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Who is responsible and Who have to lead? A systemic view of the function of internal communication

When my internal dialogue on the meaning of working in public relations began about 10 years ago and the revelation that it is internal communication that determines how the organization's reputation in the external environment is shaped, it was very clear to me how internal communication in the organization should be formed and what should be done. I managed the Communications Unit at that time and clearly believed that the implementation of internal communication was my responsibility. Now 10 years later I am a consultant for internal communication and employee engagement, writing a doctoral thesis “An internal communication function within the organization and its strategic management”, and I am no longer sure that the strategic management of internal communication is the mission of the public relations department.

And here's what I discovered, talking to executives, studying companies, practices, and theories: Even the Internet resources are full with information and know-how about internal communication best practices, many organizations in Latvia are still struggling with the creation of a meaningful internal communication environment. The question I raised: How is this possible in an era of open information and in a situation when communication managers are so professional? This led me to think about the question: If the problem is not information and knowledge, perhaps I need to look deeper? And I started looking!

Here I would like to share some of the lessons I discovered and which allowed me to understand why internal communication in many companies and organizations in Latvia and possibly elsewhere in the world is being implemented at a reactive level.

1.    Machine vs living organization

James E. Grunig developed The Excellence theory in the early 90 s, describing the work of a distinguished communication department and an ideal communication model that creates meaningful relationships between the organization and its internal and external stakeholders. For a third decade, communication professionals have been pursuing this approach of excellence by advocating symmetry in the relationship between management and employees. The famous concept of win-win is the result of Grunig's symmetric two-way communication model, in which employees are equal partners in dialogue with management. For many years, I was also convinced that this is the only and right solution for building internal communications within the organization. But by deepening my knowledge of organizational systems following Berth Helinger's school, and by researching System theory, I came to the conclusion that I have been living under the illusion of what organizations really need.

We hear about the concept of “living organization” more frequently, and that organizations should function as a living organization (there is no firm hierarchy; self-regulation; ability to learn; there can be a number of views; high potential for cooperation; etc.). However, the challenge is that in the process of relaunching this ideal we (communicators, consultants, advisers) forget that many organizations still work as machine (the organization is characterized by strict frames; hierarchy; rules; search for perpetrators; existence of one right point; authority, fear of mistakes; etc.). Moreover, they not only exist but also they have the rights to work like a machine. Therefore, I believe that this is the time to recognize that there are organizations which are and will always remain in machine concept, and in such an environment it is not possible to require leaders to have a symmetric internal communication approach. This, in turn, means that there cannot be a sign of equality between the strategic internal communications and the two-way symmetric communication, as we still want to highlight.

2.    Internal communication is a function and should be managed

For decades, on the agenda of researchers and practitioners, there has been a question of who should be responsible for the role of internal communication. Until now, there is no common view and practice, and unfortunately this uncertainty also leads to hidden conflicts and unnecessary competition between communication, marketing, and personnel management functions. In addition, over time, I have understood the fundamental difference between “being responsible” and “managing.” While we are talking about responsibility, it is easy to want to pull the trigger on our own, because the concept of responsibility may not include movement, concrete action. But when the question arises: “Who will lead?” and “How will you manage?”, then the role of the manager of the function makes a whole different point.

Internal communication is the same function as personnel, marketing or external communication management. These three usually have a clear owner, but internal communication, which usually formally is a part of public relations, is often reactive, falling out of the list of priorities. In the case of practical examples, there is even a feeling that internal communications often do not exist as a deliberate and recognized function in companies. But if it doesn't exist, how can it be managed? In addition, from a systemic point of view, each function in the undertaking must have a defined place and a clear delegation in order to be able to fulfill its mission. Moreover, if there is no clear place for a function, there is a high risk of conflict, both for the expected results and for who is the main driver for this function.

However, it is the management team that must clearly identify its place in the successful implementation of this function before it can be decided on. Because senior leaders should see their responsibility and role in shaping the internal communication climate, and it should be made clear that the level of strategic internal communication depends on C-suite management.


3.    Internal communication needs home

To start a conversation about where internal communication needs to be in the organization, I propose a self-developed mind map that reflects all the knowledge and competencies that I believe should be a person who manages strategic internal communication. In this picture, you can see how much needs to be understood by the professional to whom the manager delegates this function.


Assuming that only rarely can have such super capabilities, I find that the internal communication function is interdisciplinary and requires a specific management and coordination approach.

Traditionally, internal communication is entrusted to public relations, marketing or personnel management. However, when making observations in the Latvian environment, I conclude that the presence of this function in one of these departments may undermine its influence in the organization. This is also the main conclusion of researchers who are still trying to find the right place for internal communication.

For example, if internal communication is managed by the head of public relations, there is a risk that external communication priorities will overshadow the internal communication function. Unfortunately, in the Latvia public relations, KPIs still are publicity, awareness and external reputation. These are indicators measured as a result of public relations work. Consequently, internal communication remains at a reactive and tactical level. On the other hand, if internal communication becomes an area of HR responsibility, it may turn into an internal PR instrument for employee bonus communication and management because, as the practice suggests, there are few organizations where the HR manager is prepared to think at the level of the internal communication strategy. But putting the internal communication function in marketing action managers must be prepared that internal communication may become an internal marketing tool in which employees will become brand ambassadors.

It should be noted that all versions are acceptable, but they become a strategy when the company is clearly aware of what internal communication is focusing on, what its nature of this function if it becomes a part of each of these departments. Awareness also means that the level of management clearly understands what can and cannot be expected from the leader of this function in every particular situation.


4.    Next Level - Symphonic Internal Communications management


Since there are so many discussions and opposing opinions about internal communication within the organization structure that do not lead to a solution, I have come to a concept that would help living organizations and could give positive input to machine-type organizations.

A study by Deloitte 2018 Global Human Capital Trends says that corporate senior executives need to get out of their functional “silos” and start working together. Putting this principle into life is certainly hard to imagine for the leaders of companies in which for decades each has managed their functions in a restricted area. This idea is rooted in two principles: deep functional expertise is still very important, but an innovation that makes the organization faster, more efficient and more successful is interdisciplinary cooperation – teams are managing teams. This can be explained by the fact that a large number of issues can no longer be resolved within a single functional unit and, in order to ensure rapid decision-making, the management team should work as a whole, which also requires the teams of these leaders to see a common goal and to invest their resources in their implementation within their competence. It is this approach that I believe is the most effective solution at the moment in the management of internal communication. It is clear that one person needs to be an expert who understands how to build and manage strategic internal communication, but the role of an interdisciplinary team is important.

How does Symphony Internal Communications Control work in practice? The organization nominates the head of internal communication – it is a person who can operate the terms “business”, “strategy”, “communication”, “employees”, “culture”, “change” and has an impact. I recommend that this employee should be directly subordinate to organizations leader.

There are two main reasons for this. First, in this way, the head of internal communication is in regular contact with the strategic context. Secondly, power games between communications, personnel and marketing managers are excluded, forcing someone on the sidelines to connect them for a common purpose.

The head of internal communication shall be empowered as an interdisciplinary group leader. The manager of the company shall legitimize the employees’ status and shall give a clear signal to the whole organization, who is the head of internal communication and what kind of role he/she will execute. The role of the internal communication manager is to lead the group, being the principal strategy planner, developer, implementer, controller. But even more important is the ability to agree with colleagues on the objectives, strategy, and way it will be implemented together.

In this model, a significant detail – the manager of the company should also be involved in this group. He needs to accept, ideally, that internal communication is his tool and that the group is his team to implement it. However, its implementation will depend on his own, because in an internal communication everything is determined by what the manager is doing – what attitude is present, how he says something and how he behaved. 


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