Navigating the rise of digital organisational communications
It's good to talk. But what's the best way? Simon Wright and Lee Smith investigate.
Internal communications – the development and management of channels of content between an organisation and its employees – is an enormously important, and often overlooked component of employee engagement, job satisfaction and career development.
Internal communications frameworks, particularly for larger businesses, are often the primary modes of engaging employees in the strategic vision, company values and organisational change and so it is important to get them right.
Ultimately, ensuring employee buy-in and engagement with business updates, and providing the right training and development to complement these, can make the difference between an unmotivated group of individuals and an efficient, empowered team.
However, accomplishing this efficiently and effectively is a growing challenge for businesses due to a dramatically changing landscape for internal communicators.
The State of the Sector (SoS) 2018 report, research including over 650 internal communications professionals, highlights tightening budgets and a lack of investment in specialist staff as creating significant problems for internal communications.
For example, two thirds of all respondents have fewer than five dedicated internal communicators in their organisation, yet some respondents are working at businesses with more than 50,000 employees. That is a lot of ground to cover for a small team.
Technologically-focused communication channels are not inherently a bad development, but practitioners in employee engagement and training need to think carefully about the options they invest in.
As a result of this disparity, developing technological and digital solutions to organisational communication have been growing in importance, with the goal being efficient methods of reach as many employees as possible.
In the last year alone, the number of respondents stating that technology is their main focus in the coming year has shot up from less than two in five to well over half. At the same time, almost three in five said that poor technology was the main barrier to successful employee communication. The two go hand in hand.
Technologically-focused communication channels are not inherently a bad development, but practitioners in employee engagement and training need to think carefully about the options they invest in. The word technology is often automatically associated with being ‘good’, ‘advanced’ or ‘up-to-date’.
This simplistic view is unsurprising as we become increasingly reliant on technology in our daily lives, both at work as well as outside of it.
Yet, with a few exceptions, the measure of a particular piece of technology often comes down to a single, critical question: how useful is one technology compared with another, really? And nowhere is this question more important than with the Office 365 effect; the adoption of one-size-fits-all technology or software solutions that are designed to have everything an organisation could need.
Solutions like these are popula, but it is quite telling that over half that use it are also prioritising improving their digital channels this year. The technology is clearly not fit for purpose for the majority of organisations.
The reason this is so important is the simple fact that no business is the same. Everything from sectoral tendencies, individual operational nuances and the balance of personalities at the executive and staff levels make major differences to the working environment, and organisational communication and training requirements.
Ultimately, this means that the communications and engagement requirements vary from business to business. One size clearly does not fit all.
That said, the rate of innovation being seen in the sector is encouraging, and many are demonstrating that they are not relying on Office 365 or equivalents. SoS shows the industry is exploring the full range of tools and initiatives to make sure that communication and training are as engaging as possible. Almost a fifth of respondents use podcasts, for example, while almost a third use an internal television channel.
The emerging trend this year, however, is the number of practitioners who are responding to younger generations’ requirements for more interactive forms of engagement in the workplace. More than a quarter use mobile apps, while two thirds are making use of instant messaging. Even chatbots are being trialled with almost one in ten using them to keep in touch with and inform large groups of employees.
While broadening out the channels for communication and information is a positive trend, the fact that SoS respondents often deemed these methods as relatively ineffective should not be overlooked. There are two factors at play here.
First, many of these initiatives are in their infancy and practitioners are still working out how to maximise the effectiveness of chatbots, for example, while workforces are still getting comfortable referring questions to an automated software programme.
The second issue is more difficult. People like interacting with people. But, as the number of internal communicators and trainers fall within organisations and the importance of developing digital channels increases, it is unlikely that human interaction is going to become more common.
Even now, practitioners agree face-to-face contact is the most effective form of communication, yet the importance of line manager communication has decreased in the last year, and is now the single greatest challenge to communication success.
The world of organisational communication and training is changing, and the increasing development of digital technology has broadened the ecosystem immensely.
What is clear from research, though, is that balancing the human element of this ecosystem with the rise of technology will be vital in maximising efficiency while driving strategic alignment to ensure that workforces are a skilled, engaged collective.
Technology is a welcome tool, but harnessing its potential will be vital.
About the authors
Simon Wright and Lee Smith are directors at Gatehouse.
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