Effective Internal Communication in the Digital Age

Peggy Simcic Brønn, Tor Bang, Øystein Bonvik

Computer-mediated communication is not a substitute for face-to-face communication in organizations.

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A good sign that there is something wrong with an organization’s internal communication is when the high point of an employee’s day is meeting around the ‘water cooler’, the symbol for the gathering place to learn what is happening in the organization.

In a dysfunctional organization, this might be where many employees get their information. A characteristic of this type of channel, however, is that the information delivered through it is almost always wrong.

Various channels are available to organizations for communicating with employees and one of the most used ones has become social media in the form of intranets, networking tools, e-mails etc.

They are powerful channels for accomplishing some organizational goals but perhaps not those having to do with the more interpersonal and psychological needs of employees, particularly those fulfilled by direct interaction with peers and leaders.

One-way sources of information

There is a tendency for organizations to use web-based channels as one-way transmissive sources of information, and they are not aware that these channels and how they are used have an impact on employees and their attitudes toward their organization. As noted by Whitworth and Riccomini (2005):

”Many companies today are relying on electronic forms of employee communication. But in doing so they often eliminate the most credible channel: one-to-one communication”.

An organization that relies heavily on media channels with minimal management responsibility and transmissive characteristics is likely to have ineffective communication. This may indicate that managers let the one-way corporate media drive the communication and they are not thinking about how employees want to be informed and by whom.

Rely more on face-to face communication

Firms who rely more on face-to-face communication put responsibility on managers to ensure effective communication. Rumors are only of casual interest in these firms and employees are more likely to understand the goals of the organization and show commitment.

There is also evidence that compared to those with lower reputation, companies with high reputation:

  • Give more importance to internal communication.
  • Have a well-functioning internal communication plan.
  • Undertake more frequent measurement.
  • Use communication tools for sharing the business objectives with employees.
  • Believe that corporate reputation has more contribution to/influence on business objectives and results.

Eight characteristics of leading companies

Young and Post (1993) found eight factors that set leading companies apart from their peers when it came to communication.

In leading companies

  1. the chief executive is the communications Champion,
  2. there is a match between words and actions,
  3. a commitment to two-way communication,
  4. emphasis is on face-to-face communication.
  5. there is a shared responsibility for employee communications,
  6. bad news is not ignored and is shared along with good news,
  7. there is strong knowledge of customers, clients, and audiences, and
  8. there is a clear employee communication strategy.

What leaders need to understand

When management views communication as a means to an end, they take a functional approach to communication based on weighing cost-benefit analysis and as a result can forget the value and power of the communication competency of employees and in particular managers and leaders.

Managers and leaders need to understand their audience, why they are communicating (its purpose), the context in which they are communicating (organizational culture, communication climate, and communication flow), and the appropriate channel and medium for communicating (Brønn 2014).

Leaders must also be able to communicate well themselves orally or in writing in a variety of situations such as teams, meetings, face-to-face and so on.

The communication challenge

The challenge is for leaders to understand their communication responsibilities.
While the new technology and social media are great at connecting people and perhaps stimulating them to share and thus to learn and innovate, the question remains regarding their ability to motivate, to stimulate, and to create employee ambassadors.

Computer-mediated communication is not a substitute for face-to-face communication or the good old medarbeidersamtale (performance review), but it can assist in organizational success through innovation and organizational learning.

Effective communication needs to become a desired behavior performed by everyone in the organization, helped along by the organization’s communication department.

Peggy Brønn, Øystein Bonvik og Tor Bang (2015): En innføring i PR. Teori, prosess og praksis. Fagbokforlaget.

This article is first published in Communication for Leaders No. 2 - 2017.

Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 23. March 2018

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