The first step in this process is to change the mindset of the function. The internal communication function has to be viewed like any other business operation. Operations management activity is founded on the following ethos:
Figure 2: The Operations Ethos
Slack & Chambers (2001)
Slack & Chambers – the UK’s leading Operations Management specialists – hold that all business functions are operations in their own right with both ‘technical’ and ‘operations’ responsibility. Internal communication professionals are operations managers too, with responsibility for producing appropriate communications strategies and managing them to agreed budgets.
Arguably, internal communication is positioned in the wrong part of the organisation to deliver significantly increased business value. Perceptions of the function are too, vertically focused. There is much talk of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ communication but critically, we all understand that the true value of internal communication comes from its facilitation of horizontal information flows.
If effective communication is truly to become the lifeblood of an organisation it should be much closer to core operations in order to contribute value. To achieve a more credible standing within their organisation, internal communicators must step away from the relative safety of senior management’s wing and visibly show to their wider internal audience how their activities contribute to the collective business effort. Ultimately, internal communication should be perceived within an organisation as the most basic and yet most important operation of that entity.
Figure 3: The Internal Communication Operation
For internal communication to be viewed as a distinct and valuable business operation it must develop a robust strategic outlook in order to be taken seriously by all management levels and to demonstrate greater contributory business value. This entails thinking and acting like any other business operation through planning, control and continuous improvement. Therefore, it is essential for internal communicators to revisit the strategic purpose and intent of their operation.
According to Slack and Chambers, there are three principal roles for any operations function:
● As an implementer of business strategy
● As a support to business strategy
● As a driver of business strategy
As an implementer of business strategy, the internal communication operation will put strategy into context for the rest of the organisation. For example, this may be the visible demonstration of a participative management culture through open and honest internal communication. It may be the communication of essential information surrounding a specific business programme or initiative.
As a support to the business strategy, internal communication will develop its resources with which to provide the right organisational capabilities needed to achieve desired objectives. For example, this may be the development of a companywide intranet or team briefing system that meets the need for immediate two-way communication across departmental boundaries.
As a driver of business strategy, internal communication will give its organisation a longer term competitive advantage through excellence in its operation. This is the most commonly missed objective of the function today. Any organisation that can inform, involve and inspire its employees more frequently than the competition has a significant commercial advantage. In the knowledge economy, an operation that has developed the capabilities of sharing internal and external information as quickly and as productively as possible is providing its organisation with the means to maximise success.
The classic four stage operation opposite is the strategic starting point for the internal communication operation. The description below traces the progression of the internal communication function within any organisation.
The four stage operation
Stage 1 (Internal Neutrality) is where many poorly managed, under-resourced internal communication functions reside. They are purely reactive (at best) to the communication needs of the organisation. Their role is token only. Most effort is spent reporting filtered down senior management decisions and company events –usually well after they have happened.
Figure 4: Strategic aspirations of the IC operation
Adapted from Hayes & Wheelwright (1984)
In terms of perceptions, a significant majority of employees are generally ‘disaffected’ by the communication output – seeing it as propaganda and largely out of date. Managers by-pass the function regularly for their business critical information and see no real benefit in its overall activity. In fact, these managers see it as an internal extension of marketing or the HR function. Its costs are managed accordingly. Output is often viewed as a largely unnecessary ‘nice to have’ spend.
Stage 2 (External Neutrality) is when internal communication operations have begun to measure themselves across similar size and type organisations. This operation is more proactive. It adopts best practice from other organisations and has begun to establish a foundation level for all internal communication output. The need for a robust suite of communications channels has been accepted internally by the leadership.
Critically, the function enjoys a supportive relationship with senior management. There is a firmer budget in place backed by general acceptance that internal communication is a ‘good thing to be doing for employees’. Employees are generally ‘indifferent’ toward the communication output. Feedback and involvement exists in isolated areas. ‘Early adopters’ within wider levels of management view internal communication to be a valuable way of gaining exposure within the organisation for their own activities but real understanding of the function’s merits across the majority of management is still lacking.
Demonstration of real business value is linked to annual employee surveys, channel analytics or always-on engagement tools such as Hive. Other measurement is purely anecdotal. The success or failure of the function ultimately depends on the extent to which the senior leader or collective leadership utilise the lead internal communicator. Arguably, this is where the majority of internal communication operations exit today.
Stage 3 (Internally Supportive) is where most internal communication operations should be if they were to adopt stricter measurement criteria and proactively demonstrated their worth to the rest of the organisation. Here, the internal communication function is as good as any other in its field. A full suite of well-resourced communication channels exist that support a well-defined communications strategy which in turn supports the business strategy. All communication activity is aligned with the key business objectives as specified by both the leadership and the workforce. Activity fully addresses the perceived ‘bad news’ or harder business issues as well as more positive news.
Pivotal to the operation’s success is the level of involvement from all quarters of the organisation. Communication channels are fed and resourced by managers and employees outside of the function itself. Managers endorse (even champion) the concept of internal communication because they have seen the tangible benefits to the business of a more engaged workforce willing to go the extra mile to achieve the collective’s objectives. Internal communication is no longer ‘nice to have’ it is an important part of day-to-day operations.
At this stage, the internal communication professional operates at a more naturally strategic level. Access to all levels of the organisation is unimpaired. Their activity focuses on the development of appropriate tools and resources to support and accomplish changing business objectives. Coaching managers with their overall communication skills is continual. And over time managers’ awareness of the link between employee satisfaction with customer satisfaction and overall profitability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As more employees buy-in to the value of internal communication, the more communications activity is generated and the more value is gained through deeper employee involvement, greater levels of productivity and higher quality.
Internal communication is now perceived as an important driver of business strategy in its own right. Strong personal relationships with leadership are still very important to the quality and speed of the internal communication operation but overall performance is assessed more objectively through a balance of hard, objective measures. This output is then shared regularly with all members of the executive team and all levels of management.
At Stage 4 (Externally Supportive) is when the internal communication operation is actively redefining industry expectations. Arguably, Stage 4 is an aspiration for internal communicators but given the onset of the knowledge economy with evermore dynamic, flatter organisational structures and the growing adaptation of social media – the need to share and adapt to business critical information is increasingly paramount.