what we have been asked to do.”

That investment includes an IC team of twelve, which has to be the envy of many corporate comms directors. But when it comes to social channels – and in particular a mobile channel – there is no demand from the business practices to fund a new platform solely for comms. Cabe is therefore looking to do something more modest funded out of IC.

“I have not seen a big change in what people talk about on the social channels or in the types of stories that people respond to. People know what they are getting when they join our firm. There are a whole host of Millennials here who may have a totally different way of connecting in their life outside the firm, but at work, the traditional channels seem to be able to get their attention.

“I do think a lot about whether we need different types of content for mobile. But to be honest, I am not sure how I will know that that is true without actually trying some new things. We like to figure out how to do small-scale experiments – we are looking at everything from podcasts to Snapchat. We’ll look for a way to do something for 3 months and then learn from that.

“The thing that we are making a big push forward on right now on our IC team is innovation. It might not be that any audience is specifically looking for something new but if we put the right 10 people in a room – whether it is a digital room or not – we might invent the new thing before anyone asks for it. Our team is good at collaboration, given we’re based in several different cities, but ideation is something we are working to speed up.”

McKinsey is by its nature a conservative and measured organisation. After all they are entrusted with the thinking and strategy of some of the world’s largest companies. Yet within Cabe’s well-oiled internal communications team there is a curiosity which suggests that the 2012 report might just be coming to fruition. And that internal comms might be changing as well to help unlock the value and productivity within the minds of 22,000 staff.