From “engagement” to performance: KPMG decision gives a historic break to business communicators

For the last ten-plus years, the God called “employee engagement” has reigned supreme over all of the so-called “people fields” and, for the most part, swept up internal communication in its wake.

This week’s news that KPMG has not only abandoned its employee survey but repudiated the notion of “employee engagement” as having any causal relationship with performance, represents a historical opening for practitioners and businesses alike.  It is a golden chance to shift the focus away from driving “engagement” numbers and towards how effective business communication can directly improve performance.

The logic is obvious

At a basic level the logic is obvious. Effective, strategic internal communication can reduce ambiguity and increase clarity.

Good internal comms can align definitions of processes and objectives, and illustrate examples of good and bad practice. It can inject external perspectives while driving internal consistency. It can help identify people who have added impact as informal leaders and institutional lynchpins. Less obviously, it can be a vehicle for catalyzing consensus and even for the development of projects and products that are easier to execute or sell because of communicator involvement.  These are things that can move the needle in a business, even if they don’t line up with some “engagement” survey.

KPMG’s decision represents a historic opportunity, to begin the long-overdue uncoupling of the business communication profession from the engagement industry. Seizing that opportunity will change the terms.


Moral Virtue and the Internal Communicator


At various times in my career, I have encountered fellow communication professionals who have either said that internal communicators are either a morally virtuous breed, or should aspire to be so.

Some claim this virtue should derive itself from being the “advocate of the employee”, others because our role in supporting our organizations’ objectives through communication is intrinsically “noble.”

I have always rejected these notions.

At our best, Internal Communicators are advocates, who use our skills to benefit the organizations that have hired us, to involve, engage, inform, persuade, and integrate the people whose support is required for their success.

Doing this well means doing this honestly, responsibly and respectfully. In my view, it means assessing the broad mass of stakeholders rather than just one’s own sponsors, and it means helping and challenging those sponsors to look beyond transactional and territorial objectives. And it also means being willing to keep things moving when my advice is adjusted or rejected.

When I am doing this well, I am being an effective professional. Whether it makes me a better—or lesser—person, I will leave for others to judge.