I was asked on a training course last week what I thought the future of internal communications looks like. It’s a topic I’ve given a bit of thought to recently, having attended a few seminars and followed some online debates about ‘where our industry is going’. My opinion on the subject is no more valid than anyone else’s but let me put forward my take on what the next ten years will bring. Some of these views align with conventional thinking, while others may be more controversial. Some will no doubt prove to be completely wrong.
Comms people will need to learn to chill out. We’ve got to stop trying to manage everything. You see, the future will be less top-down and more organic. The digital generation will not tolerate the overly managed comms environment we have today, where comms people fill a disproportionate amount of time trying to co-ordinate the delivery of every last message. This type of ‘spreadsheet planning’ has only ever worked in the heads of comms people anyway. Real life doesn’t work like that. The future will be more open.
Comms will be more collaborative, connected and networked. The days of heavily spun corporate messaging and top-down cascades are numbered. The old ways of communicating are falling on deaf ears. Cascades have never worked and they will fail even more spectacularly in the future. Instead, organisations will need to develop a core narrative and tone of voice which defines their purpose and let messages develop organically from this core sense of being. Those messages – or stories – will be shared by leaders, managers and front-line staff in equal proportion using the collaboration and social networking tools that will replace many (but not all) of our traditional channels.
Comms will be more self-directed and personalised. This collaborative environment and the advance of technology will lead to personalised rather than corporate communications. Individuals will be able to choose their message, channel and collaboration preferences, and they will create or co-create many of the messages they need to be engaged. We will never be able (and we never should try) to control this new self-directed environment and disempower the messenger. We will all be internal communicators in the future.
A little bit of chaos will be a good thing. The idea of allowing individuals to personalise their comms environment and co-create the company narrative will terrify the purists, but that’s part of the mindset-shift we’ll have to make. We have to start letting go, and if that causes a little bit of chaos, then what’s so wrong with that? Innovation, creativity, engagement and motivation can thrive in chaos. Often the best communications are disruptive. We’ll need to get used to a bit of disruption.
Messages will need to reinforce purpose as well as strategy. Purpose will be more important that vision or strategy. People will increasingly want to know what they are part of. They will want more than money, a good team and a decent workplace to feel engaged. They’ll want to know why they do what they do. They will seek fulfilment through what Dan Pink calls mastery, autonomy and purpose. Generation Y will become Generation Why?
Communications will need to be more authentic. Most corporate messages are too dull to stick and their delivery is too bland to inspire. In the future, workers will demand something much more engaging, more authentic and more relevant. They will want to know what the organisation is doing and why, but they will want to have a voice and be heard. They will see through jargon and insincere behaviours. Values will become more important. Language will have to be simpler. Authenticity will be everything. This means leaders and managers will need to learn the art of emotional intelligence – the ability to get on with people, listen, empathise, explain, inspire, support, coach and challenge.
Managers will need to be empowered, not controlled. We’ll have to come to terms with the fact that middle managers cannot be controlled and used purely as passive instruments of a communication process. They are far too busy, stressed and uninterested to do what we tell them to do. We’ll have to learn to back off and let them get on with leading their people in their own way. Yes, we can help them, support them, coach them and encourage them but ultimately we’ll need to empower them. They will need to own the story and make it come alive for their people in ways that they know best.
Leaders and communicators will have to master creativity. Business leaders the world over recognise that creativity will be the single biggest skill for organisations to master to cope with what’s coming down the track. The penny will need to drop for us communicators too. We’ll have to be more innovative in how we craft, deliver and embed the corporate narrative. The ‘same old same old’ will no longer be enough. We’ll need to get noticed, raise eyebrows and get people involved.
The boundaries between work and non-work will disappear. In the future, workers will know (and will want to know) much more about their colleagues than the person they see 9-5. Organisations will want to tap into the skills and expertise their workers have in the ‘real world’. Leaders will talk about their weekend selves as well as their corporate selves, and people will value them for it. We will communicate 24/7 and we will expect to access our work anytime, anyplace, from any device.
The IC model will change. There will be fewer in-house experts, largely because communications responsibility will be more widely embedded in the organisation (an outcome we’ve always wished for surely?) and also because the agile business environment of the future will demand more flexible specialist resources on an ‘as required’ basis. Organisations will bring in third-party expertise to deliver specific outcomes from networked agency partners and trusted freelance specialists. Our remit will expand into territory traditional held by HR departments and we will be increasingly influential in the development of engagement drivers such as innovation, creativity, collaboration, recruitment, workplace, wellbeing and leadership.
We will change. Those internal comms practitioners who remain and thrive in the future will be those who foresee and respond to what’s coming down the line. They will be the ones who had the courage to stop doing some of the things they’ve always done and acted as a catalyst for change. They will be the ones who embraced and mastered creativity. They will be prepared for what technology will offer but they will never lose sight of the fact that communication is essentially human and that humans are essentially social creatures. Their traditional core skills will be complemented by a greater understanding of human behaviour. They will be respected, right-brained thinkers, valued for their contribution and rewarded well. [That last bit was more wishful thinking than anything else but I wanted to end a high!]