There is currently a heated debate raging about the future of internal communication. The convergence of internal and external communication, artificial intelligence, the changing world of work and the digital workplace are all being cited as the death knells of current internal communications practice.
I’ve been following this debate with interest, not least to work out if I need to be looking for a new job anytime soon. With this in mind, I was delighted to be recently invited to participate in the ‘Be a Bigger Fish’ podcast by fellow CIPR Inside committee member Debbie Aurelius to add my view to the debate.
I jumped at the chance to be involved as one of the other participants was Mike Klein, whose internal communications work and research I’ve admired and followed for ages. I was also intrigued to learn more about the work of another podcast participant, Lindsay Uittenbogaard, who has some interesting ideas about social alignment in teams and the implications of this for internal communicators.
Briefly, social alignment is about how people in teams can develop a shared understanding of their current reality within the context of organisational goals. In other words, how they can overcome differences in perceptions of their situation and exploit opportunities to achieve their goals more effectively. This shifts the responsibility for internal communications away from centralised teams and puts it firmly into the remit of line managers and leaders. If you’d like a little more of the detail, Rachel Miller helpfully pointed me to a blog Lindsay wrote about social alignment for AllthingsIC a couple of years ago.
Now coaching and supporting managers to be better communicators is not an unfamiliar theme for most internal communicators. We’ve been trying to crack this little conundrum for years, and if the recent 2019 Gatehouse State of the Sector report is anything to go by we are failing miserably to make any meaningful progress with it. Line manager communication capability remains one of the biggest barriers to effective communication inside organisations.
What is so interesting about social alignment for me is its potential to crack the leadership and line manager communications conundrum once and for all. It could also release internal communicators from the ‘one way’ and ‘top down tell’ approaches we’ve been driven by leadership teams to use for years. The upshot of this, of course, is that internal communicators would need to find something else to fill the gap this would create in our current list of responsibilities. The big question is, what would that be?
Connecting the future
I’ve worked in communication roles for nearly 20 years. In that time, like many other internal communicators, my role in organisations has gradually shifted from content creator and running channels as the organisation’s post office, into content curation and now as a facilitator and connector. Some of this has been driven by the arrival of new technologies and changes in management practices. However, a big component in this shift of approach has been because organisations are now just more complex.
With complexity comes dysfunction. Most organisations are a collection of silos in which people work, often without adequate reference to the people working in the other silos. This disconnection drives organisational dysfunction and also a purgatory of endless meetings which attempt to create alignment and coordination of activity. Social alignment within and across teams could help resolve some of this disconnection and dysfunction, but I don’t think it would ever completely eliminate it.
I’ve worked as an internal communicator in large and complex change programmes for years. Some of the best programmes I’ve worked for have used excellent change and dependency management to coordinate the implementation of individual change projects and activity. However, this isn’t the norm for many organisations and I think this presents an opportunity for internal communicators to fill that gap, help connect activity and reduce the potential for organisational dysfunction.
Internal communicators occupy a unique position in organisations. Our daily encounters with a wide range of stakeholders gives us a valuable cross cutting view of what is going on across the business. We see the opportunities to join things up which others don’t and also help organisations avoid the developing slow motion car crashes, due to lack of coordination, that others just don’t anticipate.
There is barely a week goes by where I don’t have to point out to a stakeholder something that is happening elsewhere in the organisation that they need to be mindful of, or which they need to take account of, in their planning. There is then the inevitable discussion about how we could ‘join things up with the comms’ in an attempt to avoid the inconvenience of coming up with a better implementation plan. I usually suggest that the better implementation plan should take precedence as a foundation for more effective joined up communications.
As a ‘connecting’ internal communicator I think I add more value to the organisations I work for now than I ever did as the drafting and sending machine, and that this is becoming my primary function.
Organisational complexity will continue to increase and more opportunities for dysfunction will arise, and because of this I don’t think I will be out of a job as an internal communicator anytime soon.
If you would like to listen to the debate between myself, Mike and Lindsay about the future of internal communications, you can find the podcast on the ‘Be a Bigger Fish’ website. There are also some comprehensive show notes and a summary of the main points we covered in the debate expertly curated by Debbie West of Seren Creative Consultancy.