Over 20 years ago, UK communication leader Bill Quirke wrote in Communicating Change: “From the employee’s point of view, [they are] receiving communication from the organisation in whatever its dealings may be with [them] - not just those items which are formally labelled employee communication”(1).
Over the next two decades, massive changes have occurred in organisational life, communication, and business practice.
Everyone communicates: The rise of the specialist and the generalist
The evolution of communication technologies, the rise of line managers as key communication channels and increased peer-to-peer dialogue are responsible for shifts in internal communication. These complex ecosystems rely on technical (platforms and channels), behavioural (culture and change) and process (the right information at the right time) elements to work together.
Communication is in the hands of the many. What is left for internal communication to bring to a partnership? What is your specialist contribution and what value do you bring as a communication professional? Is it deep understanding of the audience? Channels? Narrative? Messaging? Program management? Business leadership?
Priorities shape partnerships
Partnerships between communication and marketing or human resources are relatively common. Starting with organisational priorities instead of function provides a different way of looking at partnership.
This style of just-in-time partnership that responds to the priorities of the organisation is similar to adhocracy, which has become a central part of agile organisations. Adhocracy is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “A system of flexible and informal organisation and management in place of rigid bureaucracy.” Structures shift rapidly according to the current business problem to be solved.
The question is no longer whether partnerships are useful. The question is “how can I contribute”?
Across these kinds of partnership, communication professionals can play the role of convener, bringing together these constituents and facilitating the process.
What are the benefits of partnership?
The best internal partnerships occur when there is a shared stake in the outcome and all parties can contribute in a valuable way to shared results.
Increased organisational agility
Collaboration can seem to take longer initially, but over time it increases the organisation’s ability to be responsive and focus on the right challenges.
Shared knowledge and organisational learning
Perspectives and insights from multiple internal partners improves the quality of decision making.
Reduced exposure to risk
By adopting approaches such as “Working Out Loud” with a partner group, feedback and insights can be contributed earlier in design or development.
Delivering outcomes in partnership has the potential to deepen trust between functions within an organisation.
What prevents good partnerships?
Internal competition for power or resources
Most professional support functions have adopted a similar strategic aim over the past decade. They want to have a seat at the table. However, in most organisations, there are still a limited number of seats, and they are reserved for the functions that clearly demonstrate their contribution to strategic and operational needs.
Different functions have similar goals but may have different approaches to getting there. Organisational development, change management and employee communication all share some processes and methods, but have a variety of ways of working. Taking a broader view of methodologies and focusing instead on achieving common outcomes can overcome differences, but this is often a cause of tension in immature partnerships.
Conflicting strategic objectives and performance measures
Put simply, if one function is primarily measured on speed and another on quality, there will be conflict. Learning to be good partners can often highlight differences or inconsistencies within an organisation. Being able to surface differences across audiences and work through them to a shared resolution becomes an important capability.
Partnerships are relationships
In conducting communication reviews and strategic planning, I’ve interviewed or surveyed hundreds of internal stakeholders about their perspectives of communication functions. Looking at this research, it became apparent why it can be hard for communication professionals to find the sweet spot for building internal partnerships. Business areas expressed conflicting expectations of the communication function: know our business, provide tactical support, think beyond the tactical support, take a broader view of solutions and stay in the right lane.
In other words, each potential partner had different needs. While it is not sustainable to bend and switch to every potential partner’s expectations, recognising these differences is a helpful starting point.
How can communication professionals deepen partnerships?
Does each partner understand how others perceive their role and contribution to strategy and operations?
Can each area advocate for the other? For example,“We should include technology in this conversation.”
Do all partners have a shared understanding of what they are working towards, whether it is a short term initiative or a long term approach?
Do all the partners have a common view of the key business priorities and goals and how their specialisation contributes?
Are there triage processes that enable partners to become involved at the appropriate time? If the business approaches the training team about a product, will this trigger involvement from the communication team?
Are there any organisational systems or processes that could have an unintended negative impact on partnerships?
Communication professionals have a significant opportunity to create stronger partnerships, provided they see their role as being facilitators and co-contributors rather than channel managers, wordsmiths and gatekeepers.
Three Key Takeaways
The increase of complexity in organisations means there can be no single function responsible for communication.
Formal and informal partnerships deliver significant benefits for organisations and functions within them.
Internal communication has a role to play both as a partner and as a facilitator of quality partnerships.
This is an excerpt of our 222-page book Disrupting the Function of IC - A Global Perspective. Click here to download.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Champ, Chief Communicator at Meaning Business, has two decades of experience helping organisations communicate meaningfully, strategically and engagingly.
He has held senior roles in three top 25 listed ASX companies, including QBE, Westpac, and NRMA. Committed to developing the communication profession, he was formerly Asia Pacific Research and Content Director for Melcrum. He is the creator of the Shorter COMMS Plan methodology, a CEB Global Black Belt trainer and Public Relations tutor at Macquarie University.
A 20-year IABC member, volunteer and 2014 IABC World Conference speaker, he co-ordinated the Gold Quill Asia Pacific Panel since 2015.
(1) Over 20 years ago, UK communication leader Bill Quirke wrote in Communicating Change: “From the employee’s point of view, [they are] receiving communication from the organisation in whatever its dealings may be with [them] - not just those items which are formally labelled employee communication”