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Catherine Park reviews this recent publication which provides insights on internal communication for both students and experienced practitioners.

What is internal communication today? What does effective practice look like? These are questions addressed by the recently published Exploring Internal Communication: Towards informed employee voice (third edition), edited and co-authored by Kevin Ruck.

By exploring a number of prominent, current themes, it serves to provide a comprehensive overview and commentary on the issues that are challenging today’s practitioners and to provoke thoughts, debate and ideas – on issues including engagement, employee voice, the IC practitioner’s role, ethics, dealing with change, and the rewards and challenges of social media.

One of the particularly interesting aspects of the book is the way in which it seeks to identify the precise role of internal corporate communication in supporting employee engagement – that is, what it can realistically contribute and what it should aim to contribute. The connection may seem obvious. However, it is common to see IC and employee engagement treated more or less interchangeably, which is a significant simplification. The publication identifies areas where IC can play a particularly important role, including effectively conveying leadership vision and enabling staff to make sense of their own roles in the vision.

Employee engagement is considered in some detail from different angles throughout the book. Participation and ‘employee voice’ are key themes – how should these actually work to be meaningful from the employee’s perspective and in terms of what they actually achieve. There’s a sobering reference to some research in three UK organisations where, on the face of it, there were a lot of participatory practices in place. However, employees seemed unimpressed, with one commenting: “I’ve viewed consultation as something like senior management have 95 per cent or so of the plan worked out and they consult us on minor details to give us a sense of ‘ownership’ ”.1

The book discusses the different characteristics of employees from other stakeholder groups. It considers the relative importance of employees to these other groups in terms of value to the business, and in doing so provides useful reference material on return on investment via two studies conducted in Australia in 2004 and 2010. While businesses may tend to give most of their attention to shareholders and customers, these findings suggest that boosting employees into pole position would, on average, deliver superior long-term financial results.

It also helps to illustrate the benefits of effective IC in a variety of other ways; for example, by explaining the very specific role of social media in aiding engagement, knowledge enhancement and organisational efficiency.

There is consideration of what constitutes ethical internal communication, which is challenging to contemplate for a variety of reasons: the relatively new and evolving nature of the profession, the diversity of roles, and the level of influence possible in relation to the culture and practices of the organisation as a whole. This chapter suggests a simple approach to ethics based around: ensuring employees receive important information at the right time for them; ensuring senior managers communicate regularly with employees and listen to their opinions and suggestions; challenging senior managers when important information is not forthcoming; and challenging them when employee voice is not in place across the organisation.

The book also includes a lot of very practical guidance on IC activities that require a systematic approach; for example, the parameters that should be covered in research, the elements of an effective planning process and what should be involved in developing, implementing and managing an intranet.

The first chapter considers the history of internal communication, with some fascinating detail. This also highlights how the evolution of IC has not been entirely linear, with some apparently ‘modern’ concepts having been advocated a long time ago. However, it does provide a clear overview of strong trends, and the resulting impact on the role of the IC practitioner and required knowledge and skills. Verified through research, it also discusses the challenges facing internal communicators in these evolutionary times – for example, perceived relatively weak support for IC from senior management; communicators’ view that better practice is represented by more focus on employee research and feedback; and wanting to spend more time on engagement enablers but without significantly reducing time on operational and functional communication.

And despite growing emphasis on strategy and facilitating others in the organisation to communicate better, practitioners continue to spend a lot of time on functional communication, with this often strongly impacted by the extent to which they have the support of leaders: “There is an interesting correlation between the amount of time spent on functional communication and stakeholder interest in communication. This suggests that functional communication is the default position for internal communications practice and is where most practitioners spend a lot of their time at the moment. The level of change resulting from employee feedback and the level of improvement in internal communication is directly proportional to the level of interest of senior managers in internal communication.”2

However, on the plus side, a relatively high proportion of practitioners involved in this research said that they had seen improvements in internal communication in their organisations over the last five years. In order of frequency of mention, this had been attributed to restructuring of the IC team; a leadership change e.g. new CEO, increased involvement; new social media; audits; new channels or tone of voice.

The book provides considerable detail on relevant theories and models, how these have changed, and their strengths and weaknesses, offering communicators a lot of food for thought. There are also excellent, concise case studies ranging from Zappo’s elimination of the management hierarchy to the unique way in which New York police commissioner got senior officers to buy into the need for change.

This is a very informative and thought-provoking read, where taking time to absorb the full implications of all the models and reference materials will reap benefits.

Exploring Internal Communication can be ordered from the Gower Publishing website. IoIC members benefit from a special discounted rate of £22.50 (full retail price £30). The code to access this discount is available from the Knowledge Bank area of this website (please remember to log in first).
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