Effective internal communication is vital to business success, but all too often practitioners have little influence at board level and their role is considered a conduit for communicating the need to change rather than being a catalyst for activating change.
In the second article in our Activate! series, we speak to Tracey Collinge - independent consultant and regional volunteer for the Institute of Internal Communications North (IoIC). We consider the challenges facing internal communications professionals and how creating defining moments of shared meaning & connection [Activation] - can help them elevate their role and their impact.
No-one expects a job for life any more. With people changing employer every five years,(8) the days of exchanging loyalty for job security are long gone.
This means businesses have to work harder to build relationships with their people – and that's where internal communications professionals come in.
Getting internal comms right gives you engaged, productive employees, improved performance and a real energy to drive transformation. Getting it wrong can leave people disconnected from the strategies you need them to implement to grow your business.
While practitioners strive to grow into an influential voice that drives the dialogue and builds relationships between business leaders and employees, businesses are still failing to connect their people to their brand, their vision and their strategy.
This is reflected in conversations we have with internal comms professionals who are doing everything they can, but are still struggling to deliver tangible change. They tell us that high engagement scores aren't always reflected in better delivery of the vision, mission or business goals. Simply, employees may be well informed, but there's no discernible action. It’s passive behaviour.
The internal battle
We see internal comms not as a passive communicator, but as the all-important function for driving the implementation of strategy. Activating employees should be on a strategic par with activating customers, but all too often internal comms doesn't have a seat at the top table.
Tracey explains: “Our aim at the IoIC is to have the importance of the internal communications role recognised at board level within their organisations; for leaders to see it as important as the operations director, the marketing director or the HR director."
"We want to see IC professionals more involved in business decision-making and be more aligned with delivering the vision. As it stands, they are only brought into the loop long after the strategy has been decided. Ideally, they should know about it the moment that strategy is set."
This 'under-appreciation' sees IC professionals under-resourced and dependent on non-communications professionals to deliver business critical communications. Another hurdle to overcome.
Tracey: "Usually, within a business, you only get one internal comms person, rather than a team. So, they need middle management to support them with landing campaign messages - because colleagues trust their immediate managers more than they do their leaders."
"It's really easy to SAY that you have to involve your people - but it takes time to do that. Business leaders don't have the energy, the capacity, the time or the focus to get internal comms right - and it's often too reactive.”
This is a symptom of ‘short-termism’, where leaders only focus on achieving immediate goals, rather than taking a more ‘infinite’ view.
In ‘The Infinite Game’,(10) Simon Sinek says: “For all its benefits, acting with an infinite, long-term view is not easy. It takes real effort. As human beings we are naturally inclined to seek out immediate solutions to uncomfortable problems and prioritize quick wins to advance our ambitions… as a strategy for how companies operate, it can have grave consequences over the long-term.”
We believe that this is why internal comms professionals get called on to deliver quick fixes that struggle to change behaviour.
Action v Distraction
Some businesses still think that the act of communicating is enough.
Tracey says: "What tends to happen is that IC people become responsible for communicating change. From minor IT modifications to corporate restructures - there are sometimes so many communications around change that you get 'combat fatigue'. Lots of them just say 'we've got a great idea: we'll do posters or send emails or do a newsletter."
Indeed, the stream of incoming information in the workplace is relentless. Not only are we bombarded with up to 10,000 brand messages a day(6), the average colleague receives 121 emails.(5)
In this environment, people's conscious attention is an increasingly rare commodity. The effect of such information overload is that people's ability to focus, understand and act on information is continually impaired.(7)
Research tells us that the more sources of notifications we have competing for our attention, the more time we spend constantly scanning different channels in an attempt to stay in control.(4) Such constant distraction means we spend almost half of our waking hours thinking about things other than what we're actually meant to be doing.(3)
That's where our brain’s natural filter takes over.
As this rising tide of information crashes over us, our brains decide for us which stuff is important enough to be turned into memories that influence our future decision-making.
Information that your brain doesn't consider critical is put into short-term memory, which has the capacity to hold around seven things for no more than 30 seconds - less if distracted (which we all are). Simply, if it doesn't seem important, the information is gone.(1)
So, if we live in this state of continuous partial attention, how does anything ever actually stick?
Creating sticky information
Information our brains consider useful for future use gets stashed away in long-term memory. This gets determined by its importance, emotional impact, novelty or as a result of repetitive use.
But memories don't sit fully formed in our heads waiting to be used - they are only assembled when we retrieve them. All the information we receive - what was said, the surroundings, our feelings, our reactions - is all held fragmented in different parts of the brain. It's not until you bring the thought to mind that you 'assemble' a recollection of what happened.
The interesting thing is that different people don't recall the same details - or assemble them - in the same way. Research tells us that people’s recollections differ, depending on how they approach the act of retrieving the different bits of information.(2)
This means that when a group of people are asked to recall information, there will always be a fragmented recollection of what was really communicated. And the bigger the number of people asked to recall a piece of information, the more diverse that recollection becomes. Especially when that information isn't 'tuned' to the audience's wavelength.
Tracey agrees: "Business strategies are often too 'highbrow' and not translated for the people on the front line who have to deliver them, which makes life difficult for IC professionals. We want to communicate strategies in a way that people know what that means to them and what role they have to play in making it happen.”
“If they don't understand that, you're going to lose them. You need to take the business strategy and turn it into something meaningful to employees."
We see good strategies fail all the time. Not because the strategy is flawed, but because people don’t understand it. Turning strategy into day to day actions needs a 'channel' that delivers a defining moment of shared meaning and real, personal connection.
Which is where Activation comes in: delivering powerful experiences that elevate meaning and change the way people think and behave in their roles.
Create, relate - Activate!
As we've seen, sending an email to a thousand people who open it, read it and interpret it in a thousand different ways runs counter-intuitive to creating 'sticky' messages that influence behaviour and inspire action.
"Creativity sits at the heart of really good internal comms programmes," says Tracey.
"You have to be creative in the way you think about communicating and connecting with colleagues. You need to think about the best channels for really engaging your people - look beyond 'traditional' methods."
That's a point of view we share.
In their book 'The Power of Moments', Chip and Dan Heath say: "Our daily obligations can numb us to the meaning of our work.”(9) And it’s true. When we are dealing with the minutiae of business as usual, it's hard to see beyond the next deadline. Activation provides that vital moment of inspiration. It provides that jolt out of the routine that makes people really take notice of what you have to say.
That’s something that Tracey recognises: "Live events are 'in the moment' - a great way of inspiring and connecting people. It's great for people to go beyond the day to day, step outside their working walls and into another environment. It gives you a fresh perspective and activates new ideas. Not only do you come away totally inspired, they make you feel more connected, more alive and more proud of the business you work for."
Inspirational moments generate excitement, creative thinking and camaraderie: not only packing the emotional punch that leaves a lasting impression, but also delivering the shared experience that overcomes the risk of multiple misinterpretations. Indeed, the ongoing shared workplace conversation about that experience further reinforces their impact.
Conclusion: Be the catalyst for change
Internal communications is a challenging task, with its practitioners fighting to overcome obstacles on multiple fronts. From a lack of C-Level advocacy to workforces rendered numb by a daily tidal-wave of inbound communications, IC professionals deliver great work under complex and demanding circumstances. But we believe that, by embracing Activation as their role (rather than simply focusing on what needs to be communicated), they could do so much more.
Activation goes beyond the act of communication. Its effect cannot be replicated in an email, a newsletter or a film clip.
Chip and Dan Heath say: "To create moments of connection, we have to bring people together for a 'synchronising' moment that connects them to a higher sense of meaning. Remote contact is perfectly suitable for day-to-day communication, but a big moment needs to be shared in person. The presence of others turns ideas into social reality.”(9)
We see all the time how Activation creates space to deliver information effectively in a way that is understood by everyone. Immersive, hands-on experiences that land compelling messages within a focused, inspiring context ensure not only a deeper understanding of how people's contribution matters, but also deliver individual and collective changes in behaviour and culture.
Ultimately, we believe that for internal communications professionals to really succeed, they need to see their role as a catalyst for Activating change - not just as a conduit for communicating the NEED to change.
With that in mind, we leave the last word to Tracey Collinge: "You can spend millions of pounds on communicating, but if change doesn't happen you've wasted your money".
We agree. Wholeheartedly.
simplypsychology.org: "Multi Store Model of Memory" - S. McLeod 2017 (after R.C.Atkinson /R.M.Shiffrin 1968)
New Scientist: "Memory special: How can two people recall an event so differently?" - Catherine de Lange, October 2018
The Harvard Gazette, Health & Medicine: "Wandering mind not a happy mind" - S. Bradt, November 2010
Bank Underground: "Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention" - D. Nixon, November 2017
lifewire.com: "19 Fascinating Email Facts" - H. Tschabitscher, June 2019
Forbes: “Finding Brand Success In The Digital World” – J. Simpson, August 2017
theguardian.com: "The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world" - H. Griffey, Oct 2018
bbc.co.uk: "How long should you stay in one job?" - K. Hope, February 2017
“The Power of Moments” (Bantam) - C. Heath / D. Heath, 2017
“The Infinite Game” (Penguin Business) – S. Sinek, February 2019