How to Support a Healthy Internal Communications Ecosystem
November 3, 2022
Internal communication is a complex and often delicate ecosystem. There are myriad elements interacting constantly, each with its own unique benefits, challenges, and needs.
When it’s in balance, that ecosystem thrives—each element supports the others in an interdependent relationship that results in a sum greater than its parts. When things are out of balance, communication breaks down. A small handful of channels or voices dominate at the expense of others. Key messages get ignored, missed, or misconstrued.
And while there’s a substantial social cost to that misalignment, there are also stark bottom line impacts that would raise the eyebrows of any C-Suite member. In “Did You Get My Slack/Email/Text?,” Erica Dhawan shares some uncomfortable findings:
“Through a survey of almost 2,000 office workers, we found that over 70% experienced some form of unclear communication from their colleagues. This leads to the average employee wasting four hours per week on poor or confusing digital communications, which adds up to an average annual amount of $188 billion wasted across the American economy.”
Even though communication breakdowns happen for numerous reasons, Dhawan echoes the sentiment that “...it seems that the more platforms we have at our disposal, the more complicated digital communication gets.”
But rather than bracing against that increasing complexity, perhaps it makes more sense to lean in, embrace it, and attempt to harness it.
The Modern Internal Communication Environment
To better understand the vast web of communication tools we use at work, it might help to take a page from the book of ecology. What would it take to support a more balanced and symbiotic communications ecosystem, and how can organizations get there as quickly as possible?
Communication is constantly evolving.
Even as far back as 2016, the explosion of social tools had already changed the face of company communication. As McKinsey research found, “When asked about the most beneficial features of the social tools their companies use, respondents most often cite real-time interactions, the ability to collaborate with specific groups, and cross-platform availability.”
That remains true today, and the benefits of that flexibility are real, but there has been such a proliferation of communication mediums and channels that it can be difficult to know where to go.
For most, if not all modern organizations, communication venues and mediums evolved and multiplied to the point that there was no single place where all communication lives. Comms distribution became comms dilution. Even those organizations that were able to corral their communications back into a central stack likely faced a similar period of pure chaos.
As Dhawan pointed out in her work, members of the team she consulted for were “sharing the same messages and documents using multiple collaboration tools, making it hard for anybody to know where to go for what.”
Departmental channels tend to compound that complexity.
Functional groups often use their own specialty channels to communicate and track work. For example, software engineers often use tools like Github, not just for software version control, but to assign tasks and collaborate. A marketing team might use Asana or Notion to accomplish a similar goal. Multiply that fragmentation across an entire organization, and communication complexity grows exponentially.
But some insular communication is okay—even necessary—because much of that communication isn’t helpful to people outside that functional group. Problems arise when silos form, and the balance between insular and open communication becomes skewed.
Luckily, there’s an entire ecosystem of tools and techniques available to support organizational communication. In the next section, we’ll introduce some key elements of that ecosystem, and share some ways to establish a symbiotic environment where they can all thrive.
Introducing the Elements
Like any ecosystem, internal communications includes a diverse range of elements—each with its own strengths and weaknesses. When combined, those elements can operate as a whole stronger than its individual parts.
Email is ‘Old Reliable.’
Like a 10-year old MacBook Air, or a washing machine built in the 1990s—against all odds and the sands of time, email still just works.
And it works surprisingly well. Email is a place where you can reach everyone inside or outside your organization. The problem is, it’s not easily or comprehensively searchable, and it’s frequently ignored. If you’ve ever been part of a company-wide reply-all thread or a spam campaign, you know it’s also one of the most misused and abused comms mediums.
Email is also a difficult collaboration medium at best. Seamlessly bringing collaborators in and out of an email chain, or keeping everyone up to date with the most current version of an asset is an exercise in frustration.
Despite those challenges, email still remains one of the most ubiquitous communications tools worldwide. There will probably always be some place for email in both internal and external communications, but as the desire for fast, rich, synchronous communication increases, email’s role as the go-to internal channel continues to shrink.
Messaging apps are a beautiful, revolutionary, mixed bag.
Apps like Slack and Teams are indispensable because they’re uniquely capable of reaching employees in the moment, and in the context of their work. They’re also able to integrate with numerous other tools to make messages even more helpful and contextual.
But that lightning-fast communication cadence comes with a tradeoff: conversations and information also get buried lightning-fast.
For messaging apps to be their most effective, it’s crucial to have some form of ‘long term memory’ to organize, store, and catalog the wealth of information that passes through. Tools like pinning, reminders, channel bookmarks, and an always improving search experience help make it easier to find the information you need, but those improvements are most helpful when you already know what you’re looking for.
SMS/Texts messages are effective, but sometimes inappropriate.
Text messages can break through communication barriers that other elements of the communication ecosystem often can’t, but for that very reason, it’s critical to be judicious in their use.
Receiving an emergency notification from your employer via text message on your phone may help prevent a disaster, or protect your wellbeing. On the other hand, receiving an ‘urgent’ text message from your boss about a project while you’re eating dinner with your family might make you resent your job enough to quit.
Video is engaging, time-intensive, and less inclusive.
Video is quickly becoming a mainstay in corporate communications. With 86% of businesses using video as a marketing tool, there’s a clear indication of a return on that investment. But even with so many organizations leaning into video for external communications, it’s still the early days of video’s role in internal communications.
You can break internal video communication down into two major format buckets:
Synchronous Video like Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings makes it possible for people across great distances to connect and communicate instantly, in high fidelity.
Asynchronous Video like Loom, YouTube, or Vimeo can help communicate concepts visually and deliver information like a senior leadership address with a level of personality and clarity that’s hard to replicate elsewhere.
Both of those formats suffer from the same two challenges:
If you need to find one specific piece of information quickly, video alone is usually a difficult route to access it from. Scrubbing back and forth across a video timeline to find something important is neither fast, efficient, or fun.
In its raw state, video is also less accessible for employees who have difficulty seeing or hearing.
You can meet with someone seven time zones away, but that raises the question of whether or not you should, and who should be the one to stay up late (or get up early). Unless they’re recorded, synchronous video communications aren’t accessible or referenceable to anyone who wasn’t able to join the original meeting.
Transcription helps bridge the video communication gap, and it’s becoming more common in both synchronous and asynchronous channels; however, transcriptions and captions need a place to live, long-term.
An Intranet’s Role in the Communications Ecosystem
An intranet is one of the few places where you can bring structured and unstructured, long form, short form, text, video, and audio communication together. But just like any other element of the ecosystem, it relies on other elements in order to thrive.
You may have an important announcement or the canonical version of a resource in your intranet, but people need a path to it from wherever they are.
When you post something important on your intranet, make sure it reaches your colleagues through the ephemeral channels like instant messaging, email, and mobile push notifications.
In some intranets, sharing a resource or a post will trigger events across other elements of your internal comms ecosystem. For example, posting a company update can trigger emails, slack notifications, mobile push notifications, or even SMS messages.
Central source of truth
While the quickest communication may happen in messaging apps, the most tailored information may live in dedicated channels, and external collaboration may happen through email, an intranet is ideally the place where anyone can go to access the key information relating to all of the above.
A design agency may pass multiple versions of a corporate asset through email. An HR team might revise a policy multiple times. Wth an intranet, the final canonical version of those resources lives in a place where anyone in the organization can access it and trust that it’s the correct version.
Rich media formats, connections, and integrations
Intranets are uniquely positioned to organize and house resources from a wide variety of mediums and connect those resources to every member of an organization. Whether embedding video in a company announcement, tagging individual users for visibility, or linking resources to the people who can add more context, intranets can be a powerful web to connect all those things together, effortlessly.
If you don’t have an intranet
While a well-designed intranet can make many of these things easier and more fluid, you can still stitch some of these elements together. Most times, doing so requires a lot more effort and manual intervention.
Whether you’re bringing email announcements or Jira tickets into Slack, giving canonical assets a home in specified Google Drive folders, or anything in-between, it is possible to bring some of these benefits to your team no matter what your tech stack looks like. However, as many Haystack users have mentioned, having a seamless, purpose-built way of doing all this at once can be a game-changer.