The lines of communication
Sheila Parry looks at how organisations embrace the potential of internal communication to make a positive business impact
The Institute of Internal Communication was established in 2010. The birth at this point of a professional institute dedicated to the specialist needs of this discipline very much reflected the growing profile of internal communication, organisations' increased awareness of what it could do for them and a broadening out of activities accepted as being part of the internal communicator's responsibilities. We now routinely see dedicated departments, senior roles and acceptance of this as a function with specialist skills rather than something that anyone in a communications role can do.
Why has this happened?
This blossoming of the profession is due, to a considerable degree, to improved understanding of the key role of effective IC in achieving strategic business objectives (that is, a 'must have' rather than a 'nice to do', 'should do' or 'we'll do a bit of this when we have time').
This has been supported by much recent research, nationally and internationally, on the role of employee engagement in business success.
Engage for success
In the UK a considerable amount of work in this area has arisen from the Engage for Success movement, which is committed to the ideal of better enabling personal growth, organisational growth and, ultimately, growth for Britain by releasing more of the capability and potential of people. Organisations supporting this movement currently account for more than 2m people.
The starting point was the government-sponsored report Engaging for Success by Nita Clarke and David MacLeod1, published in July 2009, which identified a productivity deficit in the UK versus other G7 industrialised nations, and the role that employee engagement could play in making the UK more productive and competitive.
The report also identified four key enablers of engagement:
- visible empowering leadership that provides a strong strategic narrative about the organisation, where it's coming from and where it's going
- engaging managers who focus their people, give them scope, coach and stretch them; treat them as individuals
- employee voice that exists throughout the organisation, for expressing and challenging views. Employees are seen as central to the solution
- organisational integrity, meaning that values on the wall are reflected in day-to-day behaviours. There is no 'say-do' gap.
Subsequently, the Employee Engagement Task Force2 called for evidence of connections between employee engagement and organisational outcomes from UK-based organisations, leading to the production of its evidence paper.
Compelling statistics from this paper included:
- profit Companies with engagement scores in the top 25 per cent had twice the annual net profit of those without
- revenue growth Organisations in the top quartile of engagement scores demonstrated revenue growth 2.5 times greater than those in the bottom quartile
- customer satisfaction Companies with top-quartile engagement scores average 12 per cent higher customer advocacy than those scoring in other quartiles
- productivity Organisations in the top quartile of employee engagement scores had 18 per cent higher productivity than those outside it
- employee turnover Companies with high levels of engagement show turnover rates 40 per cent lower than companies with low levels of engagement.
Some of the origins
Of course, there were organisations that were treating employees with respect even before the term 'employee engagement' was created and before we had the evidence of its impact. Forerunners, many of whom had large numbers of customer-facing staff, knew from experience that better employee conditions would lead to higher levels of commitment and better customer service.
Factors contributing towards changing behaviours and attitudes in this area include:
- economic climate Lifelong job security is now a rarity and so the former social contract of 'unquestioning loyalty (from the employee) for job security (from the employer)' has been broken. This has caused a number of changes in workplace dynamics, including the requirement now for organisations to work harder on relationships with their people
- importance of delivering great experience Organisations have realised that things can quickly start to unravel and a disconnect occur between promises made by promotional activity and what is actually experienced by customers, if employees are not clear about what they are supposed to be doing or are completely behind it
- more democratic/consultative Organisations have become less hierarchical and bureaucratic. People do not just want to be told things - they expect involvement and two-way communication
- new technology The ways in which communication takes place, and the forms that are now accepted and expected, cannot be 'controlled' in the same way as previous methods could
- frequent change Organisations have to keep modifying how they operate to remain competitive. It is more challenging to keep employees motivated and moving in the right direction in these circumstances
- specific market conditions Where there is strong competition for the best people, businesses have to do all they can to get and keep them. And financial incentives are not always enough
- generational issues A number of characteristics have commonly been ascribed to Generation Y, the group born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s - including a sense of entitlement, tech-savvy and not into social conventions and automatically doing just what is expected of them. They are happy to move on quite quickly if they do not feel that they are getting what they need for job/life fulfilment.
All of this had led to much more demanding times, with organisations embracing the implications to a greater or lesser extent. Basically, faced with all of this, it is about doing all you can to make people want to be at work.
And what is the ultimate goal from all this effort? Employees who want to stay, act as advocates and put in discretionary effort. This is a very powerful outcome in terms of creating important conditions for sustained success, and is being achieved by the best-performing organisations.
What does this mean for internal communication?
It is important to remember that IC does not achieve employee engagement on its own. Employee engagement is, rather, the desired outcome while IC is part of the strategy for achieving it. So what precisely is the role of IC in relation to the four key enablers of engagement we have already described?
- leadership IC can support the leader's vision by providing and enabling powerful storytelling, creating a clear, cohesive and compelling picture of where the company is going and the part individual employees will play, making the right impact when it matters
- managers As well as managers' own commitment to effective communication, IC practitioners can provide them with the necessary channels and support materials to deliver effective messages, either through cascades or more dynamic viral processes. They can also identify best practice, or indeed skills gaps, among their line managers and help them become more effective by addressing their real needs
- employee voice IC can ensure that people are given their voice at the right time, promoting feedback, sharing of ideas and experiences, and a collaborativeculture. Technology has accelerated this in some companies, but the will to enable it needs to exist in the first place
- integrity Communicators will have little chance of making a real impact if there are systemic weaknesses that leaders are not committed to resolving, and if other required policies, codes and processes are not in place and up to the task. But, where authentic values do exist, internal communications can help embed expected behaviours, give confidence in the robustness and authenticity of values and reassure employees there are effective systems for reporting concerns. This is an area that very clearly illustrates how the impact of internal IC will be restricted if the right values and other required elements do not exist in the organisation.
Making best use of internal communication
Embracing the full potential contribution of IC opens up new possibilities and challenges for leaders, managers and communication practitioners. If IC is to really support overall objectives, it should be linked into business strategy and plans at the time of development, not hurriedly added on at the end.
It has to be strategic and about achieving specific 'outcomes'. Solutions have to support specific organisational goals (eg to improve engagement levels, increase collaboration or innovation, or reduce silo-working).
Just as marketing, sales and production are expected to meet their targets, so must IC be able to provide evidence that it is achieving what it has set out to do.
Internal communication capabilities within an organisation (and/or as provided by suppliers) need to encompass strategic skills and strong person-to-person communication, alongside more specific and traditional creative competencies such as writing and editing, design and production.
The true owners of IC and its positive impact are leaders and managers. IC skills need to reside throughout the organisation, not just in the IC department, and their existence in those who have to manage others is an essential part of the employee engagement equation.
However talented and motivated communication professionals may be, they will be unable to compensate for poor communication by their colleagues.
Developing the skills of leaders and managers
Research shows that engagement levels are closely linked to employees' perception of managers. For example, for the last six years, Quantum Workplace's Employee Engagement Trends report3- which gathers responses from nearly 5,000 organisations in the United States annually - has shown that the two conditions that have the greatest impact on engagement levels are Leaders of this organisation are committed to making it a great place to work and I trust the leaders of this organisation to set the right course. However, only one in five of the companies surveyed performed best in the area of trust in senior leaders.
As well as being personally committed to doing the right thing and embodying organisational values, leaders must also communicate in a clear, open and authentic way if they want to gain their employees' trust. L&D and internal communicators can provide support and advice on communication techniques, as well as on content and the most appropriate channels for particular messages.
It is commonly said that people do not leave their job, they leave their manager, and research would appear to back this up. For example, the Towers Watson Global Workplace Survey 20124revealed the behaviours of manager and supervisors as among the top five drivers of engagement. It concluded: "When it comes to actions that can support both enablement and energy, few things can have as much immediate impact as an effective relationship with one's direct manager."
One of the reasons for poor management is that people are frequently promoted for particular technical or operational strengths, rather than their communication abilities. Professional development for this group has traditionally focused on very specific business activities, such as commercial negotiations and presentation skills, and less on issues around understanding workplace dynamics, emotional intelligence, reading people, what they want and need to know in specific circumstances.
Effective managers today must have good all-round communication skills, be willing to develop them and accept that they are an important part of their role.
When we look at major internal communication and change programmes that have high levels of success, these are often associated with initiatives aimed at achieving a consistent level of communication performance among managers, for example requiring individuals to successfully undergo a management development programme before they can progress further in the organisation or considering managers' personal engagement scores as part of an appraisal of their overall performance.
Developing the skills of communication practitioners
In helping managers deal with communication challenges, IC practitioners have an important role to play in stepping in and providing advice, both reactively when asked and proactively when they feel a specific course of action should be taken or avoided.
One of the big shifts we have seen is the move towards communication practitioners becoming trusted advisers to the senior team, because of their specialist knowledge and insights. This has not been a smooth or invariable transition across the board; it is dependent, on the one hand, on management understanding the full extent of what IC can do for them and how communication specialists can help and, on the other, communicators being able to fulfil this role, gain respect and make a real difference to the business.
As the institute for internal communicators, a key part of our professional development programme is about helping communication specialists to make the transition from 'producer' to 'strategic communicator' when their career calls for this. This encompasses issues around broader communication and influencing skills and business understanding, so that they fully appreciate organisational objectives, focus on what IC can do to address these and project themselves in a way that has meaning and resonance for leaders.
There are now many different roles with a responsibility for IC, and some of these still fall within the familiar corporate journalism category - although also often with a strong digital/technology focus. Apart from internal communication officer/manager, we commonly see communication manager, business partner (typically helping a department or division to plan its internal communication activity), consultant (within an agency), video producer, editor, intranet manager and social media manager. Individuals may be devoting all their time to IC, or combining this with external communication projects.
Economic, social and rapid technological changes mean that workplaces will continue to evolve rapidly, and this will naturally impact on communication strategy and processes. However, if good people skills are in evidence, and internal communicators have the ability and confidence to develop and implement solutions that will make a real difference, then organisations will be in a strong position to meet the communication challenges of the future.
A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.
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