The State of the Sector: are internal communicators missing something big?

Not long ago, London-based internal communication consultancy Gatehouse published its eighth annual “State of the Sector” survey looking at how internal comms practitioners are experiencing their roles and how they use their time, money and energy.

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?

According to Innovisor, a Copenhagen-based niche consultancy specializing in identifying and mapping the relationships between formal and informal leaders in organizations, the internal comms equivalent actually reflects a 3%-90% rule, where three percent of a company’s population has the ability to drive and influence conversations reaching 90% of employees.

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.


Do-Know-Feel: Relevance Trumps Awareness

Having built my communication career mainly on the learnings I have obtained on the job, first as a political consultant and then as an internal communicator,  I have largely been spared a lot of the models and paradigms delivered through formal communication training. 

So, about 11 years ago,  while I was managing the internal communication for an airline merger,  I was a bit taken aback when my client, having recently completed some internal comms ninja-training course, cited a long-standing model and wanted me to apply it in my work.

“It’s about ‘know, feel, do’, Mike,” she said.  “What people should know, how they should feel, and then, what they should do.”

For some reason, that never sat well with me.  It still doesn’t, and when I heard someone say “it’s not ‘know, feel, do,’ but ‘do, know, feel,'”* it made perfect sense to me.

(* I apologize for forgetting the individual who shared this insight–please feel free to claim credit if you are reading this)

Do-know-feel is actually the basis for selective engagement and the kind of internal communication based on social analysis–where messaging and message volumes are channelled on the basis of driving relevance, action and performance rather than increasing awareness and approval for the sake of awareness and approval.


The first step is to determine what the various individuals in the audience or organization actually need to do: what tasks they need to accomplish, what roles they need to fulfill.  

Such roles can range from:


Change Leader

Project Manager

Someone whose day job will incorporate related activities

Someone who will not be directly involved but will need to accommodate related activities

Someone who will be affected by a change but will otherwise not participate in its implementation

Total bystander


The next step:  assess the factual content required to allow these individuals to fulfill their roles.

Having already assessed the “do” for each individual, it becomes much easier to ensure that the right people get the right level of detailed information, and that people who are less involved don’t get inundated with information that they are likely to find excessive, irrelevant and, often, irritating.  

While that may sound obvious,  such an approach often faces opposition from senior managers who insist that everyone must know everything about their “top priority” initiative because it is their  top priority, even when it clearly is not each employee’s top priority.  

While I once successfully challenged a CEO when he demanded a specified frequency of articles on his top project when the content relevance and ripeness did not warrant it, documenting that communication approach is based on relevance rather than awareness makes such a challenge easier to deliver.


Aside from the general inability of internal communicators to successfully and sustainably dictate employee emotions,  another reason for making emotion the third level of the do-know-feel approach is that the desired emotional response is different for people with different tasks.

It may be sufficient for a total bystander to get a robust sense of the context and rationale for change,  but people who are more directly involved with specfic responsibilities and impacts will face a broader range of triggers for their emotional reactions.  

For instance,  where there are personnel changes, the senior managers deciding the scope of the changes, the managers and HR staff implementing the changes, the employees whose roles would disappear and those whose roles would face reconfiguration will all have different emotional needs and require highly distinct messaging and support. 


Some may look at do-know-feel and just see an alternative approach to audience segmentation.  But I would argue that there is more to it.  Do-know-feel is also a clear basis for driving more selective, efficient and effective approaches to internal communication, employee engagement, and change communication, based on relevance rather than driving awareness.  It not only offers a means for driving communication focus on those who can have the most impact, but also on reducing the sense of overload and over-prioritization felt by employees who actually have better things to do.  By doing so, do-know-feel changes the terms.


Cover Story: IABC’s Communication World

Am delighted and excited to announce the publication of my article, “Focus Your Engagement Where it Matters Most,” as the cover story of IABC‘s revamped Communication World magazine.

It is my first-ever full article for CW. Its publication on the eve of IABC’s World Conference in Toronto next week marks a nice opportunity to sharpen the conversation about “employee engagement”, its relationship with internal communication, and the extent to which strategic internal communication can make the energy and expenditure dedicated to “employee engagement” more effective.

The article can be found here: http://bit.ly/cwcoverstory

Many thanks to IABC’s Natasha Nicholson, and also to my sources Dan Gray, Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard, Jim Shaffer, Muriel Pineau, Darryl Mead, Gunther Mittmann-Gano, Joy Niemerg and Kellie Cummings for their input.


“Taken Aback” meets “Shel-shocked”: Debating Selective Engagement

In my return to the blogging ranks after some dormant months, I have noticed how interconnected people in the internal communication space have become, and also how many places there are where professional discussions and debates take place.  So, it came as a surprise when a friend of mine in London sent me a link to a Google-plus share from a leading professional in San Antonio endorsing my Selective Engagement piece I posted some days ago.

Normally, I would have left it at that, but I landed on the share again and clicked onto the comments, and found the following reply from Shel Holtz.

“I was a little taken aback by the post. I’ve never heard anybody suggest that everybody should be treated equally with employee communications. Some companies that don’t approach it strategically may embrace the idea of mass media, which results in everybody getting exactly the same information. But every text, every workshop, every lecture, every article on internal communications talks about audience segmentation, message interpretation to make information meaningful at the level where work people do real work, and addressing differences in employee populations (demographic, hierarchical, etc.). Is this idea of egalitarianism something you’ve actually encountered?”

To be honest, to see this comment about being “taken aback” left me, in turn, a little “Shel-shocked.”

Shel rightly says that those who take internal communication seriously enough to pay attention to mainstream internal communication writing or training would be unlikely to hear any endorsement of a “top-down-one-size-fits-all” way of doing things.

But many of the leaders and opinion-formers who strategic internal communicators must contend with continue to buy that approach.

In my own experience, I have seen and heard this sentiment in a wide variety of settings–a US Government agency and several large companies in Europe.

Here are some of the things I have heard in my recent career that reflect this view:

* “Our engagement scores are low and we need to get everyone on the same page!”

* “Our intranet readership is too low!”

* “We need to ensure that a consistent message is delivered across the company.”

* “We need to verify that the cascades have all taken place.”

* “People need to experience the brand consistently in every encounter with the company and everyone needs to attend the same living the brand seminar.”

Granted, I have not heard these things from professional internal communicators. Instead, I have heard them from people they (or I) have reported to, and I have also heard them from managers and consultants from other disciplines and functions who see internal communication as part of their remit.

Unselective thinking about “employee engagement”, and even internal communication, remains pervasive.  It is hard-wired into employee engagement surveys and into the continuing affection managers have for cascading.  It is also, to a lesser extent, reflected in the ever-popular “provide and pray” approach to introducing social tools, launching them without regard for identifying the people whose participation would deliver the most mutual benefit.

I would posit that unselective thinking is at the root of much of what is dysfunctional about internal communication–rejection of tools, failure of initiatives, woolly measurements, and organisational misalignment.  Getting smarter about who we connect with and how we connect them could make a big difference.



Selective Engagement

One of the common themes in internal communication that has never sat well with me is the idea of egalitarianism—that all internal communication should treat all employees, or all employees of a hierarchical class, on an equal basis.

There are some places where egalitarianism has its place in the corporate world—compliance with codes of conduct and adherence to agreed processes and values being obvious choices.

In internal communication, the idea that all employees should be treated equally is often counter-productive, and manifests itself in a number of ways.

It lives in measurements that focus on raw numbers, like a focus on views and hits on Intranet articles.

It fuels the never-ending drive to sanitize content and simplify language, so that it reaches the most apathetic corners of the organisation with minimum offense.

And it bankrolls the persistent insistence on all-employee “sheep-dip” workshops, conferences, and “engage-athons.”

But as seductive and intuitive as the idea of “getting everyone on the same page” may be for executives, budget-holders and engage-athon vendors, an alternative approach is beginning to gain momentum.

My name for the alternative is “selective engagement”.

My definition of selective engagement is the effort to change organisational direction, or improve organisational performance, by identifying, connecting and mobilising the organisation’s most influential people in the pursuit of one or more common objectives.

Selective Engagement aims for efficiency with effectiveness.  Lower costs, higher impact, and reduced alienation and irritation.

It’s about reducing the number of people targeted by communication, increasing the depth of content and expanding the resonance of social connections.

Moreover, by targeting a small number of influential people; messages and intentions actually spread as widely as they do through broadcast or even “sheep-dip” communication.  The added credibility coming from the involvement of these formal and informal leaders who spread and connect the message helps move beyond mere awareness and towards active adoption.

One of the barriers to this approach in the past is that the research required to do the social mapping and identify the influencers has been seen as cumbersome and expensive.  Another is that some senior leaders like the idea in principle, but want to choose the participants themselves rather than assess their influence more objectively.

But the approach, finally, is becoming more common.  Research and mapping are becoming cheaper and easier, and some leaders are becoming more receptive.  Selective Engagement is generating selective momentum.

To learn more in 55 seconds, read Bethany Haley’s excellent article.

To learn more in 55 minutes, order my book, From Lincoln to LinkedIn (Abraham Lincoln had this idea back in 1840, by the way)

To explore a from a behaviour change angle, and you have more than 55 minutes, try Leandro Herrero’s Homo Imitans.

Selective engagement is a powerful challenge to the persistence of the “one-size-fits-all” model of internal communication.  It has massive potential to Change The Terms.


Six Forms: An Alternative View of Engagement

Four years ago, I was moved enough by the unclarity around definitions of employee engagement that I felt compelled enough to offer my own:  “The Four Forms of Engagement,” which David Zinger, one of the field’s true “gurus,” was kind enough to publish on his website.

Earlier this year, I started looking at engagement as an area for more emphasis on my part—and found that the discussion had not seemed to move much.

Some themes remain popular, if not uniformly common:

  • Employee Engagement is about improving employee morale, commitment, satisfaction and employee productivity
  • Employee Engagement is linear, starting at a point of “zero” or “disengaged”, and moving progressively upward to ‘’engaged”, with all employees falling somewhere on that scale
  • Employee Engagement is about employees, period.
  • Employee Engagement  is the state that all companies should pursue for all employees. Companies that reject this view are bad, wrong and unenlightened.

A different view

But even though these are common themes, and that many of the new definitions offered by gurus in the field reflect those themes, I chose to look elsewhere for an alternative perspective:  America’s Webster’s dictionary.  Webster’s defines engagement:

  • to pledge oneself : PROMISE : GUARANTEE
  • to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity b : to take part : PARTICIPATE c : to give attention to something : DEAL
  • to enter into conflict or battle
  • to come together and interlock (as of machinery parts) : be or become in gear

Building from Webster’s definition, an alternative view of engagement falls out:

  • There is no such thing as “disengagement” as long as an individual has any involvement with an organization.
  • Engagement is neither a virtue nor a vice—it is merely a characterization of the nature and intensity of one’s relationship with an organization

Looking at Webster’s definition, I originally came up with four forms of “engagement”

  • The engagement of the “rifle”—battle: active opposition
  • The engagement of the “mat”—wrestling: active disagreement, but within a productive context
  • The engagement of the “gearshift”-mechanical: productivity without resistance or grief
  • The engagement of the “ring”-mutual, heartfelt, emotional commitment

In looking back, I saw room for two additional forms, reflecting the growing number of contractors and employees with more of an entrepreneurial bent:

  • The engagement of the “hawk”: reward seeking:  mercenary and focused on individual outcomes
  • The engagement of the “artist”: perfection seeking, focused on fulfilling and developing personal standards

The Engagement of the Rifle

Current models of “Engagement” may consider active hostility, opposition or sabotage indicative of “disengaged” employees (or for that matter, “disengaged” managers or corporate alumni). But these people are highly engaged. They care about the organization, and they are determined to pay it back for any real or imagined slights.

The implications this “engagement of the rifle” can be profound—it can undermine the enthusiasm of fellow staff members.  These employees can make claims about product and service quality within their social networks—and, in company towns; they can spread rumors that can undermine the stability of the company-community relationship. Even employees who may seem “apathetic” may go home and moan to their partners, who then do the rumor-spreading for them.

What’s important about looking at the “engagement of the rifle” is not simply that people so engaged are aggressive and hostile. Instead, they demonstrate a level and intensity of engagement that can be channeled and harnessed in a more appropriate direction. For many organizations—finding a way to identify, address, and channel “rifle-engagement” more productively may be the first kind of engagement effort they need.

The Engagement of the Mat

Some may see a wrestling match as a kind of battle akin to that fought with rifles. But there are two major differences—wrestling is physically intense but not lethal, and wrestling is a form of physical engagement that takes place within the context of established boundaries and rules.

Disagreements within organizations can bring friction, discord and disruption. But many of those disagreements yield or prompt the innovations, realizations and realignments that make organizations more responsive to customers, more efficient to operate, and more honest places in which to work.

Many organizations want their people to be engaged on the mat. They are seeking new opportunities, to achieve ambitious targets with fewer resources, and desperately require internal challenge, and often bring in external support for framing those challenges.

Does anyone pay McKinsey to come into an organization and sing the “Happy” song? For some organizations, the engagement approach they may first need involves creating, licensing and incentivizing staff to choose to grapple with the organization’s challenges rather than accepting them or stock responses as given.

The Engagement of the Gearshift

For many people, work is about going to the plant or the office, doing everything that comes across the desk in a way that meets with their supervisor’s consent, and going home and getting on with the rest of their lives.

Some may complain that this is a “disengaged” way to work, but examined closely, it’s a mechanical form of engagement—the person comes into the process, does his/bit, and exits the process at the end of the day.

This kind of engagement and the organizations that foster it are heavily criticized by those who see “Engagement” as a kind of moral imperative that must be brought by force to all organizations.

But the “engagement of the gearshift” persists for a number of reasons which are hardly immoral on their face. Some employees do not want jobs or positions that interfere with their non-work lives—they want to go to work, do their jobs, and go home, and have the mind space to worry about their children, churches, crafts or communities.

This is not to say that the “engagement of the gearshift” must be purely one way and transactional. Effective engagement within such organizations can be built out of an honest understanding of organizational, employee and manager ambitions, and by identifying opportunities where participation can strengthen the organization’s commercial offerings or production processes.

The Engagement of the Hawk/the Engagement of the Artist

A related concept to the transactional engagement of the gearshift is one where the employee is focused on individually-oriented rewards rather than a long term relationship with the organization.  The Hawk is something of a mercenary, seeking wins and one-off paychecks to take in from a confirmed kill, er, a confirmed success; the Artist is something of a prima donna, one who works to fulfill one’s own sense of perfection, and perhaps, to draw on the host organization for due recognition of the quality his or her work or leadership.

In a world where the contractor and embedded consultant play an increasingly important internal role in organizations, engagement with people belonging to either of these two species tends to be highly individualized, thus challenging an overall engagement framework that tends to exalt long-term mutual harmony (see the Engagement IP the Ring below) above all other virtues, even if it is incapable of delivering it sustainably as it is.

The Engagement of the Ring

With apologies to JRR Tolkien, we now come to “the Engagement of The Ring”—the level of exceptional emotional commitment, supernormal productivity, and unbounded corporate enthusiasm many who speak of “Employee Engagement” actively seek.

In seeking the “engagement rings” of their staffs, however, are organizations willing to wear those rings forever? Indeed, are organizations willing to offer anything at all?

If the ultimate form of “Engagement” is a state of mutual happiness and harmony in an organization, will it create cultures that stifle dissent, innovation and change? If engagement is about “extraordinary mutual commitment” and there are deep senses of obligation on both sides, can such an organization withstand competition from companies whose approaches are honest but far more flexible?

And what happens when those organizations decide to seek more flexibility and fewer obligations? Will the ensuing sense of betrayal result in the “engagement of the rifle”?

I do see companies for whom “the engagement of the ring” makes sense—companies where personal involvement in the product or the process of delivering it makes it a unique, premium offering. Effectively achieving “engagement of the ring” needs to balance the the exceptional commitment sought from its managers and staff with sustained and sustainable commitment from the organization that withstands competitive and economic challenges.

In Closing

I don’t propose the “Six Forms of Engagement” as an authoritative definition of employee engagement, or even as a definitive typology.  I am sure other types and subtypes can be identified, and indeed, would like to hear about them.

But I do propose it to challenge the pervasive view that “employee engagement” is some kind of linear idea consisting of Good (engaged), Bad (apathetic or disengaged) and Ugly (actively disengaged) people, and that the right way to address this is to somehow make people more Good, and/or reflexively get rid of those who are Bad or Ugly.

People engage in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Organizations engage in varied ways as well.  Recognizing, and respecting this diversity—makes a lot more sense than acting as if the only valid form of engagement is one involving a “ring”.