Internal Communications as a strategic success factor

Keeping employees in the company for long periods and motivated is becoming an increasing challenge for organizations nowadays. Job market expansion, opportunities arising from globalization, new markets and emerging careers, combined with a changing workforce profile (now increasingly composed of “generation Y”) is forcing companies to rethink their internal communications as a valuable strategic component.

The natural need of employees to feel included, involved and participative is increasing, especially among the new generation, and this is becoming critical in inspiring employees to identify with organization’s values, which generates commitment and engagement through a sense of belonging.

As stated by Argenti (2009:183), “today’s employee is a different person in terms of values and needs than his or her counterpart in earlier decades. Most of today’s employees are well educated, have higher expectations of what they will get out of their careers than their parents did, and want to understand more about the companies they work for”.

Organizations should recognize that internal communication plays a strategic part in this scenario, by helping the company to become the employer of choice, translating the corporate strategy for the workforce and providing shared meaning values to engage employees.

The rising importance of the discipline can also be seen among communications’ professionals. According to them, internal communication and change management will be the third most important discipline in communication management by 2013, only after corporate communication and marketing / consumer communication (European communication monitor 2010).

According to Krone et al (2001), cited in Fombrun and van Riel (2007:188), effective internal communication fulfills four roles:

  • Efficiency: used primarily to disseminate information about corporate activities
  • Shared meaning: used to build a shared understanding among employees about corporate goals
  • Connectivity: used mainly to clarify the connectedness of the company’s people and activities
  • Satisfaction: used to improve job  satisfaction throughout the company

The use of internal communications needs to be strategic and requires the company to understand that internal communications is not only the random dissemination of information but a key resource to engage and direct people who are responsible for delivering the corporate strategy. As stated by Quirke (2008:22), the purpose of internal communications “should be business focused and help employees understand the business competitive strategy and how to deliver on it to produce profit”.

Still according to the author, another important contributions of internal communication to corporate strategy is market differentiation; firstly by “building an internal culture that creates unity and pride among employees acts as a competitive edge that is difficult for competitors to copy” and secondly by their influence on the corporate reputation by externally representing the company by “providing excellent customer service, continuous improvement and innovation” (Quirke, 2008:7).

For these reasons, high performance organizations acknowledge not only the risk of not communicating with their employees, but the necessity of efficiently communicating with them. The lack of internal communication, or poorly managed communication, suggests a deficient leadership and forces employees to fill the gaps with self-interpretations and efforts that do not always contribute to the organization’s objectives.

Therefore, strategic internal communication needs to assure that employees are able to recognize their role in the accomplishment of corporate strategy and, more than that, “for strategies to succeed people need to understand what strategy is, the context to the strategy and the rationale behind it. They need to know their own role and the specific actions they should take” (Quirke, 2008:10).

As suggested by the author, “understanding what leads to success creates the motivation to achieve it” and “employees who understand the big picture are more likely to play their part to help the company succeed”.

As in any other communications planning process, the first step is to analyze your internal audience and understand the relationship between willingness to help and clarity of objectives, in order to properly focus the communication. The internal audience can be divided into four types:

1. Unguided missiles: are those who want to contribute to overall strategy but are unclear about the direction. They need to be instructed and informed about the company’s strategy and goals and also to be helped to identify how to better contribute.  

2. Hot shots: are those who know the company’s direction, understand the broader context and their role. They can help internal communication by spreading corporate messages internally and assisting others to understand corporate strategy.   

3. Slow burners: are those who don’t know about the company’s strategy and don’t care about it. They demand more effort from internal communication since it is not a matter of informing and understanding, but a matter of engaging and convincing.

4. Refuseniks: are those who know about the company’s strategy but for some reason are against it, they may even be actively resistant or undermine it. Internal communication needs to identify and listen them, consider their concerns and implement a specific change management plan to bring the “refuseniks” on board. 

Once the communication manager has clarity regarding the corporate strategy, its relationship with communications strategy and its internal audience profile, it’s time to visualize how it will connect with the different internal stakeholders groups and address the following questions in the communications strategy:

1. Target: What are the different stakeholders’ groups who are critical for the strategy’s implementation?   

2. Outcome: What attitudes and behaviors are needed from each group in order to support the strategy?

3. Concerns: What is the holding blocks preventing strategy implementation in their view? How does the internal audience perceive the strategy?

4. Content and tactics: Where and how internal communications should develop in order to reach the maximum positive response? 

On planning internal communication programs, it’s important to bear in mind that “to be a strategic tool, it must be able to help employees share knowledge and information, extract meaning from them and make decisions that add value”, and in order to “convert information into action”, Quirke suggests a four-step process (2008:18):

  • Providing content – providing people with data, information, ideas and concepts
  • Putting into context – people need to be able to process that information and to make it relevant to their situation.
  • Having conversations – people need to explore, test and understand the implications of what they are doing. This is best done through conversations – a process that enables them to develop a shared understanding through sharing views and perceptions
  • Gathering feedbacks– ensuring that communication has been understood as intended, to see what has been added to it and what has resulted from it.  

Note that organizational mission, vision and culture provide an important context where internal communication is developed. The connection and identification of the employee to “who” the company is (mission, vision and culture) and what the company does (corporate and business strategy), in conjunction with their own individual contribution, creates an organizational identification and, consequently, engagement.

Engagement in turn “involves employees feeling a strong emotional bond to their employer, recommending it to others and committing time and effort to help the organization to succeed”. It is important to note that the engagement building process also “lies with the company’s leaders. It’s their job to make the connection for their people and to communicate in a way that wins commitment” (Quirke, 2008:102).

This is a growing issue in the modern world, because, leadership is especially important to the Y Generation, who are known not to work for companies, but to work for leaders they are inspired by.

Helping leaders to become effective communicators to internal audiences it, is an important role of internal communicators, who should advise leaders in the required skills, identifying their points of improvement and helping them to articulate strategy objectives in a compelling way.

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