Are your internal communications more like the howl of a cat’s choir than the harmonies of a symphony? Are employees saying they are overloaded with irrelevant information and your data telling you that hardly anyone is receiving or acting on the important messages? If so, it’s time to ‘Be more Beethoven’ and implement a channel strategy to create an internal communications symphony.
There’s an analogy I picked up from an internal communications course I attended many years ago that has stuck with me and which I still find useful today. It’s the notion that the internal communication channels in your organisation are akin to the musical instruments in an orchestra, and to create a symphony you must be the composer and conductor.
A composer uses sheet music to enable the conductor to direct the musicians playing the instruments, it is the guide which creates the symphony. An internal communicator needs a channel strategy to do the same, and this is the starting point for de-cluttering overloaded channels and banishing the crescendo and howl of the cat’s choir for good.
Here are four practical steps, including a Channel Strategy Bingo Card you can download, to help internal communicators to ‘Be more Beethoven’ and create an effective channel strategy.
Step 1 – Audit existing channels
The first step is to list and map all the internal communication channels that exist in the organisation, establish what sorts of content each one is carrying now and who is responsible for generating that content.
Monitor what types of information each channel is carrying over a period of time, or look back to see what has happened in the past. Most organisations have some kind of business cycle, and that can be useful to establish the limits of the period you look at. It you have some measurement or evaluation data relating to the channel it’s also helpful to examine this to see how each channel has performed in respect of different types of content.
In some organisations, editorial or functional control of all channels may not be within the remit of the Internal Communications Team. Devolved responsibility and a situation where many people in the organisation have ‘permission’ to communicate with employees, is often the root cause of information overload and the source of the cat’s choir of noise. Establish who is responsible for what, because later on you’re going to need to have some conversations with them to make your channel strategy stick.
Running some focus groups with employees at this stage is also essential to gather their perspectives about how communication is happening now and how it could be improved in the future. In particular focus on their channel preferences and how they would like to receive certain types of information.
When you’ve completed the audit you’ll have established a picture of how communication is happening in your organisation. Inevitably it will be a complex and messy picture. This may provoke a head in hands moment of despair for you. Don’t worry internal communicator, there is a way out of this mess!
Step 2 – Play Channel Strategy Bingo
The next step is to establish how your internal communication channels should be being used and what sorts of content they should be carrying for maximum impact.
People sometimes try to do this by firstly looking at subject matter types and what subject matter should be allocated to each channel. My advice is not to start with this because you are likely to get bogged down by the large amounts of different subject matter types in your organisation and give up in despair!
Instead, start with content characteristics rather than subject matter. To do this I use a channel definition matrix which I’ve nicknamed the ‘Channel Strategy Bingo Card’. It’s a great tool to use in a workshop with the Internal Communications Team and those stakeholders from across the organisation who may have devolved editorial control of some channels and content creation. The purpose of the workshop is to use the Bingo Card to drive a conversation to collectively reach a consensus about what each channel should be for.
I’ve included a starter Bingo Card at the end of this blog which you can download and adapt. Content characteristics are high level descriptors or groups under which subject matter could be organised.
Here are some examples of content characteristics:
- Must know
- Should know
- Nice to know
- Non – Actionable
- Short shelf life
- One way
- Two way
- Relevant to everyone
- Relevant to ‘x’ employee groups
Hopefully, you get the idea. Once you’ve adapted the Bingo Card so it’s relevant for your organisation use it to choose a selection of the content characteristics on it for each individual channel and complete a card for each one. The results of your audit can be played into the decision making process including any measurement data and the findings from focus groups with employees about how they would like to be communicated with.
Most people find this to be a bit abstract at first, but stick with it. After you’ve decided what content characteristics should define each channel, then it’s time to layer in some examples of subject matter to see if those will work with your chosen characteristics. I’ve included some suggestions for subject matter in the sample Bingo Card. Again, adapt this so it works for you and your organisation by including your own subject matter types.
It’s important to be ruthless at this stage and not end up with the same characteristics or subject matter types being allocated to every channel. You should be aiming for a situation where each channel compliments and dovetails with the others. So, maybe one of your channels will be defined as the one which carries only urgent, actionable, time-bound and must know information. Others can then carry the more nice to know and non time-bound content.
As an aside, and with this in mind, you may find the concept of centrality helpful in your decision making process about which channels should do what.
Centrality vs. Centralisation
I’ve included a link to an article by Mike Klein at the end of this blog where he contrasts the concept of communications centrality with communications centralisation. Centrality is essentially about creating a core of reliable and trusted communication channels in an organisation against a backdrop of increasing channel proliferation and loss of central control over the communication which takes place within them.
It’s a great read and it may help you work out what your core communication channels should be in your organisation and enable you to focus on developing channel definitions for just those, rather than every channel, if you have a lot of them.
Step 3 – Create the channel definition
The next stage is to use the findings from your game of Channel Strategy Bingo to create a channel definition for each of your internal communication channels.
I try and keep these short and succinct in a one-page document. Your channel definition should include the following:
Channel overview – A brief description of the channel itself.
Communications functionality – How the channel works.
Editorial control – Include who has editorial and/or functional control of the channel.
Communication characteristics – Include the characteristics you identified from the Bingo Card.
Subject matter – Include the list of sample subject matter headings you identified from the Bingo Card.
Other channel specific considerations – Anything else which will help stakeholders understand how the channel is used or managed.
I’ve seen some organisations try and set out channel definitions in a policy document which runs to many pages. Most people won’t read a lengthy policy document. If you must have a policy for each channel, then use the one pager summary as a ‘must read’ cover sheet.
For some very complex channels, like an intranet which contains many different communication features, you could consider creating a channel definition for each feature rather than for the whole channel.
Step 4 – Now shout about it
This is perhaps the most important part of creating a channel strategy and making it stick. If you don’t help stakeholders across your organisation to understand your channel strategy they will just continue ‘doing’ internal communication in the old way.
If you ran a Bingo Card workshop, you’ll have already made some significant progress in developing a common understanding amongst key stakeholders of what each of your internal communication channels is going to be for and how it should be used.
The next step is to talk to other stakeholders in your organisation who weren’t involved in that process. I usually recommend doing this by inviting them to a short workshop to introduce the channel definitions and then ask them to work through some internal communication scenarios. Providing them with the practical experience of doing communication in the new way using the channel definitions is the most effective method of securing their buy-in and understanding.
Finally, don’t forget to include the leadership team at this stage if they haven’t been involved in the process to develop the channel definitions so far. They need to understand the new way of communicating in your organisation too, if they are to be able to actively support it in practice and not inadvertently derail it.
Now, over to you Beethoven, create your next symphony!
The article I mentioned by Mike Klein ‘From “Centralization” to “Centrality” – a transformation making internal communication more relevant and scalable’ can be found on LinkedIn.