Internal Communication Strategies - The Neglected Strategic Element
Over the years, this has been one of the most reprinted and lauded articles on our site. In it Robert Bacal discusses the issue of developing communication strategies that operate INTERNALLY, to the company. Many companies and managers don't give adequate attention to the development of these strategies, and how they can help make strategic goals come alive for employees.
Most organizations, be they public or private understand the importance of strategic communication with customers and/or stakeholders. Hence we have marketing and communication specialists to produce communication plans for external use. In the private sector that means more income; in the public sector it means better public relations, and better use of government services through client information.
Many organizations also understand the importance of developing strategic plans to guide longer term decision-making. The thinking is that without knowing where we want to be (and how we are going to get there), we can't coordinate organizational resources so that we get to where we want to go. Frequently, communication methodologies for communicating with customers and the public are included in strategic planning.
However, few organizations address INTERNAL communication in the same way. Determining what should be communicated to staff, when it should be communicated, and how it should be communicated is often left up to the decisions of individuals made when there seems to be a need. In other words internal communication strategies are developed, reactively, when there is a crisis or major event that clearly requires addressing communication issues. Where communication is planned out, it is often around upheavals like major corporate or organization change, layoffs and downsizing, and technological change. However, once the initiating focus has been eliminated communication tends to go back to an unorganized incoherent process.
It's a bit of a mystery why this occurs, but there is no question that strategic internal communication planning can be a proactive approach to building a better, more directed and efficient workforce.
The Advantage of Strategic Internal Communication
We know that some of the most successful companies and corporations create a workforce that understands the mission, goals, values and procedures of the organization. People talk about the Hewlett-Packard "way", or the Wal-Mart "way" to describe what are essentially organizational cultures that are held in common by most employees in the organization.
The intent of creating such cultures is not to dominate or control employees, but to "aim" them at a set of common goals on which they can act every day. This brings a coherence to the workplace, and allows better coordinated action. By clearing up ambiguity in the what's, how's, and why's, the common culture permits employees to act with empowerment. When we have staff that understand the basic values and purposes of an organization, we give them the opportunity to make decisions that fall within those parameters. That means, for example, that more decisions can be made at the line level, reducing micro-managing.
Clearly, if we are to create such a common culture, we need to harness all of our organization's communication resources to achieve the purpose. Before we talk about that, let's look at some other advantages to having a coherent, shared organizational culture.
Advantages & Benefits
- permits employees to make more decisions online since they have the tools and knowledge needed to make the "right" decisions.
- encourages a sense of identification, on the part of staff, with the goals, mission and procedures of the organization, which can result in a sense of "making a difference". This can have direct impact on effort and efficiency.
- has the potential for reducing day-to-day conflict. Much conflict is generated by conflicting ideas on what is important to the organization...often an indicator that the people involved do not share a common vision or understanding.
- helps staff feel a part of the organization.
When we look at organizations that use their common culture as a strategic advantage, what we find is that they create that culture through the use of very strategic, coordinated communication strategies. They use multiple methods, consistently. Their training supports their cultural goals, as does their written communication (eg. newsletters, billboards, slogans, etc). Their management communicates consistently with common messages in a number of forums (eg. performance management, department or sub-organization meetings, award and recognition programs, etc). And perhaps most importantly, management behaviour is consistent with the messages echoed via other communication methodologies.
Simply put, if we want to create a workplace that is populated by people who are working towards the same goals, and by the same rules, internal communication, in it's broadest sense, is the key to bringing that about. It won't happen unless we are proactive in our communication and coordinate our efforts so they convey consistent, combatable messages.
An Overview of The Internal Communication Planning (ICP) Process
First, we need to understand that we plan for internal communication for a long term time period. Since the effects of communication exert themselves over an extended period, we need to look at an approach that will extend over years. While event based tactical communication planning is reactive and short term, strategic ICP is by it's nature, longer term and proactive.
As such, before we begin ICP, we need to be clear what kind of workplace we are attempting to create and what values, principles and procedures need to be in place so that our visioned workplace comes about. So, as with other kinds of strategic planning, we first decide the kind of organization we want, then we plan a communication approach to bring that vision to life.
Next, we need to consider a very broad approach to communication. Often, even organizations who address internal communication fail because they understand the organization communication process as a limited process--one that includes only what we normally think of as communication methods. For example, they formulate a vision statement, or statement of principles, and plaster it all over the organization, without considering that the behaviour of managers, and the decisions that are made in the organization are the "real communication tools". What results is a situation where the "formal" communications say one thing to staff, while decision-making and actions send a conflicting message. It's almost better to do nothing at all, since an inconsistent, non-comprehensive approach to communication breeds resentment and cynicism.
So, the key elements:
- long-term focus
- clear values, goals
- comprehensive, pervasive methods
- consistent messages
Outline of ICP Steps
The details of how one plans for internal communication to create a coherent culture will vary depending on a number of factors, one of the most important being the size/level of the organization we are looking at. In a small organization, a branch manager/director may draft an internal communication strategy by him/herself, particularly if the elements of communication in the organization are under his/her control. Or, the manager can consult with staff regarding the kinds of information staff feel they need.
In larger organization, internal communication strategies need to include many more players (eg. senior executives, managers, HR people, etc).
However a general process can be described.
1. Identify the common culture needed/wanted
We make the distinction between what is needed and what is wanted because the culture we seek to create should somehow enable the organization to better achieve the goals, role and mission it has designated for itself. The parallel here is to the visioning process that occurs in strategic planning, except it answers the question: "What values, principles, procedures and behaviours must we create so that we can achieve our mission?" In practical terms, this step can result in a set of goals.
2. Identify the available communication tools
Since we consider internal communication in a broad sense, we need to identify the means by which we can affect corporate culture in the direction we want to go. Below are some examples of communication tools to consider, but there may be others.
memos (internal correspondence),
newsletter, brochures, performance appraisal documents, slogans, pay packet
general meetings, division and branch meetings, team addresses, one-on-one (face to face) manager to staff communication.
E-mail, web sites and intranets
Any and all management/executive behaviour that sends messages, either intentionally or unintentionally about the values, principles, purposes of the organization.
Staff To Management Forums:
surveys, other forums such as staff meetings, individual meetings etc. (yes, getting information from staff also sends messages!)
Policies & Procedures:
Policies and procedures need to reinforce and be consistent with the messages being sent by other "channels".
Training and learning settings are often used to teach specific skills and values (eg. customer service).
3. Determine what tools are suited to which goals
We need to match the tools we have at our disposal to the goals that we identified in Step 1. Some tools are best suited to certain types of goals and not to others. In general, though we want to aim ALL of our available communication tools at the achievement of our goals.
4. Develop a description of how each tool will be used.
People "in charge" of the communication tools need to know both generally and specifically how their tool fits into the larger context. For example, managers need to understand the tone and approach to writing internal memos that will be consistent with the "internal communication" goals matched to that tool. Or more obviously, a corporate newsletter editor must be aware of the primary values, and information that needs to be conveyed to staff so the newsletter supports the creation of the desired culture.
5. Plan for remediation
Since the ICP process is comprehensive, we may end up asking people in the organization to behave and communicate differently. That may mean we will need to help people develop the skills needed to fulfil these new expectations. For example, a manager might need to learn how to rephrase memos, or conduct cooperative performance appraisals so they are consistent with the desired culture.
6. Plan For Implementation
At this point we should know what we need to communicate, how we are going to do it, etc. We may want to flesh this out a bit by determining who will do what, and when it will be done. Let's remember that this is NOT a project, but an ongoing process...we want to change communication approaches over the long term.
(Note: In both strategic planning and internal communication planning, we often need to "cascade" from the top of the organization down).
8. Continuously Monitor and Revise
Over time, new communication tools may become more obvious, or we may find that some tools are ineffective. So consistent with a continuous improvement approach we need to assess the effects of what we are doing, and "re-steer" as needed. Some organizations use annual surveys to assess whether progress is being made, and solicit additional ideas.
The development of a strategic internal communication strategy, and it's implementation can provide a number of benefits to organizations. To achieve those benefits we need a coordinated, comprehensive, long term communication approach.