Let's talk

The changing role of internal communication – and why it matters for you

The changing role of internal communication – and why it matters for you
16th October 2018 handhadmin
What should IC look like article header

Globally recognised business advisor and leadership coach Jim Shaffer examines the changing role of internal communication – and offers 3 strategies to help you transform your internal communications from activity actioners to results-focused strategic enablers. 

There’s never been a better time to elevate the internal communication function to a role that focuses less on churning out news and information, and more on improving strategy execution and business results.  

Those who’ve made this shift have learned that this role requires thinking and acting bigger, bolder and broader than before.

Most internal communication functions are cost centers. They focus on activity more than results. They distribute news and information at a cost that’s greater than the gains they create.

While social media has improved internal communication flow and speed in many organizations, it’s also become the shiny bright object that’s pushed a lot of internal communication practitioners into tactical roles that add questionable value.

Essentially, work has become digitized, but in most cases there’s been little to no value created.

Employee engagement is another matter. It’s the condition where employees share a common set of values and are willing to go above and beyond to help the organization succeed. Employee engagement needs to be directed at specific targets such as quality, on-time delivery, new product development, sales, costs and productivity, to name a few.

Why internal comms needs to change its focus

Some internal communication functions have become more results-focused. They’ve changed their role from one focused on activity, to one focused on results. This has enabled them to move from being cost centers to value-creators.

FedEx, for example, was an early adopter of this switch in focus. Their communication leaders and CEO, Dave Bronczek, teamed up to improve export sales after the communication assessment we carried out at the Jim Shaffer Group revealed that FedEx leaders and communication professionals wanted to work more closely with each other.

Our initial effort took place in Los Angeles, where we either reduced or eliminated communication breakdowns that were impeding export sales. In 90 days, export sales increased 23 percent. The investment generated a 1,447 percent return.

They replicated this effort in five more FedEx operations and increased sales by $6.1 million while generating a 1,660 percent ROI. Similar FedEx communication projects decreased freight claims paid in their Memphis and reduced truck accidents in Houston. The efforts were led by the communication team in concert with other employees and disciplines.

Explore: 7 creative internal comms ideas that will re-energise your employees and boost employee engagement

Another example would be ConAgra Brands, a food products company. The CEO and his communication leaders adopted a communication value proposition that stated: “Our work will help the company make money or save money. If it doesn’t make or save money, we won’t do it.”

They reduced workplace injuries by 35 percent in one Midwest US operation. In another, it cut damage and improved productivity by 65 per cent and 16 percent respectively. The successes became a model for the way ConAgra Foods managed communication company-wide.

Similar gains were made by communication professionals in consumer goods, manufacturing, high-tech engineering, diversified technology, software engineering, logistics and food products.

Three ways you revolutionize your internal comms results

Successes came from internal communicators thinking and acting bigger, bolder and broader, with a focus on results, not just activity.

Here’s a three-step process that will help you do the same:

1. Manage communication as an integrated system

Communication represents all the ways we send, receive and process information. It’s the things we say and the things we don’t say. It’s what we do and what we don’t do.

It includes what leaders say and do. It includes systems and processes that communicate what’s important by what gets measured, rewarded and recognized.

We’re bombarded daily by thousands of signs, signals, cues and messages that tell us what’s important and what’s not. We factor in the sum total of all the messages we receive in a day, and then we act.

Information drives our decisions. Our decisions drive our actions. Our actions drive the results we create.

The internal communication system needs to be managed as an integrated system, not as a collection of formal channels that might or might not come together to deliver the right results.

2. Measure what matters

Traditional communication functions measure the number of tweets, retweets and page views, campaign effectiveness, content consumption, readability, and channel usage, to name a few.

None of these reflect the state of our businesses. None of them matter to shareholders, customers or business leaders. Adopting these traditional measures disconnects internal communication from the business, when it should be tightly connected so it can help execute the business strategy.

Communication functions should focus on measuring and improving business measures that are included in the strategic plan and the organization’s goals.

These include customer-net-promoter scores, customer-retention rate, revenues, cycle time, gross margins, operating income, order fulfillment, quality, service delivery, cost, scrap, re-work, yield loss and productivity.

Identifying and tracking the right measures enables internal communicators to identify where communication breakdowns cause underperformance. They can then eliminate the root causes of this underperformance so results improve.

Read more: 5 barriers to effective internal comms measurement

3. Shift from a cost-center mentality to a value-creation mindset

Shifting to a value-adding function requires four steps that each of the successful communication practitioners referenced in this article took. They are:

• Get your leaders on board

As Kristin Kelley, Vice President of Global Communications at O-I, says , “Leaders want to make their numbers, so when our leaders saw others getting the kinds of performance gains we were able to help them generate, they wanted more of the same.”

• Assess your current state

Start with assessing your competencies—both your strengths and your skills gaps. From my experience, many internal communication practitioners have competency gaps in business and financial acumen, leadership development, change management and strategic-adviser skills. Part of your assessment should include evaluating how important, effective and value-creating your current work is, then  adapting it so it adds more value.

• Build a business case for your work

As well as creating a value proposition that clarifies what you will and won’t do in your new results-focused role.

• Start improving business results in areas that matter

Start small, then go after bigger goals which will positively impact the business.

When your business leaders become aware of the value you’re adding, they’ll want more. You’ll be in high demand. And others have proved it’s doable.

Meet the author

Jim Shaffer

I’m an internationally recognized business advisor, leadership coach, author, speaker and leader of the Jim Shaffer Group, a team of seasoned advisers devoted to improving strategy execution through strong leaders and engaged people. I have received the International Association of Business Communicators’s prestigious Fellow award, the highest honor the IABC bestows on an individual. I am also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, and was honored by the Pittsburgh Planning Forum for my contributions to strategic leadership.