When chatting with a leader of an organization about a change initiative, I asked a question about the current practices of his group’s internal communications function. He smiled and said that his internal communicators did a great job on routine stuff. They checked all the boxes, and sent out the emails. But if he had something important to say, like something about change, he went to somebody else.
Thus endeth the conversation about the group’s internal communications function.
I wanted to have a heart-to-heart with those communicators. I wanted to remind them that their business – like just about every business today – is changing, responding to new technologies and new customer demographics, and bringing new talent, with new skills, capabilities and expectations, on board. As internal communicators we need to experiment and innovate, instead of relying on old-school, conventional one-way messaging.
This is where things get tribal, and separate the teller traditionalists from the communications conversationalists.
Traditionalists think two-way communication isn’t part of the Corporate Communications remit. The traditionalists get that bad-smell look on their faces, and say conversation smacks of small “c” communications, which are the responsibility of other experts, say, training in HR or the digital folks in IT. The traditionalists would rather polish their message style and fine-tune their templates to be ready when the next routine announcement goes out.
That’s certainly worthy work. Without doubt, there’s value in making sure that the fundamentals are buttoned up. Let’s face it, a poorly written or executed message can create barriers to comprehension.
But does a smoothly executed email create understanding?
Communications conversationalists would say, no. Conversationalists look to build on the work of the teller traditionalists, and promote comprehension by facilitating connections and encouraging conversations.
Still, many corporate communicators are holding onto traditional telling, and handing off the important responsibility of two-way communication to other areas of the company. As an internal communicator, this bothers me. If we miss the opportunity to innovate and create new connections and richer conversations, we run the risk of merely doing a great job on the routine stuff. The important work supporting change will go to others.
In the June 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “Leadership is a Conversation,” authors Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind summed it up nicely: “Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.”