As circumstances change, people adapt and change with it. Sometimes we’re being dragged reluctantly into an uncertain future; sometimes we’re actively creating that new future. I have a fairly strong preference for one of these over the other…
Internal communication is frequently referred to as a ‘young’ profession, and given that it can only really be traced back to the 1920s that seems fairly accurate. But, like the revolutions that created our current working world, the pace of change is accelerating.
First, we were internal propaganda writers; then we became in house journalists. Later, we became management spokesmen, then email writers and intranet moderators.
That doesn’t flow as poetically, but it does raise the question of what the next step in the Internal communication evolution will be.
At Yorkshire Building Society Group, we’re about two years into a transformation of our internal communication function, and I don’t use the word transformation lightly.
Most of us have worked for an organisation where a transformation has come and gone and delivered no more meaningful change than the name of the director. A genuine transformation is one where you are working in a completely different way at the end of it.
Three years ago, our IC approach was distinctly old-school. Due to a combination of culture, technology and leadership preference we were still very much in the ‘management spokesperson’ role, primarily via broadcast media such as email and our intranet newsfeed.
And a lot of people were very comfortable with that, thank you very much.
But none of us are immune to change and our approach was coming under pressure from multiple angles: our work technology was increasingly lagging behind colleagues’ experiences outside work, we’d introduced a new intranet that gave the group its first taste of interactive / social capability, and – of course – there were budget cuts.
I’d love to claim that we’re all a bunch of self-aware futurologists who came to the conclusion that change was needed in a flash of the blindingly obvious, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that it took an external viewpoint to bring it to the forefront.
We worked with an external facilitator, who showed us the effect that our behaviours were having on the expectations and mentality of the rest of the organisation. As an example, one of our senior change leaders was happy to state that he didn’t see communication as being part of a project manager’s role because that was what internal communication was for.
Another example was highlighted by a video 1 of a talk from classical music enthusiast and conductor, Benjamin Zander, where he talked about teaching music and the difference between focusing on playing correctly and playing with passion. We had a good, long, hard look at ourselves and how our habits of red-penning drafts and taking control were breeding a set of behaviours that were counter-productive. We’d created an environment that focused on grammatical details over enthusiastic story-telling and had trained our colleagues to route everything past our team because WE were the experts. It was, simply, unsustainable.
So, what does the internal communication function of the future look like? Well, it’s the future, isn’t it? Your guess is as good as mine, especially in our current world of post-truth and alternative facts, but we think it’s going to be a bit like this…
● we don’t write communications for our senior leaders;
● we don’t review department emails;
● we don’t approve news articles;
● and we don’t do internal PR.
At YBS, we’ve set ourselves the target of having 80% of our effort focused on our organisation’s strategic objectives and empowering our leaders to communicate them in a meaningful way to our colleagues.
In practice, this has meant:
● creating an IC toolkit for anyone in the organisation to use and running masterclasses on things like communication planning and the effective use of presentation tools like PowerPoint;
● spending much more time on our metrics and analysis (and investing in tools to support this);
● spending much more time listening to our colleagues (and getting our leaders to do the same);
● spending more time influencing and less time doing (suggesting how people could use our existing channels themselves and helping them consider what else was happening in the organisation);
● and having lots of difficult conversations with our stakeholders to tell them that no, we’re not going to do it for them, and yes, they have to do it themselves.
It’s not been easy for them, and I won’t pretend that it’s anything like a done deal. Other communication teams have sprung up around the organisation (under various guises and names) and part of our job now is linking in with those teams. In some areas, this was expected; the larger departments are too big and too complex for their leaders to get round to every team and having a communication team to extend their voice makes sense; so we’re taking them with us.
In some of the smaller areas this has meant working with a dedicated soul (who’s just had the word ‘communication’ tagged onto their job description) and helping them with a bit of upward management – so that responsibility remains at the leader level.
So, there you have it. The future of (our) internal communication is one of enabling and influencing leaders (at all levels), coaching and guiding anyone who needs to get a message out, building networks, keeping people connected and generally positioning communications as everybody’s responsibility – not just ours.
I’ll leave you with three things you’ll need to bear in mind if this sounds like a route you’re on (or likely to be embarking on):
1. Don’t just expect difficult conversations with your stakeholders. There will be people in your team who joined “to do communication” – there’s a good chance this won’t be on the job description in a few years and you’ll need to help people deal with that one way or another.
2. It doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate this model to its end game and conclude that the internal communication team of the future doesn’t exist. As so many others have done before, we may engineer our own extinction. That’s not what we’ve planned at YBS Group, but the future is a fickle thing and nothing should be taken for granted.
3. You’ll need to give yourself a regular kicking. It’s so easy to drift back into the old way of doing things – it’s always quicker and easier to fix or do something yourself than to teach someone to do it for themselves, but that way madness lies. Change is coming thicker and faster and if you try and have a hand in everything, you’ll drown. Metrics are important here – how are you measuring your transformation? – but fundamentally you’ll need a good, strong team to keep yourselves on track and support each other as you go.
Drew Stephenson is the IC planning manager at Yorkshire Building Society Group in Leeds. He’s worked in financial services for 20-something years in project management, business analysis and now in internal communication.
He hates the use of ‘commence’ instead of ‘start’ but still can’t let it go when someone says ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’.