Time for Internal Communicators to step out of their comfort zone

This year, I hit the big 6-0, which makes me a whole ten years younger than the wonderful Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC). The IoIC has been a constant in my professional life, a source of knowledge, expertise and guidance, and most importantly, where I made some of my closest friendships in the business. Whether at events or conferences, on projects or committees, I have worked, played, laughed, cried with some truly brilliant people who have become my go-to people in the world of communication. I have been a member of the IoIC for 30 years, which makes this the longest single relationship in my life with the exception of my marriage (that’s another miracle, another story) and so I was thrilled to write this guest blog to celebrate their 70th anniversary and consider what the future could hold for Internal Communicators.

First published here on 25th April 2019

I have experienced the story of the IOIC quite personally – for about 30 years so far – and I have benefitted hugely from being part of a rich and diverse network of professional friends. But I also feel strongly that there are some shared milestones and parallels between the development of the sector, the Institute and my own career.

For example, when I first came across the BAIE back in the 1980s, I was just learning the basic vocabulary of internal communication, honing my writing skills and exploring new channels. I was a journalist at heart and a little bit in love with the idea of writing stories about people and I aspired to create employee communications that would stand out and be noticed.

By the time the BAIE became Communicators in Business in the 1990s, I was also learning more about business, working in my first in-house role for DHL in Brussels. It was here that I first came across the terms employee engagement and pride at work. It was a career-shaping role as I began to appreciate a broader scope for internal communication and its potential impact on morale, culture and performance. I thought I was the first person to come up with the phrase inside-out communications (I wasn’t, nor was I the last!), but by the time I left Brussels, I knew I wanted to build a career in this evolving and dynamic sector.

And what a fantastic decision that was. For someone like me who was impatient for responsibility and meaning, yet easily bored and averse to routine, it’s been absolutely ideal. In twenty years, just about everything in the internal communication sector has changed, in my view for the better – and the Institute has changed with it. Like the sector it serves, the Institute has become bigger and stronger, more creative, more strategic, more professional, more accountable, more visible and more impactful.

I see changing dynamics and progress at three main levels. Firstly, the mechanics of the communicator’s work have changed beyond all recognition. Content is grounded in story, passion and humanity, and instead of the past, we are looking to the future. Channels have exploded from the mono-dimensional top-down cascade to a multiplicity of platforms, where infographics and video and now voice are all enhancing employee consumption and participation. After the flurry of new tech that was entirely necessary to bring social media to business, there has been renewed emphasis on the value of face-to-face communication. And at every step of the way, the Institute has been there, providing examples of pioneers and early adopters, best practice and peer-review and an ever-increasing portfolio of training in new and current communications trends.

Secondly, our activity has become much more strategic, connected to the leadership of the organisations we serve and supporting their strategic direction. Back in the 1990s, authors like Roger d’Aprix were already talking about the new social contract and a more empowered workforce but it was a decade or more before this became mainstream thinking. The most forward-thinking individuals from the internal communications, brand and HR disciplines started realising the impact people had on successful performance and the most strategic started forging partnerships with their organisations’ leaders. By the turn of the century, there was a new kind of “Establishment”, cheerleading strategic internal communications and engagement: and at its heart was a small group of gurus, most of them members of the IOIC.

In order to perform more strategic roles, internal communicators have had to learn the cycles and language of business, including financial performance, productivity metrics, organic growth, mergers and acquisitions, restructure and change. Recognising the importance of employee voice, they have also become champions of employee engagement, culture and value, wellbeing and, most recently, diversity, inclusion and mental health awareness. On top of mechanical skills, the Institute has always nurtured the development of knowledge and shared experience in specific topics as they emerged on the leadership agenda. A look at the current portfolio of training courses and membership events will demonstrate the scope of our professional interests and our wider responsibilities.

This leads me to the third level: and that is, how we develop in our role, how we make the right choices and how we can increase our own positive impact on the workplace. Alongside the technical and creative disruption that has defined the last 30 years at work, every new generation in the workplace has brought with it new attitudes, fresh ideas and different expectations, and we, as communicators, have had to keep on our toes to stay relevant and effective.

Right now, the spotlight is shining ever brighter on the importance of people in organisations, on individual purpose and energy and the triggers that make the difference between adequate and excellent performance. There is more demand for what we do, more opportunities, and it feels like our profession has come of age. I believe that one of the Institute’s greatest achievements has been the establishment of professional standards for the sector, launching and championing accreditation both to internal communications practitioners and to employers, and giving members the opportunity for continuing professional development. Now that internal communications is becoming a more recognised and attractive career option for new entrants to the profession, the Institute is ready to embrace them. (Just as it embraced me back in 1988).

But, along with our own extended working lives, it doesn’t end here. And if there is something that I believe we could all do differently in the future it’s to be more bold and more proactive.

The communications function should fight against the risk of becoming too specialised, or blowing its own trumpet and being seen as a silo of its own. We need to find a place that is not only connected to the strategy but also embedded in the fabric of the organisation. We should avoid telling our story as if it has happened “to” us and that we have always responded “to” certain changes. For sure, we have adapted, but we have also evolved from the inside, grown in intellect, and our development is not only a function of other things around us. Now that we have size and strength, we should step outside the cosy security of the communications arena – both as individuals and as an Institute – and seek to extend our areas of influence at different levels and in different spheres.

Look at any issue, in any organisation, in any sector and you will find that “communication” is usually part of the problem and it is always part of the solution. Yet it doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it won’t solve everything on its own. If we are to be really effective, we have to tune into the multiple factors that impact employees’ experience at work and then figure out how we can make things better.

Once again, this is very much in step with my recent personal and professional development, where I have challenged myself to think differently about what I want to achieve in the world of work.

The publication of my book, Take Pride, last year was the culmination of three years of blood, sweat and tears, where I took all the experience of my thirty years at work, and turned it into – not a communications model – but a performance model. This was my own bold and conscious step to extend my reach into broader business leadership and leadership training grounds, beyond the communications sphere, and perhaps shape the thinking of today’s and tomorrow’s influential leaders.

Looking to the future, I will continue on my professional purpose “to make work better for everyone”. I will always keep an eye on the trends that impact communications, but I will also look more broadly into demographics, societal and economic trends that shape our working world. And I will seek opportunities to deepen my understanding of people, through active listening, behavioural psychology and neuroscience. I am confident the Institute will continue to adapt and evolve, delivering on its vision to engage and connect people at work. But I hope it will also go forth and multiply both its membership and its impact, because I believe that we all deserve to matter at work and we communicators can truly make a positive difference.

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