The problems with Internal Communications in 2018

Jonathan Davies • Thu, Dec 6, '18 •

The problems with Internal Communications in 2018

Ah, the year’s end. A great excuse to take a few days off for problem solving. Santa’s getting drunk on disgusting eggnog. Turkeys are burning in the oven. Some gifts can’t - ever - be returned; it’s wonderful really. For me it’s a great reason to look back at 2018’s most important report for Internal Communications: Gatehouse’s excellent State of Sector 2018. It highlights problems that are much more important than the headaches of the festive season.

So, why this report specifically? If I had to describe it in one word, it would be ‘authoritative’. State of Sector 2018 has over 650 responses, with more than half (57%) of respondents stating Internal Communications as their sole remit. As far as I’m concerned, this makes it the definitive report for all things Internal Communications, with employee engagement as an overarching theme. Throughout the results you will read into the importance of a strong integrated platform – something that brings together mobile apps, an intranet and productivity tools. Ready?

2018

Still on the back foot

The Gatehouse survey reflects a profession that is still trying to defend its turf. This is reflected in its reactive nature. Did a crisis in leadership just cause a management shift? Here’s your rewritten ‘message from the CEO’. Just acquired a former competitor? No worries, there’s your Internal Communications and branding plan. It’s also tough for Internal Communications to get in front of upcoming changes if they’re close-to-last at the table.

33% have an Internal Communications strategy spanning more than a year

In today’s crazy market?! Whether it’s technology, legislation or automation that’s pushing change for your company, the pace of change is already blistering – and there’s no sign of a slowdown anytime soon. That said, one or two-year plans are desirable if the alternative is nothing; they will just need a quarterly refresh. Beware of sunk costs. Regardless, it’s interesting that we make strategies when the majority of us don’t derive them from a vision.

Internal Communications lacks long-term vision

No wonder the report states that only half of respondents have a long-term vision. Taking a step back and getting that helicopter view allows for a more consistent, strategic approach. Getting sign-off on said approach requires C-level buy-in from an early stage though. We have a few ideas on how to get there, so read on.

We may not always be in control, but at least we know our audience. Right?

Only 14% use tools to profile their audience

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Yikes. You can’t generalize employees across all your offices, countries or even departments. But persona profiles give you a frame of reference – or personal sanity check – that can bring you or your CEO down to earth. Internal Communications should know their audience best, but guys, we’re not the only ones communicating within our corporate atmosphere. Having a persona profile – actualized and backed-up by data – helps others tweak their messages. It also keeps you honest about the content, and whether or not they really fits the audience. Are you talking at them, or with them?

Collaboration through email? All Internal Communications professionals expect email usage to decrease

Everyone sees intranet usage staying the same or going up. The grand majority sees mobile and social network usage skyrocketing.

Our friends at Slack once said they want to kill emails, and we can see why. Email is a limited, one-way form of communication. It has its uses – more than half of employees prefer email to the phone – but it’s not the place to start collaboration. It’s just too time-consuming to dig through a thread of 20 emails to try and find that one actionable point. Internal Communications tools, such as intranet solutions or enterprise social networks, are replacing tasks that traditionally were accomplished through email. Interestingly, the report makes a clear distinction between intranets and enterprise social networks, as if there are no platforms that offer both in an integrated solution. Speaking of which...

Technology is a huge barrier to Internal Communications success, second only to poor line manager communication skills

Okay, we’ll get to line managers later in this article, since 56% say they’re a barrier to Internal Communications success. Let’s talk tech: up from last year’s 49%, currently 54% considers it to be Internal Communications’ main pitfall. Has the market been slow to deliver digital solutions that help us do our jobs better, or has Internal Communications been slow to adopt them and prepare their organizations to use them effectively? Mike Klein, principal of Internal Communications consultancy agency Changing the Terms has some interesting thoughts on this subject:

“We need to learn our lessons from the last decade, when Yammer and Jive dominated the conversation. IT departments would introduce these tools only for them to implode shortly thereafter. We’re still dealing with the nuclear fallout as many organizations hesitate to introduce today's newer and better technologies. Internal Communications needs to own a new tool’s adoption, not just sign off on their introduction.”

That’s not all. Look at other fields of marketing that have thrived on technological innovation. The ‘hot’ field of Growth Marketing is such an example. Growth Marketers know they can create an API connection between LinkedIn and Google Sheets. This allows them, through careful settings, to import a list of company names relevant to their company’s product or solution. That’s a great list for an account-based marketing approach. Now let’s suppose you work in a company that uses Slack, and some sort of Calendar solution. As an Internal Communications professional, you want to make sure that no one misses your quarterly town-hall meetings, so you want its Calendar event to show up in Slack – since that’s the place your employees talk about work. Would you, as an Internal Communications professional, know how to set-up an API connection that allows that? Are you on top of your digital channels?

The biggest upcoming Internal Communications investments will be strategy, value and purpose. After that: digital channels

Well, there it is. Probably the report’s most encouraging outcome. Internal Communications realizes its biggest weak points and knows it must address them quickly if Internal Communications want a meaningful role in shaping strategy, value and purpose. At the end of the day, digital channels give internal communicators access to the most sophisticated methods available to measure success. Measuring success means proving impact – a key component that many Internal Communications professionals feel is necessary to be taken seriously by C-level executives. It’s a good thing we love surveys and intranet analytics.

Employee engagement surveys (69%) and intranet analytics (68%) are the most popular measurement tools for Internal Communications success

Employee Engagement surveys are the most popular method to see how people in the organization react to Internal Communications’ actions. It’s only a 1% difference with intranet analytics. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, the main problem with employee engagement surveys is the lack of clarity on what employee engagement actually is. Employee engagement surveys also cover a lot of factors that Internal Communications has little direct influence over, making them inaccurate tools to measure Internal Communications’ value. This leads to surveys that can differ wildly year-on-year. Actively chasing people to 'up' that response rate is a real time-sinker too, where collecting analytics is more of a passive task. In an analytics dashboard, there's no room for interpretation or opinion – a click is a click, a page view is a view. The downside to this is that analytics themselves only tell one side of the story. Exactly because there is no room for opinion, it’s more difficult to talk about important things such as overall sentiment within the company. That’s why we should prioritize measuring Return on Impact over Return on Investment.

Measuring impact is still not a priority

Ok, so we try to measure impact either through surveys or analytics, but then we don’t prioritize it? This is one of those things that cause people to not take us seriously. Not everything needs a numerical or monetary value attached to it, but if we can’t tell whether those ‘People Spotlight’ items on our intranet have any impact, or if a change in messaging helped, we can’t be taken seriously. How else do we know how well that message from the CEO was perceived?

80% feels like it's their goal to make leadership more visible

Combatting ‘ivory tower syndrome’ is a must for Internal Communications. Just as troops in the front line are more likely to act out orders with a high degree of motivation if the general is there in the thick of it, so too will the employees understand the impact of their actions if leadership is there to impress it upon them. Even if employees only see themselves as a cog in the wheel of the corporate machine, strong leadership presence helps them understand that without that cog, the machine comes to a screeching halt. This is one of those areas that, when measured accurately, can have huge impact on the business – and the validity of Internal Communications.

Can print still be taken seriously?

The short answer: absolutely. Print advertising is less popular since the world's shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting. But putting a poster up in your corporate office isn’t the same as throwing one up at the local bus station and praying it will work. Your corporate office is teeming with relevant people that cannot escape the message you put up. No wonder that the report mentions posters are considered the most effective print method for Internal Communications. But how do you reach people on-the-go?

The overwhelming majority say mobile apps are not effective

User Experience (UX) Design is a key component to the success of any mobile app. Until 1995, no one would call themselves a UX-designer, making this a relatively young work field. I would wager that not every company has their own in-house UX-designer to help shape their Internal Communications tools. That’s why it’s not a surprise that self-developed mobile apps are ineffective. Since third-party mobile apps are considered equally ineffective, one could wonder if mobile apps are just an efficient way to communicate with employees at all. We would love to hear exactly why people consider these apps ineffective. Are they being misused? If we have to pick our battles, should this be one of them?

Moving line managers from resistance to assistance

I promised we talk more about line managers. It turns out the struggle with leadership is different across North-America and Europe. North-American Internal Communicators have no long-term plan and prioritize getting senior leadership in the picture. For them, having everyone on board with the General is their main goal. In Europe it's the other way around. There's an increased emphasis on long-term planning and getting line managers on their side. Here the Sergeants are valued more.

We asked Helen Deverell of Helen Deverell Communications for her views on the battles – and potential victories – with line managers:

"I've conducted internal communications audits across Small-to-Medium Enterprises, large corporations and not for profits, and a common issue across them all is line management. Often, people are promoted on their technical ability and not their people skills, so they simply aren't equipped to communicate effectively with their teams. We know that people want to hear information from their line managers so it's a crucial area to get right. The challenge we face is that the solution isn't completely within the remit of Internal Communications. We need to work closely with our HR colleagues to ensure communication is an essential component of the line-management role and that full communication training is provided."

Final thoughts

You’re almost done. While this report confirms a lot of suspicions we had on Internal Communications developmental areas – specifically technology, strategy and vision – Internal Communications realizes it’s time to mature.

Let’s start with taking a step back and developing a vision on what we want to achieve within our company’s communication landscape. Then, set measurable objectives based on that vision, and develop a strategy to crush them. Technology and digital channels should play a much bigger role than we currently allow them.

This could mean it’s time to make a business case for a new intranet portal – one that is more than a virtual poster wall. It also means it’s time to figure out where we belong between the Marketing, HR and even IT departments. This may differ per company, but where we fall should be determined by what we want to achieve – not the other way around.

With the right tools, vision and support, Internal Communications can be a critical factor in a company’s growth. The nature of our tasks is difficult. For example, we can't say a merger failed or succeeded solely because of what we did. Our impact on a business isn’t linear like that. However, sometimes our results are binary – like success or failure – and we give that ground too cheaply. At the same time, those tasks that impact revenue indirectly need to become more visible than they are now. We also need to become increasingly assertive in how our tasks are prioritized. Pleasing internal stakeholders should only be a means to an end, not a key result in itself. A difficult task when stakeholder management is core to Internal Communications.

In the end, we should weigh the impact of our actions against the impact on the business.

Author:

Jonathan Davies

Date:

Thu, Dec 6, '18

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