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.

A Few Truths About Internal Communication and Employee Engagement

As an old communicator, I’m certain that Engagement isn’t my bag. Employee engagement is not internal communication or, indeed, vice versa. The reason I take an interest (apart from the fact that internal communication helps pull the levers of employee engagement, or motivation, or belief or whatever you wish to call it) is because I once worked for a company where Engagement sat with Communication, as a part of Corporate Affairs.

Straight off, engagement is not the same as internal communication. Engagement is a by-product of the organisation’s culture and its approach to the ‘way we do things around here’. From that point of view, I think most would agree that HR is best-placed to own employee engagement.

Internal communication can – and should, of course – support the growth of, and strengthen, employee engagement by ensuring widespread understanding of the things that make a difference to the employee. These will include, but are not limited to, the organisation’s mission and vision, its purpose, its strategy and progress made against that strategy, its culture, its successes and its narrative.

What is it that makes someone proud to work where they do? An understanding of, and belief in, what the company is doing and how it is doing it, and a clear idea of what part they play in helping it achieve its goals. It’s that old (probably apocryphal) story about the NASA cleaning operative, pushing his mop. JFK, on a tour, stops him and says “What’s your job?’ And the janitor looks at him and says “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, sir.” The one thing that would make that story better is if JFK had recognised and rewarded the janitor’s efforts by making him US Secretary for Labor (sic).

But internal communication is not employee engagement because no matter how successful its activities, no matter how many channels and how much reach, no matter how much interaction, an employee’s ‘engagement’ (or motivation, or belief) can be blown away by perceived (or actual) negative behaviours by fellow workers and management. Which is why EE sits with HR or OD – basically, the people who are responsible for developing the people to ensure the right people have the right skills to manage the people. People people.

Employee engagement is a lot about people development (as well as reward and recognition, also HR functions). Move the engagement function away from HR and all that’s left to it is measurement (given that it’s internal communication which is spreading the good word and  advising on best communication practice).  Fairly soon – and I’ve worked in two companies where it has happened – the measurement of employee engagement becomes the thing itself.

This approach is, clearly, encouraged by those who make their livings measuring employee engagement. According to Gallup’s website ‘87% of employees worldwide are not engaged at work’, which is dreadful, because “companies with highly-engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share”. (I’ll leave you to reflect on the robustness or otherwise of those claims.) They encourage it because, once it’s been delivered a couple of times, there’s simply no way to stop it – it’s a type of corporate substance abuse. I can stop measuring employee engagement anytime I want – just not this year.

To be clear – no matter which firm of measurement consultants is employed, the actual measurement is an employee survey, comprising the same old fifteen to twenty questions. There is nothing to stop this being done in-house, probably more efficiently and resulting in numbers that are comprehensible and – because it’s your system – of some value to your organisation.

Or – and here’s where Communications generally can have a massive impact on the chimaera that is employee engagement – you could simply convince the senior team to get out and about a bit more, find out what the problems are – if there are any – and see about fixing them. Arm them with a few stories – give them some coaching if they need it – let them lead by example. And if they won’t, or can’t, try the next level down.

It’s only a start – but showing and telling your people that you’re interested and involved has to beat faceless metrics tracking movement on an invisible and irrelevant scale.

Internal and External Communication Go Hand-in-Hand – It’s Only Common Sense

Being an old communicator means, perhaps, not being as in touch, or as conversant, with some of the latest communications thinking or tools as one might be. (This, of course, is a topic for another time – how to bridge the, dare I say it, growing divide between the younger and the more mature communications professional, who often have to work very closely together and yet have different formative influences and different views on communication best practice.)

Being an old communicator, however, brings a career’s worth of experience draw on. And a network of other old communicators, providing further careers’ worth of experience to plumb. One thing we are all agreed on – and I do hope no-one feels I’m giving away trade secrets – is that it isn’t actually that difficult. All good communication is, at its root, common sense. (For example – journalists like news, customers don’t want to be patronised, no-one likes the wool clumsily pulled over their eyes – simple and, you would think, obvious.)

This piece via the Forbes Communications Council, on the importance of internal and external communications coming together, is, therefore, rather frustrating.

The gist of the piece – and, with due respect to the author, it is important and it makes complete sense, it’s the fact that it needs discussing at all that’s the worry – is that there are benefits to be harvested when internal and external communications work together.

Listed amongst these benefits are (and these are edited):

  • Leaders of communications groups can realise efficiencies by uniting teams that develop employee and public content, including stories, videos, infographics and social media pieces
  • Communications practitioners may be interested in exploring both disciplines – this provides an opportunity
  • When internal communications work together with external, all company stakeholders — from employees to customers — feel heard and respected
  • Such an approach can generate stories that employees and external stakeholders see at the same time

And here are a few of my own, just to reinforce the importance of the topic:

  • Merging internal and external communication allows you greater control over the corporate message, with less room for re- or mis-interpretation
  • Your employees are your ambassadors and your advocates – they should hear and see what the outside world hears and sees
  • You cannot – and should not try to – tell the internal audience one thing and the external audience(s) another (which means having an eye on tone of voice as well)
  • The internal communication function sits within the Communication Department – it is not a devolved function, and should never be the responsibility of individual business function heads

This is all, clearly, common sense and, despite the qualified assertion that ‘some may say that only senior communicators reach the stage where they can and do blend both internal and external expertise’, seniority (or age) has no monopoly on common sense.

Internal and external communication shouldn’t need merging, converging or bringing together. They are two sides of the same coin, share the same aims and are predicated on the same corporate truths. They shouldn’t be separate in the first place.

It’s obvious. It shouldn’t need explaining and it certainly isn’t some secret wisdom revealed only to those who’ve spent years following the Way of the Communicator.

The Savagery of Social – implications for internal communication

This, I suspect, may get me into trouble. Let’s talk about the nastier side of social media for a moment, and then let’s consider the implications that arise for internal communication and the already established trend of using enterprise social networks like Yammer, Workplace by Facebook and, well, Sharepoint. (There are others, clearly – like Slack and Unily – arguably collaboration tools, or bespoke intranets, but as it’s all about ‘sharing’ – and odds are on that ‘conversation’ is also being mentioned – they’ve got all the characteristics of the established social media channels.)

And that’s the issue, really. Here’s a piece from The Irish Times (written by Jennifer O’Connell) which says ‘social media has shown us that when humans gather with no rules, savagery prevails’ and goes on to say ‘there’s a brutality now in the way we communicate with one another that did not exist before social media’. The article, which is definitely worth a few minutes, starts out looking at Ed Sheeran’s decision to leave Twitter, touches on the Orange Mussolini in the White House and uses personal experience to further illustrate the point. And it’s all demonstrably true.

Quite some time ago, I attempted to categorise this phenomenon. (If you can be bothered, you can find my original post here.) It’s ‘an ailment that afflicts a small but significant proportion of the population when they are presented with the opportunity to post whatever they like to a public forum’ – appearing to be compulsive and involuntary. It can take the form of simple intolerance of anyone else’s point of view, or extreme bad language, or posting of inappropriate material (visual or written), or racial harassment or career-threatening stupidity. That it’s a small proportion of the population is important – although the Brexit ‘debate’ has shown that the proportion may be larger than first imagined – however, as is always the case, it only takes one.

So – what does this mean for enterprise social networks? First, let’s go back to the Irish Times piece (above) and note the words ‘with no rules’. Social media have no rules, and anyone can say whatever they like, hiding behind a blank avatar and an anonymous username. Obviously, in the workplace, there will be rules governing the use of corporate intranets, collaboration tools and how employees represent their employer on external social media. Won’t there?

Well, actually, not necessarily. From personal experience, there are companies that have not thought about a code of practice. That do not have a Use of Social Media Policy. That – and this is terrifying – won’t implement guidelines because they don’t see them being at one with the spirit of social media. It’s all about sharing and collaboration and conversation, apparently – placing guidelines on how you do it would stifle its very essence. Hang the potential consequences.

Again, quite some time ago, I did a piece on my experience of implementing a very early version of an enterprise social network. (And again, if you can be bothered, you can read the whole thing here.) The conclusion was – ‘give people a voice and they will use it, as if it is a right. They will use it despite the fact they have nothing to say. They will use it to settle grievances, even scores, wash dirty laundry, put hearts on sleeves, bare souls and share the unthinkable. And probably try to unscrew the inscrutable, given half the chance.’

There are many companies (three that I know personally) – no names, no pack drill – who use enterprise social networks. There are consultancies who offer to implement an enterprise social network in your business. My experience is that they do not work – amongst the workplace as a whole – as they were meant to, generally because a busy workforce does not have the time to add an extra layer of complexity to its day-to-day and also – obviously – because not everyone wants to share their work. Because it’s theirs.

So what happens is that the expensive tool becomes a means for the few to blow their own trumpets and a further few to ‘like’ the fact that they’ve done so. And there is always the risk of wholly inappropriate, reputation-damaging content – although, in fairness, there is a less of it than I envisaged, way back when. But still, the expensive tool is a reflection of the shiny object that it imitates – faint, but a reflection nonetheless. And if social is becoming increasingly savage, thoughtless, stupid and radical then – without the policies, guidelines, checks and balances in place – so must your internal network.

From all of this, there are clear take-outs:

  • If you have an enterprise social network, govern it with a strict policy
  • Have a corporate ‘Use of Social Media’ policy in any case – you never know when you’ll need it
  • If you haven’t got an enterprise social network, think carefully – do you need one, or is it Shiny Object Syndrome?
  • Remember, the role of internal communication is to keep the workforce appraised of the organisation’s successes, vision, values, strategy, policies, procedures and its corporate religion, thereby generating a sense of belonging, belief and purpose. It is not to encourage free debate around these things, as Google has found out.

 

Yammer, yammer, yammer

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (actually, it was on the outskirts of Luton, but when you work at head office in the City, Luton really does seem far, far away) I was privy to an early dabble in using electronic fora – messageboards, if you will – for internal communication purposes.

I am, as my regular readers will know, an old communicator. (Rather like one of those clunky black plastic devices off of an early episode of Star Trek. Badoom tish. The gag that never stops giving.) So this was many years ago – indeed so much so that my memories are sepia-tinted and stored on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies – and it was a bit of a groundbreaker.

The idea – of course – was based on the concept (still current today) that you should engage with your employees, give them a voice, listen to what they have to say, encourage them to contribute and get it on with a bit of the old ‘you said….we did’ malarkey. It was also believed that such a forum would encourage sharing of knowledge and experience and – in a corporate context – allow for the dissemination and subsequent passing on of policies, procedures and operating practices.

At this time, being part of an electronic and virtual community, powered by the wonders of the new-fangled interwebosphere, was really rather daring. And – here’s the key bit – no-one had any real experience of how such a thing would function and – most importantly – how the key players (the employees) would interact with it.

Now I just know, at this point, that you – loyal readers – are shaking your heads and averting your eyes because – with the benefit of your years of exposure to social networks (for yes, this is what that was, in essence) – you can predict what comes next.

But in case you’ve not arrived at the ugly conclusion (for such it is) yet, let me tell you that the users of this proto-social medium, this ur-twitter, were many thousands of employees, scattered around the country in small teams, manning what can best be described as lower-end retail outlets.

As I recall, it took less than a week for the sheer quantity of ridiculousness and the myriad examples of internet Tourette’s to warrant the beginning of a damage limitation process that – in fairly short order – saw the tool shut down. No – it didn’t work as expected – no-one was really into sharing knowledge and best practice, no-one was into disseminating corporate updates.

No – they were in to insulting each other across the country, excoriating management, getting all sweary and generally getting their inappropriate on in a jungle stylee. This was, I have to say, something of a surprise at the time – I don’t think anyone saw it coming – as we simply didn’t equate giving people a voice with them using it.

I think we believed in some happy nirvana where people took responsibility, used their common sense and where ‘selfies’ did not, and never would, exist. Today, of course, with Zuckerberg-tinted hindsight, we recognise the awful truth of what we’ve done (and what, I’m afraid, cannot be undone).

Give people a voice and they will use it, as if it is a right. They will use it despite the fact they have nothing to say. They will use it to settle grievances, even scores, wash dirty laundry, put hearts on sleeves, bare souls and share the unthinkable. And probably try to unscrew the inscrutable. Given half the chance.

Which is why I’ve never had much time for Yammer – the so-called ‘enterprise social network’. As Spinal Tap said ‘there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever’ and – from experience – I think it is too much to ask of your employees to have to tread it.

Facebook are, apparently, contemplating a similar tool – if this is so, I think that the line is getting finer and finer by the minute.

Social Media – Social Media Policies in Practice

Came across this on Mashable – it’s a story about this, which is social media policy devised and published by Australian company Telstra for the benefit of their 40,000 employees. To date, according to the company, 12,000 employees have been ‘trained’ or ‘educated’ in the ways of social media.

I’ve said,  in previous posts, that a good social media policy might actually be seen, or used, as an employee benefit – Telstra’s policy is exactly that. This is something that has, quite clearly, taken time, resource and investment to put together, and has been formulated to educate employees and provide them with a skill, or skills, which are applicable in their day-to-day lives as well as their work lives. I particularly like it because it doesn’t shy away from threatening disciplinary action should anyone contravene the policy.

What it doesn’t do, however – and it’s telling – is explain how employees can help the company through their social media activity. It doesn’t explain the company’s social media strategy. It might be said that it begs more questions than it answers. It strikes me as a guide to social media – all well and good – but not a social media lever. It’s about stopping people making inadvertent (or deliberate) mistakes – rather than ’embracing the social media opportunity and bringing everyone in to the conversation’ (as I imagine the cyber-hippies would have it).

This is not a sign that social media has become mainstream and infiltrated Big Corporate – rather it’s a sign that Big Corporate has recognised the damage that can be caused by social media and is attempting to mitigate its effects.

This is pre-emptive issues management, nothing more or less.

Internal Comms/Social Media – Addenda to Social Media Policies

The whole social media space is a minefield littered with UXBs and especially so for a company’s employees. Social media are growing and changing and influencing behaviours far faster than most people can keep up – it’s got to the point where a corporate use of social media policy is not only a business necessity, it’s actually part of the corporate ‘duty of care’ to employees.

Here’s a thought – educating employees in the use of social media may be seen, in the future, as an employee benefit provided by the company. Possibly those more forward-thinking companies, without exposing themselves to the free-for-all that is open employee access, might actually be seen to be taking a lead on the issue, simply by ensuring their employees are social media savvy in a semi-formal fashion. Brown-bag training sessions, interactive intranets. Who knows.

Anyway – here’s an article from The Guardian that deals with the specific problems of colleagues following you on Twitter, or friending you on Facebook. Particularly senior colleagues. The implication – and it’s correct – is that social media are blurring the lines between work life and personal life. There is no such thing as a personal life anymore – what you’ve got is a work life and life when you’re not working. Use of social media – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, et al – means that anyone can find you at anytime. Nothing that you post to these sites is private. There is a record of all you have written and uploaded. If it sounds a bit Big Brother, that’s because it is.

There is, obviously, a solution to the dilemma. It’s taken a lot of thought. It’s not popular. It flies in the face of current thinking. It’s this. DON’T USE TWITTER OR FACEBOOK. OR ANY OTHER SOCIAL MEDIUM. If you want to organise a party, send out invitations via email (still trackable, but not available to everyone). If you fancy getting in touch with someone – meet them for a drink. Give them a call. Write a letter. Go on, give it a try.

But no. You want to be free, to get LinkedIn, to have a good time. And this why – as the boundaries between you personally and you professionally blur and dissolve – it’s more and more important that there are not only corporate social media policies, but corporate social media etiquette statements also.

It pains me, but we’re here (how? how?) and now we have to deal with it. So, in the spirit of understanding and sharing, here’s something that I stumbled across earlier. I should say now that these are the thoughts of one Bristol-based managing editor (mid-thirties, apparently) who makes it clear on his blog that monkeys like me are not to steal his thoughts without due attribution and permission. I haven’t got permission, but consider this attribution. These are not my thoughts – I am simply passing on the wisdom of another.

(NB The guidelines that Mr Bristol sets out here are, actually, quite corporately focused. But they work equally well for use of social media on a personal level. You could adapt them. But I’d ask Mr Bristol for his permission first. You never know.)