The following article first appeared in the Christmas 2007 edition of the CIB e-zine...

Why Internal Communications must never be seen as a cure-all for poor Employee Engagement

Even as we entered the school’s Christmas Fair the people around me were talking about them. Mrs Roberts had a reputation for making the best mince pies in the village, and the cheerful posters she had put up in the corridor leading to the assembly hall announced that she was back again this year with a stall.

Unlike last year, however, Mrs Roberts had competition. Another parent had set up shop on a table opposite. And, following Mrs Roberts’ example, she had chopped up a number of her pies for people to sample. Her USP? The mincemeat in her pies contained “the finest French brandy”. Surgical spirit more like. They we’re awful!

So it was no great surprise when Mrs Roberts had sold out within 25 minutes, while piles of her competitors stock stubbornly refused to shift. “Never mind” the purveyor of vile pies said to me later, “next year I’ll put some posters up too.”

I spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s working in advertising, and in that time I lost count of the number of times I heard people with infinitely more commercial experience than our pie-maker fall into the same trap – blaming the failure of a fatally flawed product on poor promotional materials. And as Employee Engagement rises up the corporate agenda, I’m beginning to hear business leaders inappropriately (but damagingly) pointing the finger at Internal Communications as they come under pressure to explain dismal levels of engagement amongst their staff. But have Internal Communications professionals brought this on themselves?

Let’s first define what I mean by Employee Engagement. It has two main dimensions: alignment and commitment. Alignment means that staff know what to do, and they know how do it in a manner that is consistent with the values of the organisation. Meanwhile commitment means that staff actually care about the outcomes of their actions on customers, colleagues, and the wider organisation.

Now that’s not rocket science, but if we think about it it’s clear that achieving high levels of Employee Engagement is a multi-disciplinary affair. If staff are to knowwhat to do they need to be properly trained (Training and Development) and appropriately equipped to do the job (IT, Facilities, Procurement). If they are to knowhow to do it in a way that’s consistent with the values they need to be formally inducted into the organisation (HR) and managed by people who are behaving consistently with those values (Line Management). And, finally, if they are to careabout the outcomes they need leaders who have a clear vision for the future of the organisation and who can communicate that vision in a compelling way (Business Leadership).

Now, effective communications underpins a great deal of this activity – a fact that Internal Communications professionals have not been shy in pointing out. But I have to say that if I see the Watson Wyatt research finding that “a significant improvement in communication effectiveness is associated with a 29.5% increase in market value ” trotted out once more I’ll scream. Not because it isn’t right. Of course it is. And not because organisations shouldn’t be investing in the development of their communications capability. Of course they should – it’s a capability that’s been under-resourced and under-funded for far too long.

I’ll scream because 99 times out of 100 statistics like this are presented in a way that implies that Internal Communication is the “silver bullet” which will fix the Employee Engagement ills of any organisation. Of course it isn’t. It’s an important part of the solution – but only a part.

In the 1980’s the advertising industry created the impression that it could make or break brands. However, when other factors intervened and sales slowed business leaders, like failed mince pie entrepreneurs, laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of their advertising. If in the process of demonstrating the potential return on investment they deliver for their organisations Internal Communications professionals continue to create the impression that they alone hold the keys to Employee Engagement, they could be setting themselves up for an uncomfortable time when someone else doesn’t deliver. And, like the vile mince pies, that would really leave a nasty taste in the mouth.