( First appeared in IIM Ahmedabad Alumni Journal, Feb, 2014)
Internal communication does not have the glamour and big budgets of advertising, but to ensure bang for the communication buck, that’s where the first rupee has to be invested. Enlightened organisations recognise internal communication as essential management action of strategic import, to ensure employee alignment and delivery of the brand promise.
In internal communication, a company deals with its own employees who are core participants in its operations and hence very much in the know of things. Yet communication has to respect the compulsions of the ‘need to know’ principle. A partial answer is segmented, stratified communication by developing differential contents. But then, how effective can firewalls be, among people who spend all their days together? The ITES businesses have additional challenges in dealing with employees who are well-networked internally and with the external world, making segmented communication even more challenging. The brick-and-mortar sector has its own challenges arising out of a more heterogeneous audience, with some sections without access to communication networks. It takes a lot of planning – of content, media and scheduling – to orchestrate effective message delivery without causing contradictions and the hurt of exclusion.
There is also a common failing of not investing in research, instead backing hunches. Internal communication tends to be more ‘labour-intensive’ and less ‘budget intensive’. Hence, additional monies for research, unlike with high budget external campaigns, are often frowned upon. If only the outcome, and not the outlay, is reckoned as the denominator, the research budget will get ready approval. Otherwise, considerable management time and some good money will be spent based on the guesswork of a few. A system for research-backed evaluation also signals seriousness.
PRE-REQUISITES OF EFFECTIVE INTERNAL COMMUNICATION
1. Acknowledge Right to Information
Where people are defined by the labels of designations and salaries, it is not easy to be egalitarian. It takes some unlearning and regular re-enforcement to be able to respect individuals and their equal right to information. It is not easy to resolve the contradictions of IR and HR, the two mindsets of guerrilla warfare and an abiding faith in human potential and goodness.
Effective internal communication recognizes the role of employees in defining and delivering the brand promise. It recognizes the human urge to know the big picture and the individual role in it. It recognizes the human need for team membership and for the opportunity to do one’s bit in the cause of a winning team.
2. Institute Feedback Mechanisms
Even iconic organisations, toasted as employee-friendly, have been jolted by rude shocks of employee unrest. When feedback mechanisms choke, the organisational smoke detectors fail to work. Avoiding the inconvenient and shooting the messenger will filter out bottom-up communication. Feedback empowers the giver and the receiver. Employee portals are a parallel channel but are double-edged swords: they allow quick remedies before dissatisfaction snowballs, but the flip side is that bad news can spread and may even spill out of the company.
When I joined an auto component company, I used to have my breakfast at the canteen. Thanks to my anonymity, I got to know my internal customer far better than in any induction round. Once I heard someone asking: “Why is the company not giving compressed air to fill our cycle tyres?” True, the company had installed air filling points in the car and scooter parking areas, but not in the cycle stand. On checking, the transport department explained to me that cycle tyres would burst if the compressed air were to be made available. I got the employee to send in a letter which was published in the in-house journal, along with the transport department’s logic. Hopefully, that must have deflated the sense of discrimination and indignation swelling in many hearts and stopped the misinformation from spreading. Like an exhaust fan, transparent communication clears the air. Such a system fulfils the recognition need and satisfies the urge to be heard. It also keeps the administration on its toes.
If only we can read minds, we have a chance to clarify and correct so that differences of opinion do not degenerate into conflicts. It takes a facilitating organisational ethos to promote, or even tolerate, transparent two-way communication.
3. Believe in it.
For communication to deliver to its potential the entire management team should recognise communication as a leadership responsibility. Including some diffident communicators, and some secretive by nature or job role, all should realise that leadership has to be visible and audible. This is true for nations as well as organisations.
Unless the management team has faith in the efficacy of communication, don’t even start the exercise: it can, at best, run for some time as a routine and then peter out, to become the latest joke inside the company. The change of mind that communication seeks to effect in a group is a long haul, requiring tenacity and persistence which can only come from an abiding faith in communication. The leadership challenge is to convert a group with its inevitable mix of enthusiasts, neutrals, sceptics and disruptors, to create a critical mass that is on the same page, sharing the vision that defines the company’s reason for existence, the mission that spells out the means, and the responsibility to together make it happen. Along this journey, it helps to have interim milestones, short-term results and visible, tangible victories. Much like a cricket team identifying interim targets when chasing a huge total.
4. Be Consistent and Credible.
A leader is a man with a dream, a credible dream. He is Moses pointing at the Promised Land. Why would anyone leave the relative comfort of the present home and risk the unknowns on the uncharted terrain that lies ahead? The destination has to be attractive. Each follower should see benefit. More importantly, the follower should trust the leader, his sincerity besides his abilities to lead. An employee will judge the company’s intent by its actions. A company’s declared objective of winning the Deming award will sound hollow if the line supervisor passes defectives. Assessed using a uniform touchstone of the essential brand values, all organisational processes, decisions and actions across functions have to be aligned to the declared objective, and consistent with the desired brand persona. It is easier to build trust than to rebuild it.
Internal communication has many similarities with interpersonal communication. Interpersonal relations are founded on predictability. Non-communicating organisations, like friends in hiding, will find it awkward and difficult to break the silence. Here too, honesty is the best policy. Own up to the silence and say upfront that there would be more frequent communication and why. Otherwise, sudden, unexpected overtures will leave the employees speculating: what’s up? Once having started, be consistent. Do not break the promise. Do not clam up when the going gets tough. Such times are the real test and can be a clincher of trust and a healthy relationship.
5. Innovate, for Results
For sheer result-orientation in the difficult task of winning over hearts and minds, some of the best examples are political and religious organisations who play with high stakes: votes and souls, respectively. They actively encourage their members to participate in structured and extempore events. Slogan shouting and testimonials delivered in public, commit them to respective ideologies. Company anthems, sung together, have a similar effect. Rituals, suitably modified for specific contexts, can enhance impact and memorability for the participants. The power of suggestion cannot be underestimated. Powerfully delivered communication can effect temporary mass hypnosis. Purposeful use of audio visual elements can deepen the impact, and should be employed unless the leader is a Mark Antony.
It does not necessarily take big budgets to create impact. If alert, communicators can identify what grabs public attention from time to time. Be it the latest chartbuster or an exciting India win, by associating them in communication, the values they share with the brand can be captured. What works on the audience has to be employed. It may be events, it may be contests or quizzes – all these are high on energy, and doubly potent, being vehicles of participative communication.
For Communicators, Internal communication is the opportunity to create history, rather than only narrating it!
Some no-brainers for communicators
- Nothing short of a well thought out plan in terms of desired outcome, communication objectives, contents, media and scheduling, can ensure results.
- To know the audience is to discover their awareness levels about the company, the industry and beyond. Equally important for a communicator is a grasp of their psychographics, opinions, attitudes and even their vocabulary.
- Opinion surveys are no substitute for the insight gained by meeting people.
- Ingenuity, not the budget, will determine the outcome.
- Communication can help organisations change the course of their history. Grab the opportunity to create history, rather than only narrating it!