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9 Top hopes and trends for Internal Communications in 2018

Tim VaughanTim Vaughan·

This time last year, when we looked at what might be exercising internal communicators in 2017, topics included video, data & measurement, engagement, ESNs, outcomes instead of outputs, and Virtual Reality. It didn’t seem likely at the time, but VR’s star has shone a lot brighter since then, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more about it, as well as AR and AI,  in 2018.

And, whether internal communicators like it or not, something else that’s going to take up a lot of time and attention in the year ahead is the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force next May.

But, of course, that’s only a small part of the IC story, which is still rightly more concerned about overarching issues such as being a proactive business driver and strategic partner instead of being a reactive doer, and proving value instead of being seen as a cost center.

So what’s in store for 2018? We asked a number of communication leaders what are their hopes and concerns for the year ahead, and what trends and developments we should be looking out for.  Here they are, and I’d like to thank each of them for their time and generosity in sharing their views.

   David Grossman, CEO & Founder, The Grossman Group

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

In the new year, I hope that communications professionals can work on the way they approach their role and elevate their leadership skills. Too often, communications leaders let themselves get pulled into the daily demands of planning communications, creating social media strategies, and supporting their own executives – all important priorities – without taking the time to focus on their own skill set as leaders. As a result, they are not as successful as they could be in making communications a critical leadership tool that drives performance.

I think it’s natural that this happens, and continuing to be better at our craft is important.  At the same time, I’m concerned by it and want to see more of us break free from the routine aspects of our work and become stronger, more effective leaders ourselves.  In what ways do we need to show up differently at the leadership table?  How might knowing ourselves even better allow for more courageous and valued counsel?  And isn’t the job of any leader really to create more and better leaders?  How are we helping our team develop their skills as leaders?  I see continuing to work on the craft of communications and our leadership skills a critical opportunity for 2018.

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

The good news is that I’m seeing signs that my hope for 2018 – an elevated role for communicators because of how they lead – will be realized within many more organizations. That’s because I see more executives looking to communications as strategic partners. Now, it’s simply up to us to seize this critical moment of opportunity.

Leaders know they need to find better ways to connect the dots so employees can see how what they do contributes to the company’s overall goals and strategy. Communicators should pick up on the clues they get from leaders, and spend more time and energy making the case for how communications can be a deciding factor in the success of the organization’s strategy. No organization can move forward in a positive way without great communication. Communicators just need to show leadership what’s possible when they begin to utilize communications as a true strategic partner and driver of organizational performance.

 

   Zora Artis, CEO, Three’s a Crowd; Director, Intl. Executive Board IABC

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

In my business, we live and breathe ‘better together’. It’s not just a strapline, but a belief in how we deliver the best outcomes and are proud of what we do. We do significant work in the area of brand strategy and re-alignment. Inevitably successfully implementing these strategies rely on employees – do they understand and believe the brand purpose, their role in delivering the brand experience day in day out, are they empowered to have a voice and do they care?

This is where employee engagement is critical – involving them in the process, respecting their input and engaging cross-functionally. Sadly I’ve seen many instances where organizations bring in internal communications or engaging their employees late in the piece – usually before launch.

Hopefully, this will improve as we see the continuing convergence of functions and the rise of communicators as strategic advisors rather than just doers.

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

There are a few that stand out for 2018:

  • the rise of AI and its impact on communicators – communicators need to consider what they need to do stay relevant. This leads to the need to be curious, continue to learn and look outside your industry, become better attuned to business and ROI, and invest in your own professional development.
  • the impact of GDPR on organizations whether they’re in the EU or not on how we communicate – it will have a definite impact on data collection and processing, how we communicate and compliance costs.
  • the continued focus on employee advocacy and storytelling as a way to build trust in the brand amongt current and prospective customers and employees

 

   Sean Williams, Vice President True Digital Communications

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

For nearly three years, I’ve led a task force on internal comms measurement, and we now have draft standards that will move into testing early in 2018. My hope is that the momentum we’ve started continues to build on the years of work that Angela Sinickas, Shel Holtz and others have pushed in this important area.

My concern is that staff resources and agency budgets are continuing to contract, and that leaves much tactical work to be done by a smaller team. That’s NOT a recipe for expanding scope, but the reverse. It’s easy for organizations to opt-out of measurement (and research) because they don’t perceive their value.

We hope that standards will make IC measurement easier, and therefore more common. The catch is that we should be measuring our impact, not our activity, and that’s a bridge too far for many of us!

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

Internal comms MUST change to be a business function rather than an internal PR team. We know that helping to build an educated, involved, committed workforce is crucial. But we in IC often think that it’s not really our responsibility, but that of HR and/or overall management. Our failure to embrace our crucial role in this are in favor of “engagement” or activity-based objectives marks us as unserious, unstrategic and really, unimportant. We don’t get the budgets our external comms cousins do.

Why is that? Some of the answer is related to our lack of measurement, but another is that we fundamentally do not consider ourselves business people who use communication to help solve critical business issues. When the C-suite asks us to justify our budget request, how do we respond? We ought to be able to articulate our value (even if not in financial impact terms.)

The irony is that the data are there — we can seek correlations between communication outcomes and business impact, and model those relationships. Apply the model to establish objectives for future value, and drive toward those objectives strategically. Statistically, we can make that happen, but too many of us don’t do it.

That puts us in peril. The trend will be to quantify IC organizational impact — and if you don’t do it, someone else will and you might not like the results.

 

     Rhonda J. Rathje APR, RJR Communication Solutions

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

With all the technological innovations (in social media, with new communication channels) – coupled with the rapid pace of change – it’s crucial that internal communicators don’t forget the employee. Let’s not focus primarily on the shiny new toy at the expense of the employee.  After all, we exist, and companies exist, because of employees.

As internal communicators we are the voice of the employee. It’s our role to win the hearts and minds of our employees so they know how their role helps the company succeed. When employees understand the big picture and how they fit in, they feel valued, listened to and feel like an important part of the team and organization.

Internal communicators are integral to driving a culture of communication throughout their organizations – being authentic, relevant, timely, responsive and even entertaining. If we stay focused on our audiences, the rest will fall into place.

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

It’s never been a better time to be an internal communicator. We live in interesting times. Trends that will continue in 2018 include:

  • Mobile – making it easy and seamless for employees to stay connected to your organization
  • Video – creating short, bite-sized video snippets that are easy to digest
  • Social media – shifting the power to the individual

The combination of mobile and social media gives employees the ability to interact and engage with their company and brand like never before – and also changes how they relate to their employer. Rather than one-way communication, social media establishes and increases a two-way dialogue with employees.

As internal communicators, we must be comfortable operating in this space, along with our employees. We must allow employees to have a voice. We must excel at listening to them. And, we must be OK with ambiguity as we no longer control information and messages about our companies.

We can use social media as an engagement tool, using it to build and maintain a relationship with employees. This means we must be authentic, visual, entertaining and brief.

Additionally, measurement also continues to be a trend as it’s important that we measure the value of internal communications to the organization.

 

    Jim Shaffer, Founder & CEO, Jim Shaffer Group.

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

Internal communications needs to get with the program. It needs to connect to the business. Today it’s way out there fiddling with slide decks, town hall meetings, newsletters, social media, posters and banners that have little to no effect on what matters to their businesses. I’m not belittling all of the activity. I’m pointing out that much of the activity doesn’t translate to improved results or value. Take a hard look at your last town hall meeting, your last corporate tweet or your last poster about your vision and values. Ask yourself: “How much did that activity cost?” Then ask yourself: “Did it generate a bigger improvement in anything that matters to your business than what you spent?      

Everything you do doesn’t have to add measurable value. But, in the end an increasing amount of what you do should contribute to a result that customers or shareholders care about. High fives celebrating a team achievement may not in and of itself add value. But it reinforces actions that do.  

It is essential that internal communication delivers value. It’s difficult to create a business case for keeping something that acts as a drain on the business.

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

Leaders will continually be challenged to lead in new environments. Multi-directional collaboration will search for better ways to improve the customer and employee experience. Employees will have just-in-time access to information they need when they need it through readily available apps.  This puts increased pressure on managing information that is readily available, accurate and results driven. The new environment will continue to pressure communication practitioners to build four new competencies.

  • Business and financial acumen that enables practitioners to translate external, internal and financial factors to the business strategy and then covert them to specific actions people need to take to execute the strategy.
  • Business adviser skills that bring logical, fact-based thoughtful sets of options to problems, build business partnerships and remove root causes so improvements are sustainable.
  • Change management knowledge and practices that make the communication role more proactive—from communicating about change to communicating to change in a way that reduces resistance to change.
  • Leadership development that builds leadership capability as a competitive advantage rather than a focus on tasks that are more about decoration than results and added value.  

 

     Jane Revell, Senior Internal Communications Manager, Kier Group

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

This is probably my hope every year but for 2018 I’d really like to see much more of a focus of stepping back, thinking about what we’re doing in internal communications and why, rather than continuing to be caught in the hamster wheel of reacting to things as they are thrown at us.

Internal communication can have such a big impact on achieving an organizations’ overall goals but we need to make sure that our leaders understand the purpose of internal communications and the value it provides to the business. To do that we need to measure and demonstrate the impact of internal communication activity by working in a more planned and strategic way.

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

I think we are beginning to see more effective communication with remote or offline workers, including better two-way communication to understand how people want to receive information and how they want to feedback views, suggestions and ideas. I hope that we continue to develop different ways to listen to people and change the way we communicate to be more in line with people’s preferences.

 

    Mike Klein, Principal, Mike Klein: Changing The Terms.

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

My biggest hope for the Internal Communication industry and profession in 2018 will be that we see much more collaboration and cooperation between practitioners, associations, vendors and clients.

We are used to being a competitive bunch. We have dozens of vendors in a variety of spaces clobbering each other for a bit of market share. We need vendors to go beyond this push for share by supporting initiatives – from our professional associations, from the likes of IC Kollectif, and even to join forces with their own collective promotion of the value we all provide (which can then be enhanced by making use of one vendor or another).

If we can generate some strong, collective promotion and shared knowledge that can reach some business decision-makers in the coming year, it could be a game-change for Team IC. If not, we will see cutthroat competition on the one hand, and deepening client skepticism on the other.

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

One very positive trend is that the communication associations are talking with each other like never before.

I see this especially in Europe, where I have been welcomed warmly to speak with leaders of IC organizations in Poland and Belgium, and where a reception I hosted at my home for IABC EMENA’s Regional Leadership Institute featured a Vice President of the European Association of Communication Directors (once viewed as a “rival”) as a guest. Cooperation is also active among the various IC and communication groups in the UK.

I think this is a superb development.

Our industry covers a lot of territory, not only in strategy and substance, but also in the kind of support and certification each practitioner needs at different stages of a career. We are starting to realize that multiple associations which specialize in specific niches may offer a richer experience than a single membership that doesn’t cover everything well. Indeed, we may soon see a situation where members of one association get more discounts from others as a precursor to additional memberships.

 

      Priya Bates, President & Owner Inner Strength Communications

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

I’ve often said that Strategic Internal Communication has the power to engage employees, enable change and deliver business results. As a consultant, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that more and more business leaders are reaching out to me and my organization to help solve business problems. How do we build trust? How do we encourage employees to live our brand promise? How do we get our stakeholders (staff, vendors, members, community) to support change initiatives? How do we use communication to make employees aware of, understand, deliver and believe in our business strategy?

Some of these organizations have no internal communication resources; others have invested in resources who simply deliver tactics; and many have internal teams that they do not engage to do the strategic work. Business leaders and internal communication teams alike are frustrated that there is a gap that exists in communication but they don’t know why and how to fill it.

My role has become more of internal facilitator and trainer. Yes, my team and I can simply come in and deliver the program successfully ourselves, but we’d rather help influence how organizations collaborate and deliver communication effectively. Why? Because we know that building respect in the communication profession and expertise in the internal communication discipline will help communication professionals, leaders and organizations succeed.

My concerns come from the resistance. Communication Professionals and leaders who would rather stay in their comfort zones. Those that don’t have the courage to ask the right questions and say, “no,” to the busy work that simply checks boxes and creates noise. I hope that in 2018, Communication Professionals will take steps to demand purpose and strategy for their work, invite themselves to the decision-making table, and then earn the respect to stay there.

A development or trend to look out for in 2018:

The biggest trend in Internal Communication revolves around technology. Every organization is looking for an enterprise social network that sits safely behind firewalls that facilitates communication, collaboration and community. We’ve seen many software and service providers turn their sites from external facing programs to employee-facing programs and organizations are hungry for solutions that will engage employees.

So the good news is that organizations and vendors recognize the golden opportunity of enabling communication. The bad news is that they are implementing these solutions badly…the statistic that over 60% of technology change projects fail still holds true. IT teams are flipping the on switch; HR is checking a box that they launched a social solution internally; but neither of these teams have engaged Communications to help employees adopt the change and as a result, these solutions are launched and left and everyone blames the technology versus the implementation and adoption process.

There is a big opportunity for Communication Professionals to create partnerships with HR and IT to first understand the technology solutions and then support with a communication plan that helps employees adopt and use it successfully.

    Elizabeth Lupfer, The Social Workplace

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2018:

One of the most exciting aspects of being an internal communicator right now is the ability to help organizations leverage communications to build stronger relationships with employees. In 2018, I see internal communications shifting (and I hope it does!) from a multi-channel to omni-channel approach.

In the past, internal communications would send out messages using as many channels as available. This results in disconnected, rapid-fire communications that don’t really resonate with employees. Today, the greatest opportunity and challenge of an internal communicator is to take a more unified communications strategy — to build a holistic story (using a combination of messaging and creative) and use an integrated communications channel approach to deliver those communications.

I’m a foodie, so I liken it to eating. Sometimes it’s appropriate to eat tapas style, but other times it’s better to eat an entire meal. Internal communications have historically served up communications tapas style. It’s time to turn it into meal!

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