The future of internal communications (IC) is assured, but there is huge variation in how practitioners anticipate its evolution as a conversation between the organization and its people. And despite the proliferation of new tools and technologies to capture and measure the impact of that conversation, there is a surprising lack of confidence in the organization’s ability to harness its power in a more strategic way.
These are just two conclusions to be drawn from a recent pulse check that asked IC leaders to set out their vision and expectations for the next 10 years. In different ways, respondents hinted at the profound challenges that the discipline must negotiate if it is to stake an effective claim for a more prominent position on the corporate communications agenda.
On one front, agreement is unanimous: One hundred percent of respondents believe that IC will become more valued in the boardroom during the next decade. This change will be driven largely by a shift in the way employees are perceived by stakeholders in the C-suite and by higher executive expectations of IC.
“Increasingly the boardroom is being populated by business leaders who see the workforce as purveyors of customer service and the brand identity rather than narrowly as a ‘resource’ and an overhead,” says Steve Doswell, senior internal communications manager at First Utility. “Internal dialogue is crucial to this purpose and the new boardroom dweller knows it and has an expectation that internal communication will deliver.”
The exact nature of that shift, however, is less clearly defined. While many IC leaders agree that the boundaries between internal and external communications will continue to blur, others believe that they will still fulfill distinct roles or that they have already established a coexistence that reflects the tensions and balances of the business. For Liam FitzPatrick, strategy and change communications consultant at Quiller, the distinction between the two has always been false. “As leaders expect more from IC, they will be asking corporate comms professionals to make sure that IC and external are baked together,” he says.
According to Doswell, meanwhile, two competing pressures will build up: one that continues to erode the notional internal/external boundary as organizations become looser and more permeable and the other, a more centrifugal pressure that promotes a distinctness in workforce engagement and dialogue. “The two forces will tend to hold each other in broad balance,” he suggests.
The nature of the internal conversation is also set to undergo significant changes, although the jury is split on the role of storytelling in the IC models of the future. Laura Ferguson, executive director at Ilku-global, says that IC can either become a dumb funnel, in charge of channels and the historical repository of stories, or evolve into a more active, prescient function, capable of giving the organization what it wants before it knows it wants it. But she warns that this capability will involve research and critical analysis of the facts and information available internally and externally. “Knowing how IC adds value to the delivery of the business and people strategy will be critical in determining its role in the organization,” she says.
One lone voice in the pulse dismissed storytelling as “just a passing fad,” but there is a broad consensus that it will continue to play a key part in the evolution of IC. Change communications consultant and coach Helen Martin says storytelling advocates will be essential in helping messages flow through the organization naturally, from the bottom up and from the top down.
Others anticipate that employees themselves will assume the role of storyteller. “I predict we will see the rise of internal Youtubers, those comfortable and confident in sharing their employee experiences straight to camera, often live, in real time,” says Laura Ferguson.
But the role of social media and technology in general appears to be a less comfortable area for some. Nobody is prepared to put his or her head above the parapet and declare complete confidence in the business’ ability to absorb new and emerging tools into its IC strategies. Helen Martin says the gradual shift as baby boomers start to retire and more millennials and Generation Xers dominate the labor market, will create workforces that are much more confident with technology and its use.
For Doswell, however, the lack of strategic commitment to adoption is a cause for the concern: “The evidence points to an accumulator approach to technology acquisition, with systems and apps crowding the IC territory owing to a reluctance to invest time, energy and perseverance in a very small suite of symbiotic technologies.”
The future of IC is interesting and challenging in equal measure. The vision of a model that demonstrably adds value to the business is widely shared, and getting there will require some adjustment on the part of practitioners and the business itself. Ultimately, as FitzPatrick explains, this means thinking strategically about the value IC adds in the organization, not being obsessed about tools or techniques, which, while important, are not the be-all and end-all of practice. “It’s about results and outcomes – not outputs,” he says.