As internal communications professionals, how often do we come across people who are only too happy to tell us how to do our job? How often do our stakeholders ask us for tactics or activities or campaigns – but without a clearly defined business outcome or business need? And how often do we just go and do it….?
A lot has been written, said and taught about strategic internal communications. And there are companies where IC is respected and seen as a business partner. So why is it still not working everywhere? Listening to communications professionals around the world this seems to be a persistent and recurring theme. So how can we become true business partners, educate our stakeholders and show the value we add?
As long as internal communications professionals execute requests without questioning ‘why’, as long as we focus on activities instead of outcomes, we are unlikely to succeed. Yet communicators are also frequently swamped, or feel they lack resources – and so choose the path of least resistance. So, what can we do?
Communication is a process
Communication is a process that enables organizational communications. It is a process to create understanding and engagement (as an outcome: commitment, motivation, advocacy, participation, involvement) to help deliver business/organisational results.
Campaigns, activities, tools, channels, collateral … are the means by which we communicate, but without a clearly defined purpose and outcome they are just ‘stuff’. To be effective, internal communications should need a simple, outcomes focused process.
There is plenty of research out there that clearly demonstrates that effective communication practices have a direct impact on people’s motivation, organizational performance and KPIs. The research also shows that more is expected of us by CEOs, senior stakeholders.
By applying process to all requests, projects, initiatives and communication activities, we can free up time and resources – and still be innovative and creative – maybe even more so.
Don’t wait to be asked. If we know there is a project or change initiative or workstream being developed, or a function in need of support – let’s invite ourselves to make sure communications are developed and looked at properly.
Having the right conversation – listening, asking the right questions
By asking our stakeholders the right questions, we can help them focus on what they are trying to achieve and then define the objectives, desired outcomes and narratives together. It enables us to work to a properly planned approach. And by asking the right questions, our stakeholders may also realise that what they asked for is not what they need!
The conversation always needs to start with the business need – why would we do this? How will this contribute to our priorities, organizational strategy? What do we want people to know/feel/do? The conversation needs to surface what success would look like, define metrics? How would communication help achieve this need and what would communication success look like? And only if these questions are answered, do we move on to content, tools, channels, timelines.
Measurement is essential. And this starts with always setting SMART objectives, so we have clearly defined metrics.
Where there is employee research, there is data – in fact, it’s the motherlode for IC. Using employee survey or pulse survey data can help us define links or correlations between that data and communications. Which in turn can help us quantify how we contributed to this particular business KPI or outcome. Work with whoever has the data and means to analyse it – be in Marketing or HR – to set and track the right metrics. These should be forward looking, focusing on continuous improvement or even be predictive.
- Outcomes examples: return on investment (ROI) – based on a project or workstream (start small!); efficiency/effectiveness improvements as a result of behaviour change; financial results – eg sales, cost savings; safety performance; predictively identifying what needs to be done to drive a business outcome or priority in the future and then defining communications accordingly.
- Perceptions and understanding – the know and feel. For example: organisational strategy, or a change initiative: do people know about it? Do they understand it (ie can they explain it in their own words), and do they know how they contribute individually?
- Actions – the do: have people done what we wanted them to do – individual actions – for example do leaders & line managers communicate and provide individual context as and how they are supposed to? Have people adopted a new/different way of working?
- We should also measure and analyse tools & channels to enable us to focus on those that are used and valued and enable us to even switch off/stop producing those that are not valued or used enough.
Training and enabling others
Leaders and people managers are essential communicators. In fact, they are instrumental to successful communications, the people who can create individual line of sight and context. But do they know how? Just sending an email and slide deck won’t cut it. They need to be trained – so they understand what people want from communications and how to translate the big picture to individual context, to connect the dots.
It’s in our hands
Will making these changes to a different way of working hurt? Maybe. Not every stakeholder will be happy if our focus shifts from unquestioned execution to focusing on business priorities. But if we want to be heard, to be taken seriously, we need to have the confidence to make it happen.
Guest Post by Katharina Auer
About Katharina Auer
Katharina is an internationally recognized senior employee communications and change executive and communications trainer. She has over 25 years of experience in strategic and change communications, employee research and listening – focusing on people, business outcomes and continuous improvement. She also trains communicators to be strategic business partners, and leaders & managers to be effective communicators by using her tried & tested 8 Step approach.
You can join her one day workshop on the 8 steps to becoming a true communications business partner, in London on Dec 4th 2019.