The Mixed Metaphors of Internal Communications
“A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object.” (Wikipedia). Perhaps the most famous example can be found in the work of William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.”
When we attempts to describe a situation in terms of a metaphor, this can often reveal aspects of that situation, positive and negative, and also within and outside our awareness.
Sometimes the negatively framed metaphors can be both a shock and an opportunity for leaders. For example, when an internal communications team are referred to as a “police force”.
In recent years, talking to leaders and managers in the field of internal communications (Internal “Comms” for short), I’ve found a range of metaphors at play, often mixed up within the same organisation. These metaphors capture aspects of the pervading culture, but also surface different views about the fundamental role of Internal Comms.
Here are a few of the most common ones…
Internal comms as…
…Governance Police Force
Here the comms team is viewed as a group focused on control. From the strict editing of content and complex structures for “permission to publish”, to prevention methods to stop people using Facebook at work and determining exactly which devices are allowed, the comms team is viewed as lawmaker and law enforcer in a culture that is rigidly control. Sanctions are in place, there is a high degree of monitoring and governance structures prioritise explicit rules on acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
On the positive side: The police force is viewed benevolently, acting in the organisation’s best interests, minimising risk and ensuring standards are applied safely and consistently
On the negative side: The police force becomes mistrusted, is felt to be overbearing, even bullying. There is a culture of stopping people rather than trusting and enabling them
Here communication internally is all about news – about the flow of up to date information. Internal Communication sees users as an “audience”, as targets for content, and innovation is content focused, and becomes ever more obsessed with personalisation and targeting. Gaining user involvement is largely about users become local reporters themselves with the ultimate goal of hyper local news sharing being a sub system of global news generation and sharing. It’s all about news, live scrolling of share prices, weather, meeting room bookings and knowing where each little dot on the map (a person) is at any one time. News can be at the level of company news, but can also be at the level of what is happening next to me, here, right now.
On the positive side: The organisation has a dynamic feel to it, feels up to date and “in touch”. People feel empowered, communicated with and are able to share and tell their own stories quickly and easily. News is seen as a support to more effective working and sharing of knowledge and experience.
On the negative side: There is information overload, a culture of “propaganda” where news sources are mistrusted and filtered through corporate “spin”. News is prioritised as content over other processes such as collaboration. The home page looks like a newspaper, full of information overload with many stories quickly out of date or poorly targeted.
… Border Guards
Internal communications manages the borders between functions and departments, protects the firewall between the internal and external organisation, is the arbiter of what comes in and what comes out in terms of content. Internal comms becomes obsessed with risk, wants to control the news broadcasters at the interfaces and also uses police methods when needed. On a more positive note they are often looking for ways of creating “Schengen” agreements where borders safely come down and flow and quality of communication improves.
On the positive side: The organisation’s critical information is secure, and staff are smart and skilled in terms of using social media platforms responsibly. Between departments and functions there are clear lines of responsibility and role and this clarity reduces duplication of effort and ensures that systems join up.
On the negative side: The organisation is over-cautious and makes clunky and clumsy attempts to control the border, making the firewall overly restrictive and holding the organisation back in terms of its potential to extend its work collaboratively into supply chains, both towards the front line of customer services, and further back along the chain. Internally, the information architecture is slow to respond and has created a silo culture.
… Chaos Engineers
Here the comms team takes a very technology driven process. The team believes that technology is the core solution to challenges of employee involvement, engagement and communication. We can “solve” these problems with the next Sharepoint upgrade or with a new social media platform. Technology becomes the core process, a mix of “there’s an app for that” and a more broad belief that the digital realm is the solution to employee engagement and collaboration. Technology is seen as a way of bringing chaos under control. People are offered “play spaces”, mediated, bounded and governed by the technological architecture and underlying governance. When this works well, people feel the tangible benefits of working in and via the digital realm.
On the positive side: Collaboration platforms become places for genuine interchange, knowledge sharing and decision-making. News becomes useful and finds its way to the hyper-local level and really starts to influence and help information flow. The digital realm becomes a meaningful and consistent parallel and overlap with physical working. The organisation’s people link up more easily across physical distance, and quality of information improves.
On the negative side: The approach becomes a “techie” approach and people feel forced to use clunky systems they haven’t understood or bought into. Many of the technological solutions fail to deliver and there is a huge duplication of effort as people minimally use the digital whilst relying on the more effective physical. Internal comms uses governance to try to steer people into the technological realm. The “techie” approach lacks emotional connection and intelligence, feels “cold”, and never realises its promised potential
… Collaboration Catalysts and Bridge Builders
The comms team is on a mission to get everyone collaborating. They see the organisation as a constant conversation and the realm of the digital as a technological collaboration platform.They see the physical organisation as hampered by physical distance and real estate limitations and view the digital realm as a place for speedier, cheaper and more effective inter-personal, inter-team, intra- and inter-organisational collaboration. The sharing of information and the process of virtual meeting lies at the heart of this.
On the positive side: Internal Comms has evolved its role to not only manage, but also to motivate and to facilitate. It is viewed positively as an empowerer of communication, which has moved beyond information sharing to joint decision making and problem solving. Synergies between groups both inside and across the organisational border have been identified and are being utilised. Platforms such as Yammer become true collaboration platforms. We have a culture of communication, enabled and facilitated by internal comms who are seen as a business critical function
On the negative side: Internal comms are seen as do gooders and many initiatives, well intentioned, are simply taken up by the minority of already converted.Collaboration fails because it is under-resourced or because it conflicts with a governance approach that is too strict and contradicts it. Collaboration is seen as a “nice thing to do” rather than a business critical process and the internal comms team do not have the permission from higher up nor the leadership skills to really address this.
In some companies and public organisations one of these metaphors dominates. For example, in a large European Telecommunications Company, the nickname for internal comms among many staff was “thought police”! In a large electronics manufacturer there was a very positive view of internal comms as “collaboration evangelists” among some people in the organisation. “They’ve really got us talking and working together.” In another part of the same organisation, there were complaints of being “bombarded with news” which “gets in the way of doing real work.”.
Mixed metaphors can be a real problem for internal comms. A colleague of mine’s research at Gillette suggests that it can take over six years to replace one guiding metaphors with a different one. Cultures can stick and turn into “myths” which are hard to challenge or shift. Sometimes each metaphor is more department based and has a whole history behind it.
Replacing a negative view of a metaphor with a positive one, or reducing the negative mix requires consistent behavioural change over several years. It can take a long time to undo history. It becomes a process of replacement over time. Consistency is key as is leadership by example. Metaphors have to be acknowledged as existing and their positive aspects identified and, where possible, separated off from negative ones. This has been done with some success via parallel implementation where we wind down an older platform and, through clear iterations, crank up the new one. In other cases a big bang approach has worked, but only where there have been mature and honest, resourced plans to address the reverting to the old ways. We need to keep at it, and ratchet the change, even after big bang.
And here, of course, internal comms leaders become leaders of change. Leadership is a skill. And that’s a whole different story…
Over five years of conversations with internal communications leaders and managers, I’ve found myself revealing metaphors at play in their organisations that are obvious to an outsider, but often a shock to those leaders and managers. Often internal comms has a heroic view of itself. In other cases its self-view is that it is more emotionally intelligent than it really is, that it is on a mission to realise a particular metaphor in its business and isn’t aware of other metaphorical possibilities and real needs. Internal comms, by its nature of being “internal”, focused on the organisational “Inside”, is an immersive role. This can lead to a loss of necessary detachment and objectivity. This is a very dangerous metaphor – the person who can bite their own teeth! Internal comms, even as they believe they hold the role of objectivity in the organisation, can often be the most subjective of all, projecting its own confused internal self-conversation onto the rest of the organisation. Even as it listens, it filters, even as it visions, it falls into delusion.
This can be avoided when internal comms develops its own skills of listening which involve seeing itself as a place of proactive response. It needs external “devil’s advocates”, it needs to shadow those it seeks to help, it needs to be open to its own biases and the potential distorting influences of different parts of the organisation that holds different kinds of levels of power and influence. It needs to step out of its activity and look in from outside (learning from outside peers and being open to challenge and feedback). Internal Comms needs to be a core part of the consciousness of the business. To do that is has to be multi-disciplinary and able to view the organisation from different angles. Most of all, it needs to clearly understand what metaphors are at play in its own activity and in the organisation as a whole.
How can an internal comms team do this? It depends on the organisation, the time and resources available. A “values clarification” exercise. can be of use, and this may well lead to changes in the way new employees are inducted, how the intranet portal page is designed and presented, and even how the internal comms team itself works. What are the values at the heart of the business? How consistently are these shared across the business, and how are they reflected and the physical and digital communication methods and approaches in the organisation? Is there a mismatch of values and, if so, is higher level clarification needed? What drives us as a business externally and how congruent is this with our internal communications approach? How congruent is our approach to digital working with the way we actually physically work with each other on a day-to-day basis?
Some teams head off site for at least three times a year for a couple of days and really “deep dive” into the values and underpinning metaphors at play in the organisation. They seek meaningful integration and innovation of approaches often results. Some enhance survey data and they may they use metrics. They treat positive and negatively focused metaphors as hypotheses and use measurement to “look for” and “listen for” evidence of metaphors at play that help or hinder the organisation, which helps to inform their change and innovation agenda and plans for communication.
Others seek peer group inspiration by comparing the organisation to other organisations, seeking out workable best practice. Others use the more informal networks in the organisation and resource comms team members to engage in regular and open dialogue across the whole organisation feeding this into communications design and innovation.
There is no one way. And there’s metaphor to leave you with. Many roads can lead to where we need to get to. But some roads will take you to Hell.
Do leave a comment, or get in touch if you’d like to explore this further.