Two internal communication conferences took place in London last week.
On Monday 23 September it was simply SMILE with an unambiguous focus on social media. On Wednesday 25 September it was CIPR Inside, Building our Future, probably the largest gathering of internal communication practitioners in the UK this year.
So, where is practice at the moment?
As Dickens said in setting the scene for ‘A Tale of Two Cities’:
"It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity”.
Never before have internal communication practitioners had such a wide range of conferences, online resources, training and education to inform what they do. It is also a time of almost unquestionable belief in the power of social media. However, is such belief in internal social media justified? Should we pay more attention to incredulous eyebrows raised by senior managers about internal blogging?
At simply SMILE we learned from Rachel Miller that 42% of internal communication practitioners think that “collaboration” is the best way of describing social media inside organisations. How far it actually does this is more open to debate. So, it would be useful to conduct further research to find out the extent to which collaboration has improved as a direct result of internal social media.
Despite the buzz about the impact of external social media, it is foolish to believe that employees are currently using internal social media (e.g. internal blogs, video sharing, apps, SMS, IM) as a matter of course. At least, that is what Internal Communication Diploma students tell me. And Rachel reports that only 6% of practitioners say that internal social media is fully embedded in their company, so any impact right now is minimal.
We also discovered from Kelli Carlson-Jagersma at Wells Fargo that Millenials don’t naturally take to internal social media. That’s interesting. It suggests that there may be something very different about being active in social media in your personal life and being active in internal social media in an organisation. You need a network to be active in and Millenials take time to build their internal network.
My favourite session at simply SMILE was when Paolo Cederle, CEO of UniCredit Business Integrated Solutions, talked about his personal belief in the value of talking to employees, listening to what they have to say, learning from it and acting on it. In this case, internal social media is used as well as face-to-face communication and it works because the CEO believes in it and employees trust it.
It was also interesting that a lot of the discussion at simply SMILE came back to organisational culture, but culture was not on the agenda. Maybe next time?
At the CIPR Inside conference, the most forward looking presentation came from Sarah Larvor Global Head of Strategic Communication & Brand Strategy, National Grid. Sarah spoke less about internal social media and more about a future where the “internal” of internal communication is dropped and what we do is re-structured into integrated comms teams focused on content, channels and measurement. Sarah argues that traditional approaches are “doomed” and if by that we mean “one-way only, corporate, broadcast” approaches, then I agree.
To sum up, I am incredulous about any claims that internal social media is currently making a big, widespread, impact. On the other hand, I do believe that it can make a difference if it is implemented in a way that recognises the culture of the organisation. It has the tantalising potential of embedding employee voice in a more authentic way across organisations that moves leaders to become less like broadcasters and more like listeners. That really would help to lift employee engagement from the stagnation point of 30% that David MacLeod highlighted again at the CIPR Inside Conference. This thinking is included in the programme that Tracy Playle and I have developed for a Social Media for Internal Communications workshop that we have run for the past two years. Without thinking hard about culture, internal social media is unlikely to quickly fulfil the promise of radically changing the way the employees communicate in organisations.