Why the provocative title?

[old blog dead. new blog begins.]

I went to Marc Wright’s simply-communicate Masterclass on new social media, presented by Steve Crescenzo of Ragan. As always Marc is spot-on with his trendspotting!

During the session I was impressed by the level of confidence and knowledge in the audience — a lot of interaction (or erection, depending on how fast Steve was talking…) was quite challenging and seemed (almost) unexpected to the presenter (who is very good and managed it with finesse). And what this morning’s session brought out for me was that we often as professional communicators think that someone else knows more than we do or has “the answer” sort of tucked away up their sleeve, and if we know the secret password they might slip it to us.

This theme (going to seminars and reinforcing what we kind of already know) has been happening to me, and other senior-level collegaues, enough over the past couple years that I think it’s worth talking about. I think it’s the state of our profession — internal communication, more or less — and has everything to do with economic cycles and convergence.

What the hell am I on about?

Up until 9/11 there was a tremendous groundswell and quite a bit of velocity built up in the areas of Open Space Technology, Real Time Strategic Change, the democratisation of communication and decision making in the workplace, and new technologies. Then we all more or less hit an economic brick wall, spending in “soft stuff” was shut down, and a lot of ideas and practitioners “bounced off” that wall themselves. So now that “employee engagement” is back on the radar, suddenly we’re seeing these tools, approaches and philosophies being brought out of the dark corners they’d been stashed in. It’s a bit like deja vu … learning maps, corporate storytelling, collaborative decision making, bottom-up communications… and I can’t have been THAT far ahead of the curve.

This is good, because these “old” (time wise) ideas are back in fashion, and as great tools they should be rolled out, but in some ways it’s why the state of the profession hasn’t actually been pushed forward in a corresponding manner. So while we are all excited by blogs and wikis and tagworld and “clouding” … in many ways they are just “more” technologically enabled versions of what was, five years ago, the cutting edge of “good communication practice.”

An example — about four years ago I was called to do a strategic and usability evaluation of an intranet for a global travel/tour operator. They had typical interface, architecture, usability and CMS issues, but I also was amazed at how the people in their call centres relied on informal social networks to share information about destinations. Each “pod” of four callers had lists and papers of people from other parts of the business who knew about resorts and places to stay, and used them to help customers. Great idea, but a bit random and patchy in its implementation.

I suggested they build a part of their intranet to do just this — allow call centre operators to upload, share ideas and thoughts, comment on (in real time) destinations, local restaurants, etc. It was a huge success and helped them increase their customer satisfaction and loyalty — because people could make more informed decisions about their holidays and the call centre staff came across as amazingly knowledgable.

So fast forward to a seminar on corporate blogging / wikis are “the new big thing” … getting your employees to share information and have open dialogues online. Granted, the technology is a bit more swish now, but it’s just an example of what I think many “good” internal communicators experience; you can lead the way, but someone else will invent a name for it!

If this is sounding anything other than observational, I apologise. The point I’m trying to make is, we often as people and professionals undervalue what amazing things we do for our organisations or our clients. It’s quite empowering. We need to make more noise.

Wait a moment.

I didn’t answer my own question – why the provocative title?

In short, I thought the concept of “internal marketing” had died a death five years ago (around the time of, um, yes, 9/11). People were growing up in their approach to internal communications and stakeholder engagement, and moving away from “message packaging,” corporate-message delivery, campaign-based one-way communications. But it seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the moment. Probably this is because of the state of the communications/marketing/engagement industry — where margins are driving marketing organisations to say “we can do internal comms too!”.

I agree that many of the tools and approaches that make marketing effective (particularly segmentation and consumer insight) are transferable to the internal stakeholder landscape, but treating employees and close organisational stakeholders in the same way as you treat external stakeholders and customers is a dangerous game. The relationship is fundamentally different. Yes, democratisation of information, consumer media yadayadayada is making those lines blur, but there is still a thick line between employees and non-employees. “Selling” your story to your employees and stakeholders is a major step backwards to old-style, top down, “Exec knows best” communicaton and is in my view a recipe for disaster.

Again, we can adopt the marketer’s tools, but in my experience marketing-led internal communications that don’t align Human Resources, Internal Communications, IT and other key players generally fail to deliver what they aim to achieve.

Just the same, “best in class” internal communications … isn’t really just about internal communications anymore. I’m not a big one for inventing names (I resisted my job title – Head of Engagement – until I was told (ahem) Sir Martin Sorrell insisted). Perhaps there are better battles to fight?

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