Modern organisations are complex places when it comes to digital workplace tools. New collaboration and productivity tools are sweeping through the workforce, accelerated greatly by the impact of the pandemic. While new tools are helping individual teams to be more effective, the pandemic also showed the critical importance of effective internal communications.
This presents internal comms teams with a key question to answer: where does internal communications end and collaboration start?
In other words, which messages should be coordinated and distributed centrally by internal communications teams, and which should be left to local business units and teams to communicate and collaborate locally? With technology changing rapidly, and many different stakeholders involved, organisations need practical answers that meet both business and team needs.
To help teams answer these questions, Step Two has released a comms and collaboration digital maturity model, which puts shape around everything from formal comms to new ways of working.
Building on this framework, this article introduces the concept of a “handover line” from internal communications to collaboration, surrounded by a “transition zone” that provides flexibility and adaptability to individual circumstances. This forms part of a model that teams can use as a way of building common understanding — and a shared strategy — between all key stakeholders.
Starting with what’s well understood
To support the strategic direction of the business, there must be an effective way for senior leaders to communicate to their whole workforce. This extends out to messaging from key corporate services areas, such as HR, finance, IT and risk. One of the roles of internal communications is to facilitate and support these messages, by managing corporate communications channels (eg intranet, all staff emails) and by helping leaders to communicate effectively.
More than just all staff messaging, there is a role for internal communications to play in supporting communication within major business areas, such as within IT or customer service. At some point, however, communications become too ‘local’ to be of relevance for internal comms.
As a counterpoint, teams, projects and business areas need to work effectively and this can be greatly enhanced through the use of modern collaboration tools. The current crop of solutions, such as Microsoft 365 and Workplace by Facebook, are offering an increasingly rich set of capabilities for improving productivity and coordination within smaller groups.
This is where team members can participate in an ongoing stream of messages, some work-related and others social. These frequent but informal messages are hugely effective at keeping people in the loop, and cutting through the formality of traditional messaging, meetings and decision-making.
Clearly these tools also have potential for larger groups of people, such as larger business units or divisions. At some point, however, there will be too many people in a group for collaboration to be meaningful or practical.
In between these two worlds, top down and bottom up, is a significant grey area. Many organisations struggle to decide where to draw the line between corporate communication and collaboration. As a result, there can be an unmapped and unplanned environment where every team is unsure how best to communicate and collaborate.
Find the right handover line from comms to collaboration
The model shown above provides an overall framework for defining the successful coexistence of both internal communications and collaboration, with an effective transition between the two.
The key elements of this model are as follows:
- The top of the diagram represents organisation-wide communications, as well as messages that need to reach a wide (but not universal) audience.
- The bottom of the diagram represents local interactions, within teams, projects and business units.
- As we progress down the diagram, and messaging becomes more local, formal internal communications play a progressively smaller role.
- At the same time, collaboration and social tools become increasingly relevant as the size of groups reduces.
- In the middle is a conceptual “handover line”, where there is a negotiated passing of the baton from comms to collaboration.
- This sits within a wider “transition zone” that recognises that the actual role of comms and collaboration will be determined by local circumstances, within the broader strategy.
While this is a simplistic model, its purpose is to provide a common language that can be used by key stakeholders (typically internal communications and the IT department) to discuss and decide on the role of corporate messaging and local collaboration.
That enables practical decisions to be made, such as:
- What role should the intranet play as a communications channel?
- How should other channels be used to distribute internal communications?
- Overall, what should be the shape of the organisations’s internal communications strategy?
- When is it clearly appropriate for collaboration tools to be used within smaller groups to communicate internally?
- As the size of groups increases, at what point should the creation of collaboration spaces be reviewed?
- Overall, what should be the governance and support model for collaboration and social tools?
Exploring three common scenarios
Organisations can find themselves in quite different situations, depending on how internal communications and collaboration practices have evolved over time. These are three common scenarios that we see in our consulting work.
It is common to see a very wide transition zone between comms and collaboration. This reflects a high degree of uncertainty about who is doing what, and how internal updates are supposed to be delivered to all employees. There is no question that this is problematic, as it leads to a ‘scattergun’ approach where messages are sent via every possible channel, in the hope that one of these will be effective in reaching any given employee.
In this situation, the priority should be to establish a clear internal communications and collaboration strategy, as outlined in this article. This will define an agreed handover line, and a smaller transition zone.
Another common scenario is a very low handover line, which indicates that formal internal communications dominate the messaging landscape and collaboration is weakly adopted and used.
This may be entirely appropriate, such as in highly-regulated organisations or in high-risk situations. In these cases, messaging must be formalised and tracked, to ensure that employees follow all appropriate policies and procedures. Collaboration then largely happens very locally, within individual teams.
Alternatively, it may reflect an over-formalised internal communications strategy, where the comms team is trying to meet messaging needs at every level. This is often clunky and ineffective, and the better approach may be to pursue greater adoption of collaboration tools and then cement their use as local comms channels.
Similarly, organisations may have a very high handover line, where collaboration and social tools are in the ascendency. This may be the result of a very positive shift to becoming a ‘social business’, supported by collaboration tools and a ‘social intranet’. This works particularly well in smaller and more tightly knit organisations.
Alternatively, it may reflect a weak intranet that only communicates top-level corporate updates and senior leader messages. This may leave many of the targeted (and therefore more relevant) messages ‘out in the cold’, with business units having to rely on ad-hoc and inconsistent use of collaboration tools to deliver local updates. To address this, comms functionality on the intranet should be strengthened, making the site more useful for employees, and more valuable for the business.
Drawing on Step Two’s experience of having worked with many hundreds of internal communications and technology teams over the last two decades, we share this advice:
- Ensure clarity and consensus. The primary goal of this model is to help all stakeholders come to an agreement on how internal communications will be delivered. Regardless of the answer decided, clarity ensures that employees really are meaningfully kept in the loop, enabling the business to be effective.
- Draw multiple lines. In practice, there isn’t one handover line that will apply across an entire business. Instead, use this model at a business unit level to agree on how communications will be delivered to major employee cohorts.
- Define the handover line before delivering a new intranet. Many organisations are upgrading their intranets at present, often moving them onto new technology platforms. Before doing this, ensure that a new internal comms strategy is in place, with clear handover line(s).
- Track technology changes. The digital workplace landscape is changing hugely at present, in terms of both comms and collaboration tools. Be prepared to review decisions every 6-12 months, and to adjust approaches in light of emerging best practices.
- Bring in an external perspective. It is always hard for teams to escape “the way it is”, the result of many years of incremental decisions and changes. Bringing in an outside party can often shed new light on more effective options and approaches.
- Make it a reality. It is one thing to conceptually draw a handover line, and to agree at a stakeholder level, but this is meaningless unless on-the-ground changes are made. So if collaboration tools are to be used as comms channels, ensure that every employee is actually using the tools regularly. Similarly, the intranet is only an effective comms channel if there is a regular flow of relevant updates.
In our role as digital workplace consultants, Step Two has been working with internal communications teams (and their partners in IT) to improve comms practices. This includes making use of our internal comms digital maturity model, and the approaches outlined in this article. Further informed by staff research, we can quickly help all stakeholders make concrete and practical decisions relating to strategy, technology and execution.
Reach out if we can be of help to your team.