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Are internal communication and change management the same thing?

Denise CoxDenise Cox·

I invited Andy Blacknell, who has been a guest on a number of our webinars, to write about whether internal communication and change management are the same thing.  Andrew Blacknell is a Change & Communication Consultant with over twenty years experience in internal communication and change management – both in-house and as a consultant based in Europe and North America. His expertise includes employee research, employee engagement, change management, employee value propositions and leadership development. Andrew formerly led the UK Communication & Change Management practice at Towers Watson and now runs his own consulting business.

Are internal communication and change management the same thing?  No. But they should be.

Internal Communication and change management are not the same thing. Change management includes communication, but the effective leadership of change involves a lot more than communication. Communicators have to be change leaders even though that might mean they get involved in and do things that are outside of their strict job description.

My client, let’s call him Matthew, is head of Internal Communications at a law firm. His firm recently merged with another law firm. The merger almost doubled the size of the business, the number of partners and added significantly to their global reach. The new leadership team is very different. Matthew knew something was up but he was not brought inside the camp until a few days before the announcement. Is that typical? Why do some communicators find out very late about major organisational changes?

In my experience, the answer lies in how you define your job. Matthew’s role is seen as tactical and implementation focused. When he does have a seat at the table, he asks good questions about messaging, channels and audiences, but doesn’t broaden the discussion to change leadership. Implementers and tactical communicators do not need to be involved in the earlier phases of planning, risk identification and mitigation.

Towers Watson’s change management methodology (shown in the diagram below) includes “change drivers“ or “change enablers“.

1. Leading

2. Measuring

3. Communicating

4. Involving

5. Learning

6. Sustaining

These are all underpinned by project management and they align closely to John Kotter’s “Eight Steps to Successful Change“. Kotter talks about leading (inspiring people to move and building the guiding coalition), involving (empowering action) and communicating.

What makes your communication “strategic“?

If you define your job narrowly around just the communications change driver, then you won’t be seen as strategic and it won’t be essential to involve you early in organisational change. This is what I’d define as tactical communications . It’s primarily about targeting, informing and using the right channels. Its a great skill and essential for any communicator. However, a strategic communicator will be more focused on the other five (six if you include project management) change drivers. When they are involved early, they ask questions like this:

  • What are we expecting from leaders? What’s in this for leaders? What might they lose or gain as a result of this change? Who are the other significant stakeholders? (Leadership driver)
  • How do we expect people to react? What are the risks? Do we have any insights? Could we create a sample group and test our ideas and approach with them? (Involvement driver)
  • How will you measure the success of this change (numerically, behaviour, opportunities etc.). What different behaviours are we expecting if this is successful? How might we measure these? (Measurement driver)
  • How will we develop our people to do this (new behaviour)? Do we expect that all our people can make this change? Are we planning to provide some learning or training? What are HR doing to change our personal development process to support this change? Do we have a role profile or description of someone doing this well? (Learning driver)
  • How will we support and reward people over the longer term who do support this change? Should this be reflected in our people development and performance management processes? Are there any quick wins that might help us build early momentum and demonstrate some progress? (Sustaining)

If your Head of Internal Communications asks you these questions, you will start to include them very early in the process. You will start to think of them as a trusted adviser rather than an implementer and supporter.

Is there a downside? Your role and responsibilities will start to expand and it will take time for your resources to catch up. You will be asked to play a role in every change initiative in the organisation! But there again, I’ve always thought we were happier when busy.

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