Business

Do Internal Communication practitioners really understand their audience?

Short answer, no. Long answer, here’s why:

In my career-to-date, four years of my life were spent in dedicated internal communication roles. I am now somewhat on ‘the other side of the fence’ as I research, teach and consult about the role of digital technology inside of workplace contexts.

When I was emerged in the hustle-and-bustle of the IC world, I thought that this business enabling function was the bees knees. I got to edit, write, communicate, advise and be privy to organisation news and current affairs.

Not only this, but I was entrusted to manage communication ‘channels’ including the corporate newsletter and the intranet, and was tasked with creating communication strategies for large-scale projects and major change programs. I also secretly enjoyed trying to educate senior management in convincing them that they can focus on the customer and on ‘profit’ all they want, but without an engaged and informed workplace, their customers would suffer.

My IC job, in a nutshell, was about employee communication and employee engagement. I genuinely believed that me and my team were the voice of the people. However, I was wrong.

But why?

How Internal Communication teams view employees 

Most IC teams are aligned to senior management, sometimes even directly reporting to the CEO. The function of IC itself covers the breadth of the organisation, aiming to connect those on the front line with those in the ivory tower, often through the mediation of middle management. Although IC as a function likes to disguise its role as being a business ‘enabler’, similar to other enabling functions of Human Resources and IT, there are a few concerns I have about just how enabling comms folk are in terms of how they view organisational employees.

In my experience, employees are seen as:

  • An Audience – people to send content to and receive content from; people to ‘access’ based on what the organisation (“hierarchy”) wants and needs.
  • People to monitor – checking if people are saying and doing the ‘right’ thing in line with corporate policy and corporate intent.
  • People who need to be engaged – of believing that tools, information and available support are enough to make someone happy in their line of work.
  • People who need to change their behaviour – of needing to change what it is employees do in order to meet the desires of the organisational direction.
  • Numbers, demographics, and statistics – of understanding employees based on how many there are, where they are located, and what the think about the company based on regular numbers-based engagement surveys.

This list could go on. My point is that IC teams often view employees from an arms-length relationship. This relationship seldom takes into consideration context, resulting in IC teams rarely understanding what the ‘world’ of the organisation actually looks and feels like from various employee perceptions.

How does a design-thinking consultancy group see the same employees?

In my current work with The Ripple Effect Group, we advise many People and Culture clients about how they can better enable employees in the ever-changing context of their digital workplace. However, we often find that our clients are somewhat confronted by the findings we uncover about their employees.

Why?

As our consultancy method aims to somewhat ‘animate’ the localized worlds of employees, we reveal employees to be very different to how IC have come to see them. Employees become portrayed as:

  • People who work as part of social practices – what employees do, and why, directly relates to the practices associated for how they do their job.
  • People who use technology only in direct relation to those social practices – forget about your corporate communication ‘channels’. Employee use of technology is only ever revealed based on what it serves them as part of their job practice, or what they consider to be a work-related practice (such as using something like an ESN platform to chat/connect with other employees).
  • People whose world of work changes only when their practice of how they do their work changes – change cannot be imposed on employees. Instead, they have to alter their own practices in response to corporate initiatives. If the initiative requires no change to their practice, such as employees now needing to provide feedback on corporate messages, employees will likely not engage in the initiative.  You need to make all ‘change’ relevant to their work practices.
  • People who exist in different organisational ‘worlds’ in often complex environments – employees only talk and work with others based on a need or an established connection. Different worlds exist inside the same organisation, and they are vastly different to one another.

The IC function traditionally understands employees sans context, and often fails to acknowledge how employees ‘work’ at work.

The very thing internal communication practitioners forget is that they want employees to act, think and behave in ways that directly align with the IC team’s own workplace practice. Ironically, this means IC teams often fail to acknowledge that employees themselves are also working to the tune of their own team’s workplace practice.

So what can be done about this, and why?

The phrase ‘digital disruption’ is overused these days, but it still applies – especially to the IC function. Technology is changing the very nature of how ‘work’ is performed, and IC teams are not immune to having their work disrupted. This was even the focus of my 2015 Master’s thesis in which I demonstrated how Yammer, as a social networking platform, is redefining (and arguably disrupting) what internal communication practitioners can do in their communication practice.

The main starting point for comms practitioners is to first and foremost question the assumptions of your practice. The more self-awareness you have, the more you come to realise how your beliefs and actions impact your perception of organisational employees. The second thing to do is to actually spend time with different employees. See what they do and how they perceive the business before you try and impose communication (your own practice) onto them. Thirdly, rethink how you see technology!

I have written similar articles about these issues (see below), and the exploration of practice-based worlds inside of organisations also happens to be the focus of my current PhD thesis. If you would like more information about this, contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn. You can also subscribe to this site, or check out The Ripple Effect Group blog (new posts each Friday) where we discuss the world of business, tech and people at work.

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