Why we need to agree a demonstrably valid definition of internal communication

What if :

we’ve all inherited a paradigm in which…

…everyone is unwittingly working off different definitions of Internal Communication?

Internal communication frequently comes out badly in employee surveys. But when we dig a little deeper, it turns out that the ‘internal communication’ employees are unhappy about often has nothing to do with the IC team itself. Those complaints frequently centre around email overload, or the fact that their boss doesn’t talk to them.

So it’s pretty clear that, when talking about Internal Communication, different people are working with different definitions.

Crucially, though, if IC practices are going to be DFVP, we first have to identify and validate the purpose for which our practices need to be demonstrably fit. But how can anyone be justifiably confident they’ve identified a valid purpose for any given ‘thing’ if they haven’t first nailed down the definition of the thing itself?

Importantly, even among IC Specialists there seems to be little explicit consensus.

So let’s try this: when is an internal communication not an internal communication? You might think the answer fairly obvious, but is it? The following client conversation may help illustrate the problem:

ROB: So why weren’t you involved in this communication?

IC Specialist: Because it was a communication from the Pensions Admin Department, about changes to company pension scheme contributions.

ROB: So it was a communication that came from people inside the organisation?

IC Specialist: Yes.

ROB: And it went out to…?

IC Specialist: To all employees

ROB: Solely to people inside the organisation, then?

IC Specialist: Absolutely.

ROB No one outside the organisation received this communication?

IC Specialist: Of course not.

ROB: So it was a communication from people inside the organisation, that went only to people inside the organisation.

IC Specialist: That’s right.

ROB: So it was an internal communication.

IC Specialist: No.

ROB What!?

IC Specialist: It was an HR communication.

This conversation really did happen. And it got even more loopy. The IC Specialist in question was responsible for this company’s Team Brief. So, apparently, if the communication had been delivered through the Team Brief (rather than going direct from Pensions Admin) it would have been an internal communication – even though it was exactly the same message, coming from exactly the same people, and going to exactly the same people. Is this not bonkers?

A flawed syllogism

Whatever your thoughts on the matter this client was far from alone. It turns out that – without even necessarily realising they’re doing so – many IC Managers have long been basing their definition on a flawed syllogism. It goes like this:

  1. My team does internal communication
  2. Therefore internal communication is what my team does
  3. Therefore, if my team doesn’t do it, it isn’t internal communication.

To be fair, it’s hard not to have a certain sympathy with this. After all, how can it be fair to expect IC Managers to take the rap for things beyond their control? On the other hand, how on earth can senior (and not-so-senior) managers be expected to take Internal Communication as seriously as they need to if its very definition can change, moment to moment, on the whim of, say, a pensions administrator?

Clearly we need a different way of defining what is, and is not, Internal Communication. And if possible it needs to reconcile two key issues:

  1. The definition can encompass all the differing opinions, so
  • it doesn’t keep changing
  • people can’t be talking at cross purposes when discussing it.
  1. It doesn’t leave IC Specialists carrying the can for problems they can’t solve.

Frustratingly, though, those two issues do appear to be as irreconcilable as fire and ice. But if we address them separately, maybe we can find a solution.

If we focus solely on our first requirement, the definition is quite simple.

An all-embracing definition

We could begin by accepting that if it’s something: being communicated by anyone or any group inside an organisation, and being received only by other individuals or groups inside that same organisation, it’s surely an internal communication.

But of course that would include all the social chit-chat going on between colleagues. So maybe we need to say that it counts as internal ‘business’ communication only if it concerns the fulfilment of the organisation’s reason for existing.

Hmm. What about all the communicating that needs to happen between employer and employee just to manage their relationships with one another: booking holidays, claiming expenses, reporting broken chairs etc? These surely count as valid internal communications.

So our definition needs to include these communications which ‘indirectly’ enable the organisation to fulfil its reason for existing.

This then gives us a holistic definition of Internal Communication.

All communicating that goes on inside an organisation, for the purposes of directly or indirectly enabling that organisation to fulfil its reason for existing.

However, it does still leave us with that second challenge. IC Managers can’t possibly be responsible for all this. But maybe they don’t need to be.

IC Practice Governance

Imagine your organisation wanted to improve its financial management. Would not the leadership team turn to the Finance Department to review current practices, and then design, implement and oversee new ones? After all, the Finance team are the experts in that discipline. Could there not be parallels with IC here?

After all, IC is the only business activity everyone in your organisation does. And to different degrees it pervades every other business activity. So, given the impact IC activities can have on how well (or otherwise) your organisation runs, it only makes sense for those activities to be done to the best possible standards, does it not? Surely, then, it must also make sense for people with specialist skills to be setting and monitoring those standards.

In short, we’re talking about Internal Communication Practice Governance. And it’s something some IC Managers are already getting involved in. But maybe not in a systemic way. It’s also likely they have nothing like the resources they need to make a success of it. But what if they did? How much impact could they then have – on operating costs, employee well-being, Brand reputation and more?

This is one of the options The Communication Game can make possible.

FREE workshop

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. ‘
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