One of my favorite thinkers about employee communications is David Murray. He’s also one of the most engaging writers I know and runs a blog called Writing Boots. Recently, he bemoaned the fact that internal communications as a discipline seems to be moving backward:
When I was editor of the weekly communication trade publication The Ragan Report in the 1990s, all I had to do to get a raft of letters was refer to an employee publication as a “house organ.”
The operative phrase was: You just set employee communication back 30 years!
Silly, I know, to think you could set a whole profession back 30 years just by using old terminology.
But I do miss the underlying assumption, that this was a profession progressing. Progressing in all sorts of ways—from top-down to interactive, from “babies and bowling scores” to strategic, from corporate platitudes and stilted language to human candor.
These days, if you were going to set the profession back 30 years, in which direction would you push?
For 12 years, Murray edited the premiere publication devoted to internal communications: The Journal of Employee Communication Management.
The journal thrived in the first few years of publication, remained profitable for a number of years after that, and lasted until about 2008, when it died, not because the Internet made such journals obsolete (the Harvard Business Review is still coming out). Mostly, it died because there weren’t enough people in the whole world who were actually thinking about employee communication to write 36 decent essays every year, let alone read them.
The talented Murray isn’t jobless; he now edits Vital Speeches of the Day. Since I have spent much of my career as an internal communicator, I responded to his blog post. My point: That employee communications as we practiced it when I published the company newspaper at Weyerhaeuser is indeed going away. The “big voice” rhetorical model is being replaced—slowly and unevenly, to be sure—by the conversational model. One-way communications to employees—via publications, emails, intranet pages, etc.—will be superseded in the next several years by enterprise social networking.
Yes, companies will still need an “organizational voice,” but that’s where you’ll find it. Along with individual executive voices. And the voices of every employee with something to say. Here are the comments I shared with Murray:
I agree with your general premise—that things certainly aren’t what they were 10 or 15 years ago. But I look at it more as a matter of changing with the times.
Internal communications (the discipline) came into its own during the smokestack era. Corporate Communications departments ran the printing presses, and for good reason. Communicating was expensive, and companies had to get the most out of what they spent. Corporate Communications assembled the copy and art, ensured accuracy of the content, hunted down typos, and generally made sure that the news was, indeed, fit to print. Oh, and there was a bonus: the Communications department served as a convenient choke point enabling senior management (via the review process) to keep unpleasant news away from employees.
Now it’s a different world. Everyone’s a publisher. Every employee has access to free tools that enable him or her to tell their story to the world. Instantly. We’ve just crossed the line where more than half of all mobile phones sold in the U.S. are smart phones.
Access to social media from corporate networks will soon largely be a non-issue (except for HR). NYU professor Clay Shirky points out that the filtering that used to take place before publication (see above) now takes place afterward. But it’s often not very effective.
So the content comes cascading down on all of us. And that’s another problem. We’re expected to consume and act on more information than we can possibly process. As Intel’s corporate anthropologist Genevieve Bell put it recently, “we’ve got to the point where the demands of our devices exceed our ability to meet them.”
I agree with many of the people she cites that the current communications environment is not necessarily an improvement. It impacts everything from personal productivity and satisfaction to the quality of organizational decisions. But we’re not likely to change it.
So in that environment, what’s the role of carefully crafted feature stories? Who has the time to write—or read—thoughtful analysis? Where’s the space for the kind of four-columns-wide-packs-a-punch photojournalism we used to do?
Fifteen years ago, I gave a presentation about how internal communicators had evolved from town criers to jungle guides (this was in the early days of corporate intranets). We need to evolve again (and a lot of us are). The best analogy at this point may be “communications engineer.”
We will not recognize internal communications by 2020 (and maybe a lot sooner). I believe the action will move to enterprise social networking platforms like Yammer, Chatter, Moxie, Jive and others. Those provide status updates, collaboration capabilities, location of expertise, the ability for communities to self-organize, and a whole lot more. They’re not yet the “norm” in the majority of organizations, but they will be. And they will constitute a huge share of “internal communications.”
We need to figure out how we can bring value that IT can’t—and what we contribute in an environment where anyone can easily publish content—or it will be “welcome to irrelevancy.” Here’s where I think we fit in:
— We won’t be prized for our ability to tell stories. 22-year-olds with Flipcams (or whatever’s next) who work in Operations can put together videos that we can’t top.
— We may not be asked to help other organizations within the enterprise communicate their content. If they don’t already, they will soon have the tools and talent to speak to their audiences without our help.
— We may not even be paid to be “communications strategists,” as that term has been understood for decades. John Perry Barlow once said, “Email goes through an organization chart like meat tenderizer.” Social media does the same for communications strategies.
So what unique value do we add? I believe it’s this: We adjust the signal-to-noise ratio in favor of the signal. By virtue of who we are (the kind of people who want to do this work) and what we’ve studied, we understand how communications land on an audience and how the audience processes the inputs. We know what there needs to be less of. And we know how to make the most of the short bits of attention that employees can spare.
That sort of thing has always been part of our job. In the coming decades, however, it will be practiced very differently. We’ll be steering conversations (in person and online), finding new ways to influence, and helping shield employees from low-value information. It will require all the skills we currently have, and then some. It will involve complex and holistic thinking—not simply cranking out deliverables. We will need to help organizations build, maintain and constantly evolve the systems that communicate, engage employees, promote ever-increasing change, and foster collaboration.
If we do that really, really well, there might just be a place for us on the payroll.