In my opinion, internal communications should be taking its cue not only from journalism, but increasingly from behavioural science. Let me give you an example. Everyone who works in an office is familiar with the messy coffee corner; piles of cups in the sink, teabags clogging the drains, milk spilled on the counter, old sandwiches turning furry in the communal fridge, and if there is a dishwasher, it will invariably be full of clean crockery that nobody has cleared away. Sound familiar?
What you will often find as well, is the handmade poster – usually stained and curling at the edges – asking, cajoling, pleading or ordering people to clear up after themselves. But the evidence clearly indicates that this isn’t happening.
And how people respond to the messy coffee corner is also interesting to observe. Some tiptoe around the clutter, but tidy away their own stuff. Others just think that it’s messy already so one extra cup won’t matter one way or the other. And then there are the rare few who actually tackle the chaos and clear it up. How can we get everyone to do their bit?
This simple scenario is interesting, because it sheds light on some of the limitations of traditional internal communications whose key objective was primarily to inform. Today, internal communications is often asked to support an organisational change such as a new strategy, corporate values or even a new IT system. We are challenged to motivate people to change their behaviours in a way that builds a sense of accountability, improves performance and ultimately benefits the business.
Taking the coffee corner scenario as a metaphor, putting up a notice, sending a newsletter or reminding people in meetings may work for things that are nice to know, but are sorely insufficient for processes which require people to act or change their behaviour.
So instead of relying on media and channels to communicate, shouldn’t internal communications be about building relationships and facilitating collaboration across the organisation? Shouldn’t our focus be more on people rather than tools? Shouldn’t we be trying to get people to care rather than coercing them into action? If this approach helps improve organisational performance, maybe it will help improve the coffee corner situation as well.