There have been the rumblings of a seismic shift in the employee engagement and internal communications arena for several years now. Digital technologies are expanding our opportunities, consumer power and influence grows apace, and traditional organisational structures and hierarchies creak under the strain of 21st century business velocities. The contract among employers, employees, investors, stakeholders and customers is being re-written.
How do we deal with this shift?
There has always been debate about how to structure and manage corporate communications and where various functional responsibilities should sit – across human resources, media relations, corporate social responsibility, brand, sales and marketing. And although different organisations manage this accountability in slightly different ways – sometimes internal communications sits in a corporate communications function, sometimes in the HR or marketing functions — the lines between employees, stakeholders, customers, competitors, regulators and media have been seen to be relatively distinct. These relationships have also been relatively manageable within these distinct silos. They didn’t require much cooperation internally to manage well.
But in the previous three years, and with startlingly increased velocity in 2006, the lines weren’t just blurred – in some cases, they disappeared completely.
It’s a truism to say consumer power is growing. What’s less clear is whether the majority of organisations have made the connection between this growth in consumer influence, and the way these organisations manage their stakeholder relationships (and indeed their businesses).
This shift in consumer power has a direct connection with employees, contractors, third party relationships and how the organisation operates in its environment. The model is no longer one where the organisation sits at the centre and neat lines drawn to discrete stakeholders.
Now, everyone is wearing a lot of hats. Consumers are now media producers – and very influential ones. Stakeholders and partners are now consumers – and, of course, influential media producers. These “stakeholders” may not be who you think they are, and quite possibly are not who they used to be. Your supplier may not only be a competitor and a customer, but my be representing your brand and contributing, positively or negatively, to your organisation’s reputation.
In most organisations today, the way these stakeholder relationships are managed is woefully inadequate to deal with the way these complex relationships have evolved and matured. This is precisely what is causing friction internally within organisations: Who is accountable for making sure that the customer experience is delivered? Product design (“The features are what people want”)? Sales and marketing (“We need to increase turnover”)? Human resources (“We need to attract great people, and keep the ones we have”)? Call centre staff (“Who do customers call when they have a problem”)? Front of house or retail staff (“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”)? Facilities (“A good retail and working environment is key”)? Finance and credit control (“Have you seen the letter we send our valued customers when they miss a payment”)? Digital and web teams (“We are the key touchpoint for our customers”)? The executive suite (“It’s all about leadership.”)?
The answer, of course, is that all of these people own the customer experience, in one way or another. The problem is, if the organisation hasn’t sorted itself out, the person bearing the brunt of the poor organisation design and process is – you guessed it – the customer. And you can only irritate them for so long before they go somewhere else, or your competitors design a better experience for them.
What does all this have to do with internal communications? And why is it “dead”?
Many functional internal communication leaders today have come from a publishing, journalism, or PR background (and increasingly from Marketing disciplines). And in general, internal communication functions have been managed – and often managed very effectively – as information and knowledge publishers. Of course, most internal communication operations are very good at managing “two way communication,” ensuring that employee surveys track how things are going and what drives the right results to the bottom line; supporting senior leaders and line managers in their communication roles; providing opportunities for the employee to be heard. “Best Practice” is well and truly bedded in, and blogs, wikis, and ‘MySpace for the corporation’ are all adding new approaches to the mix.
But internal communication people need to stop thinking about ourselves as internal communicators. Because we’re simply not anymore. And we shouldn’t be. Internal communicators should see themselves as business people with a specific communication, involvement and engagement business process focus.
It’s no longer about crafting the right messages, ensuring they are delivered using the right channels at the right time, and getting feedback and “engagement.” Internal communicators need to start thinking of themselves as business process support (and in some cases, design) experts and part of the team that directly enables the organisation and its stakeholders to deliver the best possible customer experience.
Of course, much of this is still going to be about moving the right content around the organisation and enabling people to get at that content more quickly and easily. And a lot of it will still have to do with getting news out, getting news in, and listening relentlessly.
But a lot of it is equally about assessing what interaction is taking place among what stakeholders – internally and externally – and to ensure that those interactions are supported in a way that relentlessly points at the heart and mind of the customer. This must be more than just a campaign about being “customer centric.” It’s got to be more than an initiative to define, articulate and deliver an “employer brand” and an employee experience. These are important parts of the equation, of course.
But if we are truly to thrive and face the challenges of 2007 and beyond, as internal communicators, we need to become part management consultant, part HR professional, part IT consultant, part brand manager, part organisational psychologist, part executive coach, part media relations expert … and part accountant.
We need to get outside our box, without apology, and stick our noses into other peoples’ business. Because everybody in the organisation, and many of our stakeholders who aren’t necessarily on our distribution lists, helps us deliver our customer experience and our “brand” — which is, after all, our reputation.
Originally published here