Internal communication: what’s the “tipping point” for a startup or SME?
By Mike Klein
How big of an organization do you need to be to have a professional approach to internal communication?
It’s a question I hear from time to time when I talk with people in startups and other small-to-medium enterprises.
There’s no easy answer - it’s a proverbial “how long is a piece of string” question. But it’s one well worth exploring, and perhaps earlier than you may think.
A good starting point is 150, the so-called “Dunbar Number” reflecting social scientist Robin Dunbar’s assessment that the normal number of extended associates an individual can personally engage with totals between 100 and 200. Now, social media allows individuals to engage digitally with many more, but as organizational life consists of a mix of physical and digital relationships, I see 150 as a good starting point for exploring the question.
Of course, not all businesses with 150 employees need either professional IC leadership or an internal comms platform. If all employees do roughly similar work out of a single location, word of mouth and perhaps a few formal channels can keep the conversation flowing and help keep work aligned with objective.
But if you get beyond 150, there are a number of conversations worth asking.
What is your footprint?
The more dispersed an organization is, the more it can benefit from a structured approach to internal communication. In a more virtual organization, internal communication professionals and platforms can combine a virtual infrastructure that aids cohesion, with an organizational narrative that aids alignment and coherence.
Dispersion does not have to be global. Research done by organizational network analysis specialists Innovisor shows that the degree of interaction between employees at two locations in the same city is often minimal - and unlikely to happen spontaneously.
Coherence and cohesion
In small, global organizations, a planned and professional approach to internal communication can have a centering effect, driving prioritization while facilitating interaction between dispersed peers. In knowledge-intensive organizations, this approach can also support professional collaboration while providing a context that collaboration tools alone can’t provide.
A consumer-grade platform, in turn, is a major hygiene factor for millennial and younger employees who think in terms of their networks and connections, and expect the intimacy of human narratives and the immediacy they experience from the apps and platforms they use outside the workplace.
Employees as communicators
An approach to internal communication combining professional support and a consumer-grade platform also puts an organization into position to integrate the natural communication roles of employees in a more cohesive way. Employees not only execute their own jobs, they also talk with each other about what is going on in the company, and they represent the organization to their families, friends, customers and industry peers.
While it is possible to allow people to "get on with it" with zero or amateur guidance, the communication roles of employees are replete with risk, not only in terms of their possible release of sensitive information, but also because of the likelihood of inconsistent or uninspiring messages about the organization reaching potential customers, recruits or investors.
Proliferation vs Prioritization
In a high-energy small company, one challenge is that everything everyone is working on is "very important". Without coordination, discipline, and, ideally, strategy, an endless array of initiatives and projects will compete for attention to the detriment of performance. When each has equal access to organizational attention, the problem is compounded. This is a key reason not to invest in internal communication software platforms unless there is clear accountability for governance and access.
The need for discipline and prioritization calls not only for internal communication support, but ideally for an experienced professional capable of interacting with other stakeholders as a peer and with sufficient business acumen to help drive the integration of communication with business activity.
Avoiding a false economy
Small-company IC roles are often pitched at junior levels for cost reasons. But the weak position of inexperienced staff from which to challenge stakeholders on prioritization issues creates a false economy. If cost is an issue, much of a smaller organization's IC needs can be filled by an experienced IC consultant or freelancer working part-time, once they've become sufficiently familiar with the company, its mission, operations and commercial context.
Communication at the heart of the business
If the value of a business is tied to its reputation, the smoothness of its operations, and the extent to which customers believe its offerings are worthy of a premium, then professionalizing internal communication is a way to move that whole agenda forward. To be sure, putting these essentials in the hands of an intern or leaving it to employee goodwill may initially seem financially attractive. But a more committed approach offers an opportunity to turn IC into a source of real advantage, while managing some fundamental risks.