Monthly Archives: January 2010

Mirror, mirror on the wall – who is the fairest communicator of them all?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrummer based in The Netherlands

To hold up a mirror, we Internal Communicators are human.  We like our comfort zones, we have strengths and weaknesses – and more to the point, we have egos.   I speculate that Internal Communicators who trumpet that the core of their discipline is about channels, or employees, or change, or influencing audiences, or leaders, or line managers, or knowledge… (as so deftly identified by Kevin in the previous Commscrum posting) …are simply pushing areas in which they feel the most interested or experienced.

Surely our discipline has potentially any of those aspects at its core, depending on the needs of the contexts within which we work at a given point in time.  We don’t need to keep defining Internal Communication, we just need to be informed about the full range of its scope and possibilities, then make choices about which activities we will pursue.  A model I put together outlining those spaces is linked below (along with a few example activities).  I use this a lot to explain that my current role sits mainly in spaces above the pink line:

Communication Spaces

But making the best choices about which activities to pursue requires a good look in the mirror.   With such a broad discipline, I speculate that all-rounders are a rare breed.  What does your organization / client need and truly, what are your shortcomings?   We need to hold up the mirror to our working contexts as well.  We all know that perfect organizations don’t exist: what are the limitations of your organization / clients?  For example, if your audience are a bunch of IT nerds and really don’t want to know what is outside of their own objectives and targets – don’t waste your time trying to change them by pushing news of developments from other teams.  Similarly, if you’ve never pioneered a Conversation Café between teams to stimulate innovation – but think that’s what your sponsors need – then get the support to find someone who can help.  If you have positioned the scope of internal communication and your ‘specialist areas’ within it, then getting that support will be much easier.

This all sounds like Communication 101 but still, are we really taking a good look in the mirror?

Kevin Keohane – CommScum London

The mirror analogy is good (so I will stretch it to breaking point.  Is that 7 years’ bad luck?), since I also think there are often things in the mirror besides the person gazing into it — what’s in the background?

There is a direct link to situational leadership theory. In other words, great leaders (and thus great communicators) know that there are different models for different moments and situations.  The trick is being able to identify when to use what, and of course to have the competence to do so.

The tension is between the need to specialise (which makes you valuable in an ever decreasing space) and the need to see the bigger picture (which, again arguably, makes you valuable in perhaps a more limited number of relatively senior roles)?

One thing seems clear: the game is changing, more than ever before in my 20 years’ experience.  From the “professional environment” perspective, the frontier/horizon is getting ever closer, ever faster, and it’s all about joining things up.

I wholeheartedly believe that the days of nicheguru holed up in their inch-wide, mile-deep towers are coming to an end.  The nicheguru will always have their place, but will find themselves drifting (probably quite happily, since I don’t think their compensation will be negatively affected) downstream, simply because they will become instruments of those capable of taking the more strategic, systemic, broad business perspective.

Maybe natural self-selection will take place?

Dan Gray – CommScrum London

You’re a bugger, Keohane! The link to situational leadership was the first thing that sprang to my mind too, but you’ve beaten me to the punch!

What’s particularly interesting about that observation – as you’ve both alluded to – is that it forms a brilliant bridge to both previous posts on the CommScrum. (A strong theme emerging?)

Not only does the central tenet of situational leadership (that there is no “one best way”) tie in perfectly with Kevin’s IC taxonomy from the previous post, but its emphasis on leaders’ (and similarly communicators’) ability to diagnose and understand context goes right to the heart of what I was saying in my first post too. In an increasingly complex world, that (strategic) understanding is becoming infinitely more relevant and important to the outcome than the (tactical) craft of communicating.

I’d add, also, that situational leadership is something of a misnomer, insofar as it’s more about understanding the dynamics of followership. To that extent, I think it also ties in very neatly with Sam Berrisford’s excellent observations on self-selecting audiences.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Brussels/Brussel/Bruxelles

My overweening thought when looking first at Lindsay’s piece was that it was simple and perhaps even “nice”.  And for the most part, it maps onto executional reality in an undoubted majority of cases.

But what is missing from this approach is any accounting for philosophy, or for the communicator’s role as a leader in the organisation as a whole.

Sure, it’s mightily helpful to be a multi-skilled generalist when there’s plenty that the organisation is asking from the communication function–supporting change initiatives A, B, and C, manning the intranet, setting up the press conferences and top-200 hootenannies and fine-tuning the Senior VP’s Powerpoints.  Indeed, it is unlikely that the vast majority of in-house practitioners could survive without being able to do all of those things simultaneously, and, often a communicator’s broader credibility is often linked to consistent tactical success.

Still, a major problem with organizational communication is the gap between what the leadership asks for, and what the business actually needs. The Melcrum “Black-Belt” approach to internal comms “competency” is great at giving practitioners the skill and confidence to say Yes to their managers when asked to handle specific tasks.  But in an environment where the business is exposed to potentially existential threats from inside and out, a higher level of knowledge and confidence is required that transcends mere skill.

Definitions play a role as well.  If internal communication is seen as a delivery discipline, no matter how well we execute, our importance may be limited and perhaps not worth the investment.  If communication–and its internal importance and mechanics–are appropriately defined and seen as being on a par with marketing, finance and operations, there’s a different game to be played.

GameChange: Why “Employee Communication” will stomp “Internal Communication”

Mike Klein–Commscrum Brussels

For many years—particularly in the UK—the term “employee communication” was seen as a mark of derision, an afterthought—something suitable to describe secretaries and ex-journos writing  canned and boring newsletters.

In its place, about 15 years ago, the term “internal communication” arose, a moniker seen more to reflect a serious role for communication as a driver of performance and productivity, a means of aligning organizational activities with organizational strategy, and more recently, as a vehicle for driving something popularly called “employee engagement”.

All of these items on this “internal communication” agenda undoubtedly remain valid, and in many cases critical.  But the world surrounding organizations has changed so profoundly in just the last two years that we are now seeing a resurgent “employee communication” paradigm incorporating the following realms of employee activity:

  • External communication—engagement with customers and neighbors
  • Political communication—engagement with issue activists, with stakeholders asking uncomfortable questions about their organization’s practices, and in some cases as citizen-lobbyists engaging politicians and the media
  • Social communication—engaging electronically through online social networks and social media
  • Internal communication—focusing on doing work and achieving mutually beneficial results.

Are all of these suddenly of equal importance?  NO.  Their importance will vary, particularly by organization,  and especially in terms of the extent organizations are exposed to the following factors:

  • Brand visibility
  • Involvement in unpopular or controversial activities
  • Regulation by political or regulatory bodies
  • High consumption of carbon-rich fuels

Those factors will largely determine the extent to which employee credibility will need to be leveraged and mobilized as an organizational asset in the coming months and years.

Indeed, the main distinction between “internal communication” and the new definition of “employee communication” is that “internal communication” has focused solely on organizational productivity.  Successful employee communicators will need to focus both on productivity and credibility.  That’s the game change.  Those who don’t change with the game could well get stomped.

Dan Gray – CommScrum London

It’s probably not in the spirit of the Commscum when I say that I agree with you 100% — with the small caveat, that is, that we must be careful not to get side-tracked by the usual nauseating (and completely pointless) debates about the relative merits of competing definitions.

Provided people concentrate on the substance of the changes you describe — rather than focusing on the labels you’ve given them — then we should be on for an interesting discussion.

The killer point is about leveraging employee credibility outside the organisation (which obviously renders “internal communication” something of a misnomer).  We used to talk about alignment of internal and external comms, but that age has passed. The boundaries have disappeared and we are entering an age of fusion.

Why? Because talking to different people as if they belonged to distinct and static audiences called “employees”, “customers”, “investors” and “media” is just daft in today’s world. In a different breath, the same person could be occupying any one (or more) of these states.

And because brands don’t exist in isolation either. They aren’t what companies say they are, they’re what they say they are. Authenticity is impossible without transparency and, particularly for corporate and service brands, it’s increasingly dependent on the proper branding of internal culture.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrum The Netherlands

So to regroup so far…  I am reading that Mike is observing the increasing take up of employees to vast and varied communication opportunities that pose significant organizational value – or risk.   Dan is supporting this and adding depth to the case, pointing out that with today’s such fused audiences and the requirement for truly authentic brands – employees have more influence than ever before.

Absolutely they have – but getting back to the core role of professional communicators, here’s the scrum.   Employee / Internal Communication doesn’t just need to focus on productivity and credibility, it needs way more investment so that it can be managed like it’s never been managed before.

Take an old concept – employee ambassadorship – and give it 20 cans of Red Bull and a red hot poker.  That’s what we’re talking about.  The more information that employees have access to and the more they can push out themselves means :

  • the role of the line manager becomes more critical (as behaviour exemplifiers, leaders, inspirers and temperers)
  • the value of / requirement for professional communication management increases (message creation and dissemination, knowledge sharing facilitation, communication awareness and competence building among employees)
  • and the relevance of senior leadership involvement in communication deepens (as sponsors and key proponents of culture changing activities – such as determining the core content of messages, deciding the emphasis of staff orientation programs etc)

I argue that BECAUSE audiences are more fused than they used to be – the need for alignment between internal and external comms is not outdated – it is accentuated.   Employee communication is most certainly an internal communication issue because true transparency and authenticity starts on the inside.  Employees do have a new influential hold over organizational credibility but this should be considered as a potential asset that needs serious management to become advantageous.

Kevin Keohane, CommScrum London

I would point you all to my 2007* blog post, “The end of internal communication” for my original opinions on the matter, which are more or less in line with the scrum above. And I’m not sure I get the links to the energy industry / energy challenge specifically, though it’s one of the biggies.

A major factor here is not just articifical internal/external dimensions, it’s a massive audience/message/channel/belief system overlap, as Dan and Mike  point out.  It’s the same reason why, for example, Annual Reports are bloating and (bad ones) are no longer very useful in deciding whether to actually invest in a company.  They have become communication channels reflecting numerous agendas and a mix of internal and external requirements and have forgotten their audience (the investment community).

I’d also point out that while in principle I warm to Mike’s point about one approach being driven by benefit to the organisation, and one by a broader and larger, more socially-conscious agenda, but ultimately organisational benefit will trump other considerations in the vast majority of situations.  Great companies will get it – sustainability extends beyond CR and indeed employee behaviours and beliefs become part of the fabric of the future instead of inconvenient units of production.

Not to repeat Lindsay’s point, but to me, hers is the one that I really think cuts to the chase: connecting up the core factions to deliver value to the organisation and its people.  The problem is these factions have evolved very nearly to the level of “belief systems” about employee comms.   They all use similar models and tactics, but the corners from which they come out swinging have very different trainers in them…

The channelers – Very slowly disappearing, and not a minute too soon, dinosaur ex-journalists and newsletter publishers who reduce the role of internal communication to getting “the right information to the right people at the right time”.

The human capitalists – There is a camp that believes it is all about ‘the employee’ – broadly, the HR camp.  It’s about policies, processes, forms, measurement, measurement, measurement, competencies, reward systems and moving levers (The Gallup 12 etc.) to get the most out of people – if they are satisfied, engaged, etc., then they will be more productive.   Business performance links are there, but are tangental outcomes of pandering to the best possible employee experience.  The McLeod report is a great example.  It only mentions ‘brand’ in passing – and then in the context of HR branding internally.

The experientialists – Another camp is the customer experience camp or “brand engagement” – e.g. marketing.  They argue that if employees aren’t focussed on the customer or client, it doesn’t matter how engaged/satisfied they are since that becomes irrelevant (although you can argue cause and effect of course).  You’ll find a lot of brand agencies here.  And they don’t do HR, dahling… On the other hand, they tend to be far more influential and persuasive by nature than HR.

The influencers – A third camp is (and often the most seriously flawed) the PR and change camp, where internal/employee comms is all about defining “publics” and then influencing them using spin and external PR techniques.

The changelings – Communications is change.  Change comes from workstreams.

The executives – It’s all about leadership communication.

The managerials – It’s all about line managers.

The KM brigade – It’s about intranets and managing knowledge.

The storytellers – It’s all about big pictures and stories, since the dawn of time it always has been.

Look, I’m exaggerating and being a bit flippant, but you can actually find most of the factions at play in most organisations, largely focussed not on the ultimate effectiveness of the communication effort for the enterprise but instead on who holds the budget, the power, turf wars and the tactical needs within organisational silos.  A world where the politics of fear trumps alignment.  The point is – where is the centre of gravity?  I’d argue a broader, systemic approach with far clearer and business-focussed measures and outcomes (including people factors) is needed.  As Lindsay says, a completely different way of looking at communicating with employees that more solidly solders it to the way the organisation and its processes are designed and managed.

Finally, the “employee experience” really begins before they arrive, and continues after they leave, when you think about it – debunking “internal” altogther.

* which gives credence to the fact that, er, these things take some time to work through the zeitgeist…