A Tipping Point For IC?

The thing about being an old communicator is that, over time, years of experience become clarified and whittled down to very simple basics. Sometimes this means seeing things in stark relief and the way ahead, for you anyway, becoming incredibly clear.

Reading the CIPR Inside document ‘Making It Count – The Strategic Value and Effectiveness of Internal Communication’, published in November 2017, occasioned one of those moments. Being honest, it was one of those ‘oh shit’ moments.

The issues identified by the CIPR document were (and this may not be an exhaustive list, so read the damn’ thing yourself) as follows. (The summaries following each issue point are drawn from the report, but are my own words.)

IC’s ‘professional branding’

(The term ‘professional branding’ is used (by me, here) to mean how IC is viewed when it isn’t in the room.) IC is tactical not strategic, it lacks business acumen, it is not measurable, its function is unclear. Communication within an organisation is seen as important and valuable – but is spoken of (by senior management) in broad terms that do little to suggest an understanding of tangible benefits or the risks of not doing it.

IC’s ‘place’ in the organisation

CEOs responding to questioning about the value of business functions highlighted IC as important but, understandably, said that the areas that generated profits had the most value. The impression is that IC practitioners, on the other hand, fell that they are wholly undervalued and, in some cases, merit a place on the board.

What IC actually is

Many IC practitioners surveyed used the terms ‘IC’ and ‘engagement’ interchangeably, a confusion which hints at a lack of professional clarity. ‘Culture’ was also thrown into the mix. CEOs mentioned IC strategy, but were talking IC tactics. It appears IC is often a simple delivery system and not the instigator or shaper of the message.

What IC delivers to the organisation

Motherhood statements (from senior management) such as ‘Internal communication is extremely important…..it’s right up there and (I) would rate it at a nine or ten, because if you don’t communicate effectively with your people….. you’re probably going to have a dysfunctional organisation’ imply no real understanding of IC delivery or benefit. 

How IC is measured

The summary finding ‘there is a strong focus from leadership on performance and targets’ illuminates and damns in one. CEOs agreed that an engaged workforce (engagement/IC confusion) was more productive, but believed it was difficult to to prove with hard data.

Finally, and I cannot ignore this, there is a clear indication of corporate attitudes to IC in the sample size. The aim was 40 senior managers ‘however, (the CIPR) found it challenging to identify the full sample for varying reasons, including access to CEOs’  – the end result was 14.

I want to be clear, I disagree completely with the CIPR when it says the report ‘delivers an upbeat assessment of the practice, with senior leaders demonstrating a sharp understanding and appreciation of internal communication.’ Sadly, I think I got a different version of the document.

But I was always told that one shouldn’t highlight problems without offering solutions – so, what should we be doing about all of this? Here’s a few things – by no means an extensive list, without the detail that is required to initiate a conversation – we might consider starting with.

  • Let’s put IC where it belongs – in Corporate Affairs, Communications or PR. It’s not part of HR and it’s definitely not part of marketing. It needs to sit with other comms functions to be part of a central messaging unit
  • Let’s be sure we know the difference between IC and Engagement. Communication can help deliver employee engagement, but Engagement (and its measurement) sits with HR/OD
  • Let’s ensure that we know what IC’s goals are (they should be aligned to the company’s goals) and use them to develop a strategy. Only then should we talk tactics
  • Let’s put measurement in place – start simply, with a couple of questions for each employee. These questions could form part of a wider engagement survey (there is no irony in this), or could be on the intranet or could be printed out by line managers, filled in by staff and handed in to IC
  • Let’s get involved in messaging – reflecting the corporate messaging, and developed by function, by department, by team – as granular as you want, as long it’s relevant and useful – and use this opportunity to enhance management understanding of the role
  • Recognise that IC (and Corporate Affairs) are unlikely to get seats on the board, and maybe not even (officially) on the ExComm. But also recognise that both are ‘trusted advisor’ functions and, as such, require business knowledge, business acumen and a healthy respect for cash flows and bottom lines

I first became aware of IC as a discipline 23 years ago – before I became aware of a thing called the world wide web. Before I had a mobile phone. It is not a new thing and there has been plenty of time for it to ‘mature as a specialist discipline within the broader communication function’ – and I have experience of several organisations where it has.

The CIPR report shines a useful and timely light on the issues confronting IC as a discipline. It should be treated as a call to immediate action.

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