The rebirth of internal communications: Digital social facilitation

Ephraim Freed, communications manager at the Digital Workplace Group, discusses how the growing importance of digital social facilitation is fundamentally changing the role of the internal communicator.

Ephraim FreedWe've all heard for a while now that the role of internal communications is changing.

It's changing because of new generations of people coming into the workplace and their new expectations. It's changing because of new market and economic pressures and structures. But perhaps most of all it’s changing because of new technologies and ways of using technology that are rapidly transforming how we work together and even what we expect out of work.

Social software tools, those that enable digital interactions between people, are creating new possibilities for teams to collaborate; for colleagues to learn and share innovations across networks; and for community to grow in the digital space, connecting people across geographies.

These changes, along with a new generation of easy-to-use mobile devices and related expectations for the experience of technology, are leading to a new possibility for the digital experience of work.

With all of these new tools there are new requirements for organisations:

  • the need to manage digital experiences across several types of devices (from desktop to shared terminals to retail mobile devices to personal smartphones)
  • the need to support collaboration and help teams improve their digital processes for working together
  • the need to nurture knowledge sharing among colleagues in similar roles across a country, a continent or the world in order to speed learning, make connections and diffuse innovations
  • the need to facilitate conversations and build community among employees in different parts of the organisation and at different levels within the hierarchy.

These are all needs that don't clearly fall under the purview of the HR department or the IT department, or any other central function. These are new requirements and many organisations’ internal communicators have been falling into these roles or are taking on these responsibilities on an ad hoc basis.

Examples of new support structures

Supporting better collaboration: A large financial institution in the US that we work with has created a “Collaboration Solutions Studio”. The Collaboration Services team uses this space to demonstrate to different managers and their teams a range of collaborative digital tools. They help teams assess their current workflows and shift the processes to more effective social software tools. This hands-on approach provides customised training to each team and aims not to just check off the “training” box to achieve real and sustained changes in the way people work.

Nurturing knowledge sharing: A large global professional services firm that we work with has a rich framework for supporting high value global employee communities of practice. The Community Management team verifies groups that align with the business strategy, provides training on digital community management best practices, and provides regular reporting on group metrics, with internal benchmarking, recommendations for improvement and data about business value. This team also tracks examples where knowledge sharing within communities of practice led to savings and new revenue that could be tied back to their work.

Building community among employees: A large well-known enterprise software company that we work with allows any employee to create an online community of interest for any topic (as long as it isn’t about sex, politics or religion). This helps colleagues build connections around areas of personal passion and develop a sense of friendship and community with other employees. This approach seems risky at first to many organisations, but the company in question here has seen almost zero misuse of their social tools. And in the few cases that required remediation, the problems stemmed from differing cultures and other misunderstandings rather than malicious intent.

The new IC role: more!

New enlightened internal communications functions have a broader purview than ever before.

They still have to craft messages to spread throughout the organisation. Internal communicators still need to help organisational functions as well as business units communicate with their internal audiences.

Good internal communications departments now also need to support the development of community and connection within the organisation. They need to facilitate conversation between organisational leaders and employees at every level and in every part of the organisation in order to break down barriers, increase learning and information gathering, and gather business intelligence.

Internal communicators need to take on the role of improving team-based collaboration using a variety of digital tools. And internal communications departments need to help communities of practice (i.e. employees throughout the organisation with similar roles who may not work together closely on a daily basis) to connect, ask questions, share ideas, learn from each other and with each other, and spread innovations.

Internal communicators still need to know how to write good copy. They still need to know how to deliver standard communications content. They still need to know all the best practices around intranet development, such as user experience design, stakeholder engagement and good governance, content management and search optimisation. And internal communicators needs to do all of the new things as well.

Is ‘internal communications’ too reductionist?

Of course, this isn't really just internal communications anymore is it?

It's more than that. We're talking about facilitating all different types of digital interactions and conversations within an organisation. We're talking about carefully crafting the digital experience of work on a daily basis. We’re talking about a rich set of skills and areas of expertise, about working with cross-functional teams at every level and aligning all of this work with the business strategy, organisational needs and user needs.

While this may all be much more than what we've ever expected from internal communications, communication itself is still at the core of all of these things we need to do now and in the future.

Digital Workplace Group