Organizations fund internal communications groups to develop and disseminate the central narrative for the group. Changes wrought by the Digital Age have usurped this group’s role as the exclusive interpreter and messenger for intra-firm information, however. In this article, innovation architect Doug Collins advocates that internal communications reframe and refresh its charter by embracing the practice of collaborative innovation in order to facilitate engagement amongst staff.

In my favorite movie, The Karate Kid, the sagacious Mr. Miyagi takes pubescent martial arts tyro Daniel (“Daniel-san”) under his wing. Miyagi, as inscrutable oriental, sets his student to a range of mundane tasks. Wash the car: wax on, wax off. Paint the fence: brush up, brush down. Take care of the dry cleaning: drop off, pick up. (The last addition comes as my own invention.)

In time, Daniel-san grows impatient with his chores (the ingrate!). He complains to Miyagi. Miyagi, perturbed by the whining of his gangly charge, proceeds to demonstrate to Daniel-san that, while laboring as his manservant, he was also, in a deliciously unmindful way, learning the primary defensive moves of karate. Fans of The Karate Kid cherish the many poignant epiphanies that the master prepares for the student throughout the film. East meets West.

Fans of the practice of collaborative innovation enjoy chances to “wax on, wax off,” too.

Consider the following. The sponsor convenes people in a community to share their ideas about how to tackle a critical business challenge. What can we create together that we cannot create on our own? What does success look like?

In contributing and exploring ideas, members engage deeply with one another. In exploring a shared vision, they communicate their intent. Engagement, within the context of the practice of collaborative innovation, serves as a means to an end. Members wax on innovation and wax off engagement.


In tandem, the campaign team—the group who helps the community realize their potential for leadership in pursuing collaborative innovation—struggles at times to integrate effective communications practices, and to insert the communicators themselves, into the work. Steps such as announcing the start and the eventual outcomes of a campaign become items on someone’s “to do” list. The person assigned the role of communicator is, unfortunately, often left to decipher the team’s cryptic white board noodling about the campaign, post facto.

…professionals who serve in the internal communications role suffer today from a crisis of identity.

For their part, the professionals who serve in the internal communications role suffer today from a crisis of identity. Historically, the group served as the one channel of information from the leadership to the stakeholders: employees and first-tier suppliers, for example. Further, this group had enough time and talented people with which to perfect their message to the troops.

The Digital Age reshapes this landscape. The troops share news with one another through social media as they witness events. The volume of inter-firm information grows as the group’s ranks thin.

One might forgive the group’s head if they reacted to the Digital Age upheaval by directing their staff to serve as gate keepers and manner minders. The village scold dons a pants suit.

Leaders face two negatives if they indulge this tendency. First, gate keepers retard the very intra-firm collaboration the enterprise craves. Second, they risk losing their talented communicators. People join the internal communications group because they see an opportunity to explore their gift for the written word, not because they aspire to impose whips-and-chains discipline amongst the staff. Those folks work in legal.

What opportunities, then, does the future hold for the organization’s internal communications group in a world that has moved from the broadcast model to one based on real-time personal engagement?

Collaborative Innovation to the Rescue

One possibility: embrace the potential for engagement that the practice of collaborative innovation offers. In other words, the internal communications group can make engagement its end, as the rest of the organization treats it as the means. Take a page out of Mr. Miyagi’s book on covert skill building.

Consider the following scenarios: merger & acquisition and organizational culture.

Merger & Acquisition

Macroeconomic doldrums limit mergers and acquisitions. Their number and size will grow as the economy recovers, however—as will the attendant headaches that come from wrestling with the challenges of internal integration and external positioning (figure 1).

Figure 1: wrestling with the unknowns in an acquisition

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The acquiring company looks to its internal communications group to help explain the event to its newly combined staff. Why was company X acquired? Why should the employees of company X remain with the larger entity, as opposed to jumping ship to arch nemesis company Y? When can everyone expect koozies with the new branding?

Employees receive FAQs and press releases that raise more questions than they answer. They read as if the management team is floating a trial balloon by way of explaining their rationale for the merger for the first time. Confidence in a shared, brighter future fails.

Instead, what if the internal communications team takes the lead in sponsoring internal innovation challenges, inviting the people from the newly acquired company to explore the possibilities they see in the combined entity?

All who have worked on—lived through—a major acquisition know that over half the potential of the merger lies hidden in the bowels of the acquired organization, where the due diligence team did not have time to plumb. Giving the people who now work for the combined entity an opportunity to surface these organizational diamonds in the rough goes a long way to helping the leadership team realize the value they saw in melding the groups. Inviting people to build a shared future encourages them to stay and to offer more fully the gifts they bring to the table to help ensure the acquisition succeeds (figure 2).

Figure 2: the internal communications group sponsors an innovation challenge that fosters engagement

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Organizational culture has been a topic of conversation since people dismissed the Hobbesian world view and decided to combine their efforts. Of late, people such as Peter Block and Peter Senge have offered insight into the possibilities of achieving deeper meaning from one’s work by thoughtfully considering one’s choices and, at large, the culture one promotes.

Culture has a “wax on, wax off” characteristic. It’s tough to change it overtly, by talking about it.

Here, the internal communications group is in an excellent position within the organization to assume the Mr. Miyagi role. The group could, for example, foster deeper engagement amongst employees by sponsoring an innovation challenge on that very subject—the question about the question (figure 3).

What possibilities for deeper engagement, were we to explore them more fully as a group, would lead to breakthroughs in the culture we have created?

Members of the internal communications bring many gifts to the table. They know how to help people articulate their thinking and to put the current state of affairs in context. These gifts make them excellent candidates to sponsor and manage innovation challenges around developing deeper levels of engagement amongst people in their organization.

Figure 3: the internal communications group influences culture through its own practices

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A More Central Role for the Internal Communications Group

The practice of internal communications has centered on perfecting the message and choosing with great sagacity the channel by which to deliver it. This work—the work of the story teller—continues to matter.

In addition, the Digital Age opens for the group a chance to realize more fully their potential for leadership by embracing the practice of collaborative innovation to foster deeper engagement: the communicator’s end game. Engagement occurs when dialogue begins. Conversations around envisioning an idea’s possibilities make for compelling dialogue.

In pursuing this path, the internal communications group reframes and refreshes its charter. The group repositions itself from not only serving as the messenger, but also as playing a direct, central role in helping the organization create the intent behind the message.

Miyagi-san would approve.

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question.
As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.