The way people communicate with each other – both professionally and privately – is constantly evolving, and today we have more channels than ever before.

Internal and external are blending, and the role of the internal communicator is no longer one of a ‘top down’ mouthpiece, but as an enabler of collaboration and two-way conversation.

And we have to come up with ever-inventive ways of making this happen, from humanising the CEO to helping employees understand how their role feeds into, and drives, the company’s short and long-term strategy.

So how, if we take one of many definitions of the word innovation, are we going to find ‘a way of deriving greater or different values from existing resources’? Thinking outside the box but not spending outside the budget, if you will.

According to Techcocktail1, many companies are leveraging new tools such as social networks, mobile and visual storytelling to collaborate, champion company culture and build brand ambassadors from within.

It’s an approach that’s seconded by Matthew Partovi, founder of Culturevist, who believes that the culture of a company is the biggest enabler – or killer – of innovation.

“Company culture is a force – like the wind on a boat’s sails. The way people think and act influences the direction of that wind,” he says.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

J. K. Rowling

“People operate in networks these days and we won’t keep up with them if we are still following hierarchical procedures like waiting for senior management to sign off an idea. Traditional management is predictable, and while having a three- or five-year plan is efficient, it can’t cope with the unpredictable. In today’s world we need to be adaptable and our biggest competitor is how we work internally. Restrictive plans and budgets make it much safer to leave things as they are because otherwise, you’ll be constantly seeking approval.”

For internal communicators, Matthew recommends establishing a clear vision and building a network of ‘champions’ who sign up to that vision.

“If we want to innovate we have to find out what the need is and what the pain points are. Who defines the vision? What are the signs of success? Have the people with the power defined what they want the culture to be? Are we trying to please everyone at the risk of pleasing no one?”

Once the answers are nailed down you have the parameters within which you can come up with ideas, define scope and identify measurement opportunities.

“Stop decision-making by committee. Get a senior sponsor on board and gather all the people with energy and drive to make things happen around you. Use these people to influence the resisters or the budget holders and create a culture where trying is seen as a good thing. With a cross-company network of motivated staff you can create a compelling flag that demonstrates real business benefits in a creative way. “

Matthew suggests you use this group to reality-check ideas and gain support for your best ones. “Approach a senior leader and say ‘if I did this, would you be on board?’ then take the idea higher knowing you have the backing of respected people who know what they’re talking about and armed with clear information about the impact the initiative will have on the business, both short- and long-term,” he says.

For Gordon Dowall-Potter, head of internal comms at construction giant Kier, proving the value that IC adds is key to getting ideas accepted. “When you join an organisation, look at the culture – what has happened in the past?” he says.

“You need to understand the vision and define that vision, as well as the employee engagement stats. From there, build a communication strategy that will move things forward. It doesn’t have to be overcomplicated – there’s no right or wrong way – but it’s important to co-create it with the team so that everyone is clear about what you want to achieve and how to measure what you have achieved.”

At Kier, Gordon and his team defined five key objectives that they wanted to achieve, and against which they could benchmark any and all requests for comms support. If it doesn’t fit into one of the five categories, then it isn’t an issue for internal comms or employee engagement.

Crucially, you don’t have to spend a lot to be innovative with your comms says Gordon, who inherited an established quarterly magazine as the primary means of communication with the company’s 24,000-strong workforce. “Kier produced four A4 magazines a year, intended for all employees, but on its own it didn’t tick all the boxes,” he said. So, with the magazine eating up the entire budget, Gordon thought his way around the problem.

“I wanted to introduce an electronic channel that could reach further and more frequently than the print mag so I reduced the number of print issues to three a year and restyled the format to make it bespoke and really special.”

With the money he saved, Gordon introduced an app that works across all platforms and on all devices. It got over 600 downloads in the first two weeks. He’s now developing a function for push notifications and other features – all for the same pot of money.

Video streaming is another increasingly popular and not necessarily expensive way of communicating at Kier. The firm has LED screens around the business and CEO Haydn Mursell is filmed regularly to counter the astounding fact that almost three in 10 people don’t know who their CEO is.

“We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already”
J. K. Rowling

“That means they are faceless and have no personality. We need to demystify then – get them to take their ties off,” says Gordon.

In another initiative, Gordon’s team sends a regular emailer titled ‘Message from Haydn’ which people reply to, believing they are communicating directly with the CEO (he does see the messages but it’s the team that writes back). “You need to respond,” says Gordon, “ or people will get cynical. My definition of a cynic is a person who’s been let down too many times.”

But it’s not all electronic innovation, says Gordon, and it’s important to strike a balance between online and offline channels. “It doesn’t have to be 50:50, it depends on what’s right for reaching your employees. What’s important is the ‘red thread’ or theme that runs through them all, connecting each channel to the other.”

For “not much money” the team recently hired a Kier-branded bus and went on the road to reach people on construction sites. Each visit was advertised through posters, online and tweets, inviting anyone in the area to go and have a look at the marketing materials on display. It was great advertising too!

Another trick in the box (but don’t use them all at once cautions Gordon) is Coffee Time. Randomly selected employees have a branded mug placed on their desk inviting them to coffee with Haydn, the CEO (see what they did there – first name terms!). These chats often take place in the canteen, are informal and give people opportunities to speak to the boss directly. They get to keep the mug too – something of a status symbol”

“We need the ability to converse with employees. Everything has a mechanism to engage in conversation wither it’s an email address, feedback function or face to face. We respond within 48 hours to all messages. And we review our dashboards to find out how the messages are being received, if they’re opened, if they are responded to,” says Gordon.

Two-way communication is an increasing trend in internal comms and it’s certainly here to stay. People want to be part of the conversation, they want their voice heard, and they want to know what’s going on in the business and the impact on their job. Transparency, collaboration, creating touch points… it’s all about finding ways to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary by creating a holistic suite of tools that work together to engage, empower and inform.

Further reading

2015: the Year of Smarter Internal Communications