The Gatehouse Blog

What is the future of internal communication?

A few years ago, then-Chair of CIPR Inside James Harkness featured in our Journal of Internal Communication, providing his insight on the 2013 Annual Internal Communication Conference, held in London in September 2013. Now, four years later, how many of his predictions came true?

When we were talking about the next CIPR Inside conference back in March 2013, we had no idea it would turn out to be our biggest seller yet. ‘Building our future’ was our 12th Annual Internal Communication Conference and was a sell-out, with 270 people attending the one-day event at the Kia Oval in September.

There’s no doubt that internal communication is itself going through a period of massive change. We are moving on from a tactical action-based discipline to become strategic advisors and partners in our organisations. For individuals and whole departments, this presents many challenges and opportunities. It is this thinking that provided our theme for the day, ‘Building our Future’. We all want to know what our future holds, what our focus should be and how we know we can make a difference. And more importantly, ensure our opinion is central and listened to.

So an idea was seeded, and from that we reached out to our contacts to make the idea come to life. We know participants want to hear from in-house experts. We all want to know how other businesses do their internal comms. So we put together our wishlist of the best that we knew had something of value to say. Many had received awards from our own CIPR Inside Awards but we also reached to other professional bodies like the IABC and IoIC.

We took a slightly different approach to the structure of the day based upon feedback from the previous years. Participants wanted more opportunities to network and more choices about what they learned on the day. We introduced a set of 11 workshops across the day giving people a variety of topics to suit their interests, and plenty of time over breaks to network.

And then we livened things up by inviting some dogs from Canine Partners and their trainers to demonstrate how trust and partnership is at the heart of all communication. The feedback has been excellent. Sure there are opportunities for improvement, there always are but there was a palpable buzz throughout the day, and a real sense that everyone in the room believed that internal communication has a bright and exciting future.

So what is the future of IC? And what did I take from the day?

Clearly the world has changed the way we all communicate. It really is time to remove the divides between internal and external communication. Instead, it’s about communication that makes a difference and impacts organisational performance. Effective communication drives engagement and can be successfully measured.

The organisations which can manage this change and create quality content will reap the benefits. We know that if people are engaged and involved they stay longer, give more and the organisation benefits. David McLeod and Tanith Dodge from Engage for Success, reminded us of Marks & Spencer founder Simon Marks’ simple truth: ‘a happy workforce is a productive workforce’ and it still holds true today. There’s no one way to achieve this, we are all different. But listening to your colleagues and finding out what makes them happy and engaged at work is a good place to start.

But if it’s so simple why aren’t more companies doing it? Large organisations have grown over time. They’ve been taken over, merged and broken apart. They’ve lost their identities along the way or perhaps become so bound to their way of doing things that they can’t see a different way of achieving the alternative. This presents a huge opportunity for internal communicators to lead the way and show just how effective great communication can be at making real business differences and increasing bottom line performance.

It’s clear that the way organisations structure themselves and engage with their employees has to change. If they don’t, their future will be hard. Internal communication can help tell that overarching narrative, that simple truth about the organisation from its people.

And what is it that will make or break an organisation in the coming years as work and social blur, and the discerning workforce increases? Jenni Wheller and Barry Gifford from SSP talked about internal communication professionals breaking the rules and being prepared to do something different. Meanwhile leaders must listen and be ready to adjust.

The opportunity for internal communicators is huge, the skills we have are perfectly placed to help guide our organisations through these opportunities and show them that being brave, doing something different and being transparent and open can reap the benefits of a truly engaged workforce and productive business.


James is a founding partner of HarknessKennett. Prior to setting up his own business, James was European MD of the Change Communication practice at Burson-Marsteller. Previously, James was MD at Banner McBride, WPP’s internal communication consultancy. James gained in-house experience as Head of Global Internal Communication at The Body Shop. James is a fellow of the CIPR. He is a frequent writer and speaker on change communication and leadership issues.


“Large organisations have grown over time. They’ve been taken over, merged and broken apart. They’ve lost their identities. This presents a huge opportunity for internal communicators to show how effective great communication can be at making real business differences and increasing bottom line performance.”