Internal communications: why we need to forget what we know
In most companies, it’s getting harder and harder for internal communications teams to find their place. Competing with them, often outstripping them, are the agents for change: HR managers, Chief Change Officers (CCOs), even Chief Digital Officers (CDOs), who are frequently fortunate enough to be members of the Excom, which is focused on the “digital” or “cultural” transformation of their company. They are leaders who take ownership of engagement communications and downgrade the communications specialists to mere commodity suppliers.
The budgets reflect this, sometimes by a factor of 1 to 100, but at the end of the day the aim is the same: engaging employees in exploring and constructing their futures and that of their company.
This situation doubtless results from quite a wide gap between the approaches: internal communications remains locked into the pairing of information and control, along with their derivatives – conformity, scaling up, linguistic elements.
And it is constrained by vertical silos… and especially – we never talk about this – by horizontal silos: executives, managers, all the employees – even though all the lines have to shift.
In other terms, we think on the basis of generic organisation: layers of management, business lines, geographies, operations, functions and sometimes demographics (the anguish of generation Y). And this has barely changed in twenty years.
There is not one recent internal communications plan I have had the opportunity to read that does not segment the population of the company according to this yardstick.
This approach – generic, siloed, information-heavy – raises problems on three levels.
In the first place, because the supposed unity of the company bears no relation to reality. There are tribal, mechanistic, transactional and holistic organisations… and in each of these categories, there are specific employee expectations and levers to “get things moving”. (Jacques Jochem’s excellent book, Le Mix organisation, covers this in more detail. )
Next, because, in the eyes of most senior executives, the information paradigm has to be replaced by the engagement paradigm, from the 5 Ws (What? Who? Where? When? Why?) to the 6 Ws, adding the most crucial question: What else?
And finally, because segmentation based on organisation (and its silos) or determination (young people, women, etc.) does not allow us to grasp the reality of the organisation, and certainly not its dynamic, which is by far the most important.
The segments that count, that really help the organisation to progress, are determined by how employees respond to transformation.
Oversimplifying somewhat, four groups stand out. They vary according to issues but they overlap ¹:
- Those who are against, the opposers: they believe they are saying out loud what others are thinking to themselves and often marginalise themselves because of their extremism.
- Those who are for, out of duty or out of conviction, the yes-men: for their boss they are gratifying to have, but their blind devotion hardly makes them inspirational.
- Those who are for because of the arguments, the debaters: they are the courageous ones, ready to take responsibility, to challenge decisions that have been taken and to contribute new ideas;
- And the wait-and-see brigade, who can be targeted as potential yes-men and are accessible to both the for and the against camps.
These categories cut across silos: of the 200 principal leaders of big groups, there are probably no opposers, but probably as many yes-men as debaters or wait-and-seers.
You think this sounds too theoretical?
I’m not so sure. Not when you hear the CEO of Accor talk about the transformation of his company in these terms: “Facing the ongoing change that places the customer in the centre and brings us into the recommendation industry, one third of our employees understand, share it and are capable of taking part, another third understand but need to be trained, and the last third refuse it and don’t understand.”
And not when there’s a whole body of literature on the social networks defending the “corporate hackers” and discussing at length the colour of their hats – white for the “goodies” and black for the “baddies”, the “change-makers”, the “trail-blazers” or the “engaged”. In other words, a whole series of more trendy terms harking back to the old-fashioned category of debaters.
With the slant that it often feels as if these people are prepared to knock everything down, whether out of conviction, by character or in following an enlightened leader.
My hypothesis is rather that they have to be identified by studies that are more subtle than strict in-house barometers and revealed by increasing the number of projects liable to elicit their support.
And that a new form of internal communications has to contribute to this by defining these projects; by endowing them with an appealing promise; by recruiting for them, generally on a voluntary basis; by listening to them and facilitating them (or contributing); by defining attractive principles of gamification designed to retain their interest; and by gradually compiling data on them so they form a supra-community that can be targeted by careful communications.
In other terms, the debaters are the target audience, especially as they are the most likely to convince the wait-and-seer brigade.
Should the others be ignored? Surely not. But each category must be develop its own discourse and specific spokespeople.
Should we speak to everyone? Not if the aim is to bring them all together (isn’t this where the true roots of corporate bullshit lie?). But yes, if we accept that this general form of discourse endorses those who are engaged in transformation.
¹ For more on this typology, see Jean-Christian Fauvet, L’élan sociodynamique.