IC Practice Governance Internal Communications Workplace Communication

Spotlight on IC Practice Governance | Edition #11 | Russell-Olivia Brooklands | Founder – The Communication Game

Welcome to the 11th edition of Intraskope’s Spotlight Series featuring Russell-Olivia Brooklands (ROB), a consultant and trainer with over 25 years of experience with global clients (including Lloyds, GCHQ, Airbus, the European Central Bank, GSK and the UN) and a passion for internal communication. He specializes in tackling common challenges IC specialists face. 

What can internal communicators do when they inherit a poor understanding of the domain at the workplace? How can they turnaround lack of respect and limited investment in the important domain of internal communications? Why does focusing on IC Practice Governance help create an atmosphere conducive to engagement and growth? You can pick up pointers from this engrossing interview with ROB, a thought leader in internal communications based in the UK. He articulates the mechanism that works best when it comes to driving trust and connection with stakeholders.

About Intraskope’s Spotlight Series

In this series I interview key thought leaders on topics interrelated with internal communications such as culture, crisis, change, executive presence and leadership. The goal is to help unravel why they matter, what can leaders and communicators learn from experts and how we can put insights to practice. Watch these short interviews and get better at understanding these key topics and how you engage with internal communications.

In this interview ROB explains the intricacies of IC Practice Governance, why it matters and how communicators can get stronger at evangelizing internal communications and dealing with unnecessary expectations.  

“IC Governance matters because it can turn this inherited situation around and turn it into a win-win-win-win-win – for internal communicators, line managers, leaders, employees and other stakeholders”, says ROB.

  1.  How do you define IC Practice Governance?

First of all we need to do a little housekeeping on the name itself.  When we first came up with the idea we called it IC Governance, because it is about governing the way IC is conducted.  But then we discovered some people had already been using that term for other things, like how they would oversee the channel mix and content.  It didn’t really feel like governance to us, but that ship had already sailed, so rather than cause confusion we decided to start talking about IC Leadership. 

It wasn’t as accurate a description, but it sort of fitted, because you could argue it was about how the IC Function should be leading the way as far as IC Practice was concerned.  So, we started publishing articles talking about IC Leadership.

But then we found people were already using that term when describing themselves as holding senior positions in the IC specialism.  So it’s only very recently we’ve gone back to governance – which was the term we wanted all along – only now we’re specifically talking about the governance of Internal Communication Practices.

So we can give you a definition, but it’s a bit abstract, so we’ll need to follow it up with an explanation.  So the definition of IC Practice Governance is: The establishment and support of ‘minimum hygiene’ standards of Internal Communication practice – initially among line managers but eventually among all employees.

Now you can probably kind of grasp what we’re talking about from that definition, but let’s make it easier for everyone to get what it means.

In effect it’s the Internal Communication equivalent of what Finance Teams have been doing for decades when it comes to supporting budget holders (who, first of all, are not finance specialists themselves; they’re not qualified accountants).

So if we break it down there are essentially four pieces to what Finance teams do to support these non-specialist managers.  And IC Practice Governance is about effectively mirroring these four activities.

  • Firstly, the Finance Specialists define the standards of practice, which the non-specialist budget holders need to meet.
  • Secondly they provide the instructions for budget holders to follow so they can meet those standards and, if necessary, the Finance Team either source or directly provide any education those budget holders may need so they know how to follow the instructions, and why it’s vital that they do so.
  • Thirdly, they monitor the people’s adherence to the standards when they do their monthly or quarterly budget returns: so the Finance Team know how well are the budget holders are following the instructions
  • Fourthly, if they need to, a Finance Specialist may step in and provide additional support if and when a budget holder needs it if that person is still struggling to get it right.

So if we take out the terms Finance Team and budget holders, and replace them with IC Team, and Line Managers, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what IC Practice Governance is: setting practice standards, providing instructions and education, overseeing people’s application of those instructions, and hand-holding if required for those who need it.

2. Why does it matter?

It is a question we need to look at from a couple of different angles.  Firstly, we could say it’s always mattered.  It’s a systemic need that’s always been there.  But the conditions have never really been right until very recently.  Now, though, two key things have changed. 

One is the pandemic.  That dramatic global dislocation that happened last spring which resulted in an almost instantaneous shift to mass working from home.  Within weeks of the first lockdown, a study conducted by the Gatehouse Group was showing that many line managers were feeling extremely vulnerable about their abilities as internal communicators – for a couple of reasons. 

Firstly, the importance of this part of their job had suddenly become way more obvious, as they had to keep managing their teams in a completely new situation – which was changing on a daily basis – sometimes several times a day.  All the while their team members were having to come to terms with this new (and for some of them frightening) situation. 

And at that very moment, when they needed the IC Team as never before, those Specialists were usually unavailable because they were now working 15, 16 hour days just to support the Leadership team with this constantly changing picture.  So, the need for Line Managers to be more self-sufficient as internal communicators became very obvious.  And with the emergence of new hybrid working practices which look like being an inevitable part of the future from hereon, that need (which was always there anyway, but not nearly so obvious) is here to stay. 

The second thing that’s changed is that we now have IC practice standards of a sufficient robustness that IC Functions can start providing that support.

So that’s those are the recent changes that explain why it matters now.  But, as we said, the need for IC Practice Governance has always been there.  A study by Interact-Harris earlier this year showed that 91% of employees are complaining their managers aren’t good at communicating with them.  Line managers clearly need – and have always needed – proper support to communicate effectively. 

You know how people sometimes talk about ‘a win-win situation’.  Having ungoverned IC practices is not only in a lose-lose situation, it’s actually a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.  Let’s just think this through.  Firstly, if you’re an IC Specialist, you lose, because you may often be having to deal with clients who bring you in too late, or don’t know how to brief you properly, or who want to mess with your copy (and often make it worse) and so on.

The line managers are losing, partly because many of them are feeling unsupported, they lack confidence in their communication abilities; there’s probably a whole lot of imposter syndrome going on, and they’re not as good as they need to be their reputations can often suffer as a result. 

And their teams are also losing if their boss isn’t communicating well with them.  Not only may they lack motivation; the very thinking they have to do about their work may be relying on poor quality or incomplete raw material.  

Tis means the organisation is likely to be losing because the employees are less motivated, less productive, probably making more mistakes, perhaps feeling over-stressed and going off sick, or throwing sickies because they can’t be bothered, and staff churn may be higher too, so recruitment and training costs go up.  All of which increases operating costs while also hurting brand reputation and value. 

And final group of losers are the people being served by the organisation, who may be getting lower quality products and service at potentially higher cost. 

Now of course this paints a pretty bleak picture, and many people may say, oh, come on, it’s not as bad as all that.  Relatively speaking, perhaps not.  But because ungoverned IC Practice is pretty much a universal phenomenon, what’s the standard against which any of us can judge how good or bad things are at present, and how much better they could be.

So IC Governance matters because it can turn this inherited situation around and turn it into a win-win-win-win-win.

As an IC Specialist, you win, because you get way more influence and fulfilment, every day.  The line managers win because they have far more justifiable confidence in their communication abilities, and their reputations can only get better as a result.  Their teams win because, with better quality communication from their line managers, they can have more justifiable confidence in the raw material with which they’re thinking about whatever’s being asked of them.  The organisation wins because the employees are more motivated and productive, they’re making fewer mistakes, throwing fewer sickies, and fewer of them are walking out the door, so recruitment and training costs go down.  All of which reduces operating costs while also increasing brand reputation and value.  And finally the people being served by the organisation win, because they’re getting better quality products and service at potentially lower cost.

Now obviously this lose-lose/win-win-win is not a black and white situation.  Every organisation is on a win-lose continuum across those five stakeholder groups.  The point is that IC Practice Governance can significantly move all of them towards a heck of a lot more winning.   And that’s why it matters.

3. What ails the IC function and practitioners today?

We could spend a week answering that.  Some of the biggies include not having enough time, not having enough budget, or not having enough influence.  But this is nothing new. 

We put together a list of 10 common challenges which IC specialists frequently complain of.  It includes things some of the things we touched on a minute ago, such as having to produce communications for clients who don’t know what they want (but they’ll know it’s what they want when they see it) being brought in on projects at the last minute, sometimes having to spend ages getting communications approved and signed off, because of people changing their minds or correcting each other’s corrections – and a whole host of other horror stories. 

Some of your viewers may already have identified with some or all of those examples.  And the tragedy is we put that list together in 1996 – when email was still in its infancy, before intranets had come into being, and long before social media.  And it’s still as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.  So the tragedy is that despite IC having come a long way over the last quarter century, many of those minimum hygiene basics that were ailing the IC Function back then are still alive and ill today.  That’s why it’s time to stop tinkering at the edges, get right to heart of the matter and establish those minimum hygiene practice standards.   Standards which can wipe out so many of those needless frustrations, and give the IC Function the necessary budget, time and clout it needs to create that win-win-win-win-win situation for everybody.

4. What are great best practices in IC practice Governance?

That’s a really interesting question.  And the answer may surprise you.  There aren’t any. 

That’s because the very concept of ‘best practice’ itself is part of the problem.  It’s yet another one of those ‘things’ we’ve inherited from those who came before us which has never really fulfilled its self-proclaimed promise.  In short, the very concept of ‘best practice’ isn’t really the best way of thinking about the best way of doing anything – ironically enough.  What we need are not best practices, but practices which are DFVP: that is Demonstrably Fit for Valid Purposes. 

We said a couple of minutes back that there were now practice standards robust enough to introduce IC Practice Governance.  This is what we meant.  DFVP standards are what make IC Practice Governance possible.  So we need to spend a minute or two talking about this.

DFVP was a concept we came up with back in 2015, after years of trying to find a way of articulating what was really needed.  We’d played with phrases such as ‘empirical standards’ and ‘objectively measurable standards’. And nothing was cutting it until we finally settled on the term DFVP.  This blows best practice away in four very obvious ways.  And if we work backwards through DFVP we can see what they are.

Firstly, the P: Purposes.  Unlike best practice, DFVP demands that you explicitly state the purposes of whatever it is you’re doing.  Now that’s not to say that never happens with ‘best practice’, but it’s not an explicit requirement.  And even if it is stated when some ‘best practices’ are being developed, it’s rarely communicated on to the people who need to follow it.  So most people just have to go along blindly – unable to know if what they’re being told to do really is the best way for them to do things in their particular situation.  Now, when it comes to IC there are obviously at least two purposes.  Firstly there’s the purpose of IC itself, and there’s the purpose of the thing being communicated about. 

Once we’ve identified the P of DFVP, we can move onto the V: Validity.  Are those purposes actually valid?  We imagine you’ve been in this game long enough to have found yourself in situations where someone tells you the purpose of such and such is ‘X’ and you’re left thinking ‘What’?  Are you sure?  Something doesn’t feel quite right about this.  You know “The purpose of this communication is to tell employees about the product launch.” 

“What?  What for?  What’s the purpose of telling them about the product launch?”

So we know that, just because someone comes up with something they’ve decided to call a purpose, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid.  And if it’s an invalid purpose, what would happen if someone were then to use ‘best practice’ to deliver it?  Well, they’d be following the most efficient and effective ways of producing the wrong result?  Are you starting to get why ‘best practice’ may not be such a great idea after all?  That’s not to say no best practices ever work; we’re simply pointing out that, as a concept, it may not always be as robust and reliable as it could be.

Once we’ve validated our purpose we can then move onto the D: Demonstrably.  This is such a key piece of the puzzle, because it means we need to be able to show our workings out – in two key ways.  Firstly, what makes this purpose valid?  Can everyone see it?  If not we’re again asking them to work blind.  And a purpose that may be valid for some employees may not necessarily be so for others.  And if they can’t tell us that, we may again waste a lot of unnecessary time and heartache pointing folk in the wrong direction. 

“OK, so we get the purpose of communicating about the product launch to the folk in Sales, and in Customer service, and a few of the folk in IT.  But how is that purpose valid for the people in Facilities Management?”

Now of course not everyone’s going to be interested seeing in our workings out – and that’s fine.  But we still need to have done our due diligence for those who do want to see it – not least because we need to have justifiable confidence in what we’re asking of others.  The second piece of showing our workings out relates to the fitness for purpose of what we’re asking of people.  What specifically makes this particular way of doing things fit for those demonstrably valid purposes?

So can you see how, as a model, DFVP is way more robust than ‘best practice’.  And this helps it deliver its fourth benefit: its coup de grace as it were.  DFVP creates a new paradigm which effectively backs everyone into a really empowering corner.  Because as soon as you get people thinking in terms of DFVP, only three other options become available.  Anything that isn’t Demonstrably Fit for Valid Purposes must, by default, be either Demonstrably Unfit for Valid Purposes, or Demonstrably Fit only for Invalid Purposes, or Demonstrably Unfit for Invalid Purposes.  How many Leadership teams do you think are going to say “Yeah, we definitely want to go for one of those alternatives”? 

Of course it’s not quite that black and white because in the real world both validity and particularly fitness can again be on continuums.  How valid, and particularly how fit or unfit are these practices; there can be degrees of fitness.  But the model itself demands that you should surely be trying to move all your organisation’s IC practices towards being as DFVP as possible, should you not? 

In fact, DFVP should really apply to all your organisation’s business practices shouldn’t it.  However – and here’s the interesting thing – because IC pervades everything else that people do at work, how likely is it those other practices will ever be as DFVP as they could if the IC practices which underpin those other activities aren’t DFVP from the start?

So, now we’ve established the basic approach, we can finally return to the question of which practices do we need to set up in a DFVP way, in order to make IC Practice Governance work?  And there are two parts to the answer.  Firstly there are the practices the IC Function needs to set up.  And then there’s the subset of those practices which the Line Managers would need to follow.

So there are five practices the IC Function is going to need to establish.  Some organisations may already have all of these nailed, others may need to start from scratch, and some may fall somewhere between the two.

The first practice is the language standards.  Now this is not just a style guide, because these standards need to embrace not just how people write, but how they speak as well.  If you think about it, have you ever sat down with a client to take a brief from them and they start coming out with a load of vague techno-speak?  If they’re doing that with you, chances are they’ll be doing it in other meetings, with their peers and their teams.  So cleaning up the language, by clearing out abstractions and inappropriate techno-babble is crucial.

Then there’s what you would probably refer to as the briefing process: the process of identifying what needs communicating to whom, when and how, in any business situation we ever encounter. 

The third practice is exclusively for the IC Team, because it’s the channel mix – which needs to be DFVP enough to ensure everyone can not only access whatever they need, whenever and wherever they need it; it also needs to enable them to feedback on anything they need to, in the moment – otherwise they may forget to do so later on, and the opportunity is lost.

And that inevitably leads us onto the feedback practices themselves – which are of two types.  With the first of these people are providing appropriate feedback on the communications themselves.  To what extent are the employees up for delivering the outcomes those communications need?  And if anything’s getting in the way, what is it?  These are things the IC Function needs to facilitate ASAP – and the quality of that feedback needs to be DFVP.  So, what do you need to put in place for that to happen? 

The other type of feedback relates to the IC systems themselves.  How well are the language standards working, or the channel mix, or even the message calendar – are people being swamped with too much info at once. 

So those are the five practices the IC team need to have in place in order to introduce IC Practice Governance.  And if you’re going to do it successfully then all five: Language Standards, Briefing process, Channel Mix, Outcome feedback, and IC system feedback, all have to be DFVP.  And once they are, the line managers would then need to learn three of those practices: the language standards, the briefing (or, self-briefing) process, so they know how to identify what needs communicating to whom, when and how in any business situation they ever encounter (and how not to waste the time of people for whom it isn’t relevant).  And the third thing they need to learn is how to provide effective feedback, whether it’s about individual communications or the IC system itself. 

5. How does one go about changing mindsets?

That’s an interesting question, because there are probably three different groups whose mindsets may need changing: the IC Specialists themselves, the leadership team, and of course the line managers. 

So let’s go through them one at a time.  Maybe you manage an IC Team, and you want to get your people on board, or you’re a member of a team and you want to get your boss on board.  Or perhaps your organisation has several IC Teams and you need to involve that wider group.  Any which way you can start by getting them to watch this very session.  Obviously this doesn’t include a Q&A, so it’s likely you or your peers may have all manner of questions, so we’re offering free ninety minute online workshops, where we go into more of the nuts and bolts of what’s involved, and you and your colleagues can ask as many questions as you want. 

When it comes to getting the leadership team on board there are a couple of things you could do.  Firstly you could also invite them to watch this vodcast, or join you for that online workshop.  And of course one of their immediate questions is almost bound to be “What’s all this going to cost?”  Which is perfectly fair. 

So we have another free tool you can download, which, in about 10-15 minutes, will enable you to start showing the cost benefits of IC Practice Governance.  It’s called REALISE, and you can find it on our website, or on our company page on Linked In.  The free version will give you only rough ballpark figures – we have a paid for version which makes the numbers far more robust.  But even the free version may be enough to convince your bosses, or at least enable you to start the conversation.  Because we all know that what gets measured gets managed. 

And what we’ve found is that, typically, people can be convinced even if you look at just at the time being lost through five activities related to IC: reading needless emails, time wasted in meetings, time lost searching for stuff online – because it’s not properly signposted, or someone’s put a file in the wrong part of a sharepoint, of something on an ESN platform has got buried somewhere – then there’s also the time some people spend agonising what to put in their own communications – perhaps because they weren’t briefed properly, or they’re having to work with rubbish raw material.  And finally there’s time people have to spend correcting their own or other people’s mistakes – which are likely to have happened again because of poor instructions, a lack of motivation, or possibly having to rush because they had their time wasted with other communications.

And we’ve generally found that, even if you’re really conservative with the numbers you use, most organisations find they’re typically losing about 200 hours per employee per year – just with those five IC-related activities.  So if you’ve got an organisation with 5000 employees, that’s a million hours a year coming from un-governed IC practices.  So when it comes to changing the mindset of your Leadership team, getting the free download of REALISE is probably a useful starting point.

Finally, there are the line-managers. 

And here we have to tread carefully.  Communicating is obviously a very personal activity, and even as children we may sometimes get upset if someone suggests we’re ‘doing it wrong’.  How much more sensitive are adults likely to be if that’s how they perceive this initiative.  So the first thing to point out is that there is no one’s ‘getting it wrong’, as such.  This is not about right and wrong, it’s about how they may be able to get better – or even better – results from their teams, with less effort or frustration, and in a way that can also bolster their reputations, AND enable them to truly switch off at the end of the day. 

The second thing to point out that the reason this greater ease and productivity is even possible is no one’s fault.  We humans are not born with an internal communication gene hard wired into our DNA.  So the idea that anyone can just instinctively ‘know’ how to identify exactly what needs communicating to whom, when and how, in any business situation they ever encounter – without being taught how to do it – is frankly absurd.  Everybody’s in the same inherited boat, here, so no one needs to feel bad or defensive about it.  We can all start on the front foot.

And that’s a good thing because, chances are, many line managers are likely to be hurting too, with their frustrations with each other, and their quiet desperation; the almost Emperor’s New Clothes fear of being the first one to own up to struggling. 

And there’s also the fact that, if it’s going to work, IC Practice Governance needs to be introduced from the top down.  The leadership team need to go first – partly because improving their communication standards will inevitably have the biggest commercial impact, secondly because it will remove the stigma, and thirdly because, if people below them were to go first, those more junior folks would be able to identify any flaws in the C-Suite’s communications.  So, from a credibility/reputation perspective, the Leadership team are probably going to want to go first. 

6. What are the pitfalls?

That’s an extremely valuable question.  Because IC Practice Governance feels like it’s a new thing – just as Employee Engagement was a few years ago.  And that means it’s tricky to know right now what we may all learn as we go.  There can be no question, when we look at the financial, emotional and potentially reputational costs of having ungoverned IC practices, that it’s absolutely worth doing.  But as with any new ‘thing’ there may be challenges no one will be able to foresee – and probably unintended benefits as well.  But there are a few things we can be confident about as far as potential pitfalls are concerned. 

Firstly, we know people can have very strong subjective opinions about communicating.  So the practice standards have to be more than just robust.  They really need to be un-argue-with-able.  They have to be beyond subjective opinion.  That’s why they have to be DFVP.  If you were to try introducing IC Practice Governance without DFVP practices to back you up, you’re almost certainly on a hiding to nothing. 

Another concern – it’s not really a pitfall, as such, but it’s certainly an unknowable to be wary of at this stage – is a logistical one.  Just how much governance will be needed?  How many line managers may need extra support?  For how long?  How much bigger would the IC Team need to be in order to take on this responsibility?  What authority would they need to be able to wield?  How would someone’s adherence to the IC practice standards be linked to reward and recognition?

So it’s something which will need to evolve organically within each organisation.  So it’s not really a pitfall, but it is something for which everyone needs to go into with their eyes open.

7. How can practitioners get better at IC practice Governance?

That’s an interesting question.  It’s a bit like going back 20 years and asking ‘How can someone get better at using social media?’  At that point they couldn’t, because social media as we know it today hadn’t really come into being. 

So we’re in a situation right now where we need to be talking to early adopters.  We imagine there may be quite a few people who watch your vodcasts, Aniisu, precisely because they are early adopters.  And for any such early adopters it may be more useful to ask ‘How can you get started on this journey’?’  Or perhaps, how can you find out more about IC Practice Governance so you can decide if it’s a journey you even want to go on. 

And for that there’s a huge number of free resources on our website, including the option to book one of our free 90-minute online workshop for yourself and your colleagues, so you can get your head around it properly, and find out:

  • What’s in it for you
  • What’s in it for your leadership team
  • What’s in it for the line managers and their teams
  • How to sell it in
  • What the nuts and bolts would look like. 

And you can ask the questions you want and take away a bunch of tools and ideas you can start playing with – so you can confidently begin having that conversation with your own boss, your leadership team, whatever. 

Watch the complete video interview on YouTube  or read the complete transcript above.

Missed the earlier episodes? Watch them here: D. Mark Schumann (Culture), Peter Yorke (Executive Presence), Sia Papageorgiou (Leadership Communications), Dianne Chase (Strategic Storytelling), Gloria Walker (Communication Planning), Rebecca Sangster-Kelly (Stakeholder Management), Ray Walsh (Localizing Employee Communications), Prof. Matt Tidwell (Reputation), Geri Rhoades (Manager Communications) and Erik K Meyers (Business Acumen).

 You can also look up the ongoing Intraskope’s Spotlight on Internal Communication Series featuring practitioners from around the globe sharing best practices and perspectives.

Liked the interview? Post your comments and share it with your network. 

Keen to participate in the ongoing series on Personal BrandingInternal Communications or CSR Communications? Drop me a note at [email protected]

Here are Internal Communications resources you can use: 

You can also visit my website www.intraskope.com and You Tube channel to know more about my work. 

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