FOCUS: INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS - Fighting to take control of the future/Internal communicators can’t wait to get their hands on the new tools of their trade, such as e-mail and Intranets, but are finding their way blocked by the IT experts. Rebecc

The company newsletter is dead: long live the Intranet! This may be an oversimplification of how electronic media is revolutionising internal communications but, indisputably, the way people communicate within companies is changing beyond recognition.

The company newsletter is dead: long live the Intranet! This may be

an oversimplification of how electronic media is revolutionising

internal communications but, indisputably, the way people communicate

within companies is changing beyond recognition.



This technological push is underlined in a recent study by communication

management consultancy Smythe Dorward Lambert. The survey: Communication

Futures: Technology. The Next Wave found two-thirds of major companies

have Intranets - internal Internets; video conferencing has doubled in

three years and e-mail has overtaken the fax as the way to send

meassages.



This tidal wave shows no signs of ebbing. Another report, to be

published this month by Synopsis Communication Consulting, shows that 74

out of 100 companies surveyed intend to invest in Intranets over the

next two years, with almost one-third planning to pump more into e-mail

systems.



The electronic revolution has, in the main, caught the traditional

purveyors of corporate news - the company internal communications

department - on the hop.



The SDL survey notes the sidelining of IC, with just 29 per cent of

board directors apparently seeing internal communicators as the

catalysts for electronic communication roll-out.



It notes: ’Communication departments have begun to recognise that they

have a responsibility for communication technology introduction.

Unfortunately this is not recognised outside of their function. Chief

executives and IT departments each see themselves as the main driver and

communications departments having the least influence.’



The Synopsis survey: The Human Factor: New Rules for The Digital

Workplace also highlights the fact that internal communicators are being

left behind and often left in the dark compared to IT staff. This

reveals that, in respondents’ companies, IT is the function most likely

to be leading the introduction of communications technology.



In many cases, internal communications departments are not even informed

about plans for major new systems, such as Intranets, let alone leading

their implementation.



SDL director Anthony Goodman emphasises this isolation with an anecdote

about a communications manager who approached him about Intranet

connection.



’She called me a few weeks later,’ he recalls, ’and said: ’Good news: we

already have an Intranet, which the IT department has been working on

for the last few months. But, the bad news is I can’t go to see it

because IT say it has nothing to do with communications.’’



’This story is being repeated up and down the country, because Intranets

are not seen by IT departments as a communications issue,’ says

Goodman.



This sentiment, and sense of IT ownership, does not stem from an IT

desire to take over the internal communications world. Typically, as the

IT function has the chief executive’s backing and the technical skill to

establish Intranet systems - which are often easily grafted onto

existing Internet kit - it does not see the need to call on

non-technical disciplines, such as internal communications. So it goes

ahead regardless.



As well as missing out on communications expertise, a system which is

wholly driven and planned by IT gains no input from other expert

functions such as strategy and human resources. Without this input,

potential pitfalls that do not come within IT’s technical remit can go

unnoticed.



’Internal communications should be the voice of the employee/user in all

this. At the moment this voice is not being heard very loudly,’ says

Goodman. One area where he believes this voice should speak out is in

raising questions of how open access to a company Intranet should be

and, accordingly, whether there should be censorship of employee

contributions.



’If you do not think through these issues, you are going to have to face

them during some sort of crisis. It would be the role of the

communicator to ensure such areas are discussed before a crisis blows

up.’



Other potential problem areas include a lack of training - the Synopsis

survey finds only 29 per cent of respondents had training in e-mail or

voice mail etiquette, with just 17 per cent receiving Intranet training;

information overload - two-thirds of Synopsis respondents say they get

more information than they can use; and corruptions of a company’s brand

integrity and corporate identity.



’IT departments do not understand brand and marketing issues,’ agrees

John Orme, a director of Countrywide Porter Novelli. ’They would not see

it as their job: they are employed for a set of skills that are highly

defined and specific to their area.’



Faced with the problems that ill-thought out systems spawn, commentators

recommend one thing: teamwork. If electronic communications systems are

to incorporate the technical excellence of IT, the employee

understanding and corporate nous of the communications department, the

antennae of the human resources function and the clout of the board,

then it makes sense that all those players should be involved.



’The IT function needs to be a member of the communications team,

working with HR and corporate communications, rather than being left to

spread the technological capability without the understanding to make it

work to best effect,’ affirms Synopsis managing director Bill

Quirke.



Melanie Lowe, a director of Burson-Marsteller Europe’s internal

communication practice, also backs up a team approach. In November 1994,

while she was the BBC’s corporate deputy internal communication manager,

Lowe and a group of what she calls ’IT visionaries’ launched the BBC’s

Intranet trial.



She says a good Intranet team is likely to include HR, marketing,

finance, internal communication - and a clear leader. In the early

stages, Lowe says, the leader should probably be from internal

communications but, as a project develops and the Intranet becomes a

business communication tool, rather than just a means of internal

communication, the mantle should pass on - probably to the IT

department.



’Intranets are about business solutions not just communication,’ she

argues. ’Companies are not investing millions of pounds in Internet

technology so that they can talk better to their employees. They are

doing it so they can improve the way employees work and boost customer

service and efficiency.’



If internal communications continue to be sidelined in the electronic

media debate, at its bleakest, it could spell the end of the

function.



Faced with IT owning Intranets - which in PC-based companies could quite

easily become the main means of internal communication - and with the

probability of traditional IC tools, such as corporate videos and

business TV, being incorporated in the Intranet, the IC function is left

mainly with a rump of face-to-face communication and print media.



This rump could easily be absorbed into HR which, according to the

Synopsis survey, already harbours 30 per cent of IC departments.



More likely, however, in true Darwinian mode, is the birth of a new

breed of internal communicator. Quirke says this transformation is

already happening and that change management, not communications, is

increasingly becoming the recruitment ground for new IC staff.



He predicts that future IC professionals will be less concerned with

producing media, such as corporate videos and magazines, than existing

as ’air traffic controllers’ to assist staff in preparing their own

communication tools and in helping to co-ordinate the flood of

information rising from competing company communicators.



Quirke envisages that such contributions could include preparing

presentation and credential templates for employees to download from the

Intranet and producing packs on conference organisation.



Clearly, if IC is to survive as a discipline, its practitioners must

learn new skills. At the very least, if they are to be a credible

partner to the IT department, they must - in Goodman’s words - ’learn to

speak anorak’.



Optimistically, the SDL survey indicates that this change is taking

place.



It records the growth of the electronic communication manager, a hybrid

role which marries the disciplines of both IT and IC.



STRATEGIC CONSULTANCIES: OVERCOMING AN IMAGE PROBLEM



Internal communications has always been the Cinderella of the

communications mix. CEOs have thrown the real cash at PR and media

relations while feeding staff a quarterly magazine and the occasional

video. Until now.



Strategic consultancy - where agencies provide advice but leave

implementation to others - is taking off.



Alaric Mostyn, head of Burson-Marsteller Europe’s one-year-old internal

communication practice, claims strategic work has increased

significantly in the last 15 years. He puts the increase down to client

realisation that the quality of B-M’s employees represents real

competitive advantage.



’Everyone has the same technology and, through such means as downsizing,

have become more efficient. People realise that building the commitment

of employees is one of the last remaining opportunities to get ahead of

the rest.’



B-M is one of the few agencies to accept the label ’strategic

consultancy’.



Perhaps mindful of the strategic consultant’s reputation as an outsider

who breezes into an organisation, carries out an expensive survey and

delivers a report which goes straight into the CEO’s bottom drawer,

internal communications consultants are often wary of being dubbed

strategic. They are also keen to emphasise the role they play in

ensuring their advice is translated into successful implementation.



Helena Memory, co-founder of communication and change consultancy

Hedron, says: ’We coach, work alongside, run development sessions,

facilitate and act as catalysts. We rarely do things for them.’



Michele Levy, a senior consultant with Smythe Dorward Lambert, indicates

that clients as well as consultants balk at the term ’strategic’. ’If

clients are looking for strategic input, they often won’t say so because

they feel it demeans their input,’ she says.



However, Electrolux UK’s head of corporate communications, Isobel

Norwell, meets her strategic consultancy Hedron roughly every two months

and rates the discipline highly.



’Hedron bring an objective view. They draw things out of us and help us

to think clearly. It works very well,’ she says.



EVALUATION: TRYING TO PROVE IC’S WORTH TO BUSINESS



As commerce becomes ever more competitive, internal communicators face

the challenge of proving to their paymasters that what they practice

boosts business. As their PR contemporaries find, it’s not always an

easy task.



Anthony Goodman, of Smythe Dorward Lambert, says candidly: ’For years,

people have been trying to prove how much internal communication impacts

on the bottom line. I think it’s not possible.’



Goodman points out that IC is just one of an organisation’s management

processes and that it is difficult to accurately measure the effects of

each. For example, he says one could ask whether improved employee

satisfaction statistics are down to IC, to HR - for processing a salary

rise - or to the business itself, for generating the cash to support

that rise.



’The only answer is to be very clear when you set objectives at the

front end and then to measure the outcome. But you can never be 100 per

cent sure it was communications ’wot won it,’’ he says.



B-M’s Alaric Mostyn is more sanguine. ’You can evaluate effectively,’ he

insists. ’It is no more difficult for internal communication than it is

for other communications aspects. Arguably it is easier as you have a

captive audience.’



Helena Memory, of Hedron, warns that any evaluation must be followed by

action. ’A lot of evaluation processes fall down because nothing changes

after they have taken place.’



The staple of internal communication evaluation is quantitive research,

such as employee and management surveys, and qualitative research, such

as focus groups. SDL’s Michele Levy argues that one can also use tools

that are more central to a client’s own business objectives.



She cites a ballot recently held by its freight carriage client British

Airways World Cargo, in which employees gave the go-ahead to company

restructuring, including swingeing job cuts. Levy argues that BAWC’s

communication strategy - which included management briefings on the

changes, a weekly newsletter and monthly staff forum - played a major

role in swinging the ballot at the strongly unionised firm.



Angela Paterson, BAWC’s communication manager, says: ’Our industrial

relations team believes the communication process was a key element in

achieving the result.



’One of the major factors was the union’s recommendation to members that

they accept the changes. The IR team think this occurred because the

level of communication meant there were no surprises and that we had

been absolutely open and honest.’



IT SOLUTION: MICROSOFT CUTS DOWN ITS INFORMATION OVERLOAD



If any one company should communicate well with its employees it is,

perhaps, computer giant Microsoft.



However, after employee surveys and focus groups indicated

dissatisfaction, Microsoft UK’s internal communications manager Darren

Briggs set out to assess, and implement, what employees wanted from

company communication.



Early research indicated that Microsoft’s plethora of internal

communications mechanisms - from quarterly publications to annual staff

conferences to notice boards - was creating information overload. So

Briggs set out to establish ground rules towards more complementary

communication. He held discussions with the different ’media owners’ -

those with day-to-day responsibility for each tool - and with a cross

section of employees, to define the best use for each type of media.



He and the media owners drafted a ’media charter’, indicating the most

effective way the tools could be used.



’We did not get rid of any media,’ he says. ’But we significantly

reduced its criteria.’ Changes included a decision to focus on staff,

rather than on staff and business, in the company magazine, and to

investigate the introduction of a weekly on-line news service for

business news.



The review also led to this month’s introduction of a desktop tool to

advise employees on using communication media effectively. The software

takes staff through key stages: initially they input the intended

audience and type of message, such as advice to the whole company about

the week’s cafeteria menu, and the tool indicates the two preferred

methods of communication.



By clicking on either of these methods, it then displays tips on their

use.



Briggs says he will encourage, rather than coerce, staff to use the

tool.



’This won’t entirely resolve information overload,’ he stresses. ’But I

would like to think it will help to make people think more carefully

before they communicate certain messages.’



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