In a speech to the CEB-Gartner Internal Communication Summit in London last week, I challenged fellow practitioners to answer four questions, the outcome of which will shape the profession for the coming years.
Talking about Internal Communication's (IC's) future doesn’t just have to address what’s going to happen in the future, it also needs to consider what’s happening, or not happening, right now. And IC’s future comes down to answering a number of questions correctly and without delay.
For the most part, these questions have still not been addressed adequately, and resolving even one could radically impact the future in a positive way.
Most pertinently, we as IC practitioners could potentially decide the answers. That would, however, require far higher confidence than what we are collectively exhibiting at the moment.
The first of these questions is: "Are we to focus on outcomes or technology?"
I define outcomes as "what the business can achieve with our involvement.
"In this context, technology means "what tools and channels to acquire (and then use, even if not entirely appropriate to the given task)"
We IC folk like to say we focus on outcomes, but technology often steals the show. Partly that's because of the eternal allure of new Bright Shiny Things, be they video platforms, enhanced intranets, or other whizzy tools.
Bright shiny things can be great. But with their purchase often comes a need to justify the investment, which means that IC needs to be seen to be using the new channel even for inappropriate purposes. This need for conspicuous use of new channels is also aggravated by the unwillingness of managers and senior leaders to accept the value of less visible informal channels in driving messages and outcomes.
From a future perspective, pressures will only intensify when later generations of "bright shiny things" hit the shelves. If you think the pressure to overemphasize video is high today. wait until Virtual Reality finally makes its breakthrough.
On to the second question: "Does engagement matter more than impact?"
We live in a world where there is no consistent definition of "employee engagement," leading to a collapse of the distinction between "Engagement" v "Engagement scores", namely the results of so-called "engagement surveys," which measure, well, stuff that gets measured in "engagement surveys."
What that's led to is a belief in engagement scores as an objective unto themselves, even if no one has ever proven that improving engagement scores directly improves performance.
To improve our prospects as a profession, we need to challenge this lack of any real causal relationship between engagement and performance. Indeed, we need to be the ones to ask whether it's engagement drives performance, or if it's actually performance that drives engagement scores?
Challenging the primacy of engagement - and the siren song of all-employee "involve everyone engagement" - is critical to our future prospects. If we can get the permission to focus on engaging selectively, a resurgence in real IC strategy can reduce overload and wasted bandwidth, balance and sharpen focus on priorities, and create space for the adoption of real strategic tools like influencer research, social mapping and Organizational Network Analysis.
Third question: "How can we measure the impact of binary outcomes and what we contribute to them?"
There has been a resurgence of activity in the "measurement faction" of the IC profession. A lot of it represents good, solid, methodical work. But little of that work addresses our profession's fundamental measurement problem.
That problem: most measurements are linear, like ROI (return on investment), but most IC work focuses on outcomes, which are binary.
As in: we achieved the objective or hit the target.
We help businesses win a lot of all or nothing bets, but since there's rarely a linear way to measure them, our contribution gets discounted, and we get pressurized to do other things solely because they are more easily measured.
We're not alone in this. Other communication disciplines face similar pressures, like my previous game of political campaign management. US political pollster
Mark Mellman (who I worked with 20 years ago) recently reviewed a study which claimed that the ROI of individual communication pieces was basically zero and concluded that campaign expenditures were essentially worthless. Mellman countered that all of these pieces have a cumulative effect, and after all, an election is a binary outcome.
ROI has its use, online analytics have their uses. But what we do as IC ultimately involves having cumulative impact on a lot of binary outcomes. The firepower of our measurement tribe needs to focus on figuring out how to measure this.
Question 4: "Can we make good use of supportive stakeholders (who aren’t our bosses)?"
Measurement is, ultimately, a defensive exercise. And one way to reduce the pressure to overemphasize measurement is to secure support from C-level leaders who are not directly responsible for our function.
There's been a lot of talk about us having "a seat at the table." But what we really need are "seats at the table" - the support of leaders who understand our intuitive business case (the difference we can make, or the pain of having to drive change without us) without making us have to calculate the ROI of every intranet article that gets published.
It's not just enough to have a strong, well-placed boss. Secondary sponsors can say the things that the boss can’t. Secondary sponsors can give your boss air cover to promote an ambitious agenda instead of protecting a more timid one. Yet, so many IC pros focus on the CEO and not on the other "seats at the table."
And on that note, it's worth noting our function almost invariably reports into a leader who has little or no experience as an internal communicator. So building a broader coalition of sympathetic leaders is one way to build credibility that can be easier than having to continuously demonstrate one's competence and value on a one-to-one basis.
In closing, our future depends on changing the current picture on each of these questions. Not that they are the only questions: the question about the boundary and distinction between internal and external comms is also huge, but it's not something we can decide. But on these questions, the future is in our hands. Let us choose, confidently and wisely.
Mike Klein is a Netherlands-based internal communicator and writer, whose blog and practice, Changing The Terms, focuses on internal communication strategy. Mike is also the Regional Vice Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in Europe - Middle East - North Africa.