Recently, I was invited to join a podcast on the future of Internal Communications. It inspired this article, in which I share my views more fully. A lot of people won’t like this but I’m just going to say it straight.
But first, as a reminder:
- Posting / announcing content via mass media channels is not communication, it is a one-way transmission.
- Having a message and being fixed on what the other party needs to think when you’ve delivered it is not communication, it’s telling.
- People go to work to feel understood and valued, which means having an open, respectful, inclusive and effective relationship between between them and the parties with which they reciprocate, be that their boss, colleagues, and / or other stakeholders.
HOW MASS COMMUNICATION INSIDE ORGANIZATIONS REALLY HITS HOME
Let’s take an honest look at how mass communication towards employees inside organizations really hits home:
- It downgrades the requirement for managers to fully participate in the communications process because the responsibility to communicate has clearly already been delegated elsewhere
- It reduces the ability of employees to influence the strategic narrative and participate in discussions about how that relates to them because the message has already been published / broadcast / shared in a way that makes feedback and interaction unnatural and difficult
- It undermines clarity, honesty and alignment in the organization by exposing the inevitable areas of dissonance between intent and reality
- It is too generic to be relevant to any specific group so it turns into an unwelcome noise that people don’t have time for, which undermines any credibility and value that the content may have had / that future content tries to offer
- It perpetuates the top-down thinking that holds organizations back in times of complexity, as it disempowers leaders, managers and employees from owning and fully contributing to the evolution of the organization.
At worst, it achieves the opposite of making people feel understood and valued at work.
THE CENTRAL ISSUE
The central issue here is that leaders are asking people to take an end-to-end responsibility for internal communications and this is being accepted as valid. Naturally, those assigned to such Internal Comms roles are trying to add more value by claiming more and deeper responsibilities. However, this is a fundamentally flawed position because communication, by nature, cannot be routinely delegated to, or owned by a ‘department’. Leaders, managers and staff are inescapably instigators and participants of communications between themselves and connected stakeholders. How well they do that is a huge opportunity for the IC professional as facilitator.
And of course, I’m not pointing out anything new. In 2008, Bill Quirke said
“Traditionally, internal communications has focused on the announcement of management conclusions and the packaging of management thinking into messages for mass distribution to the ‘troops'”.
Quirke then points to research from Larkin and Larkin in 1994, indicating a limit to the value of this ‘broadcasting’ model of IC. He continues:
“Without feedback loops and the active involvement and mediation skills of frontline supervisors or team leaders, they found that broadcasting has more influence at the manager level than on frontline employees.”
HUGE FRUSTRATION ALL ROUND
This is why Internal Comms is stuck, which is a huge source of frustration for those working hard to advance it. You can see it in the repetitive IC community conversations:
- Why doesn’t comms have a seat at the table?
- How can we get better at convincing our stakeholders why we are so valuable?
- Why are our budgets not matching the opportunity to communicate?
- Why don’t people GET IC?
And the current set-up doesn’t just frustrate communicators. It creates tensions with leaders, managers, and employees, not to mention HR – here’s why.
Social science research shows us that performance starts at the team level and team effectiveness is about three things. Firstly, it’s about team members having a compatible understanding of their shared situation and challenges. Secondly, it’s about active learning behaviours that help them work together and deliver together. Lastly, it’s about the extent to which the organization supports them to deliver.
Typically, ‘building a shared understanding’ has fallen into the Internal Communications camp and ‘engendering the right behaviours’ has fallen into the HR camp. Why separate the two? If both IC and HR combined to support leaders and managers, this tension would disappear.
MAKING IT REAL
A communications leader is still needed to manage Internal Comms facilitation work and put the profession squarely and proudly into the role of a more integrated support function. I’d love to see a Chief People and Performance Officer at the table, under which HR, OD, L&D and Communications sit together.
I propose that organizations:
- Only use media channels for news, for content that people need to know and can’t influence
- Place the responsibility for communication directly back on the shoulders of leaders and managers
- Have Internal Comms professionals facilitate the effectiveness of leaders and managers as communicators:
- Curating but not owning the content
- Organizing but not leading discussions
- Sourcing but not forcing the use of various tools and methods that help align people in the organization e.g.
- structured dialogue sessions around the strategy and how that is relevant to the team
- use of processes that help teams identify and address alignment gaps within the team and between the team and the wider organization
- organizing and sharing data collected from these activities with the right stakeholders inside the organization
- Supporting leaders / managers / teams connect better with people in other teams where needed e.g.
- if they need to build awareness, some marketing materials might work best
- if they need to collaborate more effectively, have sessions on for example, best-practice virtual working
- facilitating collaboration sessions between teams.
The IC profession can reposition to help the organization understand and value their people so that performance and engagement improves as a result. But they’d need top leaders to stop asking them to do their communications for them and enable this shift instead.