The growing pains of internal communication

Internal communicators seem to be stuck in a rut, endlessly discussing the same old tactical topics. This is symptomatic of an evolving profession experiencing the overly prolonged growing pains of adolescence. It’s time for us to move on and become true professionals so we can face up to the future with confidence.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading quite a few reports about the future of internal communication and its response to such things as artificial intelligence, the convergence of internal and external communications, digital workplace and new kid on the block….employee experience.

There seems to be a growing body of opinion that because of these emerging issues the function and purpose of internal communication as it exists today will have been swept away in around 20 years time. As a result, the role of the internal communicator will also have been transformed into something very different.

I suppose that there is an element of stating the obvious in this. Nothing stays the same and change is inevitable. Think about how any job has changed over the last 20 years. Most are virtually unrecognisable in comparison to how they were performed two decades ago if they exist at all now. My worry is that internal communicators just aren’t getting ready for this change and that as individuals we risk becoming irrelevant if we don’t.

The reason I worry is that we seem to be stuck in a rut at the moment, distracted by going over the same old ground when we should be facing up to the future.  I think you probably know what I’m talking about. Those endless groundhog day debates at internal communication conferences, networking events and on social media about the usual half a dozen topics.

Amongst others, we’ve been discussing seat at the boardroom table, trusted advisor, measurement, creating engaging content and cracking line manager communications once and for all for the last 20 years. Oh, and let’s not forget Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) if you really want to polarise opinion and have a much longer heated debate. Whose camp are you in, Workplace by Facebook or Microsoft’s Yammer? 

We need to get out of this rut, and quickly. I think that there is a solution, but let me first explain a little more about what is fuelling these endless debates we seem to be having about the same old topics. 

There are no barriers to entry

Most people who work in internal communication never intended to have a career in it. If I take myself as an example, I started my career as a Tax Inspector investigating small businesses and interpreting and applying tax law to the cases I dealt with. I was good at writing and translating complex technical issues into plainer language so I moved into a guidance writing role, then into marketing communication and one day found myself with the job title Internal Communications Manager.

To get into my internal communication role I didn’t need to take any exams, do any study, obtain a relevant qualification or pass any test. The fact is, in the current circumstances anyone can be an internal communicator and more worryingly claim that they are good at it.

This is a big problem for us as a ‘profession’ because (WARNING – uncomfortable truth coming up…..) some people working in internal communication roles right now aren’t actually committed professionals.

Don’t agree? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word profession as follows:

‘A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification’

I’m not trying to be pedantic or inflammatory here. The point I’m trying to make is that if we don’t start to put some hurdles in place so that people entering internal communication have to engage in formal training and pass some kind of test in order to practice, then we will never achieve the true status of a profession and the respect that commands.

I think that this is also part of the reason why we have been debating the same topics year after year.

Like me, most people unintentionally fell into internal communications as a career because they are good at communication tactics such as writing and through day to day experience. Most of the endless debates we’re currently having focus on tactics and channels because of this. People are just trying to come to terms with the issues which surround these. However, we need more internal communicators to be able to think and act strategically if we are going to successfully transition into the brave new world which is nearly upon us. These sorts of skills and abilities are only really obtained through training, continuous professional development and more formal study to obtain qualifications.

I meet quite a few internal communicators through my work and I’m afraid to say am frequently shocked by how few of them say that they regularly engage in some kind of continuous professional development (CPD). If you aren’t keeping your skills and knowledge up to date you’re going to find that you will very quickly become irrelevant and catching up again will be next to impossible. The fast changing world of public relations and internal communications will simply have moved on and left you behind.

If you’re an internal communicator who is not doing any CPD my advice is to start today. Your other alternative, as I see it, is to look for a new role in a different ‘profession’ which also currently has no formal entry requirements. Soon there may not be a role for you in internal communication if you are unwilling to commit to professional development.    

Employers and organisations aren’t clear about what internal communication is really for

Ever had a job interview for an internal communications role and felt that the people interviewing you didn’t know what they were looking for? In my time I’ve had quite a few like this, and even got down to the last man standing stage only for the hiring manager to withdraw the job because they wanted to ‘reconsider the role definition’. In other words, they didn’t have a clue about what they were looking for in the first place.

I think that this confusion is partly driven by the inconsistencies in internal communications alignment to larger functions inside organisations such as marketing, human resources, organisational development or corporate communication. Everyone is doing internal communication in a different way because they are being dragged along by the much bigger agendas of their parent function. This makes it difficult for internal communicators to move seamlessly into new roles and also clouds organisational judgements about recruiting internal communications people with the right competencies which are fit for the future.

One of the killer questions I always ask when being interviewed is ‘what is internal communication for in this organisation?’ It’s a great question for flushing them out, really testing what they know and understand about internal communication and how it is practised in their organisation. If the answer they give you is all about channels and SOS (Sending Out Stuff) then for me there’s only one course of action to take in response…..RUN!

A general lack of understanding and a common definition for what internal communications should really be for in organisations means that hiring managers often default to the things which are most visible in the job descriptions for the roles they are recruiting to – tactics, content and channels. It’s extraordinary that these are sometimes the only requirements described in internal communication job adverts for quite senior roles where communication strategy, leadership and ethics should be the major competencies. The absence of the requirement for any kind of relevant qualification is also a cause for deep concern.

This focus on the tactical level by employers is another reason why internal communicators are continuously returning to the topics and issues related to this in their discussions. Quite simply, employers are creating the demand for these basic skills and therefore driving the endless debates.

Unfortunately, in creating this demand they are also overlooking the more strategic skills which their internal communicators will really need to have to help their organisations succeed in the coming years. 

So what’s the answer?

I think that a few things need to happen to get us out of the current rut we find ourselves in, in a still young and evolving profession experiencing some overly prolonged growing pains of adolescence.   

I used to work as an internal communicator in an organisation which employed the largest number of chartered surveyors and valuers in the UK. I was always impressed by what a cohesive and confident profession this was compared to my own. This was because my colleagues had a clear understanding of their standards of practice and knowledge and the necessary pathways to achieve this, underpinned by a universal, well understood and enforced competence framework. Their professional body, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has been around for over 200 years, so I suppose that they do have a bit of a head start on those of us working in public relations and communications.

For this same professional confidence and cohesion to evolve in internal communication we also need to establish a common set of competencies for internal communication roles at all levels which define skill sets, knowledge and abilities. For this to happen we need our relevant professional bodies to work together more closely than they do now to agree what this competence framework should look like and what the hurdles for entry into the profession should be. We will then all know what standards we should be aiming for and have a clear view of the career and developmental pathways to achieve them.

A common and industry recognised set of competencies would also help organisations understand what internal communication is really for and how it is evolving to support business and organisational success in a changing world. Again, our professional bodies will need to help us promote this so that eventually it becomes impossible to practice internal communication outside of our professional competence framework.

Finally, it’s also up to us as individuals to make the right choices when it comes to our own professional development. The demand for the right sorts of internal communication skills and knowledge will only grow if we can provide them. It’s the old story of supply and demand and the demand will never be there if we can’t supply it.

If you’re an internal communicator who isn’t a member of a professional body, please join one. If you’re an internal communicator who isn’t doing any continuous professional development (CPD), please start today. These are the best options you have for staying relevant in a rapidly changing world which needs internal communicators to evolve their skills to support entirely new ways of working in the coming years.

It’s time for us to move on and become true professionals so we can face up to the future with confidence.

Martin

If I’ve convinced you that joining a professional body is the right thing to do then there are several to choose from if you are an internal communicator. The main ones are the Institute of Internal Communication (IOIC), Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). They can all provide you with learning resources, connect you to other communicators and provide you with the support you need to ‘get professional’.

If you are interested in finding out more about my own journey to ‘get professional’ my blog why more internal communicators should get chartered is available on the CIPR Inside website.

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