Employee / Organizational Communications

Dr. Berger’s article outlines the subject of employee/organizational communication, describing its importance and basic internal communication processes, networks and channels. Highlighting important issues in current practices, the article concludes with 15 principles of effective communication and an interactive list of recommended readings.

“The greatest continuing area of weakness in management practice is the human dimension. In good times or bad, there seems to be little real understanding of the relationships between managers, among employees, and interactions between the two. When there are problems, everyone acknowledges that the cause often is a communication problem. So now what?” Jim Lukazewski, 2006

Executive Summary

This article reviews the research-based knowledge regarding employee/organizational communications, a complex process that is vital to organizational success in a dynamic global marketplace. I first define the subject, summarize its importance and describe basic internal communication processes, networks and channels. The benefits of internal communication are then highlighted, followed by a history of the changing perceptions and practices of internal communication. I then discuss the roles of professional communicators and four important issues in current practice–social media, measurement, employee engagement and organizational identity. The article concludes with 15 principles of effective communication, a list of references and some suggested readings.

I want to thank internal communication experts Keith Burton, Gary Grates and Sean Williams, whose valuable insights and suggestions greatly enriched this article.

Definition of the Topic

Employee/organizational communications refer to communications and interactions among employees or members of an organization. I use the terms internal communications and organizational communications to mean the same thing. Internal communications also have been called internal relations (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006) and internal public relations (Kennan & Hazleton, 2006; Kreps, 1989).

Deetz (2001) described two ways of seeing and defining internal communications. The most common approach focuses on internal communication as a “phenomenon that exists in organizations” (p. 5). In this view, the organization is a container in which communication occurs. A second approach sees internal communication as “a way to describe and explain organizations” (p. 5). Here, communication is the central process through which employees share information, create relationships, make meaning and “construct” organizational culture and values. This process is a combination of people, messages, meaning, practices and purpose (Shockley-Zalabak, 1995), and it is the foundation of modern organizations (D’Aprix, 1996).

The first approach has dominated, but the second perspective is gaining wider acceptance as more organizations recognize the crucial role of communication in dealing with complex issues and rapid changes in a turbulent global market.

Why Internal Communication Matters

Communication is one of the most dominant and important activities in organizations (Harris & Nelson, 2008). Fundamentally, relationships grow out of communication, and the functioning and survival of organizations is based on effective relationships among individuals and groups. In addition, organizational capabilities are developed and enacted through “intensely social and communicative processes” (Jones et al., 2004). Communication helps individuals and groups coordinate activities to achieve goals, and it’s vital in socialization, decision-making, problem-solving and change-management processes.

Internal communication also provides employees with important information about their jobs, organization, environment and each other. Communication can help motivate, build trust, create shared identity and spur engagement; it provides a way for individuals to express emotions, share hopes and ambitions and celebrate and remember accomplishments. Communication is the basis for individuals and groups to make sense of their organization, what it is and what it means.

Communication Processes, Networks and Channels

Internal communication is a complex and dynamic process, but early models focused on a one-way transmission of messages. The Shannon-Weaver Model (1949), concerned with technology and information distribution, is a classic example. In this S-M-C-R model, an information source [S] encoded a message [M] and delivered it through a selected channel [C] to a designated receiver [R], who decoded it. Later versions of the model added a feedback loop from receiver to sender. Nevertheless, the model suggested that all meaning is contained within the message, and the message would be understood if received. It was a sender-focused model.

Berlo’s (1960) S-M-C-R model provided a richer interactional perspective. He emphasized relationships between source and receiver and suggested that the more highly developed the communication knowledge and skills of sources and receivers, the more effectively the message would be encoded and decoded. Berlo also acknowledged the importance of the culture in which communication occurs, the attitudes of senders and receivers and strategic channel selection. Later models emphasized the transactional nature of the process and how individuals, groups and organizations construct meaning and purpose (Harris & Nelson, 2008).

Today, the model is more complex due to new media and high-speed, multi-directional communications (Burton, 2008; Williams, 2008). However, the core components live on in formal communications planning and implementation. Organizational leaders and communication specialists first develop strategies to achieve objectives, construct relevant messages and then transmit them through diverse channels to stimulate conversations with employees and members. Increasingly, formal communications are grounded in receivers’ needs and concerns. Employees communicate informally with others inside and outside the organization through high-speed communications, too.

Communication Levels

Internal communication occurs on multiple levels. Interpersonal or face-to-face (F-T-F) communication between individuals is a primary form of communication, and for years organizations have sought to develop the speaking, writing and presentation skills of leaders, managers and supervisors. Group-level communications occur in teams, units and employee resource or interest groups (ERGs). The focus on this level is information sharing, issue discussion, task coordination, problem solving and consensus building. Organizational-level communications focus on such matters as vision and mission, policies, new initiatives and organizational knowledge and performance. These formal communications often follow a cascade approach where leaders at hierarchical levels communicate with their respective employees, though social media are changing communications at this level.

Communication Networks

A network represents how communication flows in an organization. Networks can be formal and informal. In a formal communication network, messages travel through official pathways (e.g., newsletters, memos, policy statements) that reflect the organization’s hierarchy. Informal communications move along unofficial paths (e.g., the grapevine, which is now electronic, fast and multidirectional) and include rumors, opinions, aspirations and expressions of emotions. Informal communications are often interpersonal and horizontal, and employees believe they are more authentic than formal communications (Burton, 2008). Employees and members use both networks to understand and interpret their organizations.

Communications also can be described as vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Vertical communication can be downward–flowing down the hierarchy of an organization–or upward, i.e., moving from lower to higher levels in the chain of command. Horizontal communication refers to communication among persons who have no hierarchical relationship, such as three supervisors from different functions. Diagonal or omni-directional communication occurs among employees at different levels and in different functions, e.g., a quality control supervisor, accountant and systems analyst. Evolving organizational structures and technologies create opportunities for new and conflicting communication flows (Williams, 2008).

Studies regarding the effectiveness of communication flows often reveal employee dissatisfaction with both downward and upward communications. Findings by the Opinion Research Corporation, which has examined employee perceptions of internal communication for more than 50 years, generally show that more than half of employees are dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with both downward and upward communications (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006). Less is known about the effectiveness of horizontal and diagonal communications.

Communication Channels

A communication channel is a medium through which messages are transmitted and received. Channels are categorized as print, electronic or F-T-F (interpersonal). Common print channels include memos, brochures, newsletters, reports, policy manuals, annual reports and posters. New technologies have spurred the use of electronic channels, e.g., email and voice mail, Intranets, blogs, podcasts, chat rooms, business TV, video conferencing, instant messaging systems, wikis and electronic town-hall meetings. Face-to-face channels include speeches, team meetings, focus groups, brown bag lunches, social events and gatherings and management by wandering around.

According to Harris and Nelson (2008), the most used channel is listening, which consumes about half of our communication time (Johnson, 1996). Effective listening is crucial to learning, understanding, conflict resolution and productive team work. It helps leaders at all levels improve employee morale, retain employees and uncover and resolve problems. Yet, many studies suggest that most people are not good listeners, and few organizations devote resources to developing listening skills in managers and leaders (Alessandra & Hunsaker, 1993).

“The medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Selection of Media

Today, organizations and their employees and members have access to many communication channels. Selecting the most appropriate medium or media is an important issue for professional communicators once they have determined objectives and strategies, assessed relevant audiences and constructed messages. Perhaps no one made this point more strongly than McLuhan (1964), who claimed that “the medium is the message.” He argued that each medium, independent of content, engages receivers in different ways and affects the scale and pace of communication.

McLuhan distinguished between “hot” and “cool” media, each of which involves different degrees of receiver participation. Hot media (e.g., print channels, film, lecture, radio) require less active participation and involvement than cool media (e.g., TV, comic books, F-T-F channels). Hot media are more segmented and linear, while cool media may be more abstract and require more participation to understand.

Daft and Lengel (1984) developed a media richness model to explain media choices. They said that media choice should match the ambiguity of any communication task with the richness of particular media. Ambiguity refers to the difficulty of interpreting or understanding a message. Media richness refers to the capability of media to effectively convey information. Capability is differentiated by the availability and speed of feedback of the channel, the use of multiple cues and natural language to facilitate understanding and the personal focus of the message.

The researchers proposed a continuum of media choices: At one end are channels that possess most or all of these capabilities (rich media); at the other end are channels with few of these characteristics (lean media). F-T-F communication is the richest medium and optimal channel for communicating complex information or resolving conflicts, for example. Lean and impersonal media include simple announcements, data reports and posters. Electronic mail, phone calls, personal written communications and other channels fall in the middle of the continuum.

Later research has shown that media selection also is influenced by the social environment in organizations, which affects member attitudes toward a channel or medium and how it is or should be used in their organizations (Fulk et al., 1987). The dual-capacity model of media use (Sitkin, Sutcliffe, & Barrios-Choplin, 1992) argued that any channel carries two types of messages–a “data” or task-related message, and a “meaning” or symbolic message. The data-carrying capacity of media is similar across organizations, but the symbol-carrying capacity varies from one organization to another due to cultural differences. Thus, communicators should select channels based on message ambiguity, media richness, organizational culture and available resources.

Measureable Benefits

Internal communication continues to evolve in a dynamic world characterized by an explosion of new technologies, intense global competition and rapid change. Today, many would agree with Harris and Nelson’s (2008) assertion that internal communication is an essential aspect of organizational change–it is “the key variable in almost all change efforts, diversity initiatives and motivation” (p. 95). Some even argue that internal communication is the most “fundamental driver of business performance” (Gay, Mahoney & Graves, 2005, p. 11).

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that effective internal communications help increase employee job satisfaction, morale, productivity, commitment, trust and learning; improve communication climate and relationships with publics; and enhance quality, revenues and earnings. Here are some examples:

  • Employees who are disloyal to their organizations, or lack commitment to helping organizations achieve their goals, may cost business $50 billion per year in quality defects, rework and repair costs, absenteeism and reduced productivity, according to Alvie Smith, former director of corporate communications at General Motors (cited in Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006).
  • Improving the quality, adequacy and timeliness of information that employees receive about customers, the organization or their own work can improve their individual performance by as much as 20-50 percent (Boyett & Boyett, 1998).
  • More than 80 percent of employees polled in the US and UK said that employee communication influences their desire to stay with or leave an organization. Nearly a third said communication was a “big influence” on their decision (Burton, 2006).
  • The 200 “most admired” companies spent more than three times as much on employee communications as the 200 “least admired” companies (Seitel, 2004).
  • Employees’ satisfaction with communication in their organizations is linked to organizational commitment, productivity, job performance and satisfaction and other significant outcomes (Gray & Laidlaw, 2004).
  • Organizations with engaged and committed employees were 50 percent more productive than those organizations where employees weren’t engaged. In addition, employee retention rates were 44 percent higher in organizations with engaged and committed employees (Izzo & Withers, 2000).
  • Positive communication climate and effective employee communication strengthen employees’ identification with their organizations, which contributes to an organization’s financial performance and sustained success (Smidts, Pruyn & van Riel, 2001).
  • Sears Roebuck found that creating a more compelling place to work for employees led to a significant increase in employee attitude scores, customer satisfaction scores and revenues (Rucci, Kim & Quinn, 1998).
  • A significant improvement in communication effectiveness in organizations was linked to a 29.5 percent rise in market value (Watson Wyatt, 2004).
  • Effective communication facilitates engagement and builds trust, which is a critical ingredient in strong, viable organizations (Grates, 2008). Engaged employees enhance business performance because they influence customer behavior, which directly affects revenue growth and profitability (Towers Perrin, 2003).

The Evolution of Internal Communication

Social theorist James Coleman (1974, 1990) traced the rise of large organizations and claimed they have changed communications practices and personal relationships through two powerful interactions: big organizations communicating with other big organizations and with individuals. Large organizations were relatively new in the early 20th century, apart from government and the military, so theories developed to explain how organizations worked and tried to achieve their goals. This section outlines five theoretical approaches that evolved in the last century–the classical, human relations, human resources, systems and cultural approaches. Communication features or characteristics of each approach are briefly described. More comprehensive treatments may be found in many communication texts, e.g., Harris & Nelson, 2008; Miller, 1995; and Modaff, DeWine & Butler, 2008.

Classical Approaches

Sometimes referred to as the machine metaphor because of how employees were viewed as interchangeable parts, this approach is grounded in scientific management theories of work and workers in the early 20th century. Frederick Taylor (1911) was the best known proponent of this approach. He studied factory production lines and concluded that work processes could be improved by applying scientific principles to jobs and workers. These included such things as designing each task to improve performance, hiring workers who possessed characteristics that matched each job and training workers and rewarding them for productivity achievements.

Henri Fayol (1949) believed that operational efficiency could be improved through better managerial practices. He prescribed five elements of managing (planning, organizing, command, coordination and control) and 14 principles of administration. Fayol also introduced the “Scalar Chain,” which represents organizational hierarchy, and said that communication needed to follow this chain to reduce misunderstanding. During times of emergency, however, he indicated that employees might communicate with each other across the organization. This first notion of horizontal communications came to be called “Fayol’s bridge.”

The German sociologist Max Weber (1947) developed a theory of bureaucracy as a way to formally establish authority and structure operations and communications. Some key components of this approach included: a distinct chain of command with centralized decision-making; clear delineation of tasks and responsibilities; and writing everything down to avoid misunderstandings.

Communication features: Two key communication goals were to prevent misunderstandings, which might impair productivity or quality, and to convey decisions and directives of top management. The formal structure of organizations drove top-down communication, primarily through print channels. The content of most communications was task or rule oriented. The social side of communication was largely ignored, and employees relied heavily on the grapevine for such information.

Human Relations Approaches

In the 1930s, the focus shifted from work tasks to employees and their needs, and the Hawthorne Studies spurred this movement. Carried out at the Western Electric Company in Chicago, the studies revealed the importance of groups and human relationships in work. Elton Mayo (1933) and his Harvard colleagues discovered that employees who worked in friendly teams, with supportive supervisors, tended to outperform employees who worked in less favorable conditions. This and related research became the basis for the “human relations” approach.

Chester Barnard (1938), an AT&T executive, highlighted the functions of organizational executives and their role in communication. He emphasized the importance of formal and informal communications to the organization’s success and argued that cooperation among workers and supervisors was crucial to improving productivity. In his view, the key to cooperation was communication: “The most universal form of human cooperation, and perhaps the most complex, is speech,” he wrote (1938; cited in Modaff et al., 2008, p. 50).

Though writing later, McGregor (1960) perhaps best articulated principles of the human relations organization through his “Theory X” and “Theory Y” presentation. These approaches focused on opposing assumptions that managers may hold for workers, and the corresponding behaviors of managers. Simply put, Theory X managers believe workers lack motivation, resist change and are indifferent to organizational goals. Thus, managers must provide strong, forceful leadership to direct and control employees. Theory Y managers believe employees are highly motivated, creative and driven to satisfy their needs for achievement. The role of managers, then, is to elicit those tendencies through employee participation in decision making, managing by objectives and problem solving in work teams.

Communication features: This approach included more F-T-F communication and acknowledged the importance of internal communications. Downward communication still dominated, but feedback was gathered to gauge employee satisfaction. Some social information was added to the task-oriented content of communication, and managerial communications were less formal.

Human Resources Approaches

The human resources approach (Miles, 1965) was widely adopted by organizations in the 1960s. This participative, team approach to management-employee relations recognized that employees can contribute both physical and mental labor.

Blake and Mouton (1964) developed a Managerial Grid to help train managers in leadership styles that would stimulate employees’ cognitive contributions, satisfy needs and help the organization succeed. The preferred team-management style–high on concern for both people and production–became the basis for management development practices in a number of companies. Quality control circles, decentralized organizations, total quality management and employee participation groups are manifestations of this approach.

Focusing more on organizational structure, Rensis Likert (1961, 1967) theorized four organizational forms and labeled them System I through System IV. Likert believed that a System IV organization, characterized by multi-directional communication and a participatory style and structure, would spur productivity gains and reduce absenteeism and turnover.

Other theorists argued that the best leadership style would vary from one event to another, depending on contingencies in the environment. Fiedler (1967) said that leaders should first define a contingency and then determine the most appropriate leadership behaviors to deal with it. Contingency theory recognizes that organizations and environments are constantly changing, and there is a need to monitor environments and carefully analyze information before making decisions.

Communication features: Communication became multidirectional and more relational. Feedback was sought to enhance problem solving and stimulate idea sharing. Innovation content was added to social and task information in communications. Concepts of employee trust and commitment emerged as important issues, and organizations began to share communication decision-making among employees.

Systems Approaches

In the 1970s some theorists adopted a systems perspective, viewing organizations as complex organisms competing to survive and thrive in challenging environments. In general systems theory, any system is a group of parts that are arranged in complex ways and which interact with each other through processes to achieve goals (vonBertalanffy, 1951, 1968). An auto supply company, for example, consists of a number of departments or units (production, marketing, finance, sales), each of which includes individuals and teams. The functioning of any of these units or subsystems relies on others in the organization; they are interdependent. The company is also part of a larger supra system–the automobile industry.

Systems and subsystems have boundaries that are selectively opened or closed to their environments, allowing the flow of information and other resources. Open systems use information exchange (input-throughput-output) to grow and thrive; closed systems don’t allow much information to move in or out. To survive and adapt, all social systems require some degree of permeability (Stacks, Hickson & Hill, 1991).

As Almaney (1974) suggested, communication is a “system binder” that links the system to its environment and its various subsystems to each other. Individuals who exchange information with other systems or groups (customers, government personnel, suppliers) are boundary spanners. Media outlets provide other important links between organizations and the environment.

Weick (1979) used systems theory to explain organizational behavior and the process of sense making. He argued that communication is the core process of organizing; through information produced by processes or patterns of behavior, systems can increase their knowledge and reduce uncertainty about the complex environments in which they operate.

Communication features: Communication is vital for exchanging information in and among subsystems through multidirectional channels which are used in internal communications. Feedback processes help systems adjust, change and maintain control. Collective decision-making processes and shared responsibilities for communication are more prevalent.

Cultural Approaches

Cultural approaches emerged in the 1970s in the context of increasing competition from Japan and other nations in the global marketplace. Culture refers to an organization’s distinct identity–the shared beliefs, values, behaviors and artifacts that an organization holds, which determine how it functions and adapts to its environment (Schein, 1985). As the performance of American corporations declined, management scholars looked for other explanations of the behaviors and practices in the troubled companies. The cultural approach was attractive because of its dynamic nature and the kind of depth insights it can provide (Schein, 1996).

Two popular books in the 1980s influenced organizational practices and structures and helped culture gain mainstream recognition. Deal and Kennedy’s (1982) book, Corporate Culture: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, claimed that companies could improve their performance by developing a “strong” culture based on shared values, celebration of heroes and performance of rites and rituals, among others. The Peters and Waterman (1982) book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, captured characteristics of “excellent” cultures at high-performing businesses. These included customer focus, employee empowerment, trust, shared values and lean organizational structures. A decade later, Larkin and Larkin’s (1994) book, Communicating Change, highlighted the importance of F-T-F and supervisory communications during cultural changes or other major organizational initiatives.

Miller (1995) distinguished between prescriptive and descriptive approaches to examining organizational cultures. A prescriptive approach views culture as “something an organization has” (p. 108) and prescribes interventions to create or manage a “winning” or strong culture. However, scholars often adopt a descriptive approach, which considers culture “something an organization is” (Miller, 1995, p. 108). This approach rejects the notion of a one-size-fits-all cultural formula for success and focuses on how communications and interactions lead to shared meaning. Descriptive approaches also call attention to other important aspects of organizational culture, e.g., power relationships and gender and diversity issues.

Communication features: The cultural approach valorizes communication, seeing it as a culturally-based process of sharing information, creating relationships and shaping the organization (Brown & Starkey, 1994). Communication and culture share a reciprocal relationship (Modaff et al., 2008). Communications help create and influence culture through formal and informal channels, stories, shared experiences and social activities. Culture influences communications because employees interact though shared interpretive frameworks of culture, e.g., distinctive company vocabulary, valued media channels and established protocols and practices.

Summary

These five approaches demonstrate how internal communication changed as organizations grew and evolved. Today, elements of all five approaches live on in organizations–work rules, hierarchies, policies, training programs, work teams, job descriptions, socialization rituals, human resource departments, job descriptions, customer focus and so forth. Corresponding communication practices also are present today in formal, top-down communications, bottom-up suggestion programs, horizontal communications among team members, myriad print and electronic communications and new dialogue-creating social media that are changing communication structures and practices.

New perspectives continue to appear. Some use metaphors to depict organizations (Morgan, 1986) and internal communication (Putnam & Boys, 2006). Others focus on power, gender or hegemony issues in modern organizations (e.g., Mumby, 1993, 2001). Still others theorize companies as learning organizations, arguing that the only sustainable source of advantage for any organization is its ability to learn, acquire knowledge and change faster than others (e.g., Senge, 1990; Senge et al., 1994). Increasingly, researchers adopt cultural or co-creational views wherein employees and members share stories and construct interpretations and meanings through internal communications and conversations (Botan & Taylor, 2004).

“As their role has evolved from ‘conveyors of information’ to strategic business partners, communication professionals are being asked to better connect employees to the business, equip leaders with the skills and tools to effectively communicate, ensure that the right messages are ‘breaking through the clutter,’ and show measurable results–all daunting challenges.” Gay, Mahoney and Graves, 2005

The Internal Communication Professional

Curiously absent in many scholarly research articles are professional communicators or public relations specialists (Kennan & Hazleton, 2006). Much of the literature in this review suggests that internal communication has long been a struggle between the needs and desires of managers and those of employees. Professional communicators, if mentioned at all, are seen as technicians who carry out the compliance-gaining directives of executives.

But this view is changing, as is the role of communicators. Practitioners today are moving from historical roles as information producers and distributors, to advocacy and advisory roles in strategic decision making, relationship building and programs which foster trust, participation and empowerment. They help their organizations create a strong foundation for success in a dynamic world–a culture for communication that is conducive to open, transparent, authentic two-way communications and conversations.

Culture for Communication

Public relations excellence theory is grounded in a systems perspective (Dozier et al., 1995; J. Grunig, 1984, 1992; L. Grunig, J. Grunig, & D. Dozier, 2002). The role of public relations is to help organizations develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with internal and external stakeholders through excellent communications. Excellence theory also describes some factors that facilitate or impede creation of a culture for communication. These include: 1) a participative culture where employees are empowered, 2) a two-way system of communication, 3) a decentralized, less formal structure and 4) programs that treat men, women and minorities equitably (Grunig, & Grunig, 2006).

Sanchez (2006) claimed, “How an organization conceives and manages communication does more to tell about its culture than any other single process element” (p. 40-41). He was referring to communication planning, budgeting, staffing and policies. Seitel (2004) cited a Fortune magazine report in which the top 200 “most admired” companies spent more than half of their communication budgets on internal communications. This was more than three times as much as the 200 “least admired” companies. Colvin (2006) reported that the 100 “best companies” share the view that effective and ongoing two-way communication is the foundation for employee motivation and organizational success.

Rhee (2003) found in a comprehensive case study that employees who have positive relationships (high levels of commitment) with their organizations help develop positive relationships with the organization’s publics. In addition, publics assess an organization based on the quality of employee relationships with their organization. Important factors in employee-public-organization relationships include: leaders’ communication behaviors, the extent and quality of F-T-F communication, listening skills, opportunities for dialogue and the involvement of leaders in PR activities (http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2003_Rhee.pdf).

Internal Communication and Social Capital

Kennan and Hazleton (2006) outlined a theory of internal public relations based on social capital theory. Social capital is “the ability that organizations have of creating, maintaining and using relationships to achieve desirable organizational goals” (p. 322). Social capital accrues through communication, interaction and development of relationships inside and outside of the organization. The use of social capital gained through communication may increase employee satisfaction, commitment and productivity, as well as customer satisfaction.

Trust is the basis for productive relationships, cooperation and communication. Shockley-Zalabak et al. (2000) argued that trust is social capital which directly affects an organization’s ability to deal with change and crisis. They found that trust impacts the bottom line because it influences job satisfaction, productivity and team building; it also was linked to lower incidences of litigation and legislation. Brad Rawlins has provided a comprehensive review of trust on this web site (http://www.instituteforpr.org/essential_knowledge/ ).

Four Contemporary Issues

Organizations confront many challenges in today’s turbulent global market. They must process continuous changes and shifting workplace demographics, assimilate new technologies, manage knowledge and learning, adopt new structures, strengthen identity, advance diversity and engage employees–often across cultures and at warp speed. Internal communication lies at the center of successful solutions to these issues, and professional communicators must play key leadership, strategic and tactical roles to help their organizations resolve them. This section briefly reviews four issues affecting current practice:

1. Organizational Identity

Identification is a big concern for organizations because of the difficulties of being heard in a noisy world and disappearing organizational boundaries (Cheney & Christenson, 2001). Thus, organizations seek to create an identity that distinguishes them from others and ties employees more closely to them. Organizational identity has its roots in social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1976, 1986), which refers to an individual’s self-concept that grows out of membership in social groups. Group identity refers to an individual’s sense of what defines “us” versus others. Employees or members also can develop an identity with their organizations (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Mael & Ashforth, 1992). Haslam (2000) found that communication reflects and creates social identities, and shared identity helps build trust and shared interpretations.

Smidts, Pruyn and van Riel (2001) found that effective internal communication strengthened employees’ identification with their organizations, more so than perceived external prestige. A strong company identity can boost employee motivation and raise confidence among external stakeholders (van Riel, 1995). As Williams (2008) noted, however, a new generation of employees, less inclined to identify with their employers, requires new approaches to identity building. This may include greater use of new dialogue-creating media and e-communication groups. It also may require more employee interactions with customers and social causes, improved leaders’ listening skills and higher quality F-T-F communication (Rhee, 2003).

2. Employee Engagement

According to D’Aprix (2006), engaging employees more fully in their work is the most important issue facing organizations. Engagement refers to “unleashing the full energy and talents of people in the work place” (p. 227). Long an issue, it is more crucial today due to a dynamic marketplace, an information-saturated work place and trust and morale problems exacerbated by waves of downsizing, restructuring and corporate governance problems in the past 15 years (Burton, 2008). Employees are inundated with so much information today that they are overwhelmed, confused and work with the “volume off” (Grates, 2006).

Professional communicators can help by aligning words with actions, building relationships and conversing with employees rather than communicating at them, and helping guide authentic executive actions which reflect organizational purpose. Burton (2008) suggested that new technologies help engage employees by personalizing executive communications and reinforcing face-to-face initiatives. Edelman’s white paper (“New Frontiers,” 2006) on employee engagement provides a number of ideas for using social media to better reach and engage employees. (http://www.edelman.com/expertise/practices/employee_change/index.html).

The benefits of an engaged workforce are clear. Izzo and Withers (2000) found that organizations with engaged and committed employees were 50 percent more productive than those where employees weren’t engaged. Employee retention rates also were 44 percent higher. A Watson Wyatt (2002) study found that companies with more engaged employees produce greater financial returns. Engaged employees contribute discretionary efforts, which they otherwise may withhold (D’Aprix, 2006).

3. Measurement

Professional communicators agree that measurement of their work is crucial, but they share few standards for what or how to measure. As a result, many measurement practices are tactical in nature rather than strategic and ongoing (Williams, 2008). In addition, organizations are struggling to set objectives for new social media and to measure their effects in internal and external communication initiatives (Edelman, 2008).

Sinickas (2005) and Williams (2003) provide useful guidelines for conducting audits, developing surveys and other measurement tools, evaluating program results and analyzing and reporting data. Gay et al. (2005) outlined a variety of approaches communicators use to measure the ROI on their work. These include: cost savings measures (e.g., idea development programs); employee surveys, pulse surveys and focus groups for specific communication projects; and business outcome measures (e.g., retention, productivity, customer satisfaction and quality factors). A significant but seldom measured ROI on employee communication is the reduced cycle time for change associated with mergers, acquisitions and other culture-changing initiatives (Berger, 2008).

Employee communication case studies for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and General Motors (http://www.instituteforpr.org/research/employee/) offer specific examples of company measurement approaches. The GolinHarris Corporate Citizenship Index provides a larger picture (http://www.golinharris.com/news_rel.php?ID=86) of the contributions that effective and authentic communications make to developing public perceptions of corporate citizenship.

Though steady advances are occurring in evaluating internal communication projects and programs, better measures are needed to assess linkages among communications, longer-term outcomes and desired behavioral changes.

4. Social Media

The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine et al., 2000) put businesses on notice that the Internet and Intranets were radically altering the marketplace and the nature of stakeholder relationships. New social media facilitate a “powerful global conversation” in which everyone can participate and share opinions, ideas, knowledge and images with each other, and circumvent traditional gatekeepers. Middleberg (2001) claimed that apart from F-T-F communication, no other channels “allowed people to say things more creatively, expressively, precisely, and powerfully than the Internet” and other new media (xii).

Social media refer to new electronic and web-based communication channels such as blogs, podcasts, wikis, chat rooms, discussion forums, RSS feeds, web sites, social networks (e.g., MySpace and Second Life) and other dialogue-creating media. Social media are revolutionizing communications and reconfiguring the long-time S-M-C-R model of internal communication (Williams, 2008). New media increase the volume, speed and every-way flow of communication, connecting people, giving them a voice and stimulating discussions about topics of common interest (Smith, 2006).

Holtz (1999) wrote one of the first comprehensive resource works for practitioners to help guide strategic use of new media. He also co-authored books explaining how practitioners can develop and use blogs (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006) and podcasts (Holtz & Hobson, 2007) to dialogue and interact more effectively with employees and other stakeholders. However, external PR specialists and marketers have adopted new media more quickly than internal communication professionals. In part this is because organizations no longer control communication, so new media require professional communicators to rethink tactics, strategies and their own roles.

Burton (Insidedge, 2007) referred to social media as “me” communications, which challenge communicators to use them to stimulate employee engagement, provide relevant information and capture employee insights and issues. This means moving the professional role from one of information distribution to open dialogue, letting go of the notion of control, listening closely to others in the conversations, communicating honestly and equipping managers and supervisors as primary communicators.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer (http://www.edelman.com/trust/2008/) found that trust in media is increasing in part because new social media are now perceived as being an important component of more traditional mass media. A comprehensive study by The Society for New Communications Research (http://www.instituteforpr.com/) underscored the growing use of social media by professional communicators to disseminate information and engage publics. Communicators in the survey also rated highly the effectiveness of such media in achieving campaign goals, though measurement of social media is in the early stages.

For communicators, social media are here to stay. They also will continue to evolve, possibly to the point blogger Shel Israel suggests, where “people will be able to behave and interact online as they do in everyday life” (http://redcouch.typepad.com/weblog/2008/08/the-future-of-s.html).

On the other hand, new media have not killed or replaced traditional media, but rather influenced them and forced them to adopt (Holtz, 2006). Like all channels, new media represent advantages and disadvantages, and communicators must carefully analyze and assess their best use.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” George Orwell, 1946

15 Principles of Successful Internal Communications

Effective internal communication is hard work, but research findings and case studies point to some practices and principles which seem crucial to successful internal communications for organizations, employees and members. Here are 15 of them:

Timeliness and Content

  • Providing timely and relevant information to individuals, through channels they use and trust, and in language they understand, remains the basis for successful and strategic internal communications.
  • Communication content should provide context and rationale for changes or new initiatives as they relate to the organization, but especially to the relative performance or requirements of employees in local work units. This underlines the importance of the supervisor’s front-line role in communication.

Channels

  • Face-to-face communication is the richest medium. It should be emphasized in internal communications, especially to resolve conflicts or crises, communicate major changes and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Excellent listening skills reduce errors and misunderstanding, help uncover problems, save time, improve evaluations and facilitate relationship building. Development of excellent listening skills among leaders at all levels in organizations is crucial.
  • Social media are fast and powerful dialogue-creating channels which can empower and engage employees and members. They influence and alter traditional media and their uses, but don’t eliminate them. Communicators should blend new and traditional media in ways that help organizations best achieve their goals and enhance relationships with internal and external publics.

Leadership Roles

  • The CEO or senior leader(s) must be a visible and open champion for internal communication. Visibility is the first and most basic form of non-verbal communication for leaders.
  • The communication style of leaders should invite open, ongoing and transparent discussion so that people are willing to voice their opinions and suggestions.
  • The actions of leaders at all levels must match their words. This has everything to do with credibility and the extent to which employees will trust, commit to and follow leaders. As author Carolyn Wells said, “Actions lie louder than words.”

Professional Communicator Roles

  • Professional communicators must see themselves as internal experts on communication who serve as facilitators and counselors to executives and managers and provide strategic support for business plans.
  • Communicators must also be organizational experts. They must possess knowledge of the organization’s structures, challenges and objectives, as well as understand employee issues and needs and marketplace requirements and realities.

Participation and Recognition

  • Encouraging employee participation in decision making builds loyalty and commitment and improves the overall climate for communication. Participative decision making also often improves the quality of decisions.
  • Recognizing and celebrating achievements at all levels helps build shared values and organizational identity. Similar social events, rites and rituals contribute to and reflect an organization’s distinctive culture.

Measurement

  • Measurement is a key to successful communication in any organization. Through diverse forms and approaches, measurement helps define problems, determine the status quo, record progress, assess value and provide a factual basis for future direction and action. Improving measurement knowledge and practice is an ongoing professional requirement.

Culture

  • Ongoing two-way communication is the foundation for employee motivation and organizational success. Two-way (now every-way) communication provides continuous feedback, which is crucial to learning and to processing organizational change.

In addition to achieving specific goals, internal communications should help create and reflect a culture for communication, where employees at all levels feel free to openly share ideas, opinions and suggestions. This will enhance employee understanding, build trust, stimulate engagement and encourage greater diversity.

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Annotated Bibliography

Berger, B. K. (2008). Getting communications on senior management’s agenda. In P. Williams (Ed.), Employee communication: The comprehensive manual for those who communicate with today’s employees (pp. 97-114). Chicago: Ragan Communications.

This book chapter will help professional communicators plan, present and sell internal communication budgets and strategic proposals to senior executives. Berger argues that the mental models for employee communication held by some leaders and practitioners are outdated, leading to poor decision making. He outlines five steps for changing these mental models and then presents a lengthy section on the topic of “how to win a budget.” This section provides a candid look at the politics involved in resource allocation battles in large organizations. It concludes with a discussion of how to successfully answer 10 “killer questions” that executives may ask to try to derail or destroy your plans and budget proposals.

D’Aprix, R. (2006). Throwing rocks at the corporate rhinoceros: The challenges of employee engagement. In T. L. Gillis (Ed.), The IABC handbook of organizational communication (pp. 227-239). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This crisply written article makes a compelling case for engaging employees to help organizations become more competitive and successful in a global marketplace. The author argues that employee engagement is the most crucial issue facing organizations today. Citing data from various studies, D’Aprix describes how engagement captures the discretionary efforts of employees, which they may withhold or contribute. Such efforts contribute significantly to the achievement of organizational vision, mission and goals. Communicators can play a role by: 1) reinventing themselves as strategic counselors and consultants, 2) collecting data to uncover the causes of disengagement and make the business case for engagement and 3) improving leadership communications at all levels.

D’Aprix, R. (1996). Communicating for change: Connecting the workplace with the marketplace.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This book provides practitioners with guidelines for creating market-based strategic communications, which help connect the workplace to the marketplace. This is important because change often destroys connections between organizations and customers, and market forces and strategy, and among employees. Strategic communication is open, candid and focused on the customer and the marketplace. In this view, employees are critical change agents who require information to perform their jobs and collaborate with others to support a business strategy. D’Aprix contends the “best” internal communication is characterized by talk that matches walk, visible leadership, clear information about how the company is doing and the nature of the marketplace, an emphasis on F-T-F channels, measurement and research, quality listening and civility and courtesy.

Deetz, S. A., Tracy, S. J., & Simpson, J. L. (2000). Leading organizations through transition: Communication and cultural change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

This book blends theory and practice in a highly readable manner. It is invaluable for communicators who are engaged in cultural changes brought on by globalization initiatives, mergers, restructuring and technological innovations. In step-by-step fashion, the authors review the dynamic change process and how organizational employees come to process, understand and implement change. Internal communication is described as the central agent in change management, and the book describes a number of communication processes in this regard. These include developing and communicating a shared vision, using framing approaches to help manage understanding and meanings (metaphors, stories, rituals and slogans), increasing employee participation in decision making, acting ethically and demonstrating values, communicating in timely fashion and addressing signs of trouble or dysfunction.

Gay, C., Mahoney, M., & Graves, J. (2005). Best practices in employee communication: A study of global challenges and approaches. San Francisco: IABC Research Foundation.

Practitioners seeking to learn from best practices in internal communication will find this short book to be quite useful. It establishes a strong case for the bottom-line impact of communication and then highlights research findings, case examples and suggested strategies and tactics to help resolve organizational issues. Based on their research, the authors identified four critical challenges faced by communicators: 1) motivating employees to align with business strategy, 2) leadership and management communication, 3) managing information overload and 4) measuring ROI of internal communication. A number of approaches to measuring the ROI for internal communication are discussed, including: cost savings (e.g., idea development programs, materials development), business outcomes (productivity, retention and turnover, customer satisfaction, performance ratings and quality factors), employee surveys (channel effectiveness, extent to which messages received) and pulse surveys and focus groups for specific initiatives.

Gillis, T. L. (Ed.). (2006). The IABC handbook of organizational communication. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

This is the latest edition of an outstanding reference work–a collection of 41 chapters written by leading academics and practitioners which provides readers with both concepts and practical applications of elements of organizational communication. The book is divided into six sections. An introduction provides basic information about organizational communications and key premises. Part Two deals with current challenges in managing organizational communication, including planning and implementation strategies. Part Three focuses on employee communications and highlights the current issues of engagement, internal branding and change management. Part Four deals with the strategic management of external communications with diverse stakeholders. Part Five addresses marketing and brand management concepts and practices, while Part Six looks to future trends and discusses such issues as measurement, new technologies and knowledge management.

Harris, T. E., & Nelson, M.D. (2008). Applied organizational communication: Theory and practice in a global environment. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This recent and accessible textbook blends application and theory and would be useful for practitioners and students who want to explore the complex dimensions of organizational communication in a dynamic world. The book discusses current organizational and management theories and adopts a transactional and systems perspective on organizational communication. It includes chapters on verbal and nonverbal communication, networks and channels, interpersonal communications, team communications, leadership, new communication technologies and listening. The latter chapter is particularly valuable in that it provides insights into a crucial topic that receives limited attention in most organizations.

Kennan, W. R., & Hazleton, V. (2006). Internal public relations, social capital, and the role of effective organizational communication. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazleton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 311-340). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This academic article provides a compelling argument for communicators to use with their bosses to help explain the value of their work to the organization. They outline a theory of internal public relations that is based in social capital theory and argue that such capital–the creation and use of internal relationships with and among employees and external publics–can increase productivity and customer and employee satisfaction, help organizations resolve environmental issues and improve change management processes. This argument positions internal communication professionals at the center of organizational activities and initiatives.

Larkin, TJ, & Larkin, S. (1994). Communicating change: How to win employee support for new business directions. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

This well-known book underscores the importance of front-line, F-T-F supervisor communications in gaining employee understanding and support for change. It’s a must readfor professional communicators. Rich with data and case examples, the authors highlight three crucial approaches in change communication efforts: 1) communicate directly to supervisors, 2) use face-to-face communication and 3) communicate the relative performance of the local work area. Data accompanying the arguments strongly suggest that employees have greater trust in, and stronger relationships with their supervisors than with executives; employees prefer F-T-F channels to print and videos for change communications; and messages are more salient to employees when they are closely linked to local work issues and performance.

Putnam, L. L., & Boys, S. (2006). Revisiting metaphors of organizational communication. In S.R. Clegg, C. Hardy, T. B. Lawrence, & W. R. Nord (Eds.), The Sage handbook of organization studies, 2nd Ed. (pp. 541-576). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

This chapter will be useful to communication graduate students and scholars. It is a comprehensive literature review of research and theory regarding organizational communication, and it’s presented through a series of eight metaphors. The authors note the explosive growth in internal communication research in the past decade and highlight a major shift from the study of communication as a linear transmission of messages, to research into how organizations are constituted by social interactions, symbolic meanings and discursive processes. The eight metaphors for organizational communication are: a conduit, information processing, linkage, performance, discourse, symbol, voice and contradiction. Research in the areas of voice, symbol and discourse are prevalent today.

Rhee, Y. (2003). The employee-public-organization chain in relationship management: A case study of a government organization. Institute for Public Relations:http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2003_Rhee.pdf

Graduate students, scholars and professionals will find this comprehensive case study to be useful. The case demonstrates that employees who have positive relationships (high levels of commitment) with their organizations contribute significantly to the development of positive relationships with the organization’s publics. In addition, publics assess the organization based on the quality of employees’ relationships with their organization. Successful employee-public-organization relationships are shaped by: the leader’s communication behaviors and visibility, the involvement of leaders in public relations activities, the quality of F-T-F communication, excellent listening skills, and the open sharing of information and decisions. The study also suggests that employees may feel more empowered through participation in communication programs with publics.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

This was one of the first books to deal comprehensively with the idea that organizations are learning systems, and learning can provide a competitive advantage. Practitioners may find it a valuable conceptual aid; it provides ways to define, assess and correct communication-related issues and perceptions in organizations. Senge’s extensive discussion of mental models, for example, can help professionals understand current communication practices and executives’ perceptions of them. Mental models are deeply held assumptions, generalizations or internal images that strongly influence how we see and understand the world. These models limit us to familiar ways of thinking, acting and understanding. Understanding executives’ current mental models for communication is a crucial first step toward changing them.

Senge, P., Kleiner, A. Roberts, C., Ross, R. B., & Smith, B. J. (1994). The fifth discipline field book: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

This is a companion book to Senge’s earlier work, and it is strongly recommended for senior practitioners who are searching for ways to develop the skills, knowledge and unity of their own professional teams. The field book is a rich, pragmatic guide that includes numerous examples of, and strategies for building a shared vision, developing team and dialogue skills, reinvigorating relationships in organizations, using training as learning and giving life to organizational communications, among others. It is filled with individual exercises, team exercises and practical devices and techniques. The authors’ contention that, “the only sustainable source of competitive advantage is your organization’s ability to learn faster than its competition” (11), also applies to units and teams in organizations.

Shockley-Zalabak, P., Ellis, K., & Cesaria, R. (2000). Measuring organizational trust: A diagnostic survey and international indicator. San Francisco: IABC Research Foundation.

This research report may be useful to graduate students and practitioners because it deals with what has been a long-time issue in internal communications and organizations: trust between managers and employees. The authors argue that trust is “social capital” which has a direct effect on the organization’s ability to successfully deal with crisis and change. In their research, the authors found that trust directly affects the bottom line because it influences employee job satisfaction, productivity and team building. They also found that higher levels of organizational trust correlated with a lower incidence of litigation and legislation. Practitioners may benefit from a trust model the researchers developed, which includes the dimensions of communication competence, reliability, concern for employees, openness and honesty and identification. The report is sold through IABC.

Sinickas, A. D. (2005). How to measure your communication programs: A practical manual for maximizing the effectiveness of your messages and media. (3rd Ed.). San Francisco: IABC Knowledge Centre.

This is a hands-on resource book and step-by-step guide for communicators to prepare and conduct focus groups, construct surveys, measure communication flow, plan and carry out communication audits, conduct content analysis and measure Intranets and web sites. The manual also is a good introduction to the terminology of communication research and measurement. Sinickas is a seasoned professional who has conducted numerous measurement workshops for IABC members and other practitioners.

Smidts, A., Pruyn, A. T. H., & van Riel, C. B. M. (2001). The impact of employee communication and perceived external prestige on organizational identification. The Academy of Management Journal, 1-29.

This research article has appeal for practitioners and academics who are interested in the subject of employees and organizational identity. The researchers found that effective employee communication and a positive communication climate can strengthen employees’ identification with organizations. Communication climate refers to how information is communicated, and organizations can build positive communication climate by giving employees the opportunities to “speak out, get involved, be listened to and participate actively” (20). The researchers also discovered that internal communication affects organizational identity more strongly for employees than perceived external prestige.

Williams, L.C. Jr. (2003). Communication research, measurement and evaluation: A practical guide for communicators. San Francisco: IABC Knowledge Centre.

This is a useful and insightful overview of measurement, evaluation and audience analysis methods that communicators can use to measure and demonstrate the value of their work to their organizations. The guide includes sample surveys and questionnaires, guidelines for interviews and focus groups, directions for data analysis and some best practice cases of internal communication programs.

Williams, P. (Ed.). (2008). Employee communication: The comprehensive manual for those who communicate with today’s employees (3rd Ed.). Chicago: Lawrence Ragan. (http://www.ragan.com).

This is the third edition of what was perhaps the first comprehensive manual written on employee communications. The two-volume set contains diverse chapters which practitioners should find helpful in their work. Volume one takes a strategic focus with chapters on research and measurement, change communications, strategic planning, employee engagement, speechwriting, executive communications and gaining resources for employee communication. Volume two focuses more on professional skills, e.g., writing, developing F-T-F communication programs, using visuals, producing employee newsletters, using social media and so forth.

Posted in Employee / Organizational Communication, [Research Library] and tagged .

10 Comments

  1. No matter how I count the bullets, I only get 14 principles of successful internal communications. What am I missing? Also, in the introductory paragraph to the principles, in “some practices and principles which seem crucial,” shouldn’t “which” be “that”? Two paragraphs above, I think “adopt” should be “adapt.” Everybody’s an editor, right?

    Tim Bradley
    http://www.timbradleyallwrite.com

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  3. The material is quite interesting and useful.It has helped me to do my assignment on the importance of communication in an organization.

  4. I do appreciate to be learning Public Relations in your school and waiting for your answer patiently.

    Thank you so much

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