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New Rules for Internal Communication: Unlocking value with employee participation

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In the course of digitalization, companies face the challenge of promoting networked and innovative thinking. At the same time, digital tools and the social intranet in particular offer the opportunity to connect employees on a large scale and to initiate company-wide dialogue. Finally, changing media usage habits and a shift in values are making employees themselves more demanding when it comes to participating in their company.

In light of all this, pure top-down communication and the regulated communication cascade have seen their last days. Internal communication must increasingly focus on participation to successfully reach its target groups and support corporate goals. At least, this the goal internal communication sets for itself in many areas.

But to what extent has internal communication already changed from proclaiming fixed truths to moderating different contributions? Where does it effectively use participation, and how does it address the associated challenges? We spoke to 17 internal communication executives about these questions. Here are their insights and recommendations for successfully handling participation in practice.

According to our interview partners, the boundaries between dialogue and participation are fluid – and a uniform understanding and use of participation is by no means a given.

Internal communication understands participation as soliciting employee input in the form of opinions, feedback and ideas. This input is used in three different ways:

1. Making internal communication more effective: Internal communication takes employee input into account when designing communication content and formats. The aim is to increase target group orientation, relevance and credibility of messages – and thus improve internal communication itself. For this purpose, internal communication relies on employee-generated content, internal ambassadors or sounding boards on which employees contribute feedback and ideas for internal communication.

“Employees don’t have hours of time to spend on internal communication. That’s why it’s so important to better address our target groups. Who better to help us do that than the people who consume the content of internal communication every day?” Interview participant

2. Boosting employee engagement: Internal communication engages employees in dialogue to sharpen their understanding of corporate issues and increase their engagement. Corresponding formats include, in particular, personal dialogue sessions with top management and cross-functional exchanges enabled by the social intranet.

“Above all, we want to achieve understanding among employees so that they really come to grips with important topics. And if they can get involved in something, they can deal with it in a completely different way and engage on a higher level than if they would only receive information.” Interview participant

3. Improving business decisions: Finally, internal communication incorporates employee input into business decisions to contribute to better organizational performance. To obtain the staff’s knowledge and ideas, internal communication uses workshops and idea submission initiatives, for example. It also relies on surveys and the social intranet to gather employee sentiment and advise top management on upcoming decisions to minimize reputational risk.

“When it comes to management decisions, it’s very important to know how the resonance body will react – on the capital markets, in public and of course within the company itself. Good internal communication and good management always keep an eye on this resonance body and consider it in the decision-making process.” Interview participant

There is an overwhelming consensus among our interview partners when it comes to the importance of participation with respect to their work: They consider participation to be the key success factor for internal communication in the face of changing framework conditions. Our interview partners mention not only the altered expectations of employees regarding participation opportunities, but also the increasing pressure for corporate transformation and from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted companies to change their methods of reaching employees in home offices.

“The need for participation has changed significantly in recent years. If we don’t get the use of participation right in internal communication, that’s a death sentence. Then internal communication will no longer work.” Interview participant

However, our interview partners still consider top-down information to be indispensable and a necessary counterpart to participation. By giving a sense of direction and providing the necessary knowledge and understanding of the corporate strategy, they believe top-down information to be the prerequisite for employees to contribute meaningful input.

At the same time, they do not yet see their participation offer where it should be. This applies to both those internal communicators whose participation offer is already well developed, and those who see themselves still at the beginning of the journey. Both groups strive for a more systematic integration of participation in internal communication and greater promotion of dialogue across hierarchies and departments.

Overall, our interviews reveal three challenges that internal communication needs to address when implementing participation:

1. New competencies and knowledge required: Participation entails a high degree of complexity for internal communication because of the diverse dialogue processes involved. This results in new requirements for the discipline: In the new role of moderator and enabler, it must facilitate dialogue, support negotiation and strengthen the communication skills of management and employees.

Especially the role of moderator is not necessarily part of the established repertoire of internal communication. It requires competencies and methodological knowledge that internal communication must continue to develop.

2. Strategic options not yet fully exploited: Internal communication primarily relies on participation when it comes to soft topics such as value, purpose and vision processes. Likewise, participation plays a role in communicating corporate strategy, sustainability and organizational change.

With regard to digital transformation and innovation, however, internal communication often only acts in the role of the classic reporter and gives precedence to HR and IT when it comes to participation. The strategic option of promoting digitalization and innovation through participation therefore still has room for development.

3. Hesitant use of participation offers: When it comes to challenges from within the organization, our interview partners consider overcoming employees’ reluctance to take advantage of participation opportunities to be the biggest challenge.

While this seemingly contradicts the described change in employees’ expectations, the internal communicators see the reluctance as being primarily due to hierarchical structures and management’s influence on corporate culture. Fostering participation opportunities is thus part of a cultural change that internal communication must promote and steer.

The introduction of participation in internal communication is still in full swing. In our interviews, three solutions are emerging with which internal communication can successfully master this process:

1. Defining a clear target picture: With participation and the accompanying change of role from gatekeeper to moderator and enabler, internal communication loses control and interpretive authority. This requires internal communicators to reflect on their own attitude and determine what target picture they are pursuing with participation.

“We are already enablers now, and are trying to develop this role even further. The question we have to ask ourselves in this context is: To what extent do I completely relinquish control of certain things at some point?” Interview participant

Defining this target picture includes answering what objectives and opportunities for participation internal communication is pursuing and how much control it can and wants to give up in the process. In this way, internal communication is able to plan participation strategically and use it in the best possible way for corporate value contribution.

At the same time, of course, internal communication must strive for a strong alliance with top management. As the decision-making authority, top management is ultimately decisive in ensuring that internal communication can implement the target picture.

2. Ensuring a well-thought-out usage of participation: Internal communicators must carefully design their participation offer to encourage employees to get involved.

For one thing, credibility is crucial: Internal communication needs to clarify where and to what extend participation is possible and to visibly demonstrate that employee input is being leveraged. Just as important is relevance. To this end, the participation offering should include topics that affect employees emotionally, tangibly and directly and make responsible use of employees’ limited time.

“‘If the employee’s input doesn’t fit, we don’t allow it.’ That doesn’t work. Instead, internal communication must think participation through to the end and check where it makes sense and is wanted in all consequences. Only there should it actually initiate and request participation.” Interview participant

Finally, internal communication should take into account the different needs of internal target groups. This includes focusing on individual departments and sites rather than communicating on a global level and addressing the different dispositions of employees, for example by using BYOD solutions for production employees.

3. Investing time and patience: Successfully implementing participation in internal communication requires overcoming cultural hurdles and giving employees the sense of the psychological safety necessary to participate. That is a long-term process and takes time and patience.

“Participation requires a certain corporate culture. This usually has to be developed first by showing that employee feedback is of value. Internal communication must allow time to make this clear internally. Persistence and patience are therefore crucial.” Interview participant

As employees must experience that even critical contributions are valued, internal communication should have the staying power not to give up participation even in the face of initial difficulties. In this context, the opportunity to participate already acts as an intervention for change that helps internal communication to contribute to an open and participatory culture.

Contact

Katrin Häbel
Managing Director | Germany