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Information Underload

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Internal CommunicationsThe Workers' Compensation poster is hung, the 2012 schedule of paid holidays is posted and employees get it - they must wash their hands before returning to work. Congratulations, you have successfully executed what passes for internal communications in many organizations.

Of course companies aren't going to see higher returns as a result of those efforts, but that's no reason to underestimate the importance of well executed internal communications. Managed properly, IC can be an effective strategic tool to help boost engagement, performance, retention and yes, even the bottom line. This is especially true for organizations with employees spread out across far-flung regions.

i4cp's Effective Internal Communications Report, released today, found that high-performing organizations have clearly figured out that internal communications needs to be more strategic in addition to being tactical. Overall, survey findings indicate that while low performers are focused on internal communications as a means to disseminate emergency, crisis and safety information, high performers use internal communications to deliver higher level information, including policy changes, company successes, company financials and even pay-for-performance information.

Internal Communications Practices

It goes without saying that - especially in times of economic uncertainty - employees want honest, straightforward information from the top. Frequent, transparent communication such as updates about the financial status of the organization, M&A plans and the road ahead can help keep employees engaged rather than distracted by worrying about what is going on. Employee-generated rumors move faster and farther through an organization than any official communication could hope to, so preemptive messaging can help slow or stop misinformation altogether.

But what about the bottom line? How does IC contribute? Sales and marketing teams are trained rigorously on company messaging. Thanks to this training, a decent salesperson can make an effective 30-second elevator pitch. However, most other employees receive no such training. So what happens when they are interacting with a vendor or a customer and are asked "what do you guys do?" Making sure that every employee can make that 30-second pitch strengthens the organization's branding and marketing exponentially. Effectively communicating the company's vision, goals and objectives to employees boosts engagement, strategic alignment and creates ambassadors throughout the organization.

In another move - away from the lunchroom bulletin board as the primary conduit for information sharing - effective communications departments are embracing new technologies. Dead-boring financial information can be presented with (tasteful) Flash animations. Information can be disseminated via blogs where employees can comment and have interactive discussions. Executives are producing video casts that employees can access through the company intranet. Having already had success with an external Facebook page and a YouTube channel, i4cp member-company Black Hills Corporation has launched a pilot group to explore various social media tools and how they can be used to improve internal communications.

Companies need to recognize that people have changed the way they get their information. A weekly email is not going to cut it in a world in which many are buried in email. Organizations are better served by creating internal web portals that are designed with similar architecture to the sites employees access for information outside of work. And it's critical to keep the content fresh and engaging. The company intranet is a resource that can be used to house all aspects of communication - newsletters, videos, presentations, blogs, discussions, etc.

In 2005, retailer American Eagle Outfitters launched AE Life, a branded corporate intranet dedicated to sharing information. One of the highlights of this project is that the content is contributed entirely by the associates, with review and approval from the Internal Communications group. By the end of 2009, the site was hosting more than 250,000 posts and images, and the number and frequency of associates accessing the intranet had increased significantly. The keys to the success of the project are that it is branded, easy to use, engaging and highlights interactivity.

In spite of long term economic uncertainty facing most companies, we are seeing organizations continue to expand their operations around the globe, which makes internal communications even more critical. While it is one thing to keep a group of people located in the same building engaged and aligned, it is a completely different challenge to produce cohesive communications for geographically (and often culturally) dispersed employees. Not only do these far-flung workers need to be connected to the organization as a whole, they also need information that is relevant to their positions and locations.

Internal communications is an important function that should not be brushed off as a necessary evil. Organizations need to focus on ways to make the information current, fresh and engaging and invite employees to join the conversation. It is also a good idea to bring people from other parts of the organization into the communications fold, such as people with Website expertise, graphic and design talents, and even good writing and editing skills, which seem to be in short supply. Overall, it's important to recognize the strategic impact of internal communications and the function's ability to bring the company's vision and goals to the workforce.

David Wentworth has been a senior research analyst for the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) since 2005. He has published several reports and articles on various human capital subjects with an emphasis on workforce technology. The views (if any) represented in this article are his and his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of i4cp or any of its employees - except that everyone should wash their hands.

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