Lessons in internal communication research

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Cape Infanta Sunrise. Watercolour by Chesney Bradshaw

When I started my first job in a company years back, the communications environment was different, very different. I remember being a young person in my early 20s and the senior managers would in those days not even greet youngsters. There was almost no internal communication. If you wanted to know how the company was doing, you had to get hold of a hard copy of the annual report. Communication happened of course but that was in your own section or team.

How things have changed. Today we have Internet. It has brought about many communication channels including text messaging, social media, online-video (YouTube) and video conferencing.

You would think that communication today is far better, far more freely flowing. However, is this really the case? How does a young person entering the workforce view and experience the level of internal communications such as I experience as a young person starting out?

The content of the messages these days still leaves much to be desired. Often you find that companies communicate human resources policies, new appointments, departmental changes and perhaps large sales orders. Some content is trivial where even salespeople making presentation are recorded in internal communications. There is something missing – and what is it?

Real communications, communications between human beings face-to-face and in small groups takes place but communication like the formal internal communication channel is one way. There is no real dialogue, discussion about trends and change and the need to transform and adapt to a dynamic, turbulent business environment. Feedback mechanisms are feeble or non-existent. Suggestion boxes stand empty. Access to higher levels of management – for new ideas, suggestions and improvements – are only found in the top new companies such as the large Internet businesses where speed of communication and feedback loops are vital.

You might think that the new media channels such as corporate social media are active. But go to these social media platforms and see how few people are commenting and contributing. One social media platform is replaced by another thinking the cause of problem is with the social media channel rather than the organisational culture that facilitates effective communication.

This brings me onto the important topic of culture. Unless the corporate culture is open and supportive, internal communications will have difficulty flourishing. It’s one thing, for example, to say that your culture is innovative and dynamic (five, corporate the) and quite another we knew sit down in a pause area on years’ old couches all worn out and the only communication you see are posters on compliance, company missives and internal systems. What sort of impression does your company create when employees walk into the entrance? How do employees communicate in your company. What channels are most effective? Is “corridor talk” the main platform for communication when top management keeps employees in the dark?

A good start to improving internal communications is research. Some of the areas of research that can be looked at include:

– Message content. What is being communicated and is it relevant to employees? Does it motivate and inspire?
– Communication channels. What internal communication channels are most used in your organisation organisation? Are these effective? Should they be replaced?
– Corporate culture. What is the prevailing culture in your organisation? Is it the desired culture or the nature of your organisation?
– Innovation. Does your internal communications culture support and encourage innovation? Does your organisation view innovation as important for doing business in the present circumstances and in the future? Has your organisation responded to the innovations in the environment or is it lagging behind?

Companies may be reluctant to spend money on research but it would be far less costly to do so than waste money by throwing it at ineffective internal communication. Design of an internal communication audit is not something to be taken lightly. It is a comprehensive view of what communication is happening in your organisation and its effectiveness. It is not an internal communications survey, no better than a readership survey that asks surface-level questions.

Effective internal communications research involves consulting engagements, identifying the problem spots, engaging with management and various participants in the organisational communication subsystem. The problem is that there are not many internal communication consultants around with the knowledge, experience and skills required to assess and recommend changes.

If you are serious about improving your internal communications in your organisation, then it’s important that you do a thorough and comprehensive search and find an internal communications consultant or a credible research company. Avoid selecting some academic who only knows the theory about business. Instead go for a person who has worked at various levels in companies, deep in the trenches, in the bowels of beast so to speak, understands internal corporate communications and research and has the intellectual firepower to handle such an assignment.

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