Best Practice

Personnel Today’s monthly series reveals how managers tackle business problems and enhance performance. In this issue, Lesley Allman, internal communications manager at Bass Brewers, offers a refreshing, new view of employee communications

Bass Brewers, part of Bass plc, is the second largest brewing organisation in the UK. It produces over 9m barrels of beer a year and enjoys a 25 per cent share of the UK beer market.

Much of this success stems from a brand portfolio that includes Carling, the leading beer in England and Wales, Caffrey’s, Hooch, Grolsch, Tennent’s and Worthington. The company is also the country’s biggest beer exporter and is well known in the USA for its Bass Ale.

Up until the late 1980s, Bass, like the rest of the brewing trade, operated in much the same way as it had since it began brewing in Burton-upon-Trent in 1777. Its breweries supplied 11,000 tied public houses, providing a ready-made outlet for production.

All that changed in 1989 when the Monopolies and Merger Commission restricted the number of tied houses that the major brewers could own. Almost overnight, the market switched from supply- to demand-led as formerly tied pubs were acquired by new chains such as JD Wetherspoons, and the brewers found themselves competing against one another to supply these independent outlets.

Bass turned to new product development and marketing to protect its share and gain more sales from what remains a static UK beer market. This meant better pricing, higher levels of service and stronger brand identities. It also brought radical cost restructuring and outsourcing of activities like distribution.

Staff numbers, meanwhile, were reduced from 12,000 towards the current 4,000; the old, multi-layered Bass organisation slimmed itself down to five layers from CEO to shopfloor. National support services replaced regional duplication and home-based working became commonplace.

At this time, internal communications still relied on monthly team meetings comprising a core brief plus regional information. These were essentially one-way, irrelevant and often way behind the company grapevine. In short, this medium was neither efficient nor effective.

With so much change going on, there was a crying need for fast and accurate internal communications.

Technology vs tradition

Despite the shortcomings of team briefing, the overwhelming majority of our people reaffirmed to us that face-to-face communication was best. Our challenge was how to fulfil this need in the limited meeting time available.

It soon became clear our preferred solution would balance new technology with traditional methods. This led to the arrival of a fast electronic news service (FENS) in late 1995, a development that started to switch responsibility for communications to the individual.

Though a great step forward, FENS rapidly evolved into Brewnet, an intranet service that is both dynamic and flexible. Developed by Infocom and designed by MEDIAmaker, Brewnet has 95 per cent coverage within Bass Brewers.

This information exchange is available immediately employees switch on their PCs (terminals for production personnel are placed in communal areas). Brewnet looks like a web page and offers:

• A daily news service featuring stories submitted by employees on work-related topics

• “What The Papers Say” – a précis of brewing industry news, compiled and loaded by cuttings agency Clipability at 8am each weekday

• A weekly focus panel to promote topical issues or news

• Share price information on Bass plc and related companies

• An on-line telephone directory

• Links to functional sites such as marketing, purchasing and HR

• A national Q&A site where employees can submit anonymous queries and gain a response within 14 days

Also available are results from employee surveys and Bass Brewers’ balanced scorecard audits. The latter are regularly updated and appear as a series of graphical “gauges”, each backed up with a short explanation. These have proved of enormous value – in January, our quarterly employee satisfaction survey showed increases against feedback and understanding of the performance indicators.

Brewnet doesn’t replace team meetings – it enhances them. Instead of one-way news delivery, two-way events discuss issues, clarify queries and add value to the communications process.

Acid test

Has the investment in Brewnet paid off? In the early days, financial savings were made on print costs for newsletters and directories, while the communications team halved to nine people. More recently, indirect benefits have become apparent, although these are less easily quantified. Experience, site statistics and staff endorsements indicate we are working smarter as a result of Brewnet.

Overall, the service must be judged a success. Besides increased employee satisfaction levels noted above, an on-line user poll in September 1999 revealed:

• Fifty-eight per cent of respondents considered Brewnet an important communications vehicle

• Fifty-two per cent thought it friendly to use

• Over 40 per cent found it easy to navigate

Now firmly established, Brewnet’s real value is that it is employee, not management, driven. As one survey respondent was moved to comment, “Brewnet is a very powerful tool for passing information down to every level, and a response from a senior manager makes operators feel like part of a company that listens.”

The Best Practice Club is a professional knowledge network, pooling the ideas and advice gleaned from a diverse and global membership which spans manufacturing and service industries as well as the public and private sectors. Through a combination of education and shared experience, members are able to identify and adopt best business practices.

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