We are often asked to help organisations think through their internal communication function. The question sooner or later gets back to the question of where they add the most value and whether it is enough to be a great writer or organiser.
I’ve said in a number of places what I think about the importance of craft skills.
Research that I did with Sue Dewhurst in the past highlighted the fact that whilst a good communicator needs certain basic skills, they are just that – basic. In order to have an impact, professional communicators need to do much more.
To illustrate this point I have developed the internal communication value chain.
The idea is quite simple. Whilst each individual step in the process is important, it is only when you have thought about the whole end-to-end value chain can you decide where best to focus your effort.
Given that most communication teams are actually quite small, there is little room for us to invest time, energy and resource in the things that don’t add value to the organisations which we serve.
It might be that although having the capacity to write is useful, the real value in your organisation might lie in supporting senior leaders or working with external communications.
Naturally, every organisation is different. Where you add the most value will reflect your industry, your history, the maturity of the communication awareness of leaders or the issues which you face.
Part of the beauty of this model is that it does not rely on collating and cross referencing return on investment information (but don’t let me stop you!). You can make judgements about the potential areas of maximum value from your own experience and from conversations with internal stakeholders.
In time, as people develop reliable methodologies for understanding return on communication investment, this model may well be overtaken and replaced. However, I have found it useful as a way of thinking thing through the focus of communication teams.
Understanding audiences and providing intelligence
All communication begins with a deep understanding of the audience. A communication function need to know not just who the audience is but also how its members think.
The relative importance to the communication effort will depend on factors such as:
- Who else collects and collates audience data
- The complexity of the workforce
- The centrality of workforce attitude to the success of the organisation
- The size and dispersion of the workforce
- Whether the organisation is centralised or decentralised
For example in an organisation that is heavily dependent on the work of highly skilled people, providing strong audience insight might be more valuable than in a business that is driven by the need to explain complex rules and regulations to staff.
However, my default advice is that is almost always the most important value area for the IC team. Not only does it guide everything else in the team’s work it is one of the tickets that gets admission to senior management discussions. People who understand the audience get listened to.
Planning and co-ordination
Clearly we all have to be able to plan and no one likes waste.
And it can be surprising how much work has to go into things that would seem quite obvious; things like not swamping people with information, making sure that campaigns do not overlap inappropriately or just that requests for help actually make sense.
Interestingly this is one of the areas where an IC manager often has to make the toughest choices. Good planning and air traffic control are essential but they can make a disproportionate call in your time. It’s very easy to spend your life in meetings, meetings that keep you away from talking with the audiences or just getting on with the real job.
Many of us do this intuitively – we have a natural instinct for the core message or it is quite plain. However, because it can be relatively low cost to develop a message that can be articulated and consistently promoted, we can underestimate the value that it brings.
Just remember how confusing is the background noise that flies around inside even the smallest organisations. A steady, consistent message, reinforced continually in multiple ways is essential. If people are to work together towards a shared purpose they need someone to insist on clarity and repetition.
Your organisation needs someone who says no to communication that generates confusion or obscures the essential goals which you are pushing towards.
Excellent tools and processes
If nothing works, if you can actually make communication happen, you are unlikely to add any value at all. It’s the foundation of what we do.
However we have to be careful not to mistake essential for total. Good tools, media, channels and practices are necessary but are rarely sufficient.
Evaluation and predictive data
One of my favourite sayings is Come with data, leave with respect.
When you walk into a boardroom everyone else is sitting there with a spreadsheet – how can you hope to be taken seriously if you show up with nothing more than some nice collateral and a winning personality?
Without strong evaluation, how can you really know what is working? How do you listen to what is really happening rather than rely on your unreliable prejudices? How can you predict what will improve a situation? How can you steer leaders away from making disastrous decisions about communication?
But don’t neglect the process of presenting your data in a way that helped leaders take good decisions. The value of your research can be undermined if you fail to make the most of the reporting process.
As I have stressed, every team is different. Where you find value will depend on the needs of your organisation and a million and one other factors.
However, you need periodically to sit down and ask the question of where you are making a real difference and where you are just treading water. And if you can’t see the value of what you do for your organisation it’s unlikely anyone else will.