AB Thinks  →  15th July 2020

Insights from seven decades of IC innovation

AB Thinks

Katie Macaulay’s guest for the final episode of Season 3 of The IC Podcast is a true legend of internal communications.

Roger D’Aprix is the author of 10 seminal works on the subject, and a man often referred to in reverent terms by other guests of the show.

Having begun his career in the 1950s – and still going strong today – Roger’s conversation with Katie contains many fascinating insights into the birth of the discipline in the modern era. His observations, ideas and solutions have profoundly influenced the strategies we use today.

Below are just a few of the takeaways we have picked out from a fascinating and essential 70-minute listen.

To hear the conversation in full, and to access our back catalogue of episodes featuring top communicators, subscribe to The Internal Comms Podcast.

#1 Modern IC was created to counter the military mindset prevalent in 1950s industry
One of my first discoveries when I entered business at General Electric in 1956 was that companies work amazingly hard to find the best and brightest and then immerse them in a system designed to limit their innovation and creativity. It just made no sense to me at all. I thought people had to start working to humanise these organisations to unleash this talent that they search so hard for. The young executives I was seeing at that point had all served in World War Two in a command-and-control style of leadership, and they brought all of that to the organisations they had just joined. Their view of life was ‘We’ll have a chain of command here, you will not speak above the level of your immediate boss, you will be loyal, you will respond to authority – basically, do as you’re told’. As a result, they had a two-fold approach to internal communication: the first was what I would call frivolous newsletters full of employees’ service anniversaries, obituaries, births and want ads, with a  mentality of: ‘We’re all in this together, and in return for paternalism we will expect your loyalty, but not your ideas or your imagination.’ The other approach was very simplistic publications based on propaganda – sort of Adam Smith capitalism, coupled with anti-union sentiment. I looked at all that and thought there had to be a better way.”

#2 Don’t assume your workforce doesn’t care about corporate decisions
“Leaders are reticent to talk about motive in decision making, for fear that they will give away too much. ‘What are the risks if I talk about why we’re doing this? Will the media pick up on it?’ There’s a great fear of the media and their questioning. And there is often an underestimation of the workforce, and the belief that ‘Well, they won’t really appreciate this anyway, or care about it’. That is probably one of the most arrogant views: that somehow, they don’t care. They care very deeply, and ultimately the question they want to know is why are you doing it? And, most importantly, what does it mean to my life? What does it mean to my future? How’s this going to affect me? And that’s the one question that seldom gets a reply.”

#3 Giving people all of the facts is the best way to communicate change
“I think ultimately, communication in an organisation has to be holistic. And by that, I mean, we need to educate people in organisations to the whole picture. What is the marketplace like? What are the market forces that are shaping the strategy and behaviour of senior leaders? What are the challenges? What is it that the consumer needs from us? All of those questions need to be asked and answered in an effort to educate the workforce. The best way to rationalise change is to talk about those matters, because all too often that case is not presented to the people in the organisation. There’s an assumption that somehow, they will put all this together; that if we just feed them information, they will have the capacity to pick and choose and finally understand what we’re up to. And that’s a silly assumption.”

#4 Why managers are often poor communicators
“Primarily, we haven’t given managers a set of expectations that communication is a crucial part of their role. And we tend not to make good selections. We pick the wrong people to be bosses time and time again: we promote the best contributor or technician to the role of team leader without a list of behavioural expectations, and without accountability. And then we make it even worse by not training them. People learn to be managers by watching others, and by going back to their own experience of working for a particular kind of boss. That’s really unfortunate, because learning by doing is great, but you have to have appropriate role models. That’s why we have such a problem with first line managers. It’s not their fault; they’ve been thrust into an unfortunate set of circumstances and so what do they rely on? Typically, they go back to authority: ‘I’ll tell you what you have to do, and I will evaluate you and give negative and discouraging feedback.’ So that’s what we’ve got, and that’s why we have a great need for innovation and creativity, which we tend to stifle at that level.

#5 Effective communicators think holistically
“Historically, we don’t know who we are in internal communications. We’ve gone through periods where we thought we were journalists, media mavens or coaches. All sorts of different interpretations of what the role really is and what it should be. That’s a big problem. Bottom line, it’s easier to be a tactician than it is to be a strategist. To be a strategist, you have to be a holistic thinker, you have to have that talent. It’s relatively easy to be a reporter, and that’s the way lots of people see their role: they’re simply moving information, cascading it, reporting what’s going on, whether they use an intranet or a newsletter. That puts the burden on the audience to assemble all of these bits and pieces of information and derive some meaning from it all. I think that’s an impossible challenge.”

#6 Encouraging employee activism creates dialogue, understanding and inclusion
“If you silence and suppress conflict, you’re going to get an explosive reaction. Just like what’s happening in the streets of American cities, and in the UK and all over the world, in response to police brutality. If you suppress that kind of stuff, and basically minimise it, then you bring on an explosive response that you’re going to have a very difficult time controlling. We need to confront conflict. We need to appreciate conflict. So, I think activism should be encouraged, and that should encourage dialogue, understanding and inclusion. I’m very much encouraged by what’s happening in the US and the fact that protesters are finally out there, acknowledging what we’ve all known was true in our past racial history.”