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The future of Internal Communications

I can’t help feeling that Internal Communications (intra-company communications; employee comms) is stagnating. I have not seen a new idea in years.

Intranets seem to be the biggest thing to happen to companies / Internal Communication in the last ten years, but that’s old news. The WWW has moved forward and intranets should too, that’s obvious.

The rise of Social Media (‘Web 2.0’) has given us an indication that people expect to be part of the conversation, and want to engage in two-way conversations. It’s no longer acceptable to treat people as the voiceless recipients, the passive receivers of our broadcasts.

So, am I supposed to be impressed with intranets that allow (moderated) comments and direct input from the audience? Is internal blogging the revolution I seek?

Yes and no. Yes, making use of blogging platforms will enable people to better connect with the corporate body, and with the CEOs and Directors who should no longer be hidden behind the curtain. Yes, bottom-up communication and direct feedback is to be enjoyed and respected, and yes, perhaps even User Generated Content can be part of our intranet communications.

But no, this isn’t revolutionary, it’s just evolutionary. Even before the World Wide Web was born in ’92 / ’93 it was conceived to be a two-way street. Blogging and Wikis may have come late to the party, but they were always envisaged. And anyway, many people were online long before the WWW was invented, and two-way conversations were the norm among the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms and Bulletin Boards. Oh yes, the interactive web may have been a ’90s invention, but the Internet has been around for a lot longer (but you knew that, right?).

So what am I looking for?

I’m not sure; this is just an exploratory article to raise the question. I know what I’m not looking for, and maybe that will help define what I am hoping for.

I’m not looking for:

  • Videos of CEOs doing the Queen’s speech – we all sit in open-plan offices and we don’t have headphones;
  • Podcasts as part of our internal training resources – while these should already be available, let’s face it, it’s just an audio recording. Without an internal version of iTunes to keep us subscribed, it’s not easy or revolutionary.
  • More PDFs and PowerPoint slide-shows on the intranet – it’s fricking awful when incompetent technophobes dump a load of cut n paste data into a PowerPoint file and get it published. They should use the tools as appropriate for the content and the reader; a well crafted visually appealing web page would do everyone a favour.

Does that narrow it down? What am I looking for within Internal Communications 3.0? I’m not sure, but I think it might have something to do with attitude.

I’m so sick of comms being so top-down. I’m so sick of comms having the confidence of a pubescent nerd at the school dance. Internal Communications, while governed by the need to be accurate and considerate, is also governed by fear.

We fear upsetting some imaginary individual so much that we hold off, we wait, we double-check, we re-review and we re-write – until we’ve squeezed all the interest, life and actual ‘news’ out of our communications. We end up telling people stuff they’ve already heard from the water cooler.

Blogging has built its momentum up from the acronym BEBO (and yes, this used to refer to the youthful social network in the UK of the same name) – Blog Early Blog Often.

“Write Early Write Often – Inform People Immediately, Keep Them Updated; Publish and be Damned.”

But instead, managers will remind us that it’s ‘not the right time‘ to go public. Internal Communications professionals, like myself, will nod sagely and agree that we need to be ‘timely’ with the news of plant closures. Yet every day we wait is another day that the BBC of Financial Times might gazump us. Never ever let your staff discover bad news from the media!

OK, let me slow down; I do agree that timeliness is important, and that it’s often dangerous to spread news like wildfire before the facts and ramifications are known. But my point is, I see managers and communicators holding-back on a daily basis, rather than seeking the right time to communicate. Holding back because we know there will be a back-lash, or some heavy feedback.

I say celebrate the feedback! Instead of creating (or rather, as well as) a list of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ before any such questions have been asked, create a real FAQ after the fact, and show people that you are dealing with feedback. Too often managers tell me that they are indeed dealing with feedback, and responding to individual emails – yet they don’t tell the audience this, they just hide behind their email programs and face only those people who dare send an email. If only we would publish the dialogue so that everyone could gain insight, and everyone could see the company cared enough to really tackle the issues.

What do I want from Comms 3.0 then?

It’s something to do with being courageous in our communications. Knowing we can’t please everyone, we should ‘publish and be damned’ – we certainly get paid enough to manage that damnation, and our people and our companies deserve more than just stoic announcements (and pronouncements) from on-high HR and late non-news.

What do you expect from your company communications? What do you give to your communications? What are you frustrated by? This could turn into a manifesto for honest comms with impact – what say you?

[Wedge]

Forgive my spelling mistakes; I’ve tided this piece up now. I was writing on the train and then I had meetings all day – no excuse I know, but I really wanted to get this article published and so I got it online before it was ready.

About Wedge

I’m Wedge, and this is my website! I’ve worked within internal communications since 2004, managing intranets and digital comms. Now I’m a freelance comms and intranet specialist - I help organisations plan and improve their intranets. I work with other agencies, and write a lot of blog and magazine articles. I founded the Intranet Now conference. You can catch up with me on Twitter - I’m @Wedge.

8 thoughts on “The future of Internal Communications

  • Nice post. I share many of your frustrations about our profession and the fact that we are sometimes lacking – dare I say it – balls. You’re right that two way comms is not revolutionary – but it’s still an ambition, rather than a reality, for far too many organisations. I also love your idea of a manifesto for great internal comms – and I’d be very happy to help you compile something along those lines. If that’s of interest drop me a line….

    All the best.

    Lee

  • Hello there Lee;

    great to see you hear, and see your site. Thanks for joining me in my cogitation. I do wonder where the comms revolution is, but I also worry that it would be so very hard to start. My boss’ boss might not know what the hell I’m talking about, and would ‘spin’ the fear that I’ve talked about into being ‘responsible comms’.

    It’s def worth thinking more on, and I shall be posting more (using the tag ‘Comms 3.0’) and hope to see you again.

  • Doing work on the company intranet, I can only agree.

    I’ve been tasked with creating the department’s intranet content and it has been a nightmare.

    I’ve managed to ward away most of the powerpoint presentations, but some of them have been shoved in there with no option for me to take them out, we’ve not got a proper roadmap for our content meaning I’m getting changes coming in randomly which would not have been a problem (or have wasted time) if they had been made earlier in the process. I’m getting people delaying everything so that the publication date is the last day before I go on holiday so that there’s no time to correct any mistakes or oversights that we didn’t manage to catch before publication… and then delaying that so that it’s being published whilst I’m holiday… when I’m the only person on the team with the contribute licence and the software residing on my laptop…

    The structure is horrendous, the timeline was ridiculous, and the information lacking.

    I was told to plan it (which I did, including a sensible timeline) and then told I wasn’t allowed to do it because we already had an internal comms department who did all that (but who didn’t have time to do it) until eventually I get told that I am doing it, and that I’ve got two weeks to get it published with inadequate tools, inadequate information, and inadequate support.

    I know I’m a miracle worker, and I know that all evidence points to me providing them on demand, but I still don’t like the obstacles of poor planning and management making my job more difficult.

    I really want to find a way to put a covert penis reference somewhere in there just to feel like I got revenge. (I won’t, because that would be unprofessional… but I’d like to)

  • Yes, it’s the generic corporate-speak that kills me and turns me off. At my last corporate job, internal comms seemed primarily tasked with churning out a lot of slick, meaningless ‘inspirational’ corporate missives that we all deleted upon receipt.

    My dream is to have all companies communicate like Woot, or at a minimum like Southwest – irreverence, purpose, humor, resonance. That I would read. And that kind of company I would adore, warts and all, and probably give my soul to for very little money.

    The problem is, Internal Comms does NOT have the power to decide what the tone will be – they execute (now we go into how ICs need to transform into consultants for the execs and lead them the right way…)

    Incidentally, there ARE new ideas out there in terms of ‘push’ employee communications – bypassing email altogether and creating exclusive visual desktop broacast channels for example… But I don’t think this constitutes a revolution, maybe just a needed evolution.

  • Hello Paula,

    I can’t say I know much about Woot or Southwest, but a shot of irreverence might well be the tonic some companies need – although I find that medium-to-large companies in the UK are terrified of ‘upsetting people’. Sigh.

    Well, it’s my experience that Int Comms (in the UK) *does* have the power to decide tone, as long as the Manager / Director is fully involved with the management (rather than just reporting to them every month). Yet, even when the power resides with us, we still fear doing anything remotely ‘new’.

    Yes, I see your company sells desktop alert systems in the US, I can only hope that your clients use such solutions with a light hand!

  • Brilliant.

    Where to start? You cover a lot and I agree with much of it.

    But I don’t think you get revolution in ANY part of business very often, though it should happen from time to time.

    When leaders hold back they are just making it worse for themselves. I also here comments from people about feedback that is quite dismissive – why ask for it if you ignore it?

    I’m all for being as open as possible with employees, the rumor-mill is knocked off it’s feet that way, problems get aired and fixed.

    What I guess I don’t see, but hear about, is the exec competition that goes on in just about every company. ‘Mines bigger than yours’ and don’t ever make a mistake. Which leads to the most dull communication possible for fear of ridicule from peers.

    One thing you mention about internal blogging and connecting with the corporate body (not sure what that is) – I don’t think that’s the benefit. Few if any exec will blog. If you need to make them, don’t bother. The benefit comes from getting everyone who wants to, put down there experience and connect with similar people (or dissimilar). If internal comms is clever they will read what people are saying, make use of this information, god, even use some on the intranet. Sort of like the ideal social media marketing.

    If you don’t have a media library of some sort with rss feeds, get one. Most people I find do have headphones, loads of people have iPods or phones that play mp3’s. We make a few in our IC but the majority are created by, well, anyone that wants to. Same with video – whatever rocks your boat. I probably spend more time advising people on how to do this stuff than doing it myself. Our aim is not to do it ourselves in most cases.

    What I say to people is, “You know what you are talking about, you know the people you want to talk with, just do it.” Then give them options and advice on how possibly they can go at it. Does this do you out of a job? No, I’ve never been busier.

    Once you empower the population to do the communicating and stop mass communicating things seem to work out. We should be aiming for multi-directional comms.

  • I’m a college student starting a capstone project for my senior year of undergrad. I’m doing an internal PR campaign to work from the bottom up. I super dooper appreciate reading this because it gives me the courage to say the things I have been needing to say in my organization. It also gives my thoughts and frustrations the actual wording to spit them out and to make sense.

    GREAT WORK WATKINS.

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