Having been an internal communicator for the last twenty years, one of the eternal questions our tribe has faced has been to define a relationship between IC activity and business performance.
For the most part, the effort to find this relationship has been largely forensic, namely attempting to define correlations between communication activities and business changes after the fact.
While some business numbers clearly show correlations with increases in related internal communication activities, such as, improved employee behaviors around cybersecurity in office settings or use of sanitary facilities in health care settings, no standard figure has emerged as a way of demonstrating IC impact on a larger scale.
To their credit, the internal communicators with whom I’ve been speaking have been working hard to identify the numbers – and the words – to bring the story of their impact to life in the various organizations where and with whom they work. But indeed, it was the mention of “assigning the appropriate amount of credit” to internal communication activities that prompted me to look at measurement from another angle – to propose calculating a “communication factor” that would assign an amount of credit to communication before specific performance, or specific changes in behavior, actually get measured.
Using an example cited by a participant, a hospital starts making alcohol wipes available to its employees, and then communicates their availability. A percentage of the change in the amount of alcohol wipe consumption could be attributed to the communication activity, and that percentage of change could then be applied to other business outcomes that require some degree of active employee participation.
Whether based on an easy-to-measure case, or by agreement between communicators and other business stakeholders on a value to assign to communication based on less tangible or more intuitive elements, the comms factor would essentially be an estimate or an extrapolation – and as communicators often have confidence issues with business numbers, the idea makes some hesitant.
But commercial and finance people are not hesitant about assigning value to their extrapolations or estimates – indeed, these are the figures that make business forecasting an important part of business life.
Having attended business school with classmates who went on to become CEOs and CFOs of multi-billion dollar companies, our numbers are not intrinsically worse or less grounded than many of the other extrapolations or estimates flying around the business. We simply either resist sharing them because we are afraid they aren’t perfect, or because we don’t feel we know how to apply the situational discipline and rigor to present them in terms the business understands.
Quantification and valuation of “soft” numbers and metrics is not unknown in the business world. Whether it is directly valuing them in financial terms so they can be considered in investment calculations, or allocating their contribution to “balanced scorecards” that address financial and non-financial measures of business health, these become hard measures that drive real decisions.
For years, internal communicators have complained that we don’t get proper credit for the impact we have on business outcomes. We need to consider that by not coming up with a way for getting that credit built in to the analysis before the outcomes occur, we’ve made ourselves bystanders to our own devaluation. In looking at injecting a “comms factor” to be assessed as part of outcome performance, we may finally be able to change the terms of the measurement game.
Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a Netherlands-based internal communication consultancy focused on research, messaging and measurement. He is an MBA graduate of London Business School and the regional chair of IABC for Europe – Middle East – North Africa.