How Internal Communicators’ Gatekeeping Behaviour is Hampering the Development of Company-Wide Conversations – guest post by Mark Verheyden
Let me be clear on this one, there is no technological fix for a broken organizational culture. As such, I must concur with Dan Pontefract who, in an article that appeared on the Forbes website in 2015, argued that prohibitive corporate cultures may easily turn enterprise social media into digital graveyards. In my own doctoral study, which I recently successfully completed at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), I found that internal communicators do not seldom contribute to the failure of these initiatives. In the next few paragraphs, my aim is to size down six years of research into a number of key observations and core action points that may help practitioners leverage technology in ways that strengthen their often-aspired organizational boundary-spanning role.
New technology and the hype cycle
When I started my research, the business press was wildly enthusiastic about the potential of enterprise social media to foster better communication within the organization. Wired Magazine (2014) headlined that “enterprise social networks may one day replace email” while The Next Web (TNW, 2011) stated that “businesses of all sizes see how it promotes employee collaboration and communication across departments, geographies, and areas of expertise.” These euphoric messages soon made way for more gloomy headlines. In Harvard Business review, Li (2015) urged leaders to “wake up” and acknowledge that enterprise social media deployments are rarely successful. It is precisely in this context that a report by Deloitte (2013, p. 5) mentioned the relative failure of the technology. I argue that the technology is not so much a failure as it is the victim of what research and advisory firm Gartner has dubbed “the hype cycle.” What this means is that hyped technologies often go through a phase of disillusionment after experiencing a peak of inflated expectations. Furthermore, my own research indicated that social factors are often the main reason why the technology is not perceived as delivering on what it seemed to promise. Let me apply that to the case of internal communication more specifically.
enterprise social media deployments are rarely successful
The quest for dialogue
Similar to what has happened in other branches of strategic communication, internal communicators equally hailed social media for their interactive potential. At last, technology would enable genuine two-way communication. Even more important from a bottom-line perspective is that McKinsey (2016) found that improved internal communication was the feature of social tools that most benefitted the business. However, a growing number of studies have consistently returned that social media tools are still predominantly used as extra channels through which content is pushed. To better understand and contextualize these findings, I decided that my own research had to move beyond the debate of whether social media have made internal communication more balanced and two-way. To this end, I devised four empirical studies during which I gathered data through in-depth interviews, surveys, and observations. In the next section, I will report my main findings.
Professionals’ behaviour best described as “gatekeeping”
The use of digital tools resulted in gatekeeping becoming decidedly subtler
What I noticed when I was analyzing my data was that it would be overly simplistic to state that internal communicators use enterprise social media solely for broadcasting. Sure, examples of broadcasting were present. However, it was not the norm. Instead, what I found was that internal communicators’ behaviour could best be described in terms of gatekeeping. To be clear, broadcasting is a classic form of gatekeeping. Yet, the use of digital tools resulted in gatekeeping becoming decidedly subtler. Instead of controlling the message directly, as in the case of broadcasting, professionals tried to exert control over what was said through more indirect methods. I labeled these “monitoring,” “filtering,” and “rule-setting.” While active intervention was rare, it was very common to nudge employees’ behaviour online through the use of (social media) policies. While it was clear that these gatekeeping efforts kept employees from posting anything that could offend management, expressions of more covert resistance were abundant.
When power meets counter-power
If success were measured in terms of the absence of controversial messages on the enterprise social network, one could say that internal communicators were very successful indeed. In fact, multiple content analyses of several companies’ newsfeeds revealed that less than 1% of all public employee posts were somewhat critical towards management. However, apart from these few instances where management’s authority was openly challenged, employee resistance was not seldom expressed in more covert ways. One way was to stay clear from the company’s endorsed social media. For example, instead of using the official Yammer platforms, some employees reverted to the creation of secret Facebook groups. Sometimes, internal communicators succeeded in infiltrating these groups. Numerous interviews with employees revealed that such actions were met with suspicion. Repressive measures to close down such groups did not automatically result in the more intensive use of the official platforms. Instead, employees were more likely to apply strict self-censorship online.
A gatekeeping sense of self
willingness to get recognition at the highest organizational levels has induced the development of what I dubbed “a gatekeeping sense of self”
The finding that internal communicators’ behavior online could best be described in terms of gatekeeping was a valid one and helped move the discussion beyond simplistic discussions about whether new media help foster more balanced conversations. However, I was also interested in answering the question why this gatekeeping behavior was so pervasively present. What I found should force us to reconsider a long-held view among practitioners. Indeed, for years now, the professionalization of internal communication has popularized the idea that organizational impact can only materialize in case a seat in the boardroom is obtained. A recent report of CIPR inside (2017) has confirmed that these views are widely held across the discipline. What I found is that this willingness to get recognition at the highest organizational levels has induced the development of what I dubbed “a gatekeeping sense of self.” It is my observation that it is precisely a profound identification with a managerial ideology of control that has triggered the observed gatekeeping behavior. In turn, this behavior is detrimental to any efforts at fostering meaningful interactions on enterprise social media platforms. Interviews with employees confirmed that internal communication was often seen as “the voice of senior management.”
The way forward
upping the digital and data analysis skills of current and future generations of internal communicators
While I feel positive towards the professionalization of internal communication, I do think the occupation must contemplate on the role it wishes to fulfil in the organization. Based on my survey data, I found that three out of four internal communicators perceive of themselves as working outside the field of public relations. However, if they keep acting as management advocates, self-perception does not align with behavior. What I believe to be a more valuable role is to act as boundary-spanning agents who are able to capture employee sentiment and enable fruitful conversations between management and the broader employee base. To achieve this, internal communication needs to be prepared to throw off its partisan shell. Furthermore, genuine listening on online platforms at the same time future-proofs the occupation since it requires digital and data analysis skills that are highly valued these days. However, at this point in time, these skills are not yet fully developed. Therefore, I would plead for further professionalization efforts aimed at upping the digital and data analysis skills of current and future generations of internal communicators.