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We talk a lot about theory on the Internal Communication Diploma. It’s what students want and more importantly, understanding theory makes us better managers.
Theory should, of course, be balanced with experience and the more experience you have the more you know what usually works. That’s what makes teaching students who are experienced practitioners so rewarding. They challenge theory because they always, rightly, want to know how to apply it.
However, we shouldn’t always just rely on experience. That’s why theory is important. It is based on research, not just what one person thinks.
In my current academic research I’m investigating hypotheses that challenge conventional wisdom. For example, it is almost folklore in some circles that line managers are the most important people who communicate with employees. My hypothesis is that employees expect line managers to discuss more local team and work related topics with them and they expect senior managers to discuss broader, organisational aims, plans and progress with them. This seems quite obvious and many organisations do run town halls where senior managers explain the organisational strategy, plans and progress. However, many organisations still also rely heavily on cascade team briefings where line managers are expected to discuss broader aims and plans without the requisite, detailed, knowledge to do this with any conviction.
The senior manager connection in internal communication turns out to be as important, if not more important, than line manager communication in some circumstances. This really matters when it comes to associations with organisational engagement.
As Henry Ford is alleged to have said, ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’. At the moment, in the UK, what we have got is low employee engagement. The key point is not to do cascade team briefings because you’ve always done them, unless you have really robust evidence that they are valued, effective and engaging.
Are senior managers holding back the potential of internal social media to give employees a voice?
That would seem to be the case from my discussions with Internal Communication Diploma students. The technology is being adopted by many organisations and according to research conducted by Rachel Miller last year, internal communication practitioners recognise the need to know how to use it. However, many employees are still wary of posting comments and some senior managers simply don’t see the value in getting involved.
Jimmy Huang at Warwick Business School recently found that adopting internal social media enables what is called multivocality, essentially going beyond controlled one-way internal corporate communication. It also leads to a wider reach and deeper richness of information sharing. However, in the analysis of findings at three telecommunication organisations, Jimmy highlights the importance of cultural norms, in other words, the way that some senior managers encourage people to use internal social media to have a say and the way that others do not. The message is that unless employees trust the technology and their managers, they will not use internal social media to express their voice.
So why are senior managers so reluctant to embrace internal social media as a way of encouraging employees to have their say? Perhaps it requires greater awareness that positional power is not enough to engage employees. As John Smythe points out, employees expect managers to be guides, not gods.
Some academics such as Stan Deetz believe that the situation is compounded by the fact that business schools more often require public speaking and presentation skills rather than listening or negotiation skills. This is very outdated thinking. There is now a wealth of evidence for the value of employee voice provided by Engage for Success, IPA and CIPD. Of all the different enablers for engagement that are reported, employee voice is a consistent factor, one that is more highly correlated with engagement than other factors. Letting go of some control and a sense of all-knowing power is the best way to tap into the latent innovation that lurks in many front line employees. The real skill and expertise of a senior manager is to weigh up the knowledge and ideas that exist inside an organisation to make better informed decisions.
As Jonny Gifford, Research Adviser at CIPD says, if employers don’t show leadership in harnessing the power of social media, they risk of falling behind not just their competitors, but their own employees. It is time for internal communication managers to make the case for a managerial power cut and to support senior managers in making the transition to more power sharing. This will ultimately lead to higher employee engagement and better performance.
Looking back can sometimes really help to look forward.
Heather Yaxley and I have now completed our review of the history of internal communication. It’s been a fascinating experience.
We’ve discovered that the first formal employee publications can be dated back to 1840 and they were written by employees for employees. Then journalists took over and became “industrial editors” and for a long time “house organs” dominated practice. These were often used to counter organised labour in the 70s and 80s and to paint exciting visions of the future in the 90s. With very few exceptions, the voice of the employee was ignored.
At several points in our history, the dominance of house organs has been challenged. For example, Alexander Heron, who in 1942 argued that employee communication is “a two-way sharing of information; it is not a persuasion or propaganda campaign; it requires the freedom and opportunity to ask questions, get answers and exchange ideas”.
Don Wright emphasised an employee perspective eighteen years ago, arguing that public relations executives should recognize their ability and responsibility to function as agents of change in the corporate workplace making certain their organisations communicate honestly and regularly with employees on topics the rank-and-file workers consider important.
Internal Communication practitioners play a vital role in keeping employees informed. However, if this is all we do, we are open to the accusation of being internal propagandists. Being involved in giving employees a voice and listening to what they say is therefore as important as keeping employees informed.
If history teaches us anything in this study, it is that challenges to established processes are often marginalised and the importance of employee voice has taken a very long time to be recognised. However, with growing professionalisation through education, practice may finally be changing.
The results of the study are being presented at the International History of PR conference in Bournemouth on 25 June and the full paper will be published as part of the conference proceedings later this year.
There has been lots of talk recently about how to improve the reputation of PR. It reminded me how students often ask about the difference between strategy and tactics.
The best way to understand strategy is to think of it as a process that includes research, analysis, weighing up options by bringing in knowledge from theory and practice, and then deciding what the most appropriate general course of action is. This is all associated with developing measurable communication objectives related to the specific stakeholder groups concerned. Tactics are then the appropriate actions taken to achieve the objectives.
Of course, we all get excited by the tactics. It’s when we can get stuck into what we do best, producing content, running events etc. The trap we can occasionally fall into is to think about the tactic first and then retro-fit it to a vague or ill-defined problem. One way to think of this is that the more challenging the objective, for example, changing deep rooted beliefs, the less likely that a video – on it’s own – is the best tactic.
So, when someone suggests that a video is a good idea, my advice is to stop and ask what the actual communication problem is and then work through whether or not a video is the right tactic. Failing to do this can end up with a lot wasted effort and money spent on a well written and well shot piece that makes no difference to the actual problem it attempts to address.
Correlations can be a bit tricky to get your head round at first. A correlation is an association between one thing and another thing, for example, weather and ice cream sales. When it gets warmer, ice cream sales often increase. However, correlations are not necessarily cause and affect relationships and there may be more than one factor at play. For example, ice cream sales could also be affected by advertising and/or changes in attitudes about healthy eating. Correlations can though give you a reasonably good sense of when two things are linked.
During the last 9 months, I have been administering a new communication and engagement questionnaire developed by my University of Central Lancashire PhD supervisor, Dr. Mary Welch. It includes questions about internal communication and organisational engagement and it has now been run in five different organisations. The questions about internal communication include topics of interest, methods, line managers and senior managers. The questions about engagement are broken down into three dimensions; cognitive (think), emotional (feel) and behavioural (action). This design enables us to correlate different aspects of internal communication with specific dimensions of organisational engagement and action.
Early analysis indicates that there is a fairly wide range in the strength of correlations with organisational engagement across a broad spectrum of internal communication activities and levels are pretty consistent in all five organisations.
Some aspects of internal communication, such as senior manager communication and employee voice, appear to have moderate level correlations with engagement and a significant secondary association with action, through what employees think and feel.
As with the ice cream analogy, there will always be other factors involved with a broad concept such as organisational engagement. However, these findings, if validated through further analysis, will potentially help us to better understand which specific aspects of internal communication are more correlated with organisational engagement and action than others. More on these when the thesis is written up in due course. For now, I’m a convert to the way that quantitative data can reveal very useful insights that can have a significant impact on practice, especially when you include correlations.
Last week I discovered that internal communication is not quite as young a profession as I thought it was – it can actually be traced back to 1840.
We spent a day at the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) last week looking at archives going back to the 1940s. Interestingly, we found out that the institute was originally called the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE) which reflects the emphasis on internal newsletters which is the foundation of practice.
Heather has also collected some great books on PR. In one published in the US in 1948, there is evidence of internal newspapers – developed and written by employees, not journalists – dating back to the 1840s. This is the earliest documented evidence of internal communication that I have seen, unless you know differently?
In 2012 CIPR Inside produced a potted recent history of internal communication which can be viewed here. As I dig deeper into our history, two “moments of truth” are emerging. Firstly, in the 1940s, the remit of internal communication in the US clearly includes “bottom-to-top” communication, with employees providing information that helps policy makers in decision making. This is “employee voice” by another name. My question is why did this not feature more prominently as part of internal communication as subsequently practised by Industrial Editors from the 1950s onwards until it became recognised again as part of employee engagement which emerged in the 1990s?
This leads to a second issue about editorial freedom. From the IoIC archives there is evidence of some internal wrangling in the 1970s over the extent of editorial freedom that Industrial Editors should have inside organisations. The Coal Board at the time made it clear to the editor of its internal newspaper that he had full freedom to write stories. However, this seems to be a rare exception. Heather and I are speculating that a desire for professional recognition and to be part of management may have led Industrial Editors to focus almost exclusively on stories reflecting dominant management positions. This effectively left employees without a channel for their views for decades; even today employee voice is not really embedded into management thinking.
Our initial thinking is that there are three broad phases in the evolution of internal communication:
- Publication – 1840s to 1970s, practice is dominated by Industrial Editors publishing internal newspapers and magazines that tell management led stories, reflecting a command and control management mind-set
- Process and Persuasion – 1980s to 1990s, the scope of practice widens considerably as more channels become available, planning and measurement emerge, and there is more focus on persuasion during times of industrial unrest and change (e.g. privatisation in the UK)
- Participation and Professionalism – 2000 onwards, the scope of practice continues to widen with the impact of social media, there is more focus on involving employees by giving them a voice and education becomes more established through specialist qualifications
Heather and I would be interested to test this thinking by looking at more evidence from archives. If you know of organisations that may have kept internal publications dating back before the 1990s, please do let me know. I can be contacted at email@example.com
PR is no longer, if it ever was, just about media relations.
For those people who doubt that internal communication is part of public relations, recent research by CIPR found that 52% of PR people spend most or some of their time on internal communication.
PR is about relationships with a range of different groups of people connected to organisations. These include journalists, investors, analysts, regulators, pressure groups and employees.
The people in organisations who communicate with individuals in these groups share fundamental communication skills and (hopefully) communicate in similar ways that reflect the values of their organisation.
However, the nature of the relationship with different groups does vary according to expectations (and in some cases laws) about the way that information is shared. That is why there are specialists in the field, as in accountancy, law or psychology where there are a range of different aspects to the profession (for example, clinical psychologists and occupational psychologists).
Communication specialisms are currently represented by different organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC). Of these, I believe that CIPR has the broadest outlook on communication, representing media relations, public affairs, digital communication, financial communication, marketing communication and internal communication. However, of the chartered bodies listed, CIPR is the smallest organisation. It has the least resources and so the importance of an integrated approach to corporate communication is perhaps not given the attention it deserves by the wider business community.
Of all the groups of people connected with an organisation, employees have the deepest long term relationship. They depend on the organisation for their livelihood, they contribute most to its ongoing success and their own status outside work is reflected in what they do and where they do it. Because of this, communication with employees should be prioritised more than it is. It should not though be considered as unique and separate from other communication activities. If anything, organisations should bring marcomms, customer service, media relations, public affairs, digital communication and internal communication together into a Chief Communication Office so that a more joined up approach is in place. Otherwise, reputations may be seriously undermined if communication is not congruent across all departments.
As the wizards of internal communication, we have a growing range of magic ingredients to throw into the mix.
As well as all the traditional channels, internal social media is really exciting, almost intoxicating, and has the potential to be a game changer.
There is a trap though. We might get carried away with the euphoria. I’ve now lost count of the number of people who have told me that they have introduced a shiny new platform, only to get frustrated that very few people use it. The ROI on that is not so good.
The wise internal communication wizard exercises some potion control.
Tracy Playle from picklejar communication and I explain this on our social media for internal communication workshop. Before jumping to the tool, we recommend stepping back to take stock of the organisational culture and social technographics of your employees. Then choose the right tool. If this is a blog for example, then ensure that your bloggers are committed to regular posts and honest responses to comments. That way, people will be more likely to trust the tool and engage with it.
The critical importance of internal communication was evident from the discussions about culture following the report on failures at the Mid Staffordshire hospital.
As Richard Vize says in his Guardian article, “The shocking treatment of NHS whistleblowers is totemic of the culture of conformity, secrecy and suppression which leads to scandals such as Mid Staffordshire.”
Internal communication has a fundamental role to play to ensure that employees know what is going on and, at the same time, have a say about what important matters that is treated seriously. It is fair to say that most of the time internal communication succeeds in providing information reasonably well, albeit to varying degrees in different organisations.
The responsibility to ensure that employee voice is also facilitated is more challenging. However, unless this more sensitive aspect of internal communication is championed more by practitioners we are not fulfilling a wider responsibility that we have to employees. To paraphrase the late great Bill Shankly, “Some people believe internal communication is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
A free download of my chapter on “Informed Employee Voice” is available here.
Keep taking the tablets
In 2013, one of the greatest challenges that all internal communication practitioners have faced for many years, reaching unconnected employees, will be transformed as more employees will bring their own tablet, laptop or smartphone to work.
The worlds of personal and work devices are already blurring fast. According to research conducted by BT in the UK last year, almost four in five (77 per cent) employers now permit the use of personal devices at work and almost half (47 per cent) of employees already use their own devices for work purposes.
This is a great opportunity for internal communication practitioners to connect with field based employees. The challenge is to ensure that communication is meaningful and relevant and produced in ways that make it easy to download onto a variety of devices.
Va, va voice
Smart internal communication practitioners will finally realise that they hold the key to unlocking higher levels of employee engagement by facilitating employee voice.
The era of internal information transmission is coming to an end. Craft communication skills are less important. Polished prose is perceived as propaganda. Organisations that embrace the potential of giving employees a voice will see their culture energised with increased innovation, generating ideas that improve performance.
Ambitious practitioners will grab the opportunity to be at the centre of new, less deferential, ways of management. They will become expert curators of important knowledge. This will give them more va va voom in their own role and career development.
Since the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) launched its first specialist internal communication qualification in 2009, more than 500 practitioners have completed either the certificate or diploma course with PR Academy.
This now represents a tipping point in practice – a significant body of people with a chartered body qualification gives internal communication credibility. This is because studying a qualification takes dedication. It is different from training as it requires reflection that is applied to an assessed piece of work with academic underpinning. Many students are promoted or move to a different organisation after studying and that demonstrates the value of critical thinking. And now there is also a Masters in Internal Communication Management available in the UK at the University of Central Lancashire. But it will be some yet before we see the UK’s first Professor of Internal Communication.
In 2013 the question of whether internal communication is a profession or not will become less of an issue. Instead professionalism, established through education, training, and better informed measurement will lead to practice being treated much more seriously in most organisations.
This post first appeared on Simply Communicate together with a great range of predictions from other experts.