The Debate Has Arrived…Let’s Move It Forward

The Debate Arrives…Let’s Move It Forward

Opening my laptop for the first time some days into a trip back to my native United States,  I was excited to see a real debate about the nature of internal communication emerging in various corners of the professional blogosphere. This debate about the nature of internal communication is important because it prompts a re-examination of what kind of orientation of is appropriate for internal comms practitioners and functions.

David Murray and  Shel Holtz go to great lengths to discuss their views on the subject, agreeing on the imperative for communicators to support business literacy.  They diverged  on the extent to which technology is worth discussing, the appropriateness of the journalistic mentality, and above all, the level of curiosity and integrity of the practitioner.  Their pieces build on an online discussion led by industry legend Roger D’Aprix on the subject “Are Internal Communicators Intellectually Lazy”? These are important topics that those of us who care about the profession need to discuss. But before the debate continues, we need to get straight with ourselves about some underlying realities. 1)  There are serious limitations to the traction of a discussion focusing solely on the nature of normative internal communication.

Sure, it’s important to attempt to refine a common sense of core purpose and values and accepted standards and practices.  But this is an industry where there are no barriers to entry and where access is determined as much by executives, HR folks and externally-oriented communication directors, as by senior internal communication pros.  An intramural consensus on “what is ‘normative’ is unlikely to engage those who make hiring and budget decisions, and unlikely to be visible to the legions of practitioners entering the industry from other fields.

2) There seems to be an assumption that formal communication, either of the managerial or published variety, is somehow the sole or primary vehicle for connecting employees with the information they need to do their jobs.

Such an assumption belies the reality that much of the information employees glean in their workplaces are collected through their interactions with peers and colleagues, the “grapevine.”  In my view, our role is neither to “inform” employees in a journalistic manner, or “align” them so that they behave in a certain, specified way.  Employees select their own information sources, and choose how they behave, based on their own perceptions of what they need to know and to achieve their desired levels of performance. And, in reference to the conversation about intellectual laziness, this is no less true of our fellow internal communicators

3) There also seems to be an assumption that internal communicators all have the same raison d’etre.

Internal communicators are internal.  We are not paid for our objectivity, our ability to dance to our own moral drummer.  We are paid to work for our organizations. As to why we are paid?  It really depends on the organization and the arrangement.  In many organizations, we are paid to make it easier for employees and their companies to work toward common objectives.  In others, we work to facilitate productive interactions between managers and staff, drive business literacy, or to stimulate effective social communication between colleagues across the organization.

Those are not the only models, however.  Some companies see internal communication as a vehicle for advancing their organizational agendas, and others as a box-ticking exercise or as a tool for achieving better social cohesion. The first step for a communicator to begin to maximize his or her influence is to figure out which model is the actual one the organization is operating in.  Coming in with a one-size-fits-all set of moral or professional standards could be most counterproductive.

Moving the debate forward

In order to move from debating the nature of internal communication to shaping its future, the main task is to recognize its current context and assess what is driving its future development.  Questioning the values, behavior, standards and savvy of practitioners and, indeed, the collective mind-set of the industry is no bad thing.  The debate about the future will marry such an inquiry with a deep appreciation of the diversity of contexts in which we operate and the trends, be they demographic, cultural, financial or technological, which we will increasingly confront.  Let that conversation begin.


David Murray Article:

Shel Holtz Article:

IABC Group Discussion on LinkedIn: (registration may be required)

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  1. Hi MIke,

    This brings us back to our Brick Lane debate: is communication an organisational capability that no longer requires a (professional) function in traditional terms?

    I’d argue that the relentless focus on competencies, best practices and techniques has rendered the evolution you advocate a lot more difficult today than it was even 5, 10 years ago. We have systematically reduced the value of agility, dynamism, flexibility, innovation, and most importantly ideas out of the IC function.

    • Kevin… I agree with you, and for that matter, with Roger and David as well, that the internal communication “profession” has been weakened on a number of levels. But I do not see the solution as either a retreat to hoary practices and principles, nor to declare the profession “dead” from an exalted position as the “advisor to the C-suite.”. I believe the future of internal comms combines competence with tactics and tools as they emerge, confidence in advocating the organisation’s agenda while recognising its implications, and clarity about how communication “does” work, rather than slavish obeisance to conventional wisdom about how it “should” work.


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