Groups handling internal communications within their organizations experiment with engaging employees through virtual forums. These forums create space for collaboration. In time, meaningful collaboration foments a culture of innovation. How might internal communications advance this culture? How might they secure deeper engagement? In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores how securing deeper commitment between organization and employee opens the door to deeper engagement.

Reaching Out

The people who labor in internal communications can with ease reach their audience of employees. This is the theory.This is the belief. They can ask their friends in the human resources group for a list of staff names and addresses. They can hang banners in the lobby. They can imprint messages on the key fobs, koozies, and coffee mugs that comprise the contemporary arsenal of useful knickknacks and gimcracks handed to workers, regularly.

Reaching employees presents challenges. This is the reality. Employees who wire homes for cable television spend their time in basements and crawl spaces. Employees opening the field office in Tirana wrestle with intermittent internet service.

Tried and true approaches, such as inserting notices in an employee’s pay stub,have lost currency: the verdantly green digiterati have moved to direct deposit. Mergers and acquisitions exacerbate the problem. Waves of people to come and goin a fleshy tide of pressed suits and pleated skirts.

Of late, internal communications groups have experimented with the virtual, open form of collaborative innovation as a way to reach more people. In doing so, they find themselves in accord with the people in their organization who set out to help their colleagues pursue the practice of collaborative innovation.

With the latter, the end game is ideation; with the former, awareness and communication. Both rely on engagement.

What might the tyro communicator learn from the pioneering innovator?

In this article I revisit the model that describes the larger forum in which collaborative innovation takes place. The critical insight: commitment between sponsor and participant prescribes the potential for engagement. People in internal communications can use this relationship between commitment and engagement to pursue not only more effective outreach, but also a more innovative organization.

Step by Step

Followers of the Innovation Architecture series recognize the forum portion of the collaborative innovation blueprint (figure 1). Forum depicts the manner in which the person sponsoring collaborative innovation convenes a community of people for that purpose.

Figure 1: the collaborative innovation forum

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The open form represents space where people, unbidden and ungoverned, can share insights, perspective, and information. The enquiry led form, by complement, represents space where a leader—someone with designation of authority—pursues a critical question with people they convene for that purpose.

The internal focus is space within the hosting organization. Internal often means limited to the organization’s employees and contractors, for example. The external focus extends the space to include supplies, clients, consumers, or the world at large. Focus can be pursued virtually, via online forums, and in person, via ad hoc or facilitated sessions with people.

People working in the internal communications function have of late experimented with the virtual type of internally focused, open collaboration, in part to reach an increasingly digitally savvy audience and in part to begin engaging the audience in dialogue as opposed to broadcasting messages to them. This type of forum in this context serves as a virtual bulletin board or water cooler.

Having established this form, the questions are…

How do we gain deeper engagement, beyond posting internal news?

Where might we go next, now that we’ve started down this path?

In response, I would observe that, same as for people pursing collaborative innovation for the sake of ideation, deeper engagement works as a function of commitment. Figure 2 illustrates this point.

Figure 2: mapping the forum to commitment

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The open, internally focused, virtual form of collaborative innovation represents the lowest level of commitment. Here, the organization has created a space for communications—announcements, for example—with some limited form of commenting and filtering. The quid pro quo is low. The organization commits to feeding the portal with news. The community, in response, commits to reading items of interest and, in some cases, commenting. The commitment is transactional, based on the item in question. The physical variation of this form—all hands meetings, for example—demand a small increase in commitment. The organization commits to preparing materials—typically a narrative around goals and plans with a deliberate agenda. The community, in response, commits to sitting to listen to the information and, in some cases, raising their hands to ask questions during the inevitable question-and-answer session.

When people in internal communications lament that the level of engagement is low, they often have these forms of collaboration in mind.

My response: these forms were never meant to be engaging, to start. Whereas the means—from physical meetings to intranet portals—have changed, the essential commitment offered and given remains largely the same. Indeed, the level has of late declined in the shift from physical to virtual.

Where Next?

Internal communications staff who seek deeper engagement should refrain from introducing additional features to the capabilities and venues that they have in place to support the open form of collaborative innovation.

Instead, invest in the enquiry led form.

The enquiry led form moves you higher on the commitment curve—where you want to go. Commitment for you means finding a business sponsor within the organization who has a critical question to pose to the community. The community in the internal case may be all or a subset of your employees and contractors.

It’s like writing a question-and-answer piece for the company newsletter. In the Digital Age, the community supplies the answers.

One way to start down this path is to identify the sponsor to ask the question that serves as the subject of this article: How might we increase the level of employee engagement through approaches we take to internal communications?

What’s the quid pro quo with the community? The sponsor may choose to recruit from amongst the people who contribute the most compelling ideas an “IC Zebra Team,” chartered to implement those ideas with their guidance. That is, the commitment is not transactional. The commitment endures beyond the call and response of the initial question.

Parting Thoughts

Members of the internal communications staff have a tough row to hoe. The organization today expects not only awareness, but also engagement.

The path forward—one blazed by people who for years have been practicing collaborative innovation—is not to intensify efforts in the low-commitment open space, but to make efforts in the higher commitment enquiry-led space.

Go for the jugular. Ask the compelling question. The broadcast model of internal communications is on its death bed. Nobody mourns its timely passing.

The internal communications professionals who succeed in transitioning to the Digital Age will find themselves less focused on telling a story and more focused on helping people in the organization engage in their own narrative: what do they see by way of sharing the ideas they have to move the organization forward on a productive path.

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations big and small navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by developing approaches, creating forums, and structuring engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the process and ideas that result.As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).

Today, Doug works at social innovation leader Spigit, where he consults with clients such as BECU, Estee Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, Ryder System and the U.S. Postal Service. Doug helps them to realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

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