Having worked for twenty-plus years in internal communication (IC), thereâ€™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 itâ€™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?
Iâ€™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 â€œCWEâ€ than they are against ROI.
What is â€œCWEâ€?
It means â€œcommunicating well enoughâ€ or, alternatively and more brutally, â€œcommunicating without expenditure.â€
Indeed, when internal communicators propose expenditures, whether on campaigns, technology, new staff or consultancy, they are frequently pushed back with the questions: â€œHow much of this can we do on our own?â€ â€œHow can we make better use of our existing resources to cover part of this?â€ Or, more bluntly, â€œIsnâ€™t this supposed to be YOUR job?â€
This pursuit of false economy is not unknown in other corners of the corporate world. But itâ€™s prevalent in internal comms because thereâ€™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:
â€œIC 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.â€
CWE isnâ€™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: â€œSpend is not a major issue. Cost has never been a showstopper.â€
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:
â€œIn a crisis, no one questions the need for investment in tools. Outside of a crisis everyone asks for the ROI.â€
An insight into this paradox can be found in the continuing reliance of some companies on email as a primary Internal Communication channel.
â€œCompanies rely on email because they donâ€™t invest in the toolset.â€
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 â€œfor freeâ€ â€“ but with the hidden cost of deprioritizing other initiatives or adding pressure to a â€œmaxed-outâ€ team. Revealing those hidden costs may make your preferred initiative look more attractive.
- Re-baseline expectations of current infrastructure â€“ if you are trying to secure investment in new tools or infrastructure, an inventory of current infrastructure weaknesses, liabilities and vulnerabilities (as in â€œwe 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 â€“ 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 â€“ combined with a persistent belief that internal comms should essentially be â€œfreeâ€ as a matter of principle. But it can be overcome when false economies are exposed as real risks, liabilities and costs. And in identifying â€œCWEâ€ 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.
MIKE KLEIN is Principal of Changing The Terms, a communication consultancy based in the Netherlands. Mikeâ€™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.