The best and worst developments in employee communication

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Notting Hill

Looking back at the past 5, 10, 20 years, it’s interesting to dissect the forward and backward progression of the employee communication discipline in light of changes in business climate, management strategies and fads, technological advances and the emergence of societal trends at local and global levels.

Each ‘Scrummer will put up their own Top 3 Best and Worst in terms of trends and/or practices and then the games can begin.  So here’s mine:

The Top 3 GREATEST developments in employee communications in the past 10 (or so) years:

1.  The emergence of social media technology and user-generated content.  We all know top-down is not always the best internal communications approach, but it was always challenging to come up with other ways of peer to peer and bottom up that weren’t either too small to be really impactful or too expensive to sustain.  We all know that involving people in change that effects them is the best route to success, that people take ownership of the things that they help shape.  But again, often easier said than done. The rise of  the profile of “social media” has made it a lot easier to create effective alternatives to top-down.  Of course, social communication isn’t reliant on technology – but by Jove it has become a hell of a lot easier to do.

2. Storytelling. I debated about 5 different Top 3s and the recognition of the power of Storytelling won out.  Surprised me, too.  But in my experience, the primal human desire to tell and hear stories — whether in a 3 year old or a 90 year old – was long ignored and remains just as powerful as a mechanism now as it did when certain people were pioneering this 10 or more years ago and being ridiculed for being “Pink and fluffy quasi-psychological theorists.”  Storytelling – truly a best practice, regardless of how it’s implemented?

3.  The emergent revelation that, having cut costs and Six Sigma’d everything to death, communication matters, that internal and external communications are inextricably linked, and that internal is as commercially important as external.  After banging on about “joined up thinking” for years in pitches, work with clients, my book and posts dating back 3+ years, green shoots of evidence that alignment is beginning to happen are coming through everywhere – and not just in traditional “live the brand” and “internal launches” but actual strategic, cross-functional, inside-out alignment.  We still have a long way to go of course… but there is evidence of progress and I believe this is where the next “paradigm shift” (vomit, I hate that term) will happen in our profession.

The Top (bottom?)  3 WORST developments in employee communications in the past 10 (or so) years:

1.  The overshadowing influence of measurement-led approaches to employee engagement. We’ve beaten this to death in previous posts, but measurement seems to be edging back towards a more reasonable sense of priority and scale.  Of course measuring effectiveness and impact – both from an ROI and a risk mitigation perspective – is critical.  But spending equal amounts on measurement as on critical employee communications delivery is absolute madness.

2.  Internal communicators abandoning the strategic high ground and focussing on channel management and allowing the employee engagement space to be “divided and conquered” by HR, Change Management and Marketing. Somewhere along the line internal communications managed to surrender employee engagement to HR and employer brand to marketing or HR in many organisations, with the rationale that their job was packaging, air traffic control and channel management.  Big mistake that has had lasting repercussions and resulted in more messages and more noise, and less impact, in many organisations.

3.  The belief that technology (especially Intranets, most specifically those based on Sharepoint) can solve all their employee communication problems. An interesting foil to point 1 in my Top 3 list, but we have all seen companies where “We’ve communicated – it’s on the intranet” is a very real phenomenon.  Combine this with the marketing might of Microsoft and madness of crowds sheep like behaviour, we now often see “award winning” intranets that are unfit for purpose and failing to remotely deliver on their potential and promise. Echoes of our “best practice” debate apply here just as much as to employee engagement.

Follow up from Lindsay Uittenbogaard in The Hague


1. The recognition of (most) leaders that actually, communication is important – even if that notion is still a bit woolly in the minds of many.   Internal communication generally isn’t seen as PR on the inside anymore. I would say that this has been our biggest step forward – caused by…

2. The credibility that communicators have established for their profession, so far – we could have perpetuated the idea that communication is a fluffy addition to real business by doing a crap job.  We should be proud of ourselves, folks.  We have earned our profession a credible place in the overall discussion.

3. The link between communication and knowledge sharing (with social communication and tools like SharePoint) helps connect information transparency with communication and business performance. I don’t think this crosses Kevin’s point that a major flaw of communicating via technology is a tick box mentality.  This is about creating clarity, which for me does not stop at traditional ‘managed media’ communication.  The sources and flows of communication are multiple and we’re on it.

THE TOP 3 WORST DEVELOPMENTS – quickly coming to mind are:

1. The failure of leaders to significantly invest in the development of communication competences in their managers and staff – we are all communicators but we’re not necessarily born that way.  Good communication practices of line managers and staff can arguably add the most value to business of all communication activities.

2. The failure of communicators to properly define the professional internal communication space to all relevant parties, so leaving still hoards of people who don’t really know how to interact with communicators or participate to their own benefit (links with point 1).  This is not exactly the converse of point 2 GREATEST DEVELOPMENTS, above – it is more that we tend only to focus on convincing our sponsors – not our broader stakeholders – what communication can be all about and the relevance of that to all.

3. The failure of leaders to recognize the benefits of a board-level-represented communication function – I echo Kevin’s point 2 WORST DEVELOPMENTS above.  Communication taken from the perspective of another discipline skews its application – in my mind away from the most value.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Place Stephanie/Stephanieplein


1.  Free Association for Internal Communicators

One of the weirdest moments of my career in internal communication took place in 2003, when I had the temerity to attempt to organize a “Lateral Communications Interest Group” under the IABC umbrella, using IABC’s own nascent social media tools.  Rather than support, encouragement, or assistance, I received a six month suspension for spamming and for unenumerated violations of the IABC ethics code, along with some tart sneers about how the chapter level was the “appropriate” place for such activities.

Today, LinkedIn alone has dozens of separate social media (today’s term for lateral communication) networks and dozens of internal communications networks (including our own fast-growing CommScrum group).  It’s no longer a requirement to ask permission from San Francisco to approach IABCers–or other communicators–around the world about shaping a new direction for our industry.

2. The Unthinkable is now Discussable

Even five years ago, even with abundant research saying that cascades and other control-centric communication tools were ineffective or harmful, the idea that communication flowed in anything other than a top-down direction was unthinkable in some quarters, and in others, still undiscussable.

While I think there is too much emphasis on the “media” side of the social communication revolution, that the social and lateral side of communication is  now open for business–and for open discussion with clients–is something worth sustained cheers.

3.  Leadership by Blogging (and Tweeting)

Internal communication is not neurosurgery, to paraphrase a phrase.  The major ideas, the major energies and major veins of activity can be shared well through a combination of leadership, persistence and good old fashioned writing.

That’s why the emergence of a solid internal comms blogosphere in the last couple of years, and the emergence of a tweetosphere willing to receive countless links to new articles and initiatives, has created a strong worldwide community floating and shooting ideas far more quickly than they could in a series of lunches, lectures, pricey conferences and chapter meetings.


In the aggregate, there is really one “worst”–the last stand of the Status Quo–fighting as hard as it can to deflect or parry the changes being wrought within the industry, and doing its utmost to deny oxygen to emerging leaders and experts.  In three acts:

1. “Employee Engagement” as a Measurement

It is not simply (as stated above) that there is too much measurement focus around “employee engagement”–it’s that measurement has allowed a two-way process (the way employees engage with employers) become a top-down, one-way measure (the extent to which employees are willing to contribute in excess of their compensation and any explicit commitment on the organization’s part).  Aside from creating an unsustainable gap in the cultures of these organizations, the persistence of such an approach to “employee engagement” is further reinforcing the last stand of top-down, one-way internal communication.

2.  “It’s all about MEDIA!!!”

The response of the incumbent IC industry–publishers, associations, agencies in particular–has been to focus on how cool, cheap and indispensible social media can be, particularly as an adjunct to existing top-down communication strategies.  In so doing, they attempt to sweep under the rug how the underlying shift towards social communication renders those strategies (and their supporting structures) obsolete.  They buy some time and fill lots of seats, but throw large numbers of people off track.

3.  Competence over Confidence

Not long ago, there was a huge furore in the industry about whether internal communicators were sufficiently “competent”, or in particular, whether they could complete a common suite of tasks and activities with wagging tails and bones held firmly in jaw.

That talk has seemed to be in abayance, but it’s had an underlying corrosive impact–in that the idea that an internal communicator’s value is derived from a basic level of tactical competence undermines that communicator’s willingness, and perhaps even standing and ability, to challenge  and influence strategic decisions.  Indeed, once the smoke clears from the current upheaval, the best thing the industry can do collectively is focus powerfully on raising and reinforcing the confidence of communication practitioners.

Dan Gray – Doin’ his thang in Riyadh


1. Erm… what Mike said. I nearly wrote ‘The emergence of the CommScrum’, which sounds way too self-congratulatory by half (in all seriousness, though, I think the community we’re developing here is a really special one and I, for one, have found pearls of wisdom in the comments threads here that I’m not seeing anywhere else). Let’s just say it’s what the CommScrum represents, and Mike’s first point covers that nicely.

2. “It’s all about communication.” One of said pearls of wisdom came from Geoff Barbaro in a comment on a previous post – that there isn’t a single field of human endeavour that doesn’t have communication as a critical component. When I studied at Ashridge (where “It’s all about communication” ranks alongside “It depends” as the ultimate stock answer for MBAs), I genuinely felt for the first time that the empathic skills and audience understanding people like us bring to the table was widely appreciated as a valuable strategic discipline.

3. Recognition of the importance of internal comms to external branding efforts – i.e. that (especially for corporate brands) it’s the proper branding of internal culture that begets a brand its authenticity. As KK mentioned in one of his recent posts on DTIM, we’ve had several clients who’ve had this light bulb go off, and it’s made for some really interesting and challenging work. They’re still in the minority, but it’s a start…


1. Erm… what Mike said again (Kevin too)! Of course we must demonstrate the value we add, but that does not necessary mean ROI, and it certainly doesn’t mean quantitative measurement of a universal “thing” called engagement. The persistence of the notion that this the only/best way to show ourselves as serious business people is corrosive and the single most significant barrier to the advancement of the profession, because it encourages…

2. Competence over confidence. I can’t argue with Mike’s second point either, and it’s a corollary to Kevin’s point on technology above. The idea that developing functional competence is the key to solving all your communication problems is equally flawed. In an increasingly complex, diverse and unstable world, it’s the ability to understand strategic context – to “join the dots” – that is infinitely more valuable. I still don’t see any of the professional associations grasping the interdisciplinary nettle.

3. The endless debate over definition of terms. I know Mike like’s to say that “with words we define our world”, and he’s right, but sometimes they are inadequate – even for people who communicate for a living. “Engagement” is such a subjective term – different for different individuals, groups and organisations; different even for those same people on different days – that trying to come up with catch-all definitions is to put a straightjacket around a concept that is much richer and more dynamic than words can properly express (a bit like “The Force”). So maybe we should stop trying – or at least concentrate on a more situational approach that defines engagement relevant to a particular set of circumstances.

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15 thoughts on “The best and worst developments in employee communication

  1. G’day all, this is a great post – we’ve come a long way really, haven’t we, and Lindsay, you’re right, we should recognise and celebrate that sometimes! Kevin, this is getting spooky and uncomfortable, and if I didn’t teach you somewhere, then somehow we seem to be channelling each other and may need to seek professional assistance. And Dan, aw shucks and thanks!

    On your last point Dan, I think the issue is labels rather than definitions. Someone comes up with an idea and it gets labeled. The next thing we know, the label takes over, stifling debate and the potential development of the idea. And because none of us are fully comfortable with the label, we spend forever debating it and not the idea.

    I’m a generalist and not an internal specialist, so I’m not as up with the internal stuff as you all are. But I would add to best developments the movement away from key messages and towards conversations (and stories and themes), the movement away from management and towards leadership (including the recognition that leadership can be found at all levels), and Anita Roddick’s great direction – we were searching for employees, but people turned up instead. The closer we move to Steve Denning’s vision of Radical Management, the more efficient and effective I think we and our organisations will become.

    Last bit – Mike, your IABC example is an excellent one for highlighting that the “control” method of our work doesn’t even work among the highly disciplined communicators community, so has no hope of working anywhere else.

    Cheers, geoff

  2. Jon says:

    This is the best piece I have ever read on CommScrum, because for once I agree with every word you have written.

    It is also the worst piece I have ever read on CommScrum, because for once, I agree with every word you have written.

    Maybe it’s time for a re-brand – CommsCuddle perhaps? 😉

  3. Kudos all round, certainly. An excellent (as usual) post, thoughtful and well-reasoned.

    A word on engagement as a measure. Our friends at The Gallup Organization have made a monstrous amount of money selling engagement as a business outcome and claiming correlation is equal to causation. This is sheer laziness.

    Gallup’s Q12 should be a diagnostic tool, just as any other serious research should be. Too many leaders know their employees are actively disengaged, but have no clue how to address the problem. Lindsay’s #1 among the disasters (leadership communication competence) is my #1 as well — and the over-reliance on Q12 and other engagement metrics is emblematic of this problem. It’s simply easier to hire out on engagement and sail on than really look at the serious structural issues that push employees and companies apart.

    Engagement that reaches a certain level is unlikely to increase — so unless their are gains in revenue, expense control and productivity upon reaching that level, it’s a waste of time, energy and money.

    At a previous company, we did Gallup every year and kicked butt — continuous improvement, high morale and a pride that was well-known. That didn’t stop people from making poor decisions, economic trouble didn’t disappear, and there still were goldbricks littering the lobby, tarrying from lunch and screwing the proverbial pooch whenever they could. Knowing that people had this pride, what were the management initiatives designed to leverage it? None, because the engagement metrics were an end unto themselves.

    We would do way better to measure what people know and their disposition toward the company — kind of like how we measure customer stickiness and attitudes.

  4. Jean says:

    Sorry this is off-topic. I enjoy reading your posts – I always find something useful in them. But the small (9 pt?) gray type means I have to copy & paste into a Word doc so I can make the type black and larger and easier to read. Anyone else have this issue with reading online? Thanks!

  5. Adam Hibbert says:

    Right. Far too cosy, this.

    *rolls up sleeves*

    There is no trend towards two-way communication. I’ll say that again. There is no trend towards two-way communication.

    What there is is a new, apparently compelling story in town about how employees will get a better hearing, and this time around we all have lots of technology to point to as the evidence/business case for this wishful thinking.

    But it remains wishful thinking. Like other flavours of the month (FOMs) and all the previous expressions of this mode of idealism, it appears to be happening in an ahistorical bubble, in which the current generation imagines it has invented/discovered something revolutionary. Let’s have a good look at the history.

    Follett (1918, ffs) argues that employee and C-suite interests, while apparently opposed, can be ‘integrated’ through a process that synthesises both perspectives, through dialogue and involving all parties in strategy formation. Although briefly revived in 1941, and referred to by Drucker as his uberguru, Follett’s seed falls on distinctly unfertile soil.

    McGregor (1960) sets out the imbalance between theory X and theory Y, kicking off the Human Relations movement in management in the 1960s, which becomes the industrial democracy experiment of the 1970s. To no effect. By the end of the 1980s, it’s a new consumerism that’s driving the apparently ‘inevitable’ rise of a new deference by C-Suite to their audiences. As that tails off with a whimper, ‘online behaviour’ steps in towards the end of the 1990s, and enjoys a dead cat bounce in the form of ‘social media’ in the noughties.

    A review of these trends in 1999 I’ve just been laughing/weeping over concludes that there are many cycles of effort involved, but *no* tangible evidence that influence is becoming one iota more distributed in organisations – and that, my friends, is the substrate on which everything else in the two-way space gains its meaning.

    I thank you.

    • kevinkeohane says:

      I think you’re right really Adam. Maybe a bit too pessimistic though.

      I totally agree that many communicators and their employers have mistaken “one way plus listening” with two-way communication. Top down still prevails, and having employee surveys and listening mechanisms is a far cry from genuine dialogue. I wince when someone claims to have 2-way when it’s management telling employees something and then letting employees say what they think, and then ignoring what they say and doing it anyway.

      But there is hope. The explosion of social media may well morph into yet another channel for corporate mouthpieces, true, but it’s also creating greater demand for voice and participation at the consumer level, even the societal level.

      I do like your idea of understanding why it has failed. I shudder to think about what we’ll discover, because I think the answer has everything to do with the old “bean counters will always win in the corporate leadership stakes” cold reality of more than 92 years of management. Hemlock anyone?

      • Adam Hibbert says:

        Stay the axe, ol’palomine … it occurs to me that we haven’t tried everything, yet. Perhaps the way to finally deal with the beancounterocracy is to smuggle some of our stuff into the organisation *in bean form*, such that they can’t help themselves from counting it.

        We thought we were doing that when we all went metrics crazy and started handing them lots of whizzy graphs and ‘dashboards’, while they smiled at us like a parent indulging the daub-making skill of a beloved infant. We tried to talk in their language (‘numbers’) and missed the fact that the serious beancounters are actually only interested in the kind of numbers that tell a particular kind of political story.

        So, on the second attempt, perhaps we need to go much deeper, and make our intangibles fully tangible.

        Anyone familiar with the story of how interbrand put “brand equity” on the balance sheet and into the main international accounting standards? Fancy looking into what it would take to produce a similarly robust methodology for forcing “employee equity” onto the books, thereby finally playing the beancounters at their own game?

  6. commscrum says:

    For 29 years the Berlin Wall stood. One day it fell. Patience, Adam…patience.

    Mike Klein

  7. Adam Hibbert says:

    Ahh, the soothing siren song … almost good enough, Mike.

    But what if we’ve been going about this the wrong way? Instead of continuing to proselytise around all the reasons it is imminent, and after 92 years of patience (or ‘failure’, depending on the tint of your specs) perhaps we should be doing a slightly better job of understanding why it isn’t happening? Mebbe.

  8. commscrum says:

    Well, one thing that has changed–and I think this will prove decisive–is that C-suiters have begun to be willing to discuss the idea that not only should employees have influence on the way organizations operate, but that they already do and always have.

    This is thrust of my Social Communication vs. Social Media argument, and one reason why I batter those who think the “revolution” is about putting a bunch of transitory social media toys in the hands of communicators.

    Most business communicators have resisted social communication (in-house and even the leadingest lights of the consulting world alike) for many years both because it offended the control sensibilities of senior execs, and was unwieldy to manage, let alone maximise the value of.

    Those two things have changed in the last year or so. Indeed, I think the wall may well have come down already, but that no one’s really noticed it yet.

    Best from The Continent,


    • Adam Hibbert says:

      Mike, I do like your suggestion that this isn’t about changing the world, but changing how we agree to represent the world (What?! You mean we’re not going to conspire in the fiction that the man at the top is in charge of EVERYTHING any more?).

      On the other hand, it’s not just control sensibilities, but actual control, that’s the sticking point. Personally, I think that’s the position from which the ‘grown ups’ dismiss the ‘upstarts’ argument. And it feels to me like that is, in reality, the weakest point in the case being put. Do we truly understand what control is about?

  9. Adam Hibbert says:

    For your amusement, a quote from the foreword to Alexander Heron’s “sharing information with employees”, by Paul Eliel:

    “it was assumed that if employees were given something to read, or were told something, that this was all that was needed to carry over the idea of teh writer or speaker. In other words, the information had been conveyed. But, in fact, this was precisely the trouble in all too many instances; for the problem, as Mr. Heron so graphically points out and particularly emphasises in his title, is not how to convey information, but how to share it. Now sharing and conveying are in no sense synonymous, for sharing calls into play social ideas and relations that are entirely absent when something is merely conveyed. Conveying is mechanical; sharing is personal. …

    “Mr Heron has demonstrated in practice …. that the indispensable ingredients …. are candour and honesty as between the parties … that there is a mutuality of obligation and responsibility that in the successful enterprise continually flows through well-worn channels in both directions: from the top-down and from the bottom up; and that neither direction of movement is of greater importance than the other.”

    Guess the date.

  10. Adam Hibbert says:

    It was writingboots that turned me on to Heron. The sense you get of ‘understanding units’ from those excerpts isn’t quite rounded out, though. Heron has in mind a nested chain of ‘understanding units’ from one end of the organisation from the other, through which information can flow in both directions.

    Their significance to his argument is that, by mirroring the chain of command, these units ensure that information in the organisation never travels in ignorance of the web of human needs and desires through which it is travelling. The understanding unit is primarily about preserving the social and moral links in the chain, so that when a leader sits at the top table and is asked a question about what happens if x, she is able to trust that her direct reports, and their direct reports, on out to the periphery of the organisation, are sufficiently in touch with her that her judgement is fully informed – she acts (and is widely seen to act) as their *representative* in the discussion, not as their ‘boss’.

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