Why the time has come for Internal Comms to take a leaf from the Finance playbook
— October 28th, 2020
“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very fine place to start.”
So said Mary Poppins. And we might do well to heed that advice when it comes to internal communication. It is, after all, the most ubiquitous of all business activities.
Not everyone manages people, or budgets. Not everyone runs IT systems, or does sales. In fact, there isn’t a single business activity that every person in every organization does – except internal communication (IC).
The ultimate guide to internal communications strategy
And, for better or worse, it affects the quality of every other activity. So it’s probably a good idea to get it right, wouldn’t you say?
But what if, when it comes to IC, no one has ever thought to start at the very beginning? After all, in good times or bad, your organization will always have goals. And how can it expect to achieve them efficiently, effectively and consistently, if the one business practice that underpins all the others is ill-defined?
A need for purpose
Think about it this way. Would it help your organization perform at its best if all its IC practices were fit for purpose? Surely that’s a yes. So we obviously need to be able to define that purpose, do we not? But how can we be sure about the purpose of any given ‘thing’ if we haven’t first defined the ‘thing’ itself? And, oddly, when it comes to IC many people (indeed, many organizations) haven’t done that yet.
That’s why we need to start with a definition of Internal Communication: one in which we can all be justifiably confident. (Of course, we can take a dictionary definition of ‘communication’ itself as our ultimate starting point. But where do we go from there?)
IC frequently comes out badly in employee surveys. But the internal communications employees are unhappy about often have nothing to do with any specialist IC team.
The complaints frequently center around email overload, or the fact that their boss doesn’t talk to them.
But in numerous conversations I’ve had with IC Specialists over the years, it’s become clear they’re often working with a very different definition. And this is evident when we turn the question on its head and ask: ”When is an internal communication not an internal communication?” You might think the answer obvious. But is it?
A conversation I once had with a client may help illustrate the problem:
ROB: Why weren’t you involved in this communication?
IC specialist: Because it was from the Pensions Admin Department, about changes to company pension scheme contributions.
ROB: OK, so it was a communication that came from people inside the business?
IC specialist: Yes.
ROB: And it went out to…?
IC specialist: To all employees
ROB: Solely to people inside the business, then?
IC specialist: Absolutely.
ROB: No one outside the business received this communication?
IC specialist: Of course not.
ROB: So it was a communication from people inside the business, that went only to other people inside the business.
IC specialist: That’s right.
ROB: So it was an internal communication.
IC specialist: No.
IC specialist: It was an HR communication.
This conversation really did happen. And it got even more loopy.
The IC Specialist in question was responsible for this company’s Team Brief. So apparently, if the communication had been delivered through the Team Brief (rather than going direct from Pensions Admin) it would have been an internal communication.
But it would have been exactly the same message, coming from exactly the same people, and going to exactly the same people.
Is this not bonkers? Surely the same fit-for-purpose practice standards should always apply – regardless of who’s doing the communicating, should they not?
A flawed syllogism
Yet this client was far from alone. It turns out that – without even realizing they’re doing so – many IC Managers have long been basing their definition on a flawed syllogism. It goes like this:
- My team does internal communication
- Therefore internal communication is what my team does
- Therefore, if my team doesn’t do it, it isn’t internal communication.
Interestingly, though, it’s hard not to have a certain amount of sympathy with this. After all, if you’re an IC Manager, how can it be fair for you to take the rap for other people’s failings? On the other hand, is it not crazy to rely on a definition for IC which could change – moment to moment – on the whim of, say, a pensions administrator?
Clearly, then, if our IC practices are going to be fit for purpose we need a different way of defining what is, and is not, Internal Communication.
And if possible it needs to reconcile two key issues:
1. The definition has to encompass all the differing opinions, so that:
- it doesn’t keep changing
- people don’t end up talking at cross purposes when discussing it
2. It doesn't leave IC specialists carrying the can for problems they can't solve.
Embracing the contradictions
On the face of it, those issues appear to be as irreconcilable as fire and ice. But if we address them separately perhaps we can find a solution.
If we focus solely on our first requirement the definition is quite simple. We could begin by accepting that if something is being:
- communicated by any individual or group inside an organization, and
- received only by other individuals or groups inside that same organization…
…it is surely an internal communication.
But that would include all the social chit-chat going on between colleagues. So maybe we need to say that it counts as internal ‘business’ communication only if it concerns the fulfillment of the organization’s reason for existing.
Hmm. But what about all the communicating that needs to happen between employer and employee just to manage their relationships with one another:
- booking holidays,
- claiming expenses,
- reporting broken equipment etc?
These surely count as valid internal communications, do they not? It seems, then, that our definition needs to include communications that ‘indirectly’ enable the organization to fulfill its reason for existing.
A working definition
So this gives us a holistic definition of Internal Communication:
All communicating that goes on inside an organization, for the purposes of directly or indirectly enabling that organization to fulfill its reason for existing.
However, it does still leave us with that second challenge. No IC Specialist or Team – no matter how skilled – can be responsible for the quality of all the communicating everyone else is doing. Or can they?
Parallels with finance
Imagine your organization wanted to improve its financial management. The Leadership Team would surely ask the Finance Department to review current practices, and then design, implement and oversee new ones. After all, the Finance Specialists are the experts in that discipline. And it doesn’t mean they have to fill in every else’s budget returns.
Their job is to set up the rules of the game for everyone else to follow. And they step in only if someone isn’t playing ball. It also means line managers don’t have to become qualified accountants in order to manage their budgets in a fit-for-purpose manner.
Could there not be parallels with IC here? We already know internal communication affects the quality of every other business activity. Does it not make sense, then, for IC practices to meet the best possible standards? And does it not also follow that (just as with finance) the people with the specialist skills should be setting and monitoring those standards?
In short, is it not time for Internal Communication Leadership?
Many organizations already have IC standards; many others don’t. And even where they do exist, the oversight and support necessary to underpin those standards is rarely in place. But what if you had enough resource to do it – and do it right? How much impact could you have then?
IC Leadership can only make everything better:
- Employee well-being
- Project Management
- Customer Service
- Brand value
- Anything else you can think of.
And crucially – given the current economic situation – it can deliver all this while significantly reducing operating costs. Think about the extraordinary waste incurred through employee mistakes and misunderstandings.
IC Leadership may not eliminate every miss-step, but it can reduce them significantly. In short, with IC Leadership your organization will run way better, at markedly lower cost.
In fact, it’s such a no brainer that we might wonder why it hasn’t long been standard operating practice. But it has always required two things:
- practice standards people can rely on
- business pressures to adopt new approaches.
Importantly, though, the standards do now exist. And thanks to the pandemic we now have mass remote working. This means:
- line managers, in particular, are having to up their game as internal communicators
- many organizations are looking for ways to reduce their operating costs.
It may be, then, that IC Leadership is an idea whose time has finally come. Surely Mary Poppins would approve.