Internal communications strategies need to be totally rethought.
The goal needs to be reset from an emphasis on informing the employees, to shaping a new kind of enterprise culture appropriate for the Knowledge Economy. It’s an issue that has much more to do about tone than content. And it is going to take a major attitude shift on the part of the C-suite to adopt the new strategy.
Traditionally, there has been little difference between an organization’s external and internal PR strategy. The news to both audiences is basically the same. Internal communications may be less formal, and some employee communications may not be relevant or interesting to outside audiences (e.g., how to deal with a new expense form, or a feature on an employee that’s worth emulating, etc.). But basically, internal and external communications have been much of the same with variations on the theme.
The reason for change relates to the global shift from the Manufacturing Economy to the Knowledge Economy.
For all practical purposes, enterprises grew and prospered in the Manufacturing Economy because they were organized and operated based on a master:slave relationship. That isn’t necessarily a nasty or unfriendly relationship, but it is based on the premise that things get done when people tell other people what to do, how to do it, at what standard and schedule. Then the people who gave the orders evaluate the people who got the orders for how they did relative to those orders.
That works for process-centric organizations, such as a manufacturing plant. Products being built are moved down the assembly line from one stage of their development to the next. The person (or, robot) receiving the product to perform the next step in the process does not need to know anything about what happened to the product before it got to the current point or what happens next. Each step simply needs to be done, and the product needs to move down the line until completion. It’s all about sequential episodic events.
But in functions and processes where knowledge is a critical component for success, the people engaged in the process must work with a much more robust context. They need to understand what has been done up to the current situation and what is coming next, plus who has done what so far and who else will be working on this for what goal. Intellectual context becomes a critical asset for everyone involved in the process. For example, consider the lawyer preparing to argue a case: they need input from the investigator who gleaned the facts, the associate who researched legal precedent, and colleagues who can critique the argument. Similarly, a software designer needs to understand the hows and whys of the programming that has already been done, the capabilities of the computer that will operate the programming, the collateral processes and interaction with other programs that might impact the way the new software works, etc. Regardless of the exact situation, the players in the Knowledge Economy team do their work not as an episodic event in a series of episodic events but as parts of a dynamic team of collaborators. The master:slave relationship doesn’t work in such cases. It has to be replaced by a collaborator:collaborator model that maximizes the essential teamwork that will increasingly dominate the Knowledge Economy.
But it’s about much more than how things are articulated, events are staged, or whether the communications is digital, edgy and hip. It will instead be an issue of the “voice” of the communications:
Much more collaborative … collegial … sharing without regard for title. The tone needs to reflect a shared drive to achieve a shared goal. Although much of this will be incorporated in the obvious components of an internal communications campaign, as is to be expected, the enterprise’s operating actions and policies, which are not usually considered an integral part of the communications strategy, will prove to be stronger than words. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Action expresses priorities.” Events, policies and procedures give the clearest signals as to the enterprise’s values and vision, which are becoming more important differentiators when it comes to attracting and keeping employees.
Whereas property, plant and equipment (hard assets) are the most important assets for a manufacturing business, human assets are more important to the growing number and importance of Knowledge Economy businesses. Hard assets exist within the context of an operating plant; soft assets exist within the context of an enterprise culture. Going forward, the culture will increasingly be more important then the plant. Unquestionably, the C-suite will act accordingly, but how many drive their internal communications effort with that attitude now? And how frequently does the C-suite deceive itself on just how great a job they are doing? In fact, the change in tone that will ultimately characterize organizations will be vastly different than it is today. There’s a long way to go. And it’s going to be a hard job, requiring new thinking and attitudes.
The essential lesson:
The efficiency of the production process was largely the responsibility of those who designed the enterprise’s manufacturing plant; the power of a Knowledge Economy enterprise’s culture is the responsibility of those who design and execute the communications strategy – and that needs to start at the very top of the organization as one of its most critical priorities.