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The Changing Role of Internal Communications

The Changing Role of Internal Communications

1930s typing poolLast week I was invited to join Melcrum’s Social Media group to discuss how the growth of social media impacts the function of internal communications. It was a very lively debate and what follows is my take on the topic, updated, based on what I learned that day (I was actually billed to do a ‘download’ but the irony of a one-way presentation on social media wasn’t lost on me, especially given the level of knowledge in the room so we had an open discussion instead).

Clearly the shift is away from internal communications as content creators and owners and more towards comms as facilitators.  Many of the big changes have been covered elsewhere – see the table below for a summary. The devil’s-advocate position, then, is that if everyone can publish, will internal communications go the way of the typing pool as being an unnecessary intermediary? One participant in the meeting summed it up beautifully:  ” it’s their channel not ours, and sometimes we have to stop comms from using social media to make announcements”



Controlled dialogueOpen dialogue
Planned publishingContinuous output
Mostly writtenRich media
Infrequent feedbackConstant feedback
Few formatsMany formats (mobile, display screen, microblog feed etc.)


I think the counter-argument is that as the volume of content rises, the need for professionals that really understand that issues increases. Just as Front Page didn’t make us all web developers (and if anything made the amateur appreciate that it is harder than it looks), there’s more to it than access to the tools. There will still be a role for ‘broadcast’ IC specialists and for coaching managers in effective approaches, perhaps even tackling the issue of how to scale this up as a more widespread service rather than something one-to-one for the elite.

What is likely is that we may see a more specialised variant of the internal communications professional that is more along the lines of Community Manager (see also What Does it Take to Manage a Community?). From a professional development perspective what strikes me is that there are few real opportunities to learn appropriate new skills. Most people seem to learn on the job, but this requires an environment that is forgiving of mistakes, whereas in many cases communicators are also working hard to demonstrate social media success to gain further buy-in. What’s needed is a training ground for these softer skills. Hearing from peers is useful, but you still need personal practice to fully understand the dynamics. And don’t think you can easily recruit for this, because you’ll be competing with well-funded external communities.

There is still an ownership void when it comes to cultivating collaboration too: IT tends to stop short of addressing adoption needs, HR seem to rarely be showing leadership so often it falls to Comms to be the drivers. Although Comms are well-equipped for managing launches, long-term it is not a comfortable strategic fit and it may well be that collaboration branches off as a new sub-species of internal communicator.

Thinking wider, the growth of the digital workplace and BYOD (bring your own device) is going to call for refined skills in understanding mobile and flexible work patterns. This isn’t just about designing for a small screen, but also for more urgent consumption; stripping back to critical tasks and capitalising on the ‘killing time’ use case that Jakob Nielsen described as the “killer app” for mobile.


Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

  • Posted at 11:56 am, 24 November, 2011

    Expanding on the future growth of Community Managers, I think more companies will start to hire CMs for different purposes. You can have a customer-facing CM who deals with external communities, but an Internal Community Manager could be responsible for facilitating discussion on intranets. More on that here: http://www.crexia.com/internal-community-management

  • Posted at 9:14 pm, 28 November, 2011

    The Changing Role of Internal Communications – Sam Marshall…

    This article has been submitted to Intranet Lounge – Trackback from Intranet Lounge…

  • Posted at 8:13 am, 1 December, 2011

    Missing from the future list – Quality. What is the quality of your communications? The future successful internal comms manager will be able to report performance against real measures of quality. He/she will be concerned about effectiveness and efficiency across all platforms.

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