I started blogging about internal communication more than ten years ago. Changing The Terms started as a blog in 2014, and as a business last year.
It’s been a great way for me to raise questions and promote challenges to standard internal comms practices. And, the interaction has been a bit one-way.
Changing The Terms has had 1226 visitors this month.
I know, maybe, who 50 of them are.
So, between now and the IABC World Conference, which starts in Washington on 11 June, I’m going to rest a bit from blogging, and focus on starting real conversations.
Conversations about what I can do to help businesses deliver better outcomes. and about how we can improve future prospects for internal communication more broadly.
If you’d like to start a conversation with me, I’d be delighted. And if you see my number pop up on your smartphone, don’t be surprised.
Live from Iceland has been a series of short blog posts written against the backdrop of Iceland’s amazing scenery and culture, sponsored by Iceland by Helgastina, which offers personal travel planning to this unforgettable place.
As I have said often, it’s not the easiest of times to be a strategically-oriented internal communicator.
At a time when clients want “snazzy-snappy-happy” tactics, a number of brave practitioners and firms have developed real tools and methodologies that seek to change the game, or even “change the terms” for their clients.
These six are particularly interesting to me, in that they are focused on driving alignment, to reduce the noise, friction and even the conflicts that keep organizations from moving in a common direction.
The Influencer Scan
I start with a shameless plug for my own tool, the Influencer Scan, which uses snowball sampling to work with employees to surface the most influential employees in their organizations. Noting that the top three percent of employees who are most influential in each company drive conversations with 90% of their colleagues, the Influencer Scan builds on trusted relationships to build a lean, fast and credible internal communication process that can either supplement or replace more expensive and intrusive approaches.
My friends at Innovisor in Copenhagen use a different methodology for finding internal influencers than I do, but are equally strong proponents of the 3-90 rule. Innovisor’s Pulse Tracker is a user-friendly software used by IC, HR and change professionals to track perceptions and engagement of the most influential 3% – and only that top 3%. This not only makes the INNOVISOR Pulse Tracker much more resource efficient than any other organization-wide survey, it also provides an early – and fast – indicator of changes in the direction of organizational perceptions and engagement. It only takes five days from question to results.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the fine folks at Woodread are focusing on improving content, and improving the ability of practitioners to deliver it. Their product, Muse, offers access to a uniquely bundled set of services and resources to address the internal communication challenges HR, engagement and internal communications practitioners face. Muse combines the tactical: a service which gives internal communicators access to consumer quality comms written in their own corporate style, along with a package consisting of exclusive training, ‘how to’ guides and access to a community of Muse users to share ideas and best practice. A comment from an HR practitioner is indicative: “You think you’ve ‘nailed it’ until you see how with a few subtle changes by Muse it reads even better. This has really helped not only to improve our communications but also to coach our team in what is needed to really achieve our Tone of Voice.” Nicola-Jayne Thomas Head of Reward, Relations and Development, Peugeot Citroën
Eli is an award-winning platform that’s unique in that it enables communication between incoming employees and their new organizations during the onboarding process. Eli is a highly flexible and versatile tool, which can support communication with specific audiences at any stage of the employee lifecycle, allowing for a seamless, brand-aligned experience from the moment candidates apply to the moment they move on as former employees.
Marc Do Amaral, one of the more innovative practitioners in the Netherlands and an IC Kollectif internal com thought leader, has developed an approach for assessing and improving the communication climate inside an organization. The Communication Climate inventory addresses perceptions of fairness, autonomy, certainty and relatedness, and how they impact employee attitudes towards top managers, supervisors and colleagues–usually more strongly than expected. Even so, they are seldom explicitly discussed, remaining largely invisible in the undercurrent. The inventory surfaces these perceptions through a survey, followed by a process where the findings are broadly shared and discussed. This provides the basis for the design phase which builds toward a shared vision of the desired communication climate and the key behaviors and interventions needed to cultivate it.
Focusing both on on-boarding and team communication and appraisal, Lindsay Uittenbogaard’s “Mirror Mirror” tool provides a structured but rapid approach for driving team alignment. Mirror Mirror allows teams to develop a shared picture of ‘where they are now’ so they have the clarity, alignment, and momentum needed to progress to ‘where they want to go next’. Think detailed team employee survey with immediacy. Think psychometrics and teamwork insights with applicability. Think engagement on a plan with doability.
So these are six tools. Six battle-tested, real-world products and services that make a tangible difference in addressing actual business challenges.
They are here for the taking. And they need your support.
Quality tools need quality practitioners to buy them and use them. Are you interested? Do you want to Change The Terms?
My “six forms*” of engagement approach, challenging traditional employee engagement thinking, takes center stage with my first ever podcast interview. The interview, part of the popular ICology podcast interview series hosted by Chuck Gose, can be found on the Podbean service here. It is also available via iTunes and other popular download points.
*Nominations have come in for two additional engagement forms–employees who focus on being part of a workplace community, and those focus on creating community in the workplace. Others may surface – but in the meantime, the willingness to challenge the idea of employee engagement as a linear, one-size-fits-all and numeric concept is highly appreciated.
For the last two years, the most prevalent words I have seen in the communication world have been “digital” and “disruption.” For the most part, the talk about each involved extolling the virtues of “digitalization” and “disruptiveness,” with much less tangible said about how to bring these qualities to life in a way that adds meaning or value.
Having recently set out on my own as a consultant focusing mainly on internal communication, my primary aim has been to disrupt commonplace notions about “how to do” #internalcomms. But in a short but memorable moment, my thoughts drifted towards how internal comms could itself become a force for disruption, holding the key to scaling, driving and delivering disruptive interventions on an enterprise-wide scale.
The key to seeing internal communication as a “weapon of mass disruption” is really to look at the nature of both of these terms, “mass” and “disruption.”
Internal comms embodies “mass” from an enterprise perspective in a number of crucial and complementary ways. The first, the way leaders commonly see internal communication, involves “mass delivery” of messages to all employees. The ability to “seize the radio stations,” harmonize the telescreens, and instantly distribute centrally-initiated messages in text, video, and/or audio formats remains one of an organization’s core tools to set, reinforce, or introduce changes in tone and direction.
But traditional “mass delivery” is not the only “mass” capability that internal communication can offer an organization with some appetite for disruptive interventions. Today, “mass selectivity” and “mass connectivity” can both amplify and target the power of interventions and new ideas. And “mass standardization” can make interventions and the wording of their definitions clear and consistently understood.
“Mass standardization” accelerates mass delivery by applying consistent terminology (and, in some cases, narrative and imagery) to specify and shape a favored idea and frame its intended impact.
“Mass selectivity” involves the ability to identify, connect and mobilize the “right” people to enable a particular disruption to spread. Whether using social mapping, influencer research, or ad hoc analysis to form a core group that connects the hierarchy with the important informal “tribes” and connective functions in an organization, the ability to select and build a core group allows a disruptive idea to incubate and generate emotional power and commitment among those who are responsible for its initial spread.
The contagion of this emotional commitment can often be accelerated by means of “mass connectivity.” Mass connectivity combines natural word of mouth as it spreads orally within teams, organizations and communities, and the networked power of external social networks and, where functioning, enterprise social networks inside the company firewall.
Internal communication’s ability to reach organizational populations through mass distribution, orchestrated influence and active agitation and connectivity is matched, if not exceeded, by what #internalcomms can do to shape, and even create, disruption itself.
What is disruption? Let’s look at what American dictionary Merriam Webster has to say. The verb “to disrupt” means “to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way: to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something).”
So, what does that mean for internal communications? Webster’s definition underscores the importance of internal communication in spreading disruption, so that disruptive changes stick and processes and practices are “unable to continue in the normal way.” Our understanding of our enterprises, markets and communities with our fluency in unleashing the mass dynamics of what make disruptions accelerate and stick makes us a formidable, perhaps even indispensable asset.
But our involvement isn’t simply limited to spreading disruption. We are also in a position to initiate it, to cause it. Rather than simply act as a vehicle for leaders who have disruptive agendas and need their ideas spread, we can identify, shape and even invent disruptive ideas on our own, and work with stakeholders to accelerate the flow of these disruptive ideas to the net benefit of our organizations.
New ideas, new practices, new promises, new words, new rules. We can spread them, and we can create them (and then spread them). We have the capability to commit mass disruption.
And mass disruption offers us a massive opportunity to change the terms.
Changing The Terms is a communication consulting practice focused on helping organizations improve alignment, differentiation and performance.
Having spent the last four years in an in-house comms role, none of the conclusions particularly surprised me. Practitioners these days are focused on “digital,” channel management and event management, in pursuit of informing people about corporate strategy and, to a lesser extent, supporting the ongoing push for “employee engagement,” whatever that might exactly be.
They are worried about their budget levels and dabbling with a range of measurement tools in order to have some facts that can justify sustaining at least part of those budgets. But what the Gatehouse survey does not touch is any effort to sharpen the impact of internal communication by identifying and focusing on high-value and high-impact individuals and audiences within their organizations.
Whether this is a simple omission in the Gatehouse methodology or a major gap in current practice is a question I will leave open for now. But when at 28% of survey respondents anticipate taking a budget hit this year, the question of whether one can drive more impact with fewer dollars, euros or pounds is one that ought to be on most communicators’ radar screens.
Now, to answer that question, a few other questions are worth asking:
Does the 80-20 rule have an equivalent in internal communication?
These three percent are not merely senior leaders at the top of the pyramid, but the internal experts, role models and social networkers who combine high connectivity with high credibility to move and validate messages, official and otherwise.
Isn’t it more difficult or expensive to find the right people than to just focus on everyone?
The process of identifying an organization’s most influential employees and, if desired, mapping out their connections and their spheres of influence, is a task that requires actual work, either through a survey where employees identify their key personal and professional contacts in the workplace, or, less precisely, through a combination of interviews, desk research and management input.
Once found, the list of influencers and their maps of connections and influence have to be updated in a manner reflecting the level of change, turnover and organizational momentum. But even factoring the degree of work involved in developing definitive lists and maps, the opportunity for saving money, reducing noise and increasing impact is immense.
Isn’t this a function of management and not internal communication?
A sharpened focus on high impact employees and audiences isn’t the same thing as a focus on high-status employees. Top-down communication may remain the gold standard for delivering authoritative pronouncements, but employees look to select peers and experts to define, sanity check and contextualize those messages. This is an approach that combines management with management in a powerful, integrated way.
Has anyone actually done this successfully?
Selective engagement, which focuses on identifying, connecting and mobilizing key individuals, whether through Innovisor’s approach to social mapping, or Leandro Herrero’s Viral Change approach, is an increasingly popular and efficient way of making things happen in organizations and communities.
In doing such an excellent job of identifying what internal comms leaders and practitioners are doing and focusing on, Gatehouse does a massive service to the IC community.
And in highlighting such a gap in the arena of audience focus, Gatehouse, perhaps inadvertently, has created an opportunity for internal comms pros – and those who employ us – to look at how they can engage more selectively, and in so doing, increase their impact while making better use of money and organizational bandwidth.
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.
In 1989, at the end of Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the “end of history”.
But, having just visited Russia and purchased a “Crimea is Ours” refrigerator magnet, I can assure you that history is alive and well and has a bright future.
Similarly, some say that due to certain “inevitable” forces, we are due to see the end of the internal communicator.
Some are saying the death knell will come from the blurring of the lines between internal and external communication, others claim that the adoption of purpose-based leadership, the embrace of enterprise social networks, or the ultimate, glorious triumph of Employee Engagement (depending on which definition of it one chooses, Elizabeth Lupfer’s list of 50 definitions being far from exhaustive).
But coordination and coherence rarely happens organically. Organizations do not change and refocus spontaneously. Purposes and values can get agreed, but then the question gets asked. “Now what?” Or, then “how are we going to do that?” And even when leaders seize the bullhorn and take over the lead advocate role themselves, one advocate does not make a conversation. The power of the advocate’s voice becomes diminished when he is left to communicate tactical as well as strategic information in his own voice rather than as the lead voice in an open but structured discussion.
Some may think the blurring between internal communication and external communication is what means death for the internal communicator. But whether one regards internal communicators well as a species relative to our external counterparts, we have some advantages in this respect. Breaking down the internal-external wall ultimately means bringing customers and stakeholders into the heart of the organisation, and it means unleashing employees as advocates and exemplars.
Both of those movements speak to the natural orientations of the internal rather than the external communicator. Internal communication takes place within a bounded universe, whether it is a company, community or a specific market. The boundary is not being erased, it is simply becoming broader and more porous. The fundamentals of identifying individuals and knowing whether to communicate directly or indirectly remain the same, and the maturation of the use of employees as an outward communication channel requires deep, robust and interactive communication among employees as well as between them, their leaders and their brands.
True, internal communication will see some change. Lateral communication will finally be taken seriously. Leader communication will integrate hierarchical and lateral communication. And high-value customers and stakeholders will increasingly be treated as integral “parts of the family,” addressed from an internal as well as an external mindset.
But alignment, change, and dialogue will continue to require structure, support and coordination, regardless of technology, philosophy or organisational structure. Spontaneity and intrinsic self-motivation will not change that, or mark the “end of internal communication.” We are alive and well, and we have a bright future.