Internal Communications – The Ongoing Conversation

Internal Communications is the ongoing conversation an organisation has about its inside and its outside.

Like any conversation, that conversation can be good more bad, more or less effective, useful or relevant.

That’s been the fairly traditional definition of internal “comms” for many years, strongly linked to an image of an organisation as a network that overlays (or underpins) a hierarchy of control and accountability. Up and down is the management structure, horizontal are the teams and groups, functions and coalitions.

The function of internal communications is then to facilitate and manage the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of that conversation.

Blah, blah.

One of the core constructs in that definition, that still dominates thinking and practice in internal communications is “inside-outside”. The inside is the internal set of processes and governance that stretches out to a more or less defined firewall – a virtual wall of protection that keeps privacy, confidentiality, intellectual property, commercial advantage and risk, under full control.

The resulting internal conversation is mediated and managed via an internal network of communication – an intranet.

The organisation’s presence outside of that firewalled boundary line is the world of the internet, where the organisation communications from its external “skin” outwards, able to project and filter internal content and process as it sees fit, and also to filter external content and process through the boundary. How internal staff behave both inside and outside is controlled by governance.

Right at the borderland may be an “extranet” – externally facing, and allowing interaction between inside and outside in controlled and useful ways. For example – allowing a customer to see the status of an order being delivered, or to leave feedback.

This is how it has been for years. And may internal comms managers and leaders still have this digital worldview – inner, outer, border and overlap.

This is what is still largely taught as universities and during inductions as “foundation ideas”.

Blah, blah.

You see, we have a problem This problem has been brought about through social media, but also through a shift in the wider paradigm of a post-hierarchical model of organisation. CEO blogs are still the clarion call for many organisations. Yet notions of “key influencers” and “memes” are gaining ground and pose perplexing challenges for internal comms leaders seeking to continue the organisational internal conversation in a meaningful way. The CEO blog gets 3,000 of the same readers. Yet another post is ready and liked by 7,000 people. The CEO blog receives a handful of polite comments and questions, whereas a yammer group is buzzing with uncomfortable and vital strategic conversation. The Newspage has well placed and targeted stories, read by thousands as a matter of course, yet an idea is cropping up in different parts of the intranet about the same story, gleaned from the grapevine or a recent face to face meeting.

Organisations often achieve goals quickly and flexibly in spite of the structure-heavy hierarchy, not because of it. Informal working and use of internal social media and impromptu micro-messaging is getting things done even as formal systems struggle to keep up. And yet, the intranet architecture and comms strategy is still glued to the sluggish hierarchical model with controlled interactive platforms glued on (added to vanilla versions of Sharepoint) almost as a clumsy afterthought.

Groups are no longer just communicating transactionally with each other, nor even collaborating only via digital “talking”. They are “riffing”, sharing documents in the cloud and latching onto emerging ideas that fall into the “who blew the wind” phenomenon. When people share Youtube clips on twitter, it is the content that goes viral far more than the content source. Content is fusing and becoming a thing in itself, where instigator is actually the means for a content to replicate itself. I’ve tried to explain this to some internal comms managers and they nod as if they are hearing science fiction.

Another development is the presence of the outside INSIDE the inside. What on earth does that mean? When employees bring their own devices to work, they are often connected far more to the realm external to the organisation and external communications becomes a parallel and often ungoverned process, sometimes even an underground web (underweb) even as more formal internal processes or communication are enacted. When this falls into accident we can have leaks of internal into external. But also we can become over-obsessed with external rumour about us, which can undermine the organisation’s internal self-image. This can occur when people actually start to trust stories about their own organisation from external sources, or from informal, gossipy social media than from the formal internal communications conversation. This, I believe, is happening more than internal comms people want to admit. The world is becoming trans-communicative. Content, like a tsuami, no longer respects the sea walls of governance and firewalling. Employees’ heads are more full than ever with the “outside” and there’s little an internal comms team can do about it. It influences attitudes internal behaviour, consciously but also sub-consciously. More and more internal communications is being defined and determined by external dynamics. It has always happened, because we have lives outside of work, but never so much and so profoundly as now.

“News” still dominates the agenda of many internal comms movers and shakers, even though we are reading less newspapers than ever in the outside world. We are still attempting to control and filter messages in an approach that still reeks of 1984, mistrust and a wish to control what we can’t manage. Yet consciousness of the world “out there” is greater than ever in an always-connected workforce. We can’t screen it out, no matter hard we try. Some organisations willingly let it in, keen for the digital “inferno” to influence and challenge the internal organisation’s resilience and ability to learn and adapt in lean and agile ways. We allow the external to shape the internal, creating resilience and consistence, not through control, but through focusing on shared values, commitment, empowerment and self-management. Internal communications then takes on a new, expanded role.

Its role evolves. Internal comms in the near future becomes, not only about the internal conversation right up to the firewall borderland. It becomes about skilfully opening up that border in ways that strengthen the resilience of the organisation. Its role is also about safely and authentically working with the overlaying “outside” as it plays out inside, in real time. The smartest internal comms managers I have met this year do not even use the outside-inside construct anymore. Internal comms, to them, doesn’t feel like an outdated term, for organisations, like people, will always experience an inner and an outer aspect. But they welcome the challenge of managing and enabling the internal conversation and also the outside conversation as it plays into, and even inspires, that internal conversation. It also can threaten it, undermine it, invade it. But the development of social media now renders firewalls as fairly and increasingly ineffective. Hacking is just the tip of that iceberg. The challenge now is to enable the internal conversation confidently, skilfully, even when the walls are down.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on December 5, 2013, in Internal Communications - The Ongoing Conversation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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