The Gatehouse Blog

The growing pains of employee communicators

In the new world, internal communicators are business enablers, conversation facilitators and community connectors. In this article first published in the IABC magazine ‘Communication World’, Lee Smith looks back at the evolution of the IC function.

Employee communication is a profession that’s gained a reputation for gazing in the mirror. A senior practitioner once described the field as being like “a troublesome teenager with constant mood swings and a never-ending obsession with how they look”.

 I can appreciate where she’s coming from. As practitioners, we alternate between being wonderfully confident and woefully insecure – from having real clarity about why we exist, to having deep-rooted doubts about our role and contribution.

The struggle we face essentially boils down to this: are we a science or an art? Are we hard business people or soft “people people”? Are we trusted advisers with a seat at the table? Or ‘crafters and drafters’ – technical experts who do the job and go home?

The truth is it’s a spectrum. At one extreme is the old caricature of the comms function as some kind of ‘internal post office’ – pumping out messages, sending out stuff and cascading messages to the rank and file. Towards the other – more valuable – end is the notion of the trusted advisor. The communicator who coaches and consults senior leaders, who participates in C-suite decision making and who helps shape the strategy of their organisation, not just communicate it.

What’s hardest to swallow is that this is usually a choice you make. Perhaps not deliberately, but it’s a choice you make based on the way you behave. What is beyond doubt is that we have come a long way as a profession. Anecdotally there is now far greater appreciation of our role and value from the top level of our organisations. You can see this reflected in the number of job adverts on Gatehouse’s job site internalcommunications.co.uk advertising salaries creeping towards six figures.

Another interesting fact – as I write this, the search term “trusted advisor” returns 28 role matches. Five years ago, I’m not sure there would have been any.

Our profession is being taken far more seriously. Part of the reason for this is that we can at last show a clear link between what we do and employee engagement – demonstrating the vital role communication plays in unlocking discretionary effort, boosting productivity and driving organisational success. We always knew this, of course, but now we have the data to back up our claims.

A report by Gallup revealed that higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation. 59% of engaged employees said that their job brings out their most creative ideas – against only 3% of disengaged employees. And Standard Chartered Bank found that branches with high levels of employee engagement had a 16% higher profit margin growth than branches with decreased levels of employee engagement. These are just a few examples from a growing mountain of evidence that underlines the massive – and very tangible – value employee communication and engagement delivers to businesses.

So where is employee communication heading – and what skills, knowledge and experience do we need to develop to help our profession come of age?

Start with the basics

As it happens, the basics of the role are one area where most communicators can agree. A brief analysis of job ads for communicators highlights the following common themes:

  • Organisational understanding: knowing the organisation and the audience
  • Advising and coaching clients: building relationships and consultancy skills
  • Producing communication content and materials: design, editorial and production skills
  • Working across functions and disciplines: bringing disparate elements together
  • Creativity and innovation: thinking outside the box
  • Intelligence gathering: research, measurement and listening skills
  • Communication strategy and planning: developing a robust strategy and plan of action
  • Communication delivery: tactical implementation, turning plans into reality

These are the areas where aspiring employee communication professionals need to focus their time and attention in order to build a platform for success.

What I find interesting is that apart from advisory and consulting skills, this list hasn’t changed much in the past decade. It definitely captures the skills we need to be effective communicators today – but does it capture the competencies we’ll need tomorrow?

Shifting roles

Aside from the obvious technological advances, I think one of the big developments is the switch from content control to content ‘curation’. Communication professionals are increasingly becoming curators of content, rather than focusing entirely its creation and distribution. You can see this reflected in the growing popularity of enterprise tools like Yammer and Jive which are turning ‘brochure ware’ intranets into crowd-sourced social networks. The rise of the social intranet is, in my view, unstoppable.

We’re entering an era where two-way communication is increasingly the norm. People expect content to be interactive. It’s rare to consume media without being cajoled to interact in some way – to Like, Tweet, Comment or Share. Audiences also expect to be able to filter out what they don’t find interesting. Both these expectations apply at work as much as they do outside the office walls.

In the new world order, internal communicators are business enablers, conversation facilitators and community connectors – key players in a more fluid and far less controlled process of organisational communication and social engagement.

You can see this shift happening with organisations now relabelling their employee communication functions with exotic names like ‘business enablement’ and ‘employee insight and engagement’.

But a change of name alone does not change a person’s character. Once, there was anecdotal evidence that internal communication was a field people would be shunted into when organisations couldn’t find another role for them. Now people are just as likely to move into internal communication after proving themselves in launching and nurturing internal social networks, using emerging technology to stimulate discussion, and promoting sideways or peer-to-peer communication.

The question is whether there is a common theme here – whether this loose collection of skills and competencies is part of something bigger and represents a genuine shift in terms of what we will be expected to do as communicators, or whether this is merely an extension of our current skill set. I have a hunch I know the answer, but only time will tell.