First understand, then innovate

An important first step to finding the right digital tools for your internal communications

Internal communication strategies need to incorporate the challenges and opportunities of digital and social technologies much more than they used to do in the past.

And just as “digital, social and mobile” are currently transforming our lives, whole companies and industry sectors – internal communications can too expect a transformational change. This calls for an increased need for new and better digital tools to support the execution of innovative strategies.

Luckily, much has changed over the last couple of years when it comes to digital skills in communications departments. Digital is no longer new or exotic, but has become a cornerstone in many internal communications departments.

But there is one area left that has still troubles communication professionals: selecting the right digital tools and systems.

Being frightened away from this decision is easy, as the marketplace for internal digital tools is vast, confusing and often immature. Leaving the evaluation process to IT or an external agency sure sounds much more appealing than digging into that space yourself. But before you delegate this task, you should talk to people in other companies and inquire thoroughly about their satisfaction levels with the tools they have in place. Chances are you won’t encounter too much enthusiasm there…

Asking the right questions

There is a huge gap between satisfaction as perceived by IT and by communications: IT are typically with the products they have chosen, while communications is struggling with everything from user experience to lack of features to restrictions in adapting the tools to better fit their needs.

Obviously there something wrong here. Getting it right actually starts with something quite simple: asking the right questions. To begin with: what does success in internal communications look like in a world that is increasingly shaped by digital technologies and behaviors and expectations formed by social media? Once that is established, you can start to think about how to get there. While this may sound very logical, many projects don’t pay enough attention to defining clear goals before forging ahead

Creating real value for all stakeholders should always be an fundamental goal! That’s quite a challenge on its own though. For internally-focused digital tools, stakeholders typically translates to “all the people in the company” – people with diverse jobs, expectations and needs. And just getting a new platform, system or app doesn’t mean “real value” for most of them. To the contrary: when asked, most employees state that having too many systems is a major problem.

Want to create value? Understand the situation!

A change for the better from the perspective of your stakeholders can only happen by solving real-world issues your stakeholders are currently struggling with or by opening up new opportunities that have not yet been explored. For both, a deep understanding of the current work practice is required.

At this point, many projects go wrong (again). The reason why is a simple one: asking stakeholders about their requirements for the digital solutions (e.g.: “would you need feature XYZ in the new intranet?”). The reason why questions of that type should not be used is not because you wouldn’t get any answers to such questions, but because the answers are literally Henry Ford’s “faster horses” and not a representation of real requirements.

What you should be asking instead is for existing problems in people’s daily work.

Because that is something that people can actually tell you about very well and that gives you much better arguments.

To illustrate: would your management be more willing to invest in a new project, if your analysis has found that 42% of all employees asked would like to have a wiki-function in the future or if it found that the same percentage had problems in documenting important information with a direct impact on the business? Once you start asking these sorts of questions, it is very likely you will discover that the scope of what people actually need goes far beyond what the project team had in mind when starting out.

A select few of the many problems that exist in most companies today

Step 1: define the scope of your project

Many teams find themselves with a huge increase in scope and the subsequent need to adapt their project to the realities they have identified by asking the right questions. Such a change is often difficult, as it typically requires a complete re-setup of the project, the project team, the budget, etc.

It is therefore much better not to start a full-blown project as step number one, but to first perform a pre-study that defines what kind of project you actually need. Chances are that you will no longer be talking about a project to implement a tool that does “this and that” but about creating the “Future of Work” in your company.

Outline of a pre-study for digital internal communications and the digital transformation of work

Much later: choose the right digital tool

Embarking upon your internal digital journey in the way outlined above will nonetheless bring you to the point when you have to choose the right system to support your goals. This time the difference will be that you have a very clear understanding of what you need the tools to do, plus, ideally, also data about how big a financial and qualitative benefit this will bring to your stakeholders and the company. Therefore, your basis for argumentation is a completely different one. Making those hard decisions that go with every evaluation process will suddenly be much easier and much less driven by technological aspects alone.

The digital and social transformation of internal communications is far too crucial to leave it to IT, the software vendors or an external agency. Your strategy comes first, tools to support it second (and beyond). It may seem a small difference, but it will make all the difference.

Stephan Schillerwein spoke at the 6th Quadriga Internal Communications Conference in October. You can view his presentation via Slideshare below. For more conferences related to all aspects of corporate communications head to the Quadriga Events website. Follow Stephan on @IntranetMatters.

Main image: Thinkstock. Article images courtesy of the author

Stephan Schillerwein

Stephan Schillerwein is managing director of Schillerwein Net Consulting. He is an internationally-recognised expert in Intranet and has been active in the fields of information management and digital media for more than 15 years. During this time he has accompanied more than 100 projects in more than 50 companies of all sizes and industries as a consultant.