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
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
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
SDL director Anthony Goodman emphasises this isolation with an anecdote
about a communications manager who approached him about Intranet
’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
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
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
’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
’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
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
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
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
’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
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
Optimistically, the SDL survey indicates that this change is taking
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
’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
B-M is one of the few agencies to accept the label ’strategic
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
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
’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
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
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
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
Briggs says he will encourage, rather than coerce, staff to use the
’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.’