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​Internal communication in 2020 - finding the middle ground between immediate pressures and long-term uncertainty

Reading through the raw results from the IoIC's recent 'future of work' survey the one thing that really leaps out to me is how many possible futures internal communication people envisage. Depending on which of the 150-ish responses you pick, internal communication is going to become part of HR or become entirely separate to HR. It is going to be re-focused on employee experience or employee engagement. Technology is going to automate it, enhance it and/or transform it. It will be most affected by disruption to traditional business models, flexible workforces, diversity, demographics or loss of trust. It will disappear completely or become entirely central to organisations' operations. We'll be exploring the findings at length through a series of articles next year, but for now it seems fair to say practitioners are divided on what the future looks like.

Inescapable pressures versus irresolvable big picture

I think there's a tendency within the profession (I have been guilty of this myself) to live in two spaces. The first is the here and now, and is characterised by:
  • I don't know what's happening next week, let alone next year
  • people don't tell us about stuff early enough
  • our resources are so stretched we just do what we can.

I can sympathise with all of this, but the danger is it leads to the kind of short-termism that adds to the professions' reputation for being a purely tactical function (within individual organisations and as a whole). And lack of internal buy-in is both a consequence of this and a frequent complaint... I've just seen at least five mentions of it in the survey results.

The second space is more typified by big, seemingly irresolvable questions.
  • What's the purpose of internal communication?
  • How can the value of internal communication best be calculated?
  • Where is internal communication best positioned within the organisation?

There's loads of this in the survey results too. Again, I completely understand why these questions get asked. The individual practitioner can only solve them within the context of their own organisation though - and, for now at least, we have to accept that the solutions are quite varied. We asked the question 'What do you think the job of a good internal communicator is?' in the survey and there are huge differences in what people say. Plenty of practitioners, professional bodies (including us) and consultancies express points of view on this. But what we have currently is a wealth of opinion, a degree of common ground and a lot of disparity. It would be disingenuous to say otherwise.

Working with what you can predict

The third, less explored I would suggest, space is around what we can seek to do over the next year that will make a difference in our organisations. And that's not a bad thing for practitioners to be focused on at this time of year. For 2020, it could involve considering things like this.
  • Looking at the specific impacts of Brexit (yes, I said it) on the organisation you are in and thinking carefully about the practical and emotional impacts for people. Particular areas of focus may be tracking how the emerging thinking on the (presumably now very likely) trade deal might affect businesses with significant trade links to mainland Europe, and segmented communication for EU citizens working in your UK operation and/or UK citizens working in the EU.
  • Ensuring that any legal or regulatory changes affecting the business over the next year (for example, the extension of IR35 to the private sector or the introduction of key information documents for agency workers) are considered from a communications perspective early and, if necessary, have plans and resources allocated to them.
  • Digging up the 2020 visions, plans and strategies the organisation probably published five years ago, looking at the extent to which they were delivered and thinking about whether any communication is required to explain what has been achieved, changed and learned along the way.
  • Depending on where you are in your financial year, taking stock of current and projected business performance, mapping out some scenarios and considering what kind of communication approach you would employ in each of them.
  • Reviewing any recent or planned changes to organisational structure and considering whether these necessitate any changes in business partnering arrangements, audience segmentation or channels.

These are just examples, though they may apply to many. In any organisation there will be predictable and unpredictable elements to what will happen over the next 12 months. There's a role internal communicators can play in understanding and mitigating the effects of unpredictability and uncertainty. But at this time of year, perhaps it is best to identify the predictable ones based on whatever evidence is available to you and plan for them now. Be the ones to start these conversations with your internal stakeholders, especially those in senior management. Because these are the kinds of conversations that elevate internal communication to be seen as a critical business function and allow internal communication teams to take greater control over their agendas.
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