The art of science and engagement in internal communication

We know that internal communicators are struggling to influence at the top, finding digital adoption hard across organisations and working with limited budgets. Some of the conversation we need to have are increasingly challenging and opinion or experience might not be enough to win your case. Last week, at the CIPR Northern Conference in Newcastle, I hosted a workshop talking about neuroscience and how the world of work might have evolved, but our brains have not.

The basics
Our brains have one core purpose – to survive. To survive they need two key things; to seek out rewards and to avoid threats. The rewards will be things like food and shelter and the threats will be the sabre-tooth tiger coming to kill you. The threat response in our brains is much stronger than rewards so we will always lean to that response – you can survive without food/shelter/water for a while, but you can’t survive the tiger killing you!

Our brains are constantly trying to predict to keep us out of harms way and when it comes to making decisions, 86% of them are based on feelings. This is important to understand because clarification and ambiguity play a big role in how we feel and are often some of our biggest challenges as communicators.

Dealing with ambiguity and the pace of change
We continually try to predict so when we don’t understand something, or we are left in the dark, our threat response is heightened. Our brains cannot deal with the speed and quantity of change we see today. The level of ambiguity that comes with this means we worry and we think about the adverse possibilities – our threat response.

Our reward state is not only triggered by those basic elements, it can also be triggered by information. Research shows that we are more comfortable with information that provides certainty regardless of whether that is good or bad. Think about waiting for test results – the unknown is much worse than when you have the answer.

The generational divide
I’m a big Simon Sinek fan and during the session I referenced both his golden circle TED talk and his interview about millennials. On researching this topic again, I came across articles challenging his thinking on millennials and while I struggle with generational theory (my diploma paper was on Gen Z and their communication styles) his insights can all play back to the basics of neuroscience.

He suggests that parenting, technology, impatience and environment all play a role in why millennials struggle in the workplace:

  • The failed parenting strategies that have devalued reward (last place medal, taking part medal)
  • The use of social media and the release of dopamine that happens when someone ‘likes’ a post alongside the danger of technology replacing meaningful social connections
  • Impatience and the immediacy of today – remember Blockbuster when you use to have to wait for something to come out and then post it back through the door – not anymore. You can get it all immediately from your sofa.
  • The work environment is so numbers focussed that we don’t consider people. We don’t consider relationships and culture over or even in line with the commercial elements of success and this is damaging trust.

When you revisit the key points from this interview they link back to neuroscience and how our brains work. The need for social connections, making time for each other, rewards – they all come through when you consider why millennials are struggling in the workplace today.

Data and ambiguity
We know that the brain doesn’t like ambiguity and since the research in 2017 with CIPR Inside I have talked a lot about alignment between the internal communication function and leadership. So how ambiguous are we as internal communicators? Does everyone have a definition of what internal communication is inside their organisation? Does everyone have a plan or a strategy? Research from Gatehouse tells us that only 50% have a plan and only 33% have a strategy. So, without these basics in place, are we allowing ambiguity to rule and therefore debilitating conversations with leaders?

Social connections and the struggle with digital tools
After The Big Yak I blogged about the main themes and how we are forgetting we are human. Our social brain impacts our ability to think and perform and people need to stay focussed and positive to work at their best. Neuroscience shows people have a strong need for social connections – so strong that without them we are in a state of threat. I don’t believe we think about this at work in terms of the culture or relationships that we encourage, or even in the content strategies that we create – how many are focussed on the operational aspect of the organisation?
We believed that digital tools would solve our problems. And while they solve some, they aren’t working quite how we hoped. Gatehouse data tells us that only 35% have an adoption rate of good or excellent and 86% say use is non-existent, embryonic or limited. We are forgetting that people are at the heart and from experience, I can tell you that the investment in digital tools will be completely wasted if you don’t invest in the people and the relationships/culture.

Remember that communication is conversation. Give people a voice, collaborate on the things that matter (not everything, but that’s another blog post) and take away the threat and ambiguity of business today. I hope you can use some of the points in this post/from the workshop to help you have conversations to make a difference in your organisation.

Resources

These are links to the books that I have read over the last six months that all contributed to the session at the conference:

Neuroscience for organisational change

Busy: How to thrive in a world of busy

Deep work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

AB Thinks Live: Confidence, Content and Purpose

Last week communications agency AB hosted their fourth AB Thinks Live event in London. I was their facilitator for the day and you can read my opening comments on the future of work here. Speakers covered purpose, virtual reality, culture and technology and the panel delved into the skills internal communicators need in the future.

There were some lively debates from the panellists around the need for an internal communications strategy – but I think the blog from AB Associate Helen Deverell nicely captures some of my own thinking; you should be able to have your strategy on a page, evolve it as needed and be strategic with the tactical.

Find what is uniquely human

In a world of AI how do we find purpose? Dr Alex Stubbings took us through her belief that there is a uniqueness to humans and this can’t be replaced by robots.

After The Big Yak I blogged about my belief that we are forgetting we are human and Alex opened her session saying that we have been encouraged to think like machines – and I don’t disagree. When it comes to technology Alex suggested that robots can’t be creative (intuition), drive compliance through touch (survey completion jumped from 55% to 81% with the touch of an arm) nor do they have ethics morality and values – traits that drive us.

Democratise communication and bring it into the business operation

When it comes to a change in leadership there is often an opportunity for a change in environment. For Rooftop Housing this included a desire to change the technology that the teams were using day-t- day. John Rockley gave great insight into how the team went about implementing Workplace by Facebook. He blogged about it before the event but on the day there were two things John said that stayed with me:

  1. Workplace by Facebook has democratised our communication streams and allowed people to have conversations entirely relevant to them.
  2. The Repairs team use Workplace as part of the business process – with photos of the items needed repair and plugging this into systems they have in place already.

To embrace virtual reality, we need to be immersive and interactive

Nadine Oehmcke from game developer nDreams gave us an insight into the virtual reality industry – exploring growth trends (there has been a 117% growth in headset sales in the last 12 months), what to expect in the future with the rise of AR and VR together, a look at headsets that don’t require a PC or phone and the need to create completely immersive experiences that transport the individual into a different world. It reaffirmed my belief that our use of VR in the workplace is so much more than training or looking round an office.

Confidence, pace and strategy

The panel of experts gave their views about the skills we need for the future. With experts in digital, employer brand, corporate communication and internal communication they all gave their views on what was needed. The big takeaways for me were:

  • Confidence to manage all aspects of communication (internal and external) and to have strategic conversations with senior leaders.
  • Get better at working at pace. The world of external communication can often be driven by deadlines from the media whereas internal communicators can often have the luxury or time to craft the message to ‘perfection’.
  • Don’t’ get lost down the planning rabbit hole. It’s easy to create documents to plan out what you’re going to do, spend hours writing a strategy and then leave it in a drawer. Strategy and planning is needed, but the document should be live in your department not locked away.

You can read my full blog about the panel session here.

The Future of Content

AB’s MD Katie Macaulay ended the afternoon with her predictions into the future of content. There were six:

  1. Employees do not owe us their attention, we have to earn it and that will get harder
  2. Internal communicators will find ever more sophisticated ways of analysing their audiences
  3. Internal communication will move from interruption to permission – content that is anticipated, relevant and personal
  4. The line between internal and external will become increasingly blurred
  5. Content will become more of a craft, less of a commodity
  6. Those journalistic skills of having a nose for a good story, being able interview people, interrogate facts, and create brilliant, beautiful prose will regain their importance.

Katie has shared her full transcript here and it really is worth having a read – the analogy to Clapham junction really resonated with me and I have long been a fan of fewer, bigger, better – enjoy!

The next AB Thinks Live event is taking place in December – to find out more get in touch with the team @abthinks on Twitter or drop them an email events@abcomm.co.uk

The Big Yak 2018 – what internal communicators are talking about

Last week I hosted The Big Yak with my fellow IC Crowd co-founders Rachel Miller and Dana Leeson.

It was our fourth event and our biggest one yet with 160 internal communication professionals gathered together on a Saturday to set the agenda for the day ahead. These were the topics they chose to discuss and you can see that remote workers, leadership coaching and developing our own skills were all high on the agenda.

I managed to sit in a few of the conversations so here are my thoughts from the event:

We are forgetting we are human beings
Every conversation I have at the moment seems to be about this. About our need to feel connected to each other or the organisation we work for. The rise of digital channels means our investment has been in the technology not the people and there is growing recognition that this needs to change. We know that the investment in internal communication is often minimal but there was strong agreement in the discussions about remote workers (either physically remote or completely remote without access to technology etc.) and the need to invest in face-to-face.

Remote workers remain a huge challenge
With two sessions talking about remote workers it was no wonder that the conversations were lively and encouraging. Lessons were shared about launching apps, creating culture and purpose and also the role of the line managers. There was no one in the room who had totally ‘solved’ this challenge but the need to learn from each other here is huge. It’s the reason I’m doing research into this space this year and it’s clear to see why the hard to reach employee is on the top five barriers list from the Gatehouse research earlier this year.

Content is not just about the operation
We seem to have forgotten that content doesn’t always have to be about the work that needs to be done. There was a general consensus that fun was missing. The need for content that supports the culture, the social aspect of work and the relationships we try and cultivate was clear and it made me think about how many of us have a content strategy that sits alongside our channel strategy.

Neuroscience, psychology and digital
This is a big theme and it was apparent in several sessions I attended. Work is not somewhere we go, it’s something we do and our fulfilment of the work has never been higher on our personal agendas. Digital tools are unfulfilling, they don’t support the messages being communicated and they aren’t fit for purpose. We are all being asked to do more with less – what can that look like if the solution isn’t more digital channels?

Being a co-founder of the IC Crowd is so rewarding. We set it up to help internal communication professionals connect and The Big Yak was born out of the Crowd asking to get together. It is a day full of energy, discussion and insight and it would be nothing without passionate individuals willing to give up their Saturday to talk about how they can make work a better place. It is something I’m so incredibly proud of and it’s given me the chance to work with two fantastic ladies for over 10 years!  You can find out more about The Big Yak and read other write ups from the event here.

Who is the best communicator in your business?

Communication – the key component to getting relationships right – is often taken for granted, yet frequently trips up organisations when it goes wrong. Given the evidence that it is the root cause of so much trouble (large and small), you might assume that most reasonably sized organisations would have an internal communications strategy in place, but if research from CIPR, Gatehouse and VMA Group is to be believed, less than 50% of firms with an internal communications function have developed an active strategic plan.

This article was written in partnership with Neil Tomalin, as we plan to explore the themes below in a workshop on 12 September in London – book your ticket to secure your place!

Getting the basics right
What strikes you as you begin an investigation of this subject is the informality that surrounds it and yet how vital it is in order to be productive. One of the issues is just how you get started and the degree of support that businesses currently provide in deciding, for instance how to communicate internally and by what means? This sounds pretty simple, but what are the rules between using email, one-to-one communications, or meetings to convey a message and get things done? Just one example illustrates the point. It is, according to the latest research, 24 times more likely that you will get a ‘yes’ from a face-to-face meeting, rather than relying on an email or other forms of communication. Is this the root cause of why our diaries are so full?

Here’s one other question – can you name the best communicator in your business and to what extent do their communication skills get recognised and rewarded?

Relationship mapping
It is a funny old word ‘relationships’. It carries with it all sorts of connotations and yet is the lifeblood of how to get things done within a business. Forming effective business relationships is about communicating well. So when it comes to your organisation, think about the relationships that exist between departments, between the leadership team or between groups that need to work together. Explore how they operate and help them understand how to get the most out of their time. Understand when meetings happen, whether any are linked, the process for the meeting and help employees become the gatekeeper of their time.

Get the relationships between your employees right and the efficiencies will follow. But to get there, you have got to talk about it and can you honestly remember the last time you called a meeting or discussed how ‘relationships’ within your business were working? Very often this only happens when things have gone spectacularly wrong – that project has overrun again, or there is an issue with a major supplier. Frequently, a breakdown in communication lies at the heart of the problem.

Yet one source of help is normally very close at hand, borrowing an approach that for many years has been adopted by the sales division – relationship mapping. This process almost always focuses upon external customers by identifying key relationships and then putting together an action plan for winning new business. However, it is as relevant for a more systematic approach focusing upon internal relationships in order to achieve greater business efficiencies and reduce, amongst other things, silo mentality.

It is also about helping to tackle stress and maintaining good mental health. Research commissioned by Mind in 2013 found that work was the most stressful factor in people’s lives with one in three people saying their work life was either very or quite stressful.

Assessing your own style
This can be a very revealing exercise particularly in relation to the number of meetings in your diary. It is best done over a number of weeks to establish trends. The key questions to address are:-
1. How would you describe your own communication style?
2. Who is the gatekeeper of your time?
3. Do you have a sense of how much time you are spending in meetings each week?
4. How effective are the meetings you attend?
5. What is your preferred method of communication?
6. How might this be improved?

Learning through observation
To a large extent there is very little formal training around how you communicate in the workplace. New employees very quickly pick up upon hierarchy and the ‘norms’ that exist. They will observe if there is a casual meeting environment, or if it is more formal and will adapt their working style from what they see.

Attending your first meeting as a new employee provides a wealth of information. How does it feel? Do you get the sense that everyone is relaxed and happy to speak up? Are questions welcomed and clear answers given? In his latest research Neil Tomalin argues that this is not always the case. That attendees, rather than ‘being themselves’, adopt various different personas that can undermine the purpose of meetings and frustrate their effectiveness. Partly this role playing is influenced by the way in which the organisation does business, the degree of hierarchy etc. But, it is also impacted by the sheer volume of meetings that some people attend – put frankly – they simply have meeting fatigue!

Meetings aside, the point is that in every organisation there will be an optimum way of communicating and whilst in many organisations this will evolve organically and work well, this does not apply in every case, or enable individual employees to appreciate what works best for their own personal style.

Internal Communications – perfectly placed
If the organisation you work for has the resource to have an internal communications function, there is evidence to suggest that these internal resources are not being fully utilised (CIPR). When it comes to internal communication, business leaders are still unsure about the role it can play inside an organisation, but professional communicators exist and they are able to help other professionals, leaders and line managers form superior relationships, thus enabling the entire organisation to function better.

This is all the more surprising when you consider what, according to Jenni Field, the definition of internal communication includes:- ‘Everything that gets said and shared inside an organisation. As a function its role is to curate, enable and advise on best practise for organisations to communicate effectively, efficiently and in an engaging way.’

So ‘professional communicators’ do exist. How would you measure up if you met one?
Jenni Field and Neil Tomalin will be jointly hosting a communications workshop exploring the themes in this article on Thursday 21st June. To secure a place please contact either of us.

A blend of the right capabilities will deliver better outcomes

Earlier this week I attended IBM THINK Collaboration London – an opportunity to hear more about the latest updates to their collaboration suite and more importantly for me, a chance to really understand how Watson will help make organisations more efficient.

During my 13 years in-house I used a mix of social intranets (wordpress with buddypress), SharePoint and IBM Connections. At most conferences or events I attend about internal social channels we hear about Facebook Workplace, Microsoft, Jive etc but never IBM Connections – which is a shame because having used this for four years (both as an internal customer and as the global lead for the platform) it is the best solution I have found.

Cognitive intelligence with people at the heart
The founding principles of IBM Connections are people and choice and the basic elements of the platform are brilliant. When you start that internal change conversation with the basics – files and spaces to collaborate (Communities) the conversations in each part of the organisation are easy. Files are all in one place. You choose whether to share with an individual, a group of people, a community or make it completely public. I might even choose to just have it restricted so only I can see it. It even comes with a plug in to Windows so as a user I can see the familiar file and folder structure of a shared drive.

One of my main challenges with other platforms is this lack of one version of the truth. I want one file (with version control) that I can surface in different places and I want it to be easy for people to know where to put that file – this comes as standard.

With the introduction of Orient Me, IBM Connections can now offer a home page that is tailored to the individual. Surfacing content that is relevant allowing the user to pin communities, files, people in their network – this allows them to reduce the noise and see the relevant information to them.

I can tailor the design of the communities. I don’t need IT to help or an expert partner – I can do this and any of the employees in my organisation can do it as well. This ability to be able to have control over how the platform can work is brilliant. With every other platform I have experienced, I have needed IT or an external partner to create spaces and templates for me – not with IBM.

Deliver business outcomes faster
Watson is impressive. Watson Workspace is equally exciting. The use of AI in the platform means it not only helps the user based on keywords but it also understands intent – and you can help it learn too.

It can support the organisation in a variety of ways:

  • Watson Workspace will surface data regardless of source – if it is connected to CRM platforms, HR systems – pretty much anything – it can surface any of that content to help you – saving you the time to search
  • It works both ways. Using the workflow application you can sign off a sales deal that can then trigger an action in one of the platforms it integrates with – making you and your team more efficient
  • Watson technology can be used to search through social media channels for keywords and automatically create a space in Workspace, adding the relevant people into it, to solve an issue raised by a customer or employee
  • The platform understands the context of the conversation so you can summarise the discussion based on that context and build custom actions that can be fulfilled, all using the cognitive power of Watson
  • The cognitive capabilities can be extended into other existing applications, enabling you to summarise, gain focus and insight on data in 3rd party business apps
  • And the future is looking impressive with plans to integrate the technology with video chat/video meetings to make them more efficient

All about choice
Choice can be tricky. Sometimes too much can make it difficult to make decisions, but having a business model that has acquired businesses with expertise, created partnerships with some of the leading technology providers and created a stack that people are learning at college means they are flexible. I still have conversations about why I would use Box when I have files in IBM Connections but it has a place for some. The choice is there to ensure that you can create the right solution for your business. IBM work with Microsoft, Google, Jive and others to make sure they stay true to keeping people at the heart of the offer.

For me, the blend of the technology has to support the business strategy and in the communications function, this should include providing platforms and content that supports it all. I had my frustrations with IBM Connections when it first arrived and when I had to do upgrades and some things would break – but it is technology and we learnt that a close partnership with IT was needed to make it a true success. I have used other platforms since and it was painful. None of them have come close to the empowerment IBM Connections gives, the ability to collaborate with external parties, nor do they provide the seamless file sharing element I used heavily.

As they said at the event this week; you can integrate anything but what is meaningful? It is this question that should bring the IT, HR and Communications function together to create the right solution for your business – I just hope you add IBM to the list of providers who can help.

From informing to engaging: the role of IC in driving engaging and authentic leadership communications

This morning CIPR Inside and Luminous hosted an Ask the Guru event all about the shift from informing to engaging audiences inside organisations.

As the Chair of CIPR Inside I was there to open the event and facilitate any questions. The event was designed to explore the role of internal communication in driving engaging and authentic leadership communication. With guest speaker Graham Cox, Director of Learning and Development at Boundaries Edge and Mark Litchfield, Executive Creative Director at Luminous they took us on a journey of authenticity, decision making, perception, creativity and measurement.

Understanding how we make decisions

As we set the scene to understand the role of authenticity it was helpful to better understand how we make decisions and where the logic and emotion come in. I’m already a big fan of Simon Sinek and his golden circle theory so it was great to kick off with a reminder about the mammalian brain (feelings) and neocortex (logic) and how 86% of decisions are based on feelings.

What was equally interesting was the fact that as we evolve we should become more logical in our decision-making but with the introduction of AI the need for us to make logical decisions is diminishing.

The six rules of perception

  1. Initial impression resists change, and perception resets every 10/15 seconds
  2. We have confirmation bias, we self-validate – if there is more investment the individual is less likely to change their mind
  3. We cannot hold two precepts in the mind at one time
  4. Perception is directly related to context, so we have to remind people about context all the time. This is linked to the fact that we don’t know how to calculate value
  5. We perceive losses three times more that we do gains. It is this focus on losses and therefore fear of them that leads us to stay in jobs we don’t enjoy or relationships that don’t work
  6. People perceive the past, present and future – and different groups of people will have a tendency to focus on one element more than the other

Engage audiences through creativity and measure how you do it

  • To help with creativity look around you. Benchmark with peers and be inspired by things outside of your everyday
  • Consistency is important
  • Create a central bank of assets to support both the consistency and to help with efficiencies in the team
  • Create a two-way conversation with relevance and measurement; define the metrics upfront, be clear about the audience and who to target, and get qualitative and quantitative feedback

As we finished the morning I shared the Making it Count research with the attendees as this is all about understanding the value and effectiveness of internal communication – and if we find it difficult to calculate value and our perception is directly related to context, I hope this helps us move forwards into more engaging conversations.

Why internal communication is the key to brand authenticity

This morning I attended a breakfast event hosted by VMA Group on the topic of authenticity. The session was led by Matt Hampshire from MK and he was supported by Ed Austin from Wagamama and together they took us through five rules for authenticity.

During the hour they took us through examples from Wagamama as well as some from other organisations – some who get it right and some who get it wrong. As someone who has spent most of their internal communications career working with employees who are predominantly offline it was great to hear a clear message about customer service and organisational purpose – so here are the five rules and how internal communicators can play a role in brand authenticity:

  1. Know who you are
    Looking back to a 1971 Coca-Cola advert and comparing it to a 2017 Pepsi advert reminds us all to stay true to who we are and not jump on a bandwagon. The backlash to Pepsi was huge with an estimated loss of $40m and an advert pulled after huge criticism all over the world.  The identity of the organisation can come from iconic leaders – Steve Jobs and Anita Roddick were just two examples shared – but having a strong purpose and a clear understanding of what your organisation is about will allow you to demonstrate who you are through good communication.
  2. Embrace the truth (even when it is uncomfortable)
    Last year someone shared a photo of a poster in a Wagamama restaurant that clearly told employees they would be disciplined if they called in sick. The first thing Wagamama’s did was talk to their employees – using all their channels they quickly communicated to all employees that this was in fact not the case. It was important for them to keep the conversation going and explain the truth behind the headlines.
  3. What you do is more important than what you say
    Quite often the conversations we have inside organisations will be around values and how we can put a poster on a wall to share them so that people know what they are. Sadly, this rarely works simply because what you do is more important than what you say. If one of your values is respect but it is accepted that people are late for meetings or on their phone during meetings then this doesn’t match. For many, the focus is on the profit and company results and this can lead to behaviour that might go against how we want to be perceived – as Ed said, “If you focus too much on the numbers, you lose focus on the service. Sales will follow if the service is there.”
  4. Start with the right people
    If 72% of people are judged on their CV alone then how can we be sure we are hiring the right people? When we think about employee engagement and employee experience, we need to start at the beginning. The whole employee journey needs to be considered to make sure that the people we train and invest in are committed to the organisation. The example about Zappos giving people £2,000 to not take a job was an interesting example to show how some companies ensure they only hire people who really want to be there.
  5. It’s not about you, it’s about them
    I have spent many meetings discussing this with leadership teams – explaining that they aren’t the audience for some of these messages. The example from Wagamama about the introduction of their Vegan menu was founded on co-creation. Inviting employees who choose a vegan diet to meet with the Executive Chef and discuss the menu, taste it and get involved in what good service looks like for them was fundamental to the roll out of the new dishes. As he said “it’s not about jumping on a bandwagon, it’s about embracing it”

At the end of the session there were some questions about corporate reputation, downloading apps to phones and how to engage cynical employees – all these questions were from different industries and they highlighted the different challenges we can all face in the different cultures we work in. The solution? Come back to these five rules and think about how to apply them in your business, they are core  principles and as a guide, they should work for everyone.