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Podcast: Embracing upcoming Internal Communications technology

Internal Communications

Podcast: Embracing upcoming Internal Communications technology

Jonathan Davies


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46 mins read

Thu, Oct 29, '20  

The future and technology go hand-in-hand. The combination usually evokes mixed feelings: some fear it and stick to the status quo in an attempt to avoid it, and for others, it means a better future – one they look forward to. 

In any case, the future is unknown, and we better be prepared for what it brings, when it brings it. Today Internal Communications consultant Gary Ross joins us all the way from Chicago to talk about the future of Internal Comms technology and its impact on an organization. 

You can take notes while you listen or watch our podcast episode below. Scroll down to read the full transcript in case you prefer reading. Enjoy tuning in!

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Jonathan Davies: Alright, welcome. We're back here for another episode of the Internal Communications podcast! Today we are joined by my friend from across the far seas of the pond, it's  Gary Ross, ladies and gentlemen. Gary and I got in touch, because we were talking about what the immediate future of Internal Comms look like.

Before we were talking about the future of Internal Comms, and we would look very far ahead and all of these things, and Gary takes a little bit more of a pragmatic approach looking at what basically the next five years are going to be like. He has a couple of views that I think everybody will find really interesting specifically touching on Internal Communications technology.

But as always, before I start rumbling off completely about what it is that we want to talk about, because I get to geek out about Internal Comms again, Gary, please introduce yourself to our audience. Who is it that they are listening to? 

Gary Ross: Hey, Jonathan, thank you so much for having me! This is great. Really looking forward to the conversation.

My name's Gary Ross. I am an Internal Communications consultant, and coach, and trainer as well based in the Chicago area here in the States and have been doing Internal Communications for quite a while now, before being a consultant I led communications departments at three large companies here in the US, Fortune Brands and CDW, and Hyatt Hotels Corporation. Before I got into communications, I was a television and radio news reporter, back in the day. I'm really enjoying  Internal Communications these days. I've narrowed my consulting practice specifically just to Internal Communications as I've moved on through my career. I've really become a lot more passionate about Internal Communications.

I see it as one of the few places in business where you can benefit the organization and the individuals working in the organization. Simultaneously, you can help people understand about the company that they're working for, the change going on in the organization, as they walk in the door every day to their office, or these days flip on their computer.

They're in their work from home office, they're better able to understand the world around them through good Internal Communications. You're helping individuals not only understand it for themselves, but also be able to explain it to their families as well. Then by having an engaged and informed and  excited workforce, you're also helping the organization as well. It's a real win-win and it's a space that I really enjoy a lot. 

Jonathan Davies: Nice, I think we completely share views there. Interestingly enough, when we first started this podcast, we would very much touch upon “Okay, Internal Comms needs to basically kick itself up the rear. It needs to go into the future. We need to adjust on.”

Here we are in the future and we've had to adjust because a pandemic just randomly decided to go loose on the world. Internal Comms has this kind of added stature, and there are a couple of challenges and a couple of things that we need to tackle, and master, and specifically, there are a couple of things that you've really thought into the future are going to be really important for Internal Comms to focus on.


How does Internal Comms technology keep workforces together during the pandemic?

One of them was, as you mentioned as a topic specifically, Internal Comms technology. When it comes to all of the technology that we're dealing with, what are your first thoughts? What are the kinds of things that Internal Communicators that are listening right now need to pay attention to – don't sleep on this because the coming five years, this will be your main stay.

Gary Ross: The pandemic has been having us, so many of us working from home, working remotely, in different places and the technology has been to enable that. We have things like video calls and so forth. That's sort of the basic level of it, but over several years we’ve had some new technology platforms come through that.

I think maybe early on some companies may have thought “That's kind of a nice to have maybe in a few years, if we get some more budget, we'll be able to, to get involved with that.” Now with the pandemic, we see firsthand why seamless, comprehensive technology tools for Internal Communication are important. They’re literally helping tie workforces together, in real time. For some clients that I've worked with, these technology platforms have seemed like “Let's do it sometime in the future one day when we've got the budget.” That one day is now because we're all seeing how we're, we're all spread apart. We're all remote but there's a desire to still build that engagement, build that workplace culture. How do we do that? I think the technology platforms are really one way to do that. Now with the increased stature of Internal Communications with a clear demonstrated need, we're able to go in with a very clear and concise case for the budget and for the time to say “This is the future. The future is now we're in the future. This is where we need those tools because we're still going to be apart for quite a while.” I think even as the pandemic subsides, there's still going to be an embrace of remote work from home technology and so forth.

That's with us for the duration. Because of that, we've got a much more compelling case to use these tools and find ways to bring people together like never before. 

Jonathan Davies: I completely agree there. Some people say that once the pandemic is over for the majority of States or countries, or continents, it will be business as usual, and that we'll be going back to the office. On the other hand, you've got a lot of people that are saying, “No, everybody's going to be working from home”. All of the tech companies that are now saying that you can work from home permanently, that type of stuff. We see eye to eye here where it's more like there will be some sort of gray center, the gooey gray mass.

Now you touched upon the technology and obviously without diving into specific managers, because we want to stay lovely and objective. When it comes to technology, I assume that you've seen being an IC consultant, you've been helping people out with this. I've always wondered, is this something that immediately gets embraced by Internal Communicators or is there a little bit of difficulty adopting these types of things? What side of the coin do most people fall on in your experience?


Adopting digital technology 

Gary Ross: In my experience, I think there's a broad spectrum and a broad range just like in the general population. There's people who are comfortable, and early adopters with technology. And they're like, “Bring it on, let's do it!”. There's others that kind of see the potential, but almost may be a little afraid of it and, and don't understand how to do it and need some hand-holding. I think to a lot of these companies' credit, they've got dedicated folks who will sit figuratively side by side with you to help you implement it.

I think in general, when technology has worked best, it's been adopted organically in an organization. The organization will put it out there and make it available. Not make too much hype out of it because then it seems too corporate quote-on-quote, but we put it out there and then there are some groups perhaps, because of the nature of their job. They see the immediate benefit of it. Maybe there's some people in IT, or maybe there's some people in HR. I've seen those two departments kind of be some of the faster adopters of these things, just because of the function and the nature of their job. They find the tool particularly useful right away.

They hop on and they use it to do their jobs and then they use it to speak amongst themselves and a little more socially, little more peer-to-peer communication. Then all of a sudden, you've got some case studies then to use for the rest of the organization. You can show the other parts that might not see the initial benefit or, are maybe a little uncomfortable with and say, “Hey, your friends over here are using it. Look at all the great stuff they're doing. I think you should use it too!”. I think that is the organic adoption where that can happen. I think that's where technology works best. 

Jonathan Davies: I really like that approach. I think that's very close to home for most Internal Communicators, because essentially what we do is facilitating communications, right? We're not the owners of it or something like that. If we see that sales just did an amazing project that's going to have an impact on the entire company, then it's our job to make sure that everybody can celebrate that and what sales did, that's the organic part. Then we just put the spotlight on it. What you’re essentially saying, if I'm gathering this right, is to basically just put the spotlight on the departments that adopted this properly and helped other departments really see the benefit of it. It's like creating internal business cases, right? 

Gary Ross: Because I think with these tools, if a company comes out and says, “Hey, here's a tool, we invested a lot of money on this. You need to be using it. I want to see X number of comments per week on this platform. If not, then we're going to take it away from you or we're going to reduce your budget” That’s just not going to work out. People need to see the benefit themselves and internalize it and say, “Alright, I think I can see how this might work for us. It might work for me in this part of the company” Then adapt it from there. If people can't be told to adopt that, they've got to see the benefit. Internalize the benefit for themselves. 

Jonathan Davies: Now, especially where everybody's more or less forced to communicate remotely, at least the people that work in the offices, they really have to deal with this massive stream of communication tools that come from everywhere.

I think this is one of the biggest struggles I've seen in that. We've got email, we've got our voice calling service with video chats enabled, we have a messaging platform. Then we've got an intranet somewhere, and then we have an enterprise social network. Those are five tools that I just named in the span of 20 seconds. I can probably look at a big organization and find 15 more. It's pretty insane. What's your sense of how our Internal Communicators are getting a grip on these and what's going on with that side of things, because I feel for a long time, Internal Communications really mastering those digital channels has been kind of forgotten, whereas now there's no more choice. 

Gary Ross: It's become a lot easier I think, to quote unquote, to use a cliche, lead that horse to water, where we can help people see the benefit because they're feeling the need for that benefit. Every day. If they're being inundated by these different channels, by all of this noise, it's a chance for us to put on our strategic hat and say “Okay, what's paying off?”


Strategizing the use of various channels

Let's take a strategic look at these five or six channels or these methods of communication that you just mentioned and say: what's paying off the best? We go out and we can audit, or we can survey parts of our organization. What benefit are you getting out of this? Are you seeing repetition in two or three of these channels? Frankly, five years ago, we were doing the same sorts of things. We were looking at the difference between emails and newsletters, and town halls, and voicemails. But now it's just different kinds of technology.

It's the same kind of skills that we've used. It's just a bit of a different setting, but I think also to your point, the imperative is that much greater than because of the remote workforce, because of the tools that are available to us. For those of us who were fortunate enough to have a choice of various platforms and various channels, that's the strategic role and job of Internal Communications to say, "Alright, what's working best for us? What are the strengths of each of these channels? Let's steer the organization to use them in those ways.

Jonathan Davies: I completely agree. I think that now is the time to evaluate what has been working well, but I think that one of the biggest challenges or the biggest challenge with the channels that we have today, versus what we had back then, is the lack of direct feedback. It's very difficult. Like if you're organizing a town hall before digital communications was your only means, you could immediately see whether or not the CEO's speech was having an impact just by taking a look in the crowd. Now, obviously that doesn't exist anymore. I'm not that old, but I remember organizing town halls and doing that.

Then being able to just kind of say, “That was a success or that wasn't”. Now we have to rely on, not just analytics, but also really take the time to converse one-on-one with the people in our organizations to understand what's going on. I think one of the biggest challenges I've heard within Internal Comms is understanding the subtle differences between mastering asynchronous communications, so communication that doesn't happen at the same time, versus synchronous communication, which is obviously communication that does happen at the same time. How do you look at that? Because asynchronous is for example, email, but that has problems, that can’t be your only channel. There's a good way to use it, there's a bad way to use it. Have you been noticing those same things, particularly, I guess in global clients, where time zones are an issue?


Engaging with interaction and measuring behavior across digital channels

Gary Ross: I think there's a role for both of those and again, for us to put on our strategic hat and say, "Where do these work best?" It reminds me of a conversation I saw online last week about survey fatigue, and one of the ways to go about this is to see what works best is to survey people. There were some that were arguing, there's so many surveys people weren't going to want to answer any more surveys, my point with this is it's not so much survey fatigue, it's lack-of-action fatigue. People get bothered by surveys if they're asked questions all the time and nothing ever happens as a result of their feedback.

It's up to us, as we've just been saying to strategically dive into this and get a sense of what's working among our employees, but we better make sure we follow up on that. Otherwise people aren't going to want to engage with us anymore. There's going to be additional frustration, we'll lose our budgets and then we're kind of back to square one. The key is to reach out and ask people both formally and informally, whether it's through surveys or through those informal influencers, those people that everybody listens to, they might not necessarily have the title, but everybody listens to them, find out what's working, but then act on it.

If you know ahead of time, you're not going to have the capacity to act on it, maybe in the next six months or a year because of budgets or what have you, then be careful about asking about it because that might wind up being just counterproductive. 

You're not working to your advantage, if you don't have the ability to act on what people are telling you. 

Jonathan Davies: You're mentioning a couple of really interesting things in exactly the same order that I look at it. To those of you who are listening, on the 17th of November, we're organizing a webinar together with Anna Tolly,  the head of Internal Comms or the Internal Comms manager at Randstad Sourceright, where we look at creating a better way to create strategy for 2021, and it's really interesting. Literally the structure that you were just talking about, is exactly how we're looking at it. The first step is being able to measure directly the behavior across your digital channels. Then the second step would be to survey people to see if that digital increase in behavior is actually leading to a positive increase in strategic goals. Let's say we want to increase the happiness of our people, or we want to increase business alignments. Then lastly, we start checking. Okay, now did that actually lead to a business result? Did that help us create more informal leaders?

Did those informal leaders then again create more informal leaders, essentially are we scaling Internal Comms. It’s really interesting that you're looking at it from the exact same way in the exact same order that you just mentioned it. Really cool to hear. 

Gary Ross: And that's the fun part of strategic Internal Communications, to dial back and say, how can we be thoughtful and planful about all of this, and what I love is what's happened, unfortunately it's taken a pandemic for this to happen, I think the light bulb was going off for some senior executives to say, “Oh, so when we sit back and think about how we can reach people, we actually can move the needle on some things.” Then we say quietly to ourselves, “We've been telling you that for years, but if you found that out for now, that's great.” That's kind of the fun part of Internal Communications and I would also suggest where it's possible, to tie whether it's HR metrics like turnover or things like that, or to business results, sales, profit, and so forth.

If there's any correlation that could be made there that's even better. I mean, that's always our age old problem, right? I mean, there's a lot of times that's tough to do, but sometimes you can find an enlightened leader that will see the connection, even though they don't necessarily have the spreadsheet in front of them that says, “Oh, here, this led to this.”

I was involved in a big change project. This was quite a while ago, a publicly traded company being bought by a private company. It was a big change for the organization, a major distraction. So we did a communication program around it. Basically the goal was give everybody all the information they need to minimize distractions. They could turn around and get back to work and maintain productivity. We launched the program and we accomplished that and it turned out that 48 hours after the announcement of this transaction, the company had the fourth largest sales day ever in the history of the company.

The CEO came to us and said that your communication plan really contributed a lot to that because this announcement had the potential to really derail productivity and get people all upset and so forth. But not only did we do well, we thrived and that is in large part due to your communication program.

Did he have a spreadsheet in front of him that said this led to this? Not necessarily, but he knew and he got it. It's finding those allies in those ranks of the company that can help articulate the benefit of it alongside us.

Jonathan Davies: I think that people are starting to appreciate that that correlation is sometimes enough and we don't immediately need to look for causation just to talk like a statistics nerd.

I think that's one, I think the second, actually you mentioned a really interesting thing, because again, we're looking at the same kind of metrics. When I look up, are you increasing alignment within your company? The end goal that I look at as a strategic Internal Communicator is: are my people able to be more productive? Simply put because when you're aligned, the choices that you make, your daily decisions are inline with the goals of the business. That's why I always say the opposite of productivity is not being unproductive, it's doing wasted work. That's what you're presenting with alignment. With engagement, you're actually causing people to become involved in a company, the company, no matter how big it becomes a part of them, they own a really small part in it because their opinion led to a tiny change or a very big change.

That makes it so that people want to stay, so that those reduced turnover and to your points, I think that those two are actually business results. It's vital to businesses today to keep the people that they've worked so hard to recruit on board, because there's a massive scarcity for talent in the market.


Extending employee lifetime value 

Universities don't really connect to companies anymore, by the time that people have a degree, what they learned is partially outdated. People come into a company and there's a large ramping time and sort of reached a stage where companies can really make use of that. So you invest a lot in talent.

You need to make sure that talent, now I'm just looking at junior talents, of course it's different for more senior people, but you invest in that talent. You want that investment to pay off. Definitely by people staying there, the longer they stay, the bigger their employee lifetime value is, which is obviously really important.

Have you seen that? The employee lifetime value I find is a really interesting metric. Employee lifetime value to anybody listening who's not familiar with this metric, this basically means, this is the amount of money that we get on average for one person for the salary that we paid them, versus the revenue that they bring in over their tenure or duration of stay at our company. That's a massively important metric, for example, in tech companies, because it tells you if your employee lifetime value goes down drastically, it means you're hiring too many people and there's not enough profit coming back. Is that something that you've been seeing as well?

Have you heard of employee lifetime value? Do you feel that that's something that external comms need to pay attention to for the future? 

Gary Ross: I haven't heard that term specifically, but I really like it. I would like to learn more about it, where I've seen very similar concepts working alongside HR, and they understand the turnover. It affects the bottom line. It affects profit, plain and simple. Anything that you can do to reduce that, pays off. It helps for publicly traded companies, it helps that earnings number that you're reporting every so often. It's money. It's just money. Helping people understand that, working with allies in HR and so forth to help understand that,  and how Internal Communications can help move that lever, absolutely.

And you talk about training, one of the things I'm working on now, I'm putting together a suite of online e-learning for Internal Communications professionals and that's available on my website. Now we'll get into the contact details later, plus calms.com is the website, but, Internal Communications is one of those fields I think where we could use that training and help with employee lifetime value for Internal Communications pros, at least here in the US a lot of times people get into Internal Communications kind of after the fact, they don't go to school for it necessarily. To be able to provide that professional development for Internal Communications pros is something that I'm working on now and have been making available.

It goes back to that old saying, where the CFO says to the CEO, “What if we train all our people and they leave?” and the CEO says, “What if we don't and they stay?”, it really just comes down to that, that that's turned into a cliche, but it really does make a lot of sense.

I think that training is important. And the fact that Internal Communications can help reduce that turnover equals money. It really does. That's again, finding the allies in the organization that know that. 

Jonathan Davies: I completely agree with you. It's also really good that you're making those resources available because it's not like there's a massive wealth of resources available for Internal Communicators.

Right now, the more the merrier, the better that we as an entire industry or profession can get a grip on these communications tools, where our futures lie, what business leaders want from us, all of those things. That's really important. 


Leading the innovation in Internal Comms

Gary Ross: One of the things that I'm looking to stress  is  giving people downloadable tools and some tactical tips, but we're also talking about how to think about your job, how to think about writing, how to think about planning events, how to think about communicating bad news, things like that. 

We've been talking here that now is the time where we really have the permission to be more strategic than ever before. With the training, I'm encouraging people to think about that, but I think that  in general, we should all as Internal Communicators, be able to take a step back and think more about not only what we're doing, because there's often a rush to tactics and Internal Communications for whatever reason, but think about how and why we're doing what we're doing. We've got that permission now, the window is open.

Jonathan Davies: I think that you're going to be one of the people that will be leading the charge in the US! Are you taking the big leap over Europe and the UK when it comes to Internal Comms? You just touched upon that as well. When you open the door, I'm going to walk through it. We were talking a little bit that now it's a different time for Internal Comms. Things are going to change. I think most Internal Communicators would agree that, UK and Europe kind of led the charge in Internal Comms – best practices, innovation, these types of things. I say innovation lightly because I feel like there's still a massive lack of that in our sector. Do you feel like the US is starting to catch up, are things changing quickly? It's a very competitive thing for me to say, which I know Americans love. 

Gary Ross: I really hope so. That's one of the things with the training that I'm offering. I'm trying to help in my little corner of the world to improve that. It's really remarkable. I went to London last year before COVID started, and I spoke at a conference there just to be able to see and absorb the community that I had been witnessing online through Twitter and LinkedIn, and other other places where people converse online and it's absolutely remarkable. The way Internal Communications is thought of, the job opportunities, the training, and the place that it has in organizations, not only in private companies, but also in government organizations throughout the UK and in Europe.

It's fascinating to me and it's one of those things that actually has me very optimistic because I'm not sure why the US necessarily is behind in IC, compared to the UK in Europe. It definitely is. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm optimistic about seeing what's possible, that we will be able to catch up and expand the profession here in the US. It's encouraging and optimistic, and frustrating at the same time, but, I hope to do my little part in helping to advance it here in the country. It's great to be able to look over in the UK and Europe, and see what's working, and take advantage of the lessons that have been learned – a lot of the best practices, a lot of the conversations that are being had there, and try to translate that over here as well. 


Understanding organizational weaknesses

Jonathan Davies: To anyone listening, I'm not trying to imply that there's a competition going on between two sides of the pond. That is not the case. We're all here to help each other, let me be very clear on that. I think it’s interesting to take a look at it. I think that there are a couple of things that, in Europe right now in particular and in the UK, we should not be sleeping on this side of the pond. For example, I find the United States, especially in large companies, quite far ahead when it comes to their Diversity and Inclusion programs, and how deep they're willing to go with that, how much executives support that, it gets very vocal as well. 

We did an episode with Tyrone Webb Junior who's partially responsible for Internal Communications at SAP Success Factors. He also is a very large part of their Diversity and Inclusion program. There's that marriage of Internal Communications and Diversity and Inclusion already happening there that I want to see much more of in Europe and the UK, because I feel like that's also one of the most important topics for the future. Is that something you've been seeing occurring as well?

Gary Ross: I have, and I agree with you. Those are the two areas, as you've looked at them historically, that Internal Communications and Diversity Inclusion really are part of, two areas that have a lot to teach one another. I think when they work together, they both make each other better. I have seen in some cases when structurally some of the functions kind of come together. I do think there are specific skill sets for each field that are still important to make sure that organizations have. In recent events, in this country, there's been a lot of both Internal and external communication about diversity inclusion. 

Some of it has fallen flat, because it comes across as not very authentic that people are executives or organizations are simply checking a box, and saying they're committed. But when people take a closer look at an organization, whether or not they look at their executive ranks or their board of directors, they don't see diversity that's evident right there. That is an area where Internal Communications can really offer some strategic counsel and say “Yes, we should be talking about this, and yes, we should be ramping up our efforts, and yes, we should be talking about how much we ramp up our efforts, but we gotta be careful.

We have to understand where our weaknesses are right now. The areas that we have to improve and depending on the organization and the personalities involved, either acknowledge them outright, or at least don't say anything that's going to be contradictory to what is evident to everybody else. That's where Internal communication can really step up and help a company avoid potential pitfall and potential backlash, which I've seen happen a lot, quite frankly. That's one area where we definitely can work together.  


Why is the organic adoption of Internal Comms technology tools that important?

Jonathan Davies: Basically put, I think that we both completely agree that for the immediate future of Internal Comms are two things that are incredibly important. The first is mastering all of the new Internal Comms technology tools available to us. When I say mastering, I mean helping each other come up with best practices, create something new that wasn't there before. The second part is, don't sleep on the diversity and inclusion part and Internal Comms’ responsibility within that. But! No matter what the most important thing is, it's lame to say, “Oh, the two most important things for this year are…”, cause it's much more complex than that.

Another thing that I've definitely been gathering from our conversation just now is: Whatever it will be, it needs to be organic and whatever organic happens in a company, an Internal Communicator will come in, and put the spotlights on that, and share it via their new digital channels in the form of an article or a video, or an infographic, or whatever they think is applicable with whatever tactical way it works. Then evaluate that towards how have they been able to reduce the employee turnover or have they been able to increase productivity? Do you think that that's an accurate summary of what we just talked about? 

Gary Ross: I think so. I think as strategic Communicators, especially when we need things to happen organically, we need to be able to help things along and maybe push them in the right direction here or there, do a little course correction here or there. While it needs to be organic, we also need to keep a very close eye on it and nudge it here or there. 

Jonathan Davies: Exactly. Organic does not mean passive people. All right, awesome! Well, Gary, that was it. Thank you so much, that was perfect, exactly what I hoped we would be covering! We’ve managed to cover it all. I really appreciate that Gary! To the people that have just listened and are now superfans of Gary Ross, and want to follow you everywhere you go: How can they get in touch with you and where can they find you? 

Gary Ross: I'll give you two website addresses. The first for inside comms is: www.insidecoms.com, and then a direct link to the e-learning that we've got for Internal Communications is plus.insidecomms.com, and you can see the e-learning courses that are available. Some are available right now. There are others that are listed that you can pre-order, for a little bit of a discount, if you'd like. Those will continue to be made available over the next several months until we build it all out. That's the big project right now, working on those and really enjoy putting that together, and hope that it becomes something that Internal Communications professionals and their leaders, their team, their team leaders will also see as something that's valuable for them, for their profession. We also do consulting and coaching as well. For those websites, you can also find us on our direct email address - info@insidecoms.com. 

Jonathan Davies: Perfect! Well, you've heard it. If you're looking at what your budget is going to be like for 2021: First off, invest in Internal Comms technology. Second, invest in scaling up. You use Gary's e-learning modules for that – check out his website, we’ll definitely be sharing more insights on our blog. Gary, I'll be reaching out to you for a couple of quotes and posts that will be upcoming now and within the new year, because I look forward to hearing more from you. Thank you so much for being a part of this episode. 

Gary Ross: This was a lot of fun, Jonathan. Thank you so much!

Jonathan Davies: Awesome. Bye. 

Gary Ross: Bye bye.