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…