What motivates a hundred internal communicators to forego their weekend lie-in, converge on Richmond from across the country (and beyond) and talk shop all day?
The Big Yak, that’s what!
This year’s gathering was the second unconference-style event run by the entrepreneurial creators of the IC Crowd, and my first experience both of the Big Yak and this style of event. What I took away at the end were some great new contacts, a better sense of where internal communications is as a profession, and a mixture of nuggets that I’ve squirrelled away for future use.
Here are seven random takeouts from the day…
1. We should use the ‘unconference’ methodology more in internal events
The beauty of this style of event is that it turns passive participants into active ones, transferring ownership and accountability onto the participants. Those are good traits to be modelling in any context.
Our facilitator Benjamin Ellis positioned it beautifully with the rule of two feet. ‘If someone leaves your group, don’t be offended. If you can’t contribute or you’re not learning, leave your group and join another one. It’s not that you are allowed, it’s your responsibility.’
We’re using the same approach at work shortly during part of an HR team event, and I’m intrigued to see how it will play out.
2. Smaller groups work best
With six discussions running every 45 minutes or so, some topics proved highly popular. This meant large groups, which I felt worked less well and discouraged some from participating fully. Smaller groups of around 12 felt more like an informal conversation, and I began to use group size as a factor in deciding which groups to join.
3. Employee websites are a growing trend
How do you reach large numbers of customer-facing employees who don’t have email access? A growing trend is employee websites. High profile examples at companies like Asda, Tesco and Royal Mail already exist, and other organisations have them in the works. Companies seem to be making access open or secure, or a combination of the two.
Employee websites have great potential, but they don’t replace great face-to-face communication for customer-facing employees. MyRoyalMail.com for example has been around a while, but their CIPR Excellence Award-winning internal communications campaign on their employee share offer relied heavily on face-to-face roadshows.
4. The empty chair
Mention ’empty chair’ and I can’t help think of Clint Eastwood’s bizarre appearance as part of US Senator John McCain’s 2012 Republican rally. A more positive example mentioned at the Yak was an organisation whose culture includes always having an empty chair in meetings.
Not only does this prove useful when pulling others into the meeting, it has the symbolic purpose of representing the rest of the organisation. I’ve sometimes sat in meetings with fellow managers where the needs of customer-facing employees in particular seem to fly out of the window, so I liked this idea of a visual prompt to give customer-facing employees a silent voice.
5. Reverse mentoring
Another nugget from a discussion, this one suggested pairing younger employees with older ones to help them navigate the ever-changing landscape of social media. It seems a great tactic both for breaking down generational barriers and for capitalising on the innate strengths of everyone in the organisation.
6. Internal Communications is an increasingly diverse world
I’ve worked with PR people who have been happy to dismiss internal communications as its poor relation. But the Big Yak conversations show how diverse the internal communications world can be, depending on the size, scope and culture of your organisation.
For all the justified interest in employee social networks, the humble poster and magazine still play a role. Globalisation, social media and employee engagement bring new demands on internal communicators, but huge scope for personal development too.
And for me, managers are still key, particularly for those ‘hard to reach’ employees. We need to work with HR to make sure managers have the right skills, tools and motivation to communicate effectively.
7. Almost all business disasters come from communication issues
Often the smallest remark gets you thinking most. Benjamin’s closing address suggested that business disasters are invariably rooted in communication issues. That got me thinking. Is the perennial and notoriously tricky search for return on investment on internal communications activity actually the best use of our time?
What if we identified high profile communication failures from both outside and inside the organisation to persuade senior leaders to open the purse for the internal comms budget?
Thanks again to everyone who made the event: the IC Crowd founders, Rachel Miller, Jenni Wheller, Dana Leeson; Benjamin Ellis, our facilitator; all the volunteers and discussion group leads; and fellow participants – not least the brilliant Hannah Awcock.
You can read different perspectives on the event rounded up at www.theiccrowd.com and on the blogs of, among others, Jenni Wheller, Rachel Miller, Steve Murgatroyd, Anna Lowman, CIPR Inside, AB, Helen Deverell, and at Buzztale.