Employee communications will soon equal enterprise social networking

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 One-way communications to employees—via publications, emails, intranet pages, etc.—will be superseded in the next several years by enterprise social networking.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.


1 Comment

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One response to “Employee communications will soon equal enterprise social networking

  1. Joe Rothrock

    Bill, Thanks for a very insightful column. Certainly social media will play a much bigger role for internal communications in the future, and that means a changing work environment for us as professional communicators since employees will have a more active role in sharing information within the organization.

    Still, there are three important ways we can add value even as social media takes hold:

    1) We provide the big picture. Although individuals will be happy to post a video or text update once in a while on topics that interest them, in our busy modern world nobody — except the PR folks — has the time or inclination to go digging for stories from all corners of the organization.

    By the nature of the fact we attend so many meetings (yes, there is an upside to those!) we are able to see the big picture, and we can share that perspective with employees. They want to understand the global view of their company direction and how their organization is doing at the macro level, and they won’t get that by viewing the latest social media posts. That’s where we can add value through strategic updates — using a variety of media channels to keep things interesting — that connect the dots, help people understand the big picture and how their work contributes to success.

    2) We know communication strategy and how it can drive results. Savvy executives understand this as well, which is why they will keep PR professionals around even as communications spring forth within the organization from all sorts of social media outlets. We are able to meet with a leader, learn about Corporate Goal XYZ, and use communication planning to help achieve that goal. Through thoughtful planning — pulling from our knowledge of appropriate strategies and tactics based on the situation — we can help achieve just about any goal the company wants. That is a real value-added service that doesn’t come from the wellspring of employee posts via social media… it needs to be orchestrated and tended to by someone with communications expertise.

    3) We influence others. Yes, there are certainly others with this same capability… there are opinion leaders in every organization without any communication training. But while the opinion leaders influence one person at a time through their face-to-face conversations and emails, we are able to persuade and sometimes change behavior on a mass scale through our communications planning and storytelling, when it’s done right.

    We know how to frame a message and how to roll it out, how to engage the ambassadors to spread the word and engage the would-be naysayers to make them feel like part of the solution. While the opinion leaders influence at a department level, we as professional communicators influence at the macro level. And when it comes to increasing the odds of a successful launch of the latest company initiative, experienced leaders know they need to rely on us for help. You can’t just launch a major initiative, forget about doing any organized communications push, and then cross your fingers that everything works out. That’s another key way we add value to the company.

    So I agree that we’re facing a Brave New World when it comes to the influx of social media tools and it will mean looking at ourselves differently — such as becoming professional content curators as much as content developers — but I remain optimistic about the future of our profession. The world still needs us!

    Joe Rothrock
    Internal Communications Manager
    Virginia Mason Medical Center

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