Internal communications have evolved dramatically from the days when it just meant an internal newsletter. Catherine Park examines how the British Association of Communications in Business (CiB) and related training have kept pace with change.
As a training provider, what do you do when the demands of your sector undergo a complete transformation? The answer, obviously, is change to meet the new requirements, but how do you make the decisions about what to change and what to leave behind?
That was the scenario faced by the professional body for internal communications practitioners, the British Association of Communicators in Business (CiB), which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Catherine Park explains how the challenge was met through CiB’s approach to training and qualifications.
When CiB was established in 1949 (as the British Association of Industrial Editors), the major focus of its members was on producing in-house newsletters and magazines. The emphasis was very much on channelling information that the board saw fit to release, with limited strategic input.
As time moved on, there was more acceptance of the fact that internal communications had a broader remit than in-house publications. However, the function tended to be submerged within other disciplines such as human resources or external communications, and was not really recognised as a skill set in its own right.
Training courses specifically for internal communications practitioners were slow to develop, and for a long time the focus remained firmly on the nuts and bolts of writing and editing.
In recent years, there has been more recognition of the fact that consistently effective internal communications require high-level, specialist skills. There are many more practitioners who focus entirely on this discipline, or for whom it forms a large part of their daily work activities.
An increasing number of employers see strategic internal communications as an integral part of organisational success. However, this also means additional responsibility for practitioners as they are expected to achieve quantifiable results.
One of the major changes to the internal communications function that has required a review of professional development is that practitioners no longer simply channel information and produce 'output'. Instead they are seen more as 'change agents' who are there to understand organisational objectives and actively help to achieve them by formulating the best way of informing and engaging employees.
This is about much more than writing and encompasses an understanding of business issues, along with the ability to develop plans and campaigns to support specific organisational goals, and to identify relevant audiences and the best way to reach them.
So what impact has all this had in terms of necessary skills, training provision and professional development programmes within the sector?
CiB realised several years ago that there was no formally recognised development route that helped professionals deal with today’s challenges. Therefore, it set to work with other interested bodies to produce a skills and knowledge matrix.
The association is now using this to develop a professional development framework that meets the needs of practitioners and their employers throughout their career. CiB has already launched an entry-level Diploma of Proficiency in Internal Communications. The plans are for the portfolio of qualifications to include an Advanced Diploma, a Bachelor degree-equivalent qualification and a Masters degree-equivalent qualification.
A panel of industry experts has been appointed to oversee and validate the programme, and the higher level qualifications will also be accredited by an external academic body.
However, the association realised that traditional elements of its skill set could not be left behind. Writing remains one of the core skills. Focusing on spelling and grammatical shortcomings can seem pedantic, but sloppiness does not aid understanding while precision and clarity do.
CiB education and accreditation director Steve Doswell comments: "Unfortunately, we find that individuals are leaving formal education without a sufficient grasp of the clarity of language required to function effectively in an internal communications role, at even quite a basic level. Writing skills, therefore, have to be a key feature of our entry-level qualification."
Phil Weare, employee communication manager at Peugeot Citroen Automobiles and a member of CiB's independent qualification monitoring panel, adds: "When a recent entrant to the profession makes a basic error, this is what other employees will often focus on and remember, regardless of all the excellent work that may have been put in on the project. Bringing them up to a consistent, recognised level will help to ensure that they don’t let themselves or others down."
Although writing remains as much of a core skill as it was 60 years ago, CiB's entry-level Diploma has expanded to focus strongly on breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding. This is reflected in the syllabus which includes, for example, basic management theory, working effectively with clients and suppliers, teamwork and meeting skills, general interpersonal skills.
This expanded scope is now a necessity, not least because of the more streamlined nature of organisations. Phil Weare explains: "When organisations have a leaner process, with individuals required to undertake a wider range of tasks and use their own initiative, a lack of insight can cause considerable problems. This can typically arise in relation to something like the necessary approvals for a design and print project, where oversights can cost thousands of pounds."
The final assessment for the entry-level Diploma includes an examination and a panel interview but there is also considerable emphasis on on-the-job learning through completion of an evidence file and practical project back at the workplace. Steve Doswell comments: "Communication qualifications that tend towards the theoretical, providing information that is good to know but not rooted in proven workplace practice, are of limited value in the 'real' world of internal communications."
The Advanced Diploma, which is currently under development, will move things on to the next level. David Salter, Royal Bank of Scotland head of internal communications and qualification panel member, says: "It covers a broad range of topics to fill those knowledge gaps related to tasks that you don’t do every day such as knowing the legal aspects of communicating, basic project management and budget control for communicators."
Another challenge for today's practitioners is the slightly bewildering array of tools that is now at their disposal, aided by rapid technological advances which have brought us, for example, intranets, podcasts, blogs and social networking. The CiB qualifications will be designed to help them make the right decisions in particular circumstances. Steve Doswell says: "Practitioners need to be equipped to make sensible choices about suitable channels. This requires an understanding of new technologies and the judgement to recognise when more traditional methods such as face-to-face briefings and providing support to line managers may achieve better results."
Short training courses remain important to support the qualification process and for continuing professional development, and they show some similar trends. While there is still strong take-up of writing and editing courses, the association has also responded to growing demand for courses on technology developments and possible new approaches to reaching and engaging audiences.
Courses relating to strategy and planning are popular, along with those dealing with major strategic issues such as the management of change.
In all of this, we should not shy away from the issue of status. Internal communications is indeed coming of age but it has not quite made it yet. There are still plenty of people in organisations who are indifferent to the function or see it as of secondary importance. Internal communicators can find themselves with the additional challenge of being in a stand-alone role, or with a lack of traditional hierarchical structures to provide support.
Catherine Park is a communications consultant. Much of her work has been with trade associations and professional bodies