The purpose of IC – what it really is and why
we’ve all inherited a paradigm in which…
…people might be trying to assert certain practices as ‘fit for purpose’ without having defined or validated what that purpose is?
Time for another statement of the obvious: we can’t tell if anything we’re doing is fit for valid purposes if we don’t first define and validate those purposes. So, what is the purpose of internal communication? And how can we be sure that purpose is what it needs to be?
When asked, people often say the purpose of internal communication is to ‘inform’, ‘educate’ or ‘motivate’ an audience, or to ‘connect employees’. These are reasonable answers as far as they go, but do they go far enough? And are they precise enough?
We’ve already distinguished internal business communication from social chit-chat by saying it needs to be directly or indirectly helping an organisation fulfil its raison d’etre. So that’s that then, is it not? Not quite, because people can do all sorts of other communicating at work (sales, marketing, PR, investor relations etc), which is surely also trying to fulfil the organisation’s raison d’etre. The question is how, specifically, does IC do it?
The Financial angle
Unless they’re volunteers, or unpaid interns, people communicating at work are going to cost money to employ. So maybe we should consider how such communicating pays its way and justifies its existence. Interestingly, not all professional communications do this in the same way because they can take place in two quite different arenas:
Examples of Professional Communications
It costs money to produce communications for both these arenas and get them in front of an audience. But there’s a crucial difference in how they justify this outlay (and, if appropriate, go on to generate profit for their ‘owners’).
If you want to read Time Magazine or go and watch, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose money do you have to spend? Probably your own. And to watch TV programmes you’ll usually have to pay for a television licence or cable/satellite subscription. (TV programmes and magazines may, of course, also receive sponsorship from advertisers. But the amount of advertising revenue they get from this will partly depend on the size and type of audiences they are able to command.) We also need to recognise whose time you’re spending while receiving these communications. Again, it’s your own.
With a recreational communication, then, the audience will spend its own time and money to receive it. This means that recreational communications can cover their costs, and generate a profit, if the communicators simply get enough people to engage in the process of being communicated with. Nothing beyond that is required.
Naturally it helps if the audience goes off and tells other people how good it is. But this is only to get more people involved in the process of being communicated with. Interestingly, this is what journalism (which is in fact a recreational communication discipline) is designed for.
But what happens if we apply those same questions to a business communication? Whose money is being spent to get it in front of the audience? The organisation’s. When it comes to a business communication, the audience doesn’t pay a penny for the communication process.
Instead, it’s the communicator who carries all the costs of both production and distribution, with no direct financial payback. So the first part of this financial dynamic tells us that, unlike its recreational counterparts, simply getting an audience to engage in the process of receiving a business communication does not, in itself, generate revenue. It’s purely money out the door.
To make commercial sense, then, business communications justify their existence only as a result of the actions the audience take once that process has been completed. This leads us to an inevitable conclusion as far as the purpose of internal communication is concerned.
All business communications (whether internal or external) must:
Directly and/or indirectly, prompt and/or enable people
to take or avoid actions, Immediately or eventually – or both.
This is logically inescapable. And it’s also not the whole story, because it’s perfectly possible to get employees engaging in all manner of activities that are of no value to the organisation. So we could say that what we’ve identified thus far is the ‘Functional Purpose’ of internal communication.
The ultimate purpose
Beyond this, we also need to ask ourselves:
“What’s the purpose of that purpose?” Or, more specifically: “What’s the purpose of prompting and enabling people to take/avoid actions?”
And logic surely leads us to an ultimate purpose for business communication:
To directly or indirectly help the organisation fulfil its raison d’etre as efficiently and effectively as possible, and develop its ability to do so increasingly.
Does that seem valid to you? The alternatives would be either that the communications have no impact on stakeholder results (which would mean they’re redundant) or are actually hindering those results. So it seems reasonable to suggest that both these functional and ultimate purposes of business communication stand up to critical scrutiny. They’re demonstrably valid.
But is that it? These purposes surely also apply to PR and Marketing. So is the purpose of Internal Communication no different? There are still people (usually Marketing and PR folk) who talk in terms ‘Internal Marketing’ or ‘Internal PR’. Crucially, though, IC has a profoundly different focus.
IC’s unique focus
One way or another, those external communication activities are about building and maintaining a brand promise in the minds of their audiences. The job of Internal Communication, on the other hand, is surely to get that brand promise delivered consistently and, hopefully, increasingly well.
In summary, then, we can pull all this together into a single demonstrably valid purpose for internal communication:
Directly and/or indirectly prompt and enable employees to deliver and improve their organisation’s brand promise, as efficiently and effectively as possible, and develop their ability to do so increasingly.
It is against this purpose that you can start to determine the extent to which the IC practices of your organisation are DFVP.
And we’re currently offering free workshops which will help you understand more about making this work for your organisation. It will:
- spell out more of the business benefits (emotional, financial and reputational)
- walk you through the mechanics of moving your IC Specialists into the Sweet Spot, and
- show you how to make the business case for introducing this new paradigm.