Five ways to get literate about your business

Reams have been written about the importance of communication between company leaders and the workers. Books, articles and blogs have been produced, research have been done, and consultants get hired to advise companies on how to use speeches, presentations, email, intranets, and newsletters to communicate company strategies to employees. Companies are even beginning to use social media, such as CEO blogs and Twitter, to get their messages across.

Discussions about company communications are typically framed around how those at the top of the organization can push their messages down to employees. That leaves an impression that employees are passive vessels, dependent on leaders to funnel information through the various official pipelines.

The truth is, every person at work contributes to and is accountable for the success of the business. All employees, regardless of where they work in the organization, have the right and the responsibility to educate themselves about the enterprise they are engaged in.

In these uncertain times, it's more important than ever for employees to become proactive in learning about the business of their business. What you don't know can hurt you, and waiting for your supervisor or senior management to tell you what you need to know can be a risky strategy, both for the employee and the business as a whole. Frontline employees typically have the most customer contact, and if they are the ones who are least literate about the business, that is a problem.

Becoming literate about your company, how it serves the marketplace and the ways your role fits in to the big picture is a great way to make yourself more valuable as an employee. The more you know, the better you can make thoughtful decisions and focused contributions in the service of your business and its customers.

Here are five strategies for becoming a business-literate employee:

1) Read carefully and thoroughly. Carve out time in your schedule every week for getting informed, and make it a priority. The official communication pipeline is too often ignored by the rank and file, yet it provides rich resource for educating yourself about the business of the business. Don't set that newsletter or company magazine aside - read it now, with an open and curious mind. Make notes about things you don't understand or want to know more about. Check out the intranet regularly to stay on top of new developments. If the CEO has a blog, read it. If those annual reports look dense and daunting, find someone in the organization who can translate them for you. The time investment will pay off in better work practices and allow you to make work decisions that are better aligned with company strategies.

2) Ask questions. Reading what is out there is a good start, but it will only give you a part of the big picture. Your every day conversations are a great way to get an education. Get a good grasp of the company's vision, purpose and strategies. Ask your supervisor, colleagues and other trusted managers questions about what they do, and how it fits in with the vision and strategies. Get clear about how your job or department fits within the larger organization, and ask for help in making the important connections to the work of other teams, departments and divisions. What are the key performance and financial measures? Who keeps score and how? Ask for information about key competitors. Explore with others the ways company strategies are addressing growth and development.

3) Answer questions. Not only is it important for you to get the big picture, use daily conversations to help other people understand what you do and how your role contributes to the success of the business. Other people also need to understand what you do and how you do it. Find opportunities to illustrate how you and your colleagues are interdependent - and ask them to explain the same things for you. Senior managers are often the furthest removed from the customers. If you can give them a better understanding of how the core work of the business is actually being done, the company will only benefit.

4) Develop credible, reliable sources. Sometimes supervisors see knowledge as power, and hold it close to the vest as a means of seeming more powerful. That only starves the organization - a vital, healthy organization makes sure everyone is on an information banquet. Explain to your supervisors how the business will benefit if he or she shares information with you and your team. If that doesn't work, look for other trusted colleagues and managers who can educate you about what they do and what they know about the business. Then share that information with everyone at work.

5) Look outside. The library and Internet are wonderful things. Find out who your competitors are, and what they're up to. What are the latest trends in your industry? Ask the leaders you admire what they're reading to stay on top of the rapid changes in the marketplace and check it out.
Removing the wraps from business information is not as complicated as people try to make it, and it is becoming more essential for business survival, both from an employee and an organizational standpoint.

Using every day conversations as a way to educate yourself and others is a low-cost, high value way to increase the capacity of the business. When you understand how what you do contributes to the success of the business, you can look for ways to up the ante and make your contributions even more