Why most internal communication is irrelevant

In the hierarchy of corporate talking, internal communication has about the same ring as a colonoscopy.

And it’s pretty similar too. Both are invasive, designed to uncover deadly cancerous growths that can lead to the organism’s (the organization’s) death.

Also, in both cases, knowing that you have a disease can help you get better. But it is also painful to admit you may be sick. And if you do have cancer, the horrible reality is that it may be too late to save your life.

Of course the deepest fear an executive has, in terms of “talking to the people,” is that they’ll learn of things “better left unsaid.” Things that then have to get dealt with, and once we start airing the problems who knows where that will lead.

Usually the attempt to avoid talking about real things involves sharing fluff. Why don’t we change that by changing the name of the field. How about organizational development? Because that gets us closer to what we are really trying to do.

Here is a story to illustrate my point. Let’s call it an anti-case study.

Way back when, in a certain organization, I was one of the people responsible for internal communication. It was my job to manage the employee news magazine. Our team did a lot of work to make it more appealing. One of those things was to make an electronic version of the print edition.

At the time I was infatuated with all things Amazon. As a brand, the revolutionary-ness of it had great appeal to me: They offer things from other vendors! They allow all kinds of ratings of the products! How do they make a dime?

Already in a previous job I had gotten in trouble for using the Amazon paradigm in the thought leadership publication I invented for them. Because I insisted on quoting other consultancies. There were those who thought that doing so would make us lose business. I stubbornly insisted that, just like Amazon, it would show that we were more secure. It was a controversial point of view and not everyone would have it.

In this job I could see that the newsletter would really do nothing online unless it had a value-add. Because people liked the glossy print edition. They could carry it around on travel, show their families what they did, etc. I made sure to blow the pictures up, way up because people really like to see themselves and their colleagues at work. And graphics grab your attention and make you read.

So what did we need with online? During the day people were working and didn’t have time to read this kind of off-hours stuff. So, working with the technical team, I figured out a way to make the online version feature an Amazon-style rating system. It was brilliant, I thought. It would be so engaging for people to rate the articles and so informative for us, to know what content was most valued by the users

My boss was horrified. Ab-so-lute-ly horrified. If she could have strung me up on a pole she would have.

Her worry was, basically, that we would p*** people off. And then we’d be shut down. Because the mission of our group was to “make people feel good” as well as to “provide useful information.”

By looking at the employee magazine as an “internal communications tool,” the rating system was a hard sell, because the word “communications” implies something glossy and appealing. Yet at the same time, the word "internal" implies something messy, complicated, not glossy. Like an internal medical exam.

However, if internal comm. were reframed as “organizational development” (which it really is, or ought to be) then a rating system for articles would make much more sense. Because then it’s about using communication to bring the organization together. Part of working together is airing, and then resolving, conflict productively.

If something we are saying just isn’t appealing to the workforce; if our style of doing business is unproductive; if there are problems lurking beneath the surface that get hidden when executives walk by; we need to know. Otherwise what’s the point of sending out all the happy missives?

Anyone can send an email describing the employee benefits package – that passes for “communication” too.

If we want to see internal communication grow and prosper the way it should as a profession, then perhaps we should give it a better name. Something more in tune with what it’s trying to achieve. To me, the field of OD is more appropriate for sponsoring an evolving conversation – one based on honesty, transparency, mutuality, and trust.

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