14 Debating the Future of Internal Communication

14 Debating the Future of Internal Communication

Debating the Future of Internal Communication with Mike Klein, Lindsay Uittenbogaard & Martin Flegg

About my guests

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms , a Netherlands-based consultancy focused on internal communications. A dual US-UK citizen with an MBA from London Business School, Mike has worked with top global organisations including Cargill, Shell, easyJet, Maersk and Avery Dennison, and is the Europe-Middle East-North Africa chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).  

Lindsay Uittenbogaard began her career running small businesses before spending 15 years in communication leadership roles with multinational organisations in the energy, IT, and telecommunications industries. Her insatiable curiosity around how people align differently in different contexts and the profound implication of that on business performance led Lindsay to develop and pioneer an alignment process for organisations called Mirror Mirror. An IABC Accredited Business Communicator, Lindsay is also a certified member of the Reputation Institute and a published author in the Gower Handbook on Internal Communication 2008.

Martin Flegg has worked in communication roles for around 20 years, in central government, financial services and higher eduction. He specialises in Internal Communication, Change Communication and Employee Engagement. A Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Chartered PR Practitioner and a certified member of the Institute of Internal Communication (IOIC), Martin has recently moved out of purely in-house practice and is now the Director and Founder of ggelf IC Internal Communications Consultancy

The basis of the debate

[5:08] A decade ago,  Lindsay and Mike were members of a blogging group called Comms Scrum. It seemed the same conversations about Internal Communications (IC) were circulating constantly – issues including why IC didn’t have a seat at the boardroom table, and why it couldn’t prove its impact. This dialogue hasn’t moved on ever since.

In order to reframe this discussion, Lindsay proposes the following statement:

  • communication is not one way; 
  • communication is not something that’s imparted by one party on another;
  • communication is not something that can be routinely delegated effectively.

These points are the core of this debate.

Removing the need for Leaders to communicate

[6:15] IC professionals still send leadership messages out on mass media channels. This can be disengaging as people are more savvy, more innovative and required to be more empowered.

In an effort to do as good a job as possible, communicators are mistakenly taking away the necessity for managers to communicate for themselves. The proportion of comms that’s about mass messaging rather than one to one conversation is far too high and has meant internal communications has reached the end of its usefulness.

[8:20] Leaders have a difficult job addressing audiences of thousands of people across multiple geographies . However, making a noise using mass media channels and delegating communication to someone else is not the answer and is a disengaging approach.

Amplify and scale the possibilities for interactivity

[9:15] Mike agrees that much of the execution of IC shows up as directive and disembodied, but he feels the role of internal communications should move in the opposite direction, to work proactively alongside leaders to amplify and to scale their message and possibilities for interactivity.

Mike also agrees that a lot of IC messaging comes across as disengaging, and that there are leaders who use the presence of IC resource as a convenient way to allow themselves to disengage from the process. In his own research, Mike sees potential for communicators, that they should continue to frame  and deliver IC, since most managers and leaders are not great communicators themselves.

[12:27]  Martin  concurs with Lindsay’s observations about the circular discussions about IC that don’t seem to be capable of resolution.

In his work with leaders, Martin feels he gets a lot of tacit buy-in to his proposals, but often not the right amount of follow-up action, as he shoulders the burden of communicating for leaders. He also observes that communications channels inside organisations are not as effective as the channels everyone is used to using on the outside.

We need to change the way we talk about communications

[15:10] Lindsay feels the situation is urgent – the IC profession in demeaning itself. We need to change the way we talk about comms and start to behave in a way that’s more akin with what businesses need.

 The issue of roles should be addressed; for example, there’s always been an uncomfortable relationship between IC and HR.

“It’s like IC is at a party but it’s in the wrong room.”

[16:40] There are some fascinating debates going on at the strategic level of communications, but when it comes to implementation, we need to make sure two-level communication ways and means are being used and dial right down on the use of mass media, broadcast communication.

Decide to cut the amount of noise

[17:10] Lindsay would like to see organisations decide to cut the amount of noise and use mass channels for publishing news only. That way, if people needed to know something critical, they’d know where to find it. This would enable IC to adopt a facilitative role that supports leaders and managers and not take responsibility for actions that are fundamentally not theirs to take.

Mass media communication is holding organisations back, as it perpetuates top-down thinking and fails to allow people to interact and shape messages to make them relevant.

[19:05] Mike identifies that some important issues: the contextual information; the tone and the ‘non-negotiables’ of an organisation, should occupy the corporate central channels. He disagrees the alternative is simply to empower and facilitate managers and leaders to drive communication. They are as much a part of the top-down approach as anything else.

Supporting influencers and advocates

[20:30] Mike’s proposal is that IC should take a much greater role in identifying and supporting people who show themselves to be influencers and advocates. IC could be doing more to mobilise and amplify these people across functions, geographies and generations.

“What I think IC should be doing more of is a lot more focus on identifying, connecting and mobilising influencers and advocates.”

The management side will become less and less important. If IC really wants to add value, we should be thinking in terms of how can we help organisations manage themselves more effectively without having to spend so much money on management. 

[22:00] For Lindsay, this approach could be flawed – if influencers are encouraging dialogue to build a shared understanding of the organisation, that’s great. If they are  being used as mouthpieces for top-level messaging, they are still part of the same problem.

Strategic Narrative

[23:30] Lindsay sees Strategic Narrative as an excellent start point, but one that should be open for interpretation and restatement by everyone who comes into contact with it. Facilitating strategic narrative is an excellent role for a communicator, but it doesn’t mean they own that message or that they determine that message. It should provide a start-point to facilitate a conversation.

[24:35] The concept of organisational narrative has been a helpful one for Martin, particularly when managing change. He feels that storytelling is important here and not just from leadership but from anyone in the organisation who has a story to bring the narrative to life. It provides an opportunity for people to craft their own version of the narrative. 

 Martin loves the idea of involving more people in active and two way communications but brings into focus the ‘cruel realities’ faced by IC practitioners. For example, the issue where action is instigated in a part of your organisation you’re not attached to. Channel proliferation is an issue – some organisations use upwards of 40 channels, not to mention shadow comms.

Centrality

The concept of centrality is a helpful one, and something Martin feels we can use to help thin out channels. Another cruel reality, however, is the lack of investment to enable communicators to buy they tools they need to implement the type of two way communication Lindsay describes.

[28:00] Mike sees Centrality as imperative to getting to some resolution in this debate. Organisations need their context and narrative be consistent and scalable. Language and messaging has to be coherent and there has to be a story that other, local stories can live within. A small enough portfolio of channels and tools that allows for that, without the org trying to control hundreds of channels, is necessary.

“To bring the chaos under control, you accept that people will communicate outside the central platform, but that the central platform is reserved for that which is important.Not just news but also context-setting.”

Martin points out that stakeholder demands for communication support can be controlled by asking them to confirm their objective for any IC activity. He points out to them that ‘awareness’ as an objective means nothing. Having clear central channels is a good idea, but they need to be two-way channels,

“there needs to be an element of feedback in there so the organisation can listen to sentiment and check understanding.” This provides some reassurance that IC is actually making a difference.

Change the Future of  Internal Communication

[32:35] Bringing us back to the focus of our debate, Lindsay points out it’s hard not to fall into the trap of discussing how to be better communicators in the existing paradigm, rather than discovering how to change the reality for communicators. Given the right tools and processes, most managers can be good communicators – encouraging them to communicate more effectively should be part of the future of IC.

[35:30] Mike sees two alternatives emerging out of this debate: to focus on leaders and managers being better communicators, or to focus on helping organisations perform more effectively and efficiently. Should IC be a function of leadership and management or can it be something that helps redefine how organisations operate?

 Martin feels his role in IC has evolved so he now acts more as a connector than a content-creator or broadcaster. However, the opinion of what IC is for inside organisations needs to be challenged so it can change substantially.

 Lindsay is tackling this by providing her leaders and managers with a process through which they engage with staff and gather data from them. This is helping them to have a conversation about how to make a larger strategy more relevant to their staff.

Should we focus on leadership communication or improve the whole organisation?

[42:15] Mike feels communicators in the current environment need to:

  1. Illustrate – the principles & practices that are core to the organisation
  2. Automate –  the tasks and the platforms so IC folk aren’t stuck with them
  3. Innovate – processes tactics and approaches that are appropriate
  4. Integrate – people data and messages in a consistent and appropriate way

Sometimes that can focus on leadership communication, but all of the time it should focus on mission, principles and the processes and tactics to get you there.

Alignment

[45:35] Lindsay describes the importance of alignment, or how people make sense of things for themselves in a way that’s complimentary to their team-mates. Alignment has to be achieved with individuals, which provides an important role for communicators: how can individuals be encouraged to find a way to become aligned and take actions and decisions in the right way?

 Clarity on roles and developing the role of the communicator as a facilitator is key to Lindsay’s view of a future for IC.

 Mike also encounters issues with misalignment, in particular the unwillingness of the ‘frozen middle’ to align with organisational change. He observes that a lot of organisational friction comes from managers rather than from employees.

Rate your manager

[48:55] Lindsay would like to see employees have the chance to rate their managers against achievement of organisational goals, so people blocking organisational performance can be identified.

 Martin has researched this issue too and found middle managers have some skills and advantages as connectors across organisations. They are also viewed by IC as ‘translators’

[51:50] Lindsay recommends asking managers to put some simple questions to their teams to prompt a discussion about alignment with organisational aims. She sees this as having more potential for success than posting messages that nobody engages with.

What can IC Professionals do?

[54:15] There’s a lot of pain in the IC profession, since its practitioners are given an impossible task and not allowed to develop in the ways they’d choose to. The resolution to this is to change the way we think about IC, not to demand more power or more control.

 Mike thinks communicators have a choice about where they fit into the role of communications in their organisation. We have a wider range of options than just wondering how we prove our value. There’s been a rapid improvement in the quality of thought-leadership in the IC profession recently, so there’s scope for us to change our role when we decide how we think it should be.

[58:17] Martin would like to see levels of professionalism increase amongst communicators – he calls on us all to learn, improve and become more professional.

Pointing out that nothing will change until this message reaches those with the most power in organisations, Lindsay urges us to share the message of this podcast with our senior teams and seek support from the top to change the game.

Where you can find my guests:

Mike Klein can be reached through his website, www.changingtheterms.com or on Twitter @ChangingTerms

Lindsay Uittenbogaard can be reached through her website, www.mirrormirrorhub.com or on Twitter @MirrorMirror4T

Martin Flegg can be reached through his website, ggelfic.com or on Twitter @ggelf_IC

Further Reading

Martin’s blog, Growing Pains of Internal Communication

Lindsay’s article, Recognising Social Alignment

Mike’s Blog, From “Centralization” to “Centrality”

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