Disruption, not destruction as KPMG overboards “engagement”

Having lived ever-so-slightly more than a half century, I’ve had the opportunity to experience a number of “where were you when this happened” moments. Some were awful: the Challenger disaster, the death of Princess Diana. Others were happier, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the time my English football club, Tottenham Hotspur, earned a place in the Champions League.

An event that took place last week in my professional world was not quite of that scale, but still very much worth noting – the decision of advisory house KPMG to overboard its employee engagement survey and reject a causal link between engagement scores and business performance.

On the surface, that may not seem to outsiders like a Berlin Wall moment. And, for the record, I was on a train headed towards my home in the beautiful Dutch city of Delft.

But as my field, internal communication, had become joined at the hip with an all-consuming effort to drive engagement survey scores across the world, KPMG’s decision represents a massive opportunity for my fellow practitioners to make a more compelling case for the role of strategic internal communication in the business world. Whether or not it’s destructive, it’s surely disruptive.

It’s particularly disruptive in that it exposes the natural fault line in the internal communication profession, between those who believe in focusing on all employees, and those who believe the greatest value is to be gained in focusing on smaller pockets of employees with high influence, key responsibilities or who are working on high priority initiatives.

The employee engagement movement has strong moralistic overtones about being fully inclusive of all employees, and emphasizes communication strategies that have the ability to reach the full employee and management populations. As long as there was a belief that such comprehensiveness was required to deliver high scores and their inferred organizational benefit, organizations have been willing to prioritize such spend at the expense of other, potentially more valuable, communication activities.

In directly questioning the connection between engagement scores and organizational performance, KPMG’s decision makes it legitimate to challenge not only the role of engagement surveys but the pursuit of “all-employee” engagement itself.

In recent years, considerable management research has focused on the impact of more targeted comms approaches as organizational network analysis and use of small groups of well-connected influencers to drive organizational change. Along similar lines have been the efforts of practitioners to identify and deliver high-substance internal comms to relatively small but influential audiences as opposed to producing infotainment to drive engagement numbers.

To a large extent, these approaches have been delivered and marketed on a guerrilla basis because they don’t line up philosophically with the all-employee engagement orthodoxy that’s reigned for the last ten-plus years. Now, there’s an opening to push organizations to consider internal comms approaches that deliver higher, targeted impact at lower cost and with much less organizational friction.

If strategic internal comms practitioners succeed in bringing highly targeted approaches, such as those used by Innovisor and Leandro Herrero, into more organizations, it will then become much easier to demonstrate their value and make the kind of business case which allows these ideas to spread rapidly. So this decision creates a window of opportunity for advancing the profession.

Both sides have an opportunity to win as the conversation unfolds. The engagement movement gets an opportunity for a long-needed reboot, and strategic, targeted internal communication gets a breakthrough chance to show the world what it can do. The debate represents a clear distinction – “all or nothing” vs. “the 80/20 rule on rails.” Its course will impact other battles in the field, such as the role of hierarchy in the 21st century business and the wisdom of continually expanding the range of internal digital communication channels.

The KPMG decision doesn’t mean curtains for “engagement.” It simply means “game on.”

To follow the ongoing discussion about internal comms and engagement in all online channels, follow the hashtag #IC2016

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