Challenges and optimism for internal communication

I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of internal communication in Europe following Driving Business Performance Through Employee Engagement, the two-day conference on internal communication I spoke at that took place in Amsterdam on 16 and 17 September.

About 80 senior communicators participated from organizations across Europe, from more than 18 countries: from Norway to Italy, Portugal to Russia and all points in between. When I gave my presentation on weblogs and wikis (I was the first presenter on the first day, sort of reverse graveyard slot – comment later in this post), I started by asking three questions – 1: How many delegates spoke English as a second language? (show of hands, about 90%); 2: How many were responsible for both internal and external communication? (50%); and 3: How many were responsible for communication in more than one country? (75%). Very helpful to know about your audience.

We heard some great examples of internal communication successes in organizations as diverse as Toyota Europe, Coors Brewers, the European Commission, MMD CEE, Cooperative Group, Orkla ASA, Sony Computer Entertainment, Nationwide Building Society, Hill & Knowlton, Unilever and Swiss Reinsurance. All the examples illustrated the essential role that internal communication plays in engaging employees in an organization to help it achieve its business objectives. And, nearly every presentation was to do with organizational and/or marketplace change: a continuing process for organizations across Europe, public and private sector.

From listening to all the presentations and chatting with delegates during the breaks, it’s clear there are some pretty talented communicators working in a wide range of organizations in Europe, both public and private sector, all of whom demonstrate optimism and confidence in what they’re achieving for their companies.

So why do I say I’m cautiously optimistic?

The reality is that, while there are some great examples of success, internal communication as a strategic business function in Europe still broadly remains a poor cousin to, say, marketing and PR in its ability to get serious attention and ongoing commitment from the executive leadership in an organization. And that’s a continuing challenge for communicators, one that formed a key focus during a panel discussion on the first day in which I participated.

The panel debated the broad area of identifying the barriers to employee engagement, what it takes to build it and discussing the biggest challenges for internal communication. The 45-minute session, chaired by Prof. Frank Thevissen of the Free University, Brussels, produced great input from the audience and threw up many of the answers you’d expect when a group of senior communicators get together to discuss such topics – connecting employees more effectively with the marketplace; corporate governance and ethics (a big challenge); recognizing employee diversity; internal and external communication are not separate functions; build more trust, listening and acting; “no such thing as an average employee.”

On the challenges – which really addressed all the topics everyone discussed – three clear issues emerged:

  1. Build up the role of communicators as key value-add facilitators to help the organization achieve its business goals
  2. Strive to convert too-often tactical activities into strategic activities
  3. Get the balance right between leadership expectations and communicators’ ability to deliver

From my conversations with some delegates, it seems to me that no one underestimates the depth and breadth of the challenges for communicators in a business environment that is constantly changing and evolving. The very good news is that everyone I spoke to, without exception, is up for the challenge.

That’s the essential foundation, the potential, and why I’m cautiously optimistic.

So, some comment on my presentation about weblogs and wikis.

When I started, I also asked a fourth question: How many people had a blog or knew someone who blogged? Only one hand went up. That meant that the focus I’d planned – see my earlier post for details; broadly, an overview of blogs, how they work (with examples), and why they’re important to communicators – was about right.

Everyone I spoke to seems to agree, so if I was able to help my fellow communicators see why they need to pay attention now to these technology tools, then I succeeded in my objective. (Conference delegates have copies of my presentation; if anyone else would like a PDF version, just drop me an email telling me how you plan to use it.)

I’ve made a small bet with myself – I think at least 5 participants of this Amsterdam conference will start a blog before the end of September. I hope to hear so I’ll know whether I’ll win my bet!

See also – The potential resurgence of internal communication

One thought on “Challenges and optimism for internal communication

  1. Hi! I am from India and began to interact with aspiring company secretaries on communication issues about six years back. I am not unduly worried if communication is viewed as “a poor cousin of marketing or PR” since it is expected to be a faclitator and not an end in itself.There is by now a greater awareness of what communication can achieve for businesses worldwide, particularly in inter-cultural situations. Some of HSBC’s advertisements beautifully highlight this fact. An article, which I read sometime back focussed on the importance of internal communication by labelling employees as “internal customers”. I guess nothing could be more helpful than such an attitude, which demands that you treatyour staff with concern and care and are ready to serve them to satisfaction.

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