The importance of internal communications

My company Ellipse is a small team of 40 staff, so we’re much like an SME, but being part of a multi-national insurer we share a more corporate atmosphere too. That provides me with two different perspectives on internal communications. For larger companies this is an area which requires a coherent strategy and dedicated resource, with staff from many different backgrounds, located around the world, this isn’t surprising and is indeed essential for success. But for many SMEs, who are busy working hard and growing their businesses, this often isn’t a major concern. But should it be?

Effective internal communication helps ensure that all members of the organisation are working collaboratively towards a common goal. It develops a cohesive culture and empowers employees to make the right decisions in line with the organisation’s goals. This in turn leads to greater efficiency and productivity and improves customer service. These outputs are relevant to every organisation, so size really shouldn’t matter in this respect.

But SMEs shouldn’t assume that good internal communications is a natural product of a small team. Often communicating and sharing information with colleagues is overlooked as everyone concentrates on getting work done and it’s often the more subtle messages that get missed. That is the inevitable consequence of success and it’s the reality especially at start up stage. Good internal communications is not just about major company announcements, it’s an ongoing, open dialogue between all those that need to know. As the business grows, you need to think about greater process discipline, but also the communications strategy and structure which binds your team together. Both of those are essential for long term business success.

So although I’m not suggesting SMEs need to over-engineer their approach in this area, there are some simple steps which can make a real difference.

Firstly, review where you are now and where you’d like to be. It is quite interesting undertaking this review from a top down and also a bottom up approach. We setup a working group of junior staff from across the business to look at this first in a workshop format. They looked at a wide variety of aspects, from company policy announcements and business updates through to transferring calls and emails from customers onto other departments. Their observations and recommendations were then combined with a senior management view, which gives a much broader perspective of macro and micro issues.

You can then start to address any weaknesses and although your solutions will be very specific to your own circumstances, here are examples of some effective tools we use:

• Establish a set of Communication Principles and link them to your brand guidelines. This provides a guidance framework for employees which they can refer back to. Including performance against these principles in personal objectives can help too.
• Make sure every business process change has a Communications Plan.
• Store useful information in a central place e.g. intranet or even a simple SharePoint site.
• Open door policy – everyone in the business should be easily approachable and encouraged to listen as much as they talk.
• Monthly staff survey – listen to your staff. We use this survey to measure job satisfaction and give staff an opportunity to raise issues. Comments can be marked as private, but are otherwise shared with the group.
• Whole company monthly meeting – Individual departments provide updates, I comment on the overall strategic plan and we talk about the results of the staff survey. It’s a big time commitment, but works well providing the content is high quality and session is concise.
• 10 minute Stand Up – conducted weekly, except when we’re holding a monthly meeting. A brief meeting with the whole company, providing just key updates, is effective in reinforcing values, purpose and targets.
• Encourage good email discipline and watch out for poor practice – we find that if we are on our third email on the same topic, it’s time to talk face to face.
• Yammer – an enterprise social media tool which is a bit like an online discussion forum. All staff have access to Yammer and are encouraged to post relevant updates, so everyone knows what’s happening in the business.
• Careful use of All Company emails – use it sparingly and alongside your other channels. Too many, and messages won’t get read, too few, can make a small thing seem like a big issue.

Just like you multi-channel your customer communications, do the same here and in much the same way, you’ll get better results.

Keeping the momentum and focus on this issue throughout the business can be challenging, but implementing some of these ideas, with senior management support, can be very effective.

Finally, achieving excellence in communications requires continual improvement, even those who are further developed than others, will always be looking for better ways to communicate.

Internal communications is not just an issue for large organisations. SMEs should be mindful of the benefits of good communication and should not be complacent in assuming that this is naturally part of the furniture. Small companies don’t automatically benefit from good communications, you need to develop routines and working guidelines which you commit to.


About John Ritchie

John Ritchie is the founding CEO of Ellipse, a specialist online insurer covering the death and disability benefits offered by companies to their employees. He set up the business for Munich Re Group to challenge the long-established players in that sector and firmly believes that the digital age enables small, nimble companies, like Ellipse, to compete successfully with the big boys.