Featured, Insights

Why is it so damn hard to get companies to spend money on internal communication?

Having worked for twenty-plus years in internal communication (IC), there’s a big factor of life that never computed for me, that never made sense.

Why do internal communicators have such a hard time getting even the most basic initiatives funded?

Is it simply because it’s hard to demonstrate a concrete return on investment (ROI) case for many expenditures? Or is it because IC expenditures are held to an entirely different standard, assessed in an entirely different way?

I’ve been interviewing business communicators and leaders for the last six months on behalf of digital workplace vendor Happeo, with budgets and measurements a key focus. And what I found is that IC investments are far more likely to be measured against “CWE” than they are against ROI.

What is “CWE”?

It means “communicating well enough” or, alternatively and more brutally, “communicating without expenditure.” 

Indeed, when internal communicators propose expenditures, whether on campaigns, technology, new staff or consultancy, they are frequently pushed back with the questions: “How much of this can we do on our own?” “How can we make better use of our existing resources to cover part of this?” Or, more bluntly, “Isn’t this supposed to be YOUR job?”

This pursuit of false economy is not unknown in other corners of the corporate world. But it’s prevalent in internal comms because there’s an intrinsic focus on using internal resources to reach internal people, and because employee populations are relatively small compared to customer bases in B2C or citizen numbers in a government context, for instance. Those relatively small numbers lead to pressure to keep cost-per-employee figures apparently reasonable.

Said one corporate communicator:

“IC is the cheapest comms function to run, we can operate creatively and effectively without much (running) cost, like running a global webcast for EUR 500 for 20,000 employees.”

CWE isn’t a problem everywhere, particularly since most IC expenditures are peanuts in the scheme of things for billion-dollar enterprises.

One participant in my latest research for Happeo, in a very large company, actually said: “Spend is not a major issue. Cost has never been a showstopper.”

But such flexibility can be deeply dependent on the sense of urgency pervading a given business. Another large-company participant in the Happeo research injected:

“In a crisis, no one questions the need for investment in tools. Outside of a crisis everyone asks for the ROI.”

An insight into this paradox can be found in the continuing reliance of some companies on email as a primary Internal Communication channel.

“Companies rely on email because they don’t invest in the toolset.”

So, what should one do when confronted with comparing a preferred option with a CWE request:

  • Assess the business urgency – both from the stakeholders involved and the extent to which an initiative can be seen to help the company strategy (or mitigate risks)
  • Look at the overall context of team capacity and priorities. Some initiatives can be executed “for free” – but with the hidden cost of deprioritizing other initiatives or adding pressure to a “maxed-out” team. Revealing those hidden costs may make your preferred initiative look more attractive.
  • Re-baseline expectations of current infrastructure – if you are trying to secure investment in new tools or infrastructure, an inventory of current infrastructure weaknesses, liabilities and vulnerabilities (as in “we can try doing this through our current intranet but only .5% of our employees will see it) could strengthen the case for action
  • Highlight the hidden cost of one-size-fits-all – if you want to undertake an effort to identify internal influencers and engage them better as a filter for corporate noise, come up with a calculation for the amount of time you ask employees to spend consuming unneeded or irrelevant corporate communication.

CWE is all about false economy – combined with a persistent belief that internal comms should essentially be “free” as a matter of principle. But it can be overcome when false economies are exposed as real risks, liabilities and costs. And in identifying “CWE” openly as an actual financial benchmark for internal comms, I sense it will be far easier to challenge it and push for better initiatives and solutions.

To register for a download of the latest research into the Present and Future of Internal Communication from Happeo, click here

MIKE KLEIN is Principal of Changing The Terms, a communication consultancy based in the Netherlands. Mike’s international practice includes work with Fortune 500, start-up and specialist clients across borders and sectors in Europe, the UK and the US. Mike holds an MBA from London Business School and is the 2018-2019 EMENA Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). To schedule a free consultation, please click here.

Featured, The Profession

Internal communicators: Deliver for organizations, not just employees

At last week’s Institute of Internal Communication Live conference in the UK, a slide was shown with a picture of someone who had been brutalized, covered by the text “Stop saying yes to your leaders – you are betraying your employees.”

This sentiment might be understandable to some, but embracing it presents a big backward step for internal communicators.

Our focus must continue to be on organizational success

For the last 20+ years, internal communicators have made a concerted effort to convince organizations and leaders that we can be their effective partners. Partners who can help them transform their companies, improve performance, accelerate alignment and develop sustainable, regenerative cultures.

Increasingly, we’ve been winning.

My current research for Happeo, for whom I am currently interviewing C-Level decision makers around the world, unambiguously shows appreciation for the value and potential IC can offer forward-thinking companies, to help them engage with their employees to achieve common purposes and deliver positive outcomes together, and to deal with difficult changes in a constructive and honest atmosphere.

But such results can only be delivered when internal communicators are committed to delivering for organizations.

When images like this slide pop up at a major IC event, in this case the UK’s Institute of Internal Communication’s IOICLive conference last week, they raise questions about that commitment.

Certainly, we can and must challenge leaders when their views may be counterproductive or miss out on vital perspectives.

But the moment we become perceived as “employee advocates” is the moment we get walked out of the building, and with good reason.

I can’t demand that everyone agrees with me.

But I can challenge my fellow practitioners to assess the impact that the opposite – making a virtue out of saying no to leaders, or claiming our ultimate role is to somehow honor or protect employees – has on our collective credibility.

Even if one’s sympathies might be with employees, our collective and individual loyalties must be to the organizations that employ us. Indeed, our very value comes from helping organizations succeed by involving employees more constructively and productively in the pursuit of that success.  

If we are to continue to make a difference to organizations, they need to know we are on their side. And IC practitioners need to be willing to challenge their peers and associations when they even hint at alternative agendas. Failing to do so may well undermine our collective credibility.  

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms and an experienced internal communication strategist, writer and advocate. To schedule a free consultation, please click here.

Featured, The Profession

IABC turnaround turns outward – members now hold the key to visibility and impact

“We’ve righted our ship and gotten our house in order, and now we’re ready to help drive the larger conversation about what our profession can offer.”

That was the overriding message following interviews with IABC Chair Ginger Homan and Executive Director Stephanie Doute.

In a conversation following the 2019 IABC Leadership Institute, and marking the halfway point in IABC’s 2017-2020 strategy, Ginger declared the Association’s restructuring and stabilization efforts a success. She said that they place IABC in a position to carry its message outward, and that it will do so in a much different way than IABC has done in the past:

“It’s time for our members to own our agenda”

“The key will be for members to take ownership –not only to be advocates for IABC membership, but to be active and visible as IABC members on the issues we care about in our industry. We need members to step out front to promote professional standards and champion the value communicators offer to our enterprises and communities.”

Ginger noted that this approach represented a break from its historical approach to outreach.

“Rather than IABC wanting to be the leader and for staff to own the agenda, as we have done in the past, we want to provide the platform to help our members be thought leaders. We in turn will help amplify those members who want to take stands and be visible in the conversations around the agenda we are promoting together.”

Accelerating the Global Standard

One front which IABC wants its members to take the advocacy lead is in the promotion of the Global Standard – which, while developed under IABC’s leadership, is intended to provide a common framework for promoting professionalism in communication, and for enabling the spread of a world-wide certification program for senior and mid-level communication professionals.

“There’s a lot we need to be saying about the Global Standard, and IABC can’t do this on its own. We need members and particularly those who have already been certified to tell the story of the Global Standard and make the case. We need to explain what it is, how we arrived at it, and why it is of relevance to a much broader constituency than just IABC members.”

Stephanie added: “There is a real demand for standards in the world of professional communication and the Global Standard is a great platform for embedding consistent standards into our day-to-day practices and even the software we use. Indeed, as the Global Standard provides the context and content for Certification and the rubric for our Gold Quill awards program, a broader conversation about the Global Standard will make our CMP and SCMP certifications more relevant and drive acceptance beyond IABC’s membership.”

The interviews followed the 2019 Leadership Institute in Long Beach, California, which combined the event’s traditional focus on chapter growth and cohesion with added emphasis on encouraging IABC activists to mobilize members as thought leaders and peer influencers to promote the value of professional communication, above and beyond the promotion of IABC membership.

Transforming IABC’s Infrastructure

The moves follow intense effort to stabilize IABC’s finances, update its infrastructure, and develop more robust offerings for members and the broader communication professions.

Stephanie added: “We’ve been modernizing what we do and the way we do it. We are in the midst of a digital transformation that will allow us both to better engage members and to make IABC more inviting and relevant to non-members. We have a new and expanded content program coming to life this year. We launched The Hub as a private social network to give our members a safe and vibrant space to share their needs, problems and ideas with the broader IABC community. These programs add to the continuing strength of World Conference as a truly best-in-class conference, where top-tier speakers, forward-thinking breakouts, launches of new research deliver special experiences delegates are unlikely to forget.”

Getting ahead of the trends

One criticism of IABC that has resonated with its leadership has been that the Association is slow to acknowledge, much less shape, trends in the industry – trends such as internal-external convergence and employee experience – which are well within the interests of its membership.

“We’re launching two exciting task forces to get ahead of the trends,” said Stephanie, “looking at the big ideas shaping the profession on the one hand, creating tangible tools and templates for delivery and execution for members on the other. We want members to be aware, awake and confident as we move into a time of even faster change and instability in the business world. These will be in addition to the research studies we have partnered on and the Business Acumen module in the IABC Academy. The latter was developed by a firm comprised of Wharton Business School alumni that will give our members a tangible command of business basics and prepare them for more effective conversations with their business peers.”

Creating Connection

In 2017-2020, IABC has been pursuing a three-pronged strategy: to develop strategic communicators, advance the profession and “create connection.” Midway through the strategy period, the bulk of the association’s global efforts have been devoted to getting the platform and infrastructure set for growth and accelerating member influence in the profession. “Create Connection,” the third pillar, builds on IABC’s historic strengths as a community and support network for its active members.

“Sometimes, people don’t realize how fun it can be to be in IABC,” Ginger explains. “IABC is ultimately about inclusion, fun and giving back – which is what we mean by ‘create connection’. It’s not about telling people to ‘join IABC because it’s fun’ but to create experiences that are enlivening and enriching, especially at the local level where it’s easiest for people to connect face-to-face. We are seeing newer and younger members coming in at the local level, generationally transforming IABC from the outside in.”

Why it’s time to join – or re-join

As the only global membership association covering the full scope of business communication, IABC occupies a unique space alongside national communication associations, specialist associations and more informal on-line groups which have absorbed many lapsed IABC members over the last decade. IABC intends to combine its improved infrastructure and an increasingly visible membership to drive growth and, importantly, regain the trust and activism of former members.

Concludes Ginger, “It’s about being more relevant, and about being more collaborative, cooperative and inspiring. Combine that with the connections we create, and we are set to deliver a compelling proposition.  We’re at an inflection point. The sky is the limit and we’d like you to join us.”

Featured, Internal Communication Strategy

From “Centralization” to “Centrality” – a transformation making internal communication more relevant and scalable

Increase impact. Reduce noise. Become more relevant. Integrate platforms. Create more connectedness.

These are some of the demands that internal communicators are hearing most loudly these days.

In my 30+ interviews with global internal comms practitioners for Happeo’s research into The Present and Future of Internal Communication, there is an overriding trend emerging as they tackle these combined challenges.

I’m calling it the move from “centralization” to “centrality” – a move from communicators being tasked with delivering and managing an overly broad range of controlled communication channels, to overseeing a leaner, more authoritative, and increasingly interactive portfolio built around a common platform.

To learn more about the trend from “centralization” to “centrality,” download the second Happeo Report on the Present and Future of Internal Communication.

Recognizing external channels and unleashing internal platforms

The core idea behind this transformation is that employees have the choice of using external channels to communicate with each other, and to monitor the organization’s communication with the outside world.  

While some organizations bristle at this “loss of control,” internal communicators are increasingly taking it as a cue to relent from having to take end-to-end responsibility for communicating with employees. Rather than trying to suppress access to external channels or diminish their credibility, they are taking the initiative to make their own channels more authoritative, easier to use, and better integrated with the day-to-day work and interactions that make up the flow of organizational life.

One practitioner described the philosophy behind this approach:

“Every time we give employees a communication, we give them a problem, a decision they need to make.  We need to reduce the number of non-essential decisions they have to make.”

Centrality, as it is emerging in internal communication, combines a simplified approach to content and interactions with the use of one or very few authoritative channels and a messaging style that drives prioritization. As unofficial messages and platforms proliferate around the business, the leaner and sharper internal channels aim to cut through the noise, and help clarify expectations for employees.

Centrality drives scalability – in both directions

Internal communication has historically been a function seen mainly in companies with more than 1000 employees. The proliferation of channels and activities has been particularly pronounced in large organizations, and the movement towards centrality will likely make IC more scalable and efficient in large companies.  

But the move towards centrality also enables a more compelling case for formal internal communication for smaller organizations engaging employees in multiple locations.

They too can consider internal communication as a means of driving focus on prioritization and clarifying expectations. They can even consider IC as an alternative to moving to common physical headquarters or investing as heavily in new layers of management as they grow.  The use of a common communication platform, with news, enterprise social networks, common calendars and document sharing, can be used to create a “sense of place” and help clarify ambiguities in small dispersed workforces as they do in larger organizations.

The main barrier is the current lack of a business model to get sufficient IC expertise into smaller organizations. Few small organizations have communication staff in general, much less any with deep IC expertise.  But the ability of certain technology platforms to automate many IC implementation tasks could make it possible for organizations to acquire IC expertise through other means to make the best use of those platforms – either by upskilling their own staff in line with the spread of global standards, obtaining it on a consulting basis through platform vendors, or even by hiring dedicated full or part-time resource.

If smaller firms begin to see IC as a viable alternative to over-reliance on line management, or to physically gathering employees in common locations, it is also likely that the IC practitioners who are hired by smaller firms will play a much more central leadership role in those firms. This could prove the clearest – and least expected – route to the “seat at the table” that IC pros have historically sought.  

A huge shift

Whether it drives the streamlining of channels in large companies, or enables greater coherence and velocity in smaller ones, the trend from “centralization” to “centrality” has huge implications for practitioners, vendors and enterprises alike.  Reducing noise, increasing impact and creating clarity are clear ways for IC practitioners to add value. Embracing centrality will give them much wider opportunities to do so.