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The Vital Role of Internal Comms in Developing Purposeful Organizations

Why uncovering and telling the true and authentic story of the organization is a job Internal Comms is perfectly positioned to take on

When it comes to defining a clear, compelling and collective purpose – especially in the face of large-scale change or restructuring – Internal Comms is one of the most interesting places to be right now. Why? Because uncovering and telling the true and authentic story of the organization – the origin of its purpose – is a job IC is perfectly positioned to take on. Tom Nixon explains why.

Internal Comms is one of the most interesting places to be inside a large organization right now. The discipline is massively growing in its scope and influence.

What started life as a simple one-way channel for messages from the top of a company to its employees has evolved into a unit that fosters communication and collaboration up, down, sideways and all around the organization. It’s often Internal Comms who drive initiatives to create more internally networked organizations, setting up and championing the use of internal social networks like Slack and Yammer. It’s a far more impactful and strategically important area than ever before.

And the journey has barely begun. What’s happening now is that as internal social and network-thinking become commonplace, it’s becoming painfully clear that to create truly flowing communication and collaboration, a social network isn’t enough. The challenge goes far deeper into the very structure of the organization itself. A network laid on top of a rigid hierarchy is severely limited. We need new organizational systems and structures to create truly networked, collaborative organizations. The good people in Internal Comms have a leading role to play in reinventing the organizations themselves.

Breaking down a hierarchy in a decades- or even century’s-old organization is a formidable challenge. Heck, they’re even finding it extremely tough at Zappos who had a big head start in progressive practices and culture. Many people, particularly middle managers, feel a personal loss as the organization upgrades to a modern, networked structure. You also need to change entrenched habits to get the necessary behaviors. And it’s not a quick project. It can take years in a large organization. While it still has a top down power structure, you need these top leaders to continue to champion the change.

It’s dizzying, but you like a challenge, yes? So where do you start?

Experiments with internal social networking are part of the solution. Giving the organization a taste of what the new way looks like before throwing out the old org chart. Allowing things that are working to be grown and copied elsewhere in the organization.

But when it comes to the bigger, structural changes, the key starting point is the organization’s purpose. What is it here to do? And what’s the vision – the picture of a future which doesn’t yet exist – that we are trying to realize?

Purpose is doubly important in networked organizations since there’s far less telling people what to do. Networked organizations have far more individual agency to take the initiative and make stuff happen. So it’s absolutely essential everyone understands and is bound together by a unifying sense of purpose. A purpose that also resonates with each and everyone’s personal sense of what’s meaningful, and their personal vision for their own life.

I’ve previously written about the most powerful way to discover an organization’s purpose. It’s to start by looking at when, how, why and by whom it was started. Identify the individual who is holding the overall vision for the organization as a whole. It may be the original founder or someone who succeeded them. Perhaps even a long line of successors. That person will hold the clues about what the organization is really all about. Don’t get suckered into thinking this focus on an individual vision holder is old school – attempts at shared purpose and vision are far less authentic, and often painful to produce, with watered down results.

The job of Internal Communications in all of this is a really fun one. It’s about uncovering and telling the true and authentic story of the organization. It starts internally so don’t leave it to the often very outward focused PR or marketing folks – they might be tempted to tell a story the market wants to hear, but you are looking for the true, authentic story. The job to be done is partly playing detective, getting to the bottom of the origin story of the organization. The when, how, why and who. Have there been successions of the key role of vision-holder if the original founder is no longer there? What has the organization really been about, from the day it started? With the story clear, it’s about communication, starting with the person holding the vision today, and weaving the story into every initiative the company runs. All of this is within the capability of Internal Comms people who want to step up.

It’s possible that your organization might be adrift, without a purpose. Often the pursuit of money, or even just self-preservation, fills the void instead. But no organization starts without a vision and passion. The job is to find it, and reconnect to it.

If you can keep the company connected to its purpose, the efforts to radically restructure are infinitely more likely to succeed. People can work together in a network, pulling in all sorts of directions at once, but with an overall current heading on a meaningful course.

It’ll be quite a ride for the Internal Comms people at the heart of this process. Good luck.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Tom Nixon is the founder of NixonMcInnes.

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