ICology - A professional skills framework for internal communications

Ep #41, with Jennifer Sproul, IoIC

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The Institute of Internal Communication’s new profession map is intended to define our purpose as a profession and help businesses and practitioners understand what we do and how we do it. The map will support leaders in ensuring their IC functions are fit for purpose and help individuals navigate their professional development pathway in line with today’s challenges.
IoIC has identified six core professional areas of required skills and knowledge, alongside eight supporting behaviors, which enable practitioners to do their job efficiently and effectively. In this episode of ICology, chief executive Jennifer Sproul discusses the core professional areas. 

  • Organizational strategy and planning
  • People and culture understanding
  • Messaging, storytelling and design
  • Tools, technology and digital
  • Coaching and facilitating
  • Listening and measuring effectiveness

The profession map will also feature in the new IoIC continuing professional development scheme, coming in spring 2017. Individuals will be able to use the framework to build their our personal development plan and demonstrate their learnings.

Episode Transcript

Chuck Gose: One of the themes that's echoed through ICology since the beginning is the continued evolution of the IC profession. Throughout this evolution, many elements of the job have stayed the same. Even though the job varies from company to company and organization to organization, there's a core structure to what it means to be an internal communicator. Very recently, the Institute of Internal Communication, commonly known as the IoIC, has created a brand new professional skills framework for business communicators. We're going to discuss this new framework with Jennifer Sproul, chief executive at the Institute of Internal Communication. Jennifer, welcome to ICology.

Jennifer Sproul: Well, thanks so much for having me, Chuck.

Chuck: Happy New Year to you as well.

Jennifer: You as well.

Chuck: Now, for those who aren't familiar with IoIC, explain what the organization does and also what your role is there.

Jennifer: Sure, so the IoIC, we're the only independent professional body in the UK solely dedicated to internal communication. We help our members build credibility and skills and knowledge, providing qualifications, training, events, career development and we also deliver thought leadership and conversation with for example, our recently launched magazine, Voice.

In terms of my role here as chief executive, my role really is sort of to the operational and strategic running of the IoIC on a day-to-day basis. I work with our board, so we have an elective board of about 10 members that span from corporate side to agency side, which kind of steer the agenda. My job really is to fulfill the ambitions of the IoIC operationally, as well as to I guess be caretaker with finances and really the day-to-day communications.

Chuck: Now, I mentioned in the beginning, you guys launched this brand new, professional skills framework for internal communication. Before we go into the details on it, what work went into the creation of this framework?

Jennifer: It was one of those things that we arrived at. When I stepped up as chief executive back in May of this year, one of the things that I did when I joined was to really spend some time talking to members and professionals. I spent a lot of time also with our qualification candidates and delegates. I think one of the things that I keep hearing was kind of landscape of internal communications, it changed so much. Yes, there are core skills, but there wasn't a place that was really kind of clearly defining actually what it is that we do and what good looks like, and what our actual role is in business.

I guess it was all that anecdotal conversation, I took this back to the IoIC board. We really thought, well actually, there's an opportunity here to create something that really helps our members in their profession articulate why they're so valuable to business. We decided to really, we ran a couple of workshops with the board, sort of playing around. We started actually with what our core purpose was, and that was quite an interesting discussion as I'm sure you can imagine. The common themes that came up from everybody were engaged, connected, informed, and it's linked to organizational performance. We ran a couple more to really start to get into a little bit more of the detail around what it will, so therefore if we're going to achieve that, what are the skills and the knowledge that we actually need to build into our teams, into our functions, to be successful, and then also the behaviors.

We really workshopped out over a couple of sessions, and then we had a couple of different iterations to finally put out the one that we have now. The premise that we've put out there, and which is very clear in some of our communications, is that we're looking for feedback. We have said that if people feel there's something that's not quite right or something that's not hitting the spot, we want to consult with the profession. This is another great opportunity to put that message out there, to say look, if you feel it's not quite hitting your mark as we go through it, email me and do let me know.

Chuck: For those only listening to this podcast, I should point out on the ICology blog there will be the framework listed as well as a link to the additional resources. For those only listening, paint a nice visual picture for what this framework looks like, as well as the various layers of this.

Jennifer: Sure. It's designed, it's a circular graphic, in essence. It's not very uncommon to actually ever have competency frameworks that exist in marketplace, because essentially it's really important I think to offer it to be in a circular device. We're not saying that there's all these check boxes that you have to list, and it's going to vary how people apply it, and it's always a continuous evolution. It's like there's no start and finish. That's why being a circular graphic is really important.

The center, if you like circle, bubble, whatever you want to call it, is our purpose. Then from that stems six other sort of circular graphics that feed into that of the core professional areas, where those skills or knowledge exist to achieve that purpose. Then another layer sits outside of that, which describes the sort of nine key behaviors that are needed to do the job efficiently and effectively. It starts in the middle and works its way out as how it all comes back to achieve the purpose.

Chuck: For the purpose of this episode, we're going to focus on that middle layer, what you refer to as the professional layers of this framework. You've outlined six, so let's start working through these and how these impact a role of the communicator. First up was organizational strategy and planning.

Jennifer: Right. This obviously is where everything starts is that beginning piece, if you like. What we're referring to in this area and what the competencies or the knowledge and skills that we look at is it's really important for internal communicators today to understand the strategy and the goals and the environment of their business, and to really understand the role the peoples play in its success. You have to really have that overview knowledge. Also depending on the environment that your business is in, it's really important to understand those border aspects that you don't always have control on. That can impact your business whether you're in pharmaceuticals or whether you're in engineering, there are going to be things that impact the way you communicate or what happens in your business. I think it's really important for internal communicators to understand the overall strategy of the organization, but also those external forces in which it operates in to make them effective as a communicator.

It's becoming, it's one of the things we've highlighted actually recently in a couple of discussions, we've reached a couple of things in it in our magazine as well, is that there seems to be an increasing need for internal communications to develop their commercial and business acumen. It really does help strengthen their role in the organization, making them a more influential voice, and often when talking with leadership. That's the big strategy, sort of the organizational-wide piece that we refer to.

Then we take it down a little bit further into the areas that we look at in that segment. Also you have to understand the business to be an effective internal communicator. They have to create plans that align to those goals. Need to understand how internal annexed communications can work together, and what tactics are needed to ensure that they actually reach an informed and engaged workforce. Often, internal communicators don't often have the biggest of budgets, or often they don't know what things are coming up or what's happening. They have to be really fleet or foot and also do things sometimes on what can't be seen a lot of budget. It's amazing what can be done with that.

Chuck: The best internal communicators I see out there are the ones who truly embed themselves in the organization versus isolating themselves in the organization, because they become so dialed in to what the organization's doing. You bring up a good point, not just what's going on now, but what's coming up next. The more they can prepare and plan, then the better the communication will be.

Jennifer: Absolutely, and I think the year that we've all had as well is evidence of that, really, about being prepared for all those external things that go around, and understanding how to interpret that, understand what it means, so that actually it makes them much more effective.

Chuck: Now, the next layer you have is people and cultural understanding.

Jennifer: Yeah, moving on. We know we've understood the business, the context and the environment that we work in. Now, people really are the heart of what we do. What are their needs? What are their motivations? What's their environment and individual perspectives like? You know, when you've got a workforce of 15-20 thousand that all have different environments or different personal circumstances or different things that drive them to get out of bed to go to work every day, it's important as much we can to understand all those differences. It's also understanding people is really key to making those messages stick. I guess it's the science behind the people, we talk a lot I guess in that neuroscience piece today, but also the other important thing it is about understanding is also the psychology of communication and how messages are received and translated. We all read things slightly differently. We also then within that need to understand what driver's models can actually really drive engagement based on peoples' needs, what really does increase their motivation and what helps with morale? Again, that's different for different people.

It's also important for employees to understand what their role is in the organization and how their work has contributed to its success. We're all the same, when we work hard or we're doing something, however much your role, we all want to feel that pat on the back and understand what it is that they have done that's made that contribution. It's really important to make sure that dialogue is going backwards and forwards, and if you like, multi-directional.

The other thing we talk about in this area is we talk about the articulation of values and vision. There's increasing topic these days around employee brands and really it's about the creating and matching of values is really essential to its success, it's that kind of tangible and intangible agreement which says this is who we are, this is what matters to us, and this is what we're like to work for. It's really important the internal communicators be the continuous articulation in embedding of those vision and values to ensure they're transparent and delivered upon. Also champion the employee voice when they're created as well to make sure that sometimes those values can be built from the inside out.

Chuck: Yeah, I think the challenges a lot of the communicators have with culture is sort of communicating to the culture you have versus the culture you want. I think that's where digging in with leaders to make them realize this is what the culture is, not necessarily this is what we want it to be, and how do you begin making that transition from the culture you have versus the culture you want? That's a big component or big challenge I think a lot of communicators have.

Jennifer: Absolutely, I think it is one of the toughest challenges is to be that middle pin between the leadership and the people and making sure that realism and reality, I guess, is communicated and acted upon rather than the desire of where we want to be. I think that's a really good point.

Chuck: Then in the next layer is probably the one that a lot of communicators, it would strongly resonate with them is messaging, storytelling, and design.

Jennifer: Yeah. As we talked about in the last segment, our audiences are complex, and we have many employee and stakeholder groups. Internal communicators, I guess, our task with often interpreting business messages into clear and relevant content, but also open and honest communication, which is becoming more and more important in business today. Really supporting this is this skill of being an effective writer I guess is the unique and bonding craft we say of internal communications. It's actually where the IoIC was born. We started out as an association back in 1949, which was I think the, the Association of Industrial Editors. We always hosted those editors that were tasked with translating or writing that editorial copy to print out the business messages.

It's I guess where IoIC as some things began, but what we're trying to do now is really embed where that sits with all the other elements that go into the role these days. The other thing is internal communicators, they often have the really hard stories to tell. It isn't art which makes them really, really invaluable to business. We also are moving much more now towards storytelling. Often now, internal communicators have to really encourage storytelling within their organizations as a way of articulating what is going on.

The other thing we talk about in this area is that we also need to inspire more knowledge sharing. This is going to be even more important our communication planning increasingly connected workplaces. Finally, when we've got our effective writing and our storytelling, we also need to have great design. We need to create great campaigns that capture visually as well as from a word point of view. Showcasing some often original material, so taking on I guess some of those lessons from the marketing world that we talked about, the professions start to take on many, many tasks.

Chuck: I can only speak here from the US side of things, but at least here, more and more internal communicators have journalism backgrounds. They have that storytelling down, they know what makes a good story. I see that even as these stories, which start out as internal stories, really become valuable externally. They're able to craft and build a story that holds the attention of the reader. I see that as a huge gain to the internal coms profession as seeing these people with journalism backgrounds being able to properly tell that story, but then also see the opportunity around design, that I think communicators would like to build on templates, would like to work in systems that we can sort of plug in and go, where we find that we do create an effective design. Design doesn't necessarily just have to be graphically, it could be with text, you're able to draw that reader in more, which should be the ultimate end game. Not just reader, I should say viewer. Even when it comes to video there's a design element to that as well as with storytelling.

Jennifer: Absolutely, absolutely. Real mixed skill set. Then I think as well we should come up to it in a little bit in the next segment is because the channels and the technology and the tools that we have to think about have changed so much, that does mean that we need to have that ability to design a cross format as well these days.

Chuck: That leads us into that next layer, which is one that is very near and dear to my heart, which is tools, technology, and digital.

Jennifer: Yeah, so in this segment, we're really referring now throughout that we need to be channel monsters. We need to work at cross-print events, cascade, social, and digital. It's about understanding how to use the right channels for the right messages to the right audience. The reason why we highlighted I guess technology is that we, it'd be remiss of us to say that technology isn't moving at a faster pace than ever. It's really, really important for internal communicators to understand and be ahead of the current trends, and to apply that technology which is right for their strategy. Again, that comes down from about those previous segments about what are we trying to achieve, who are our people, and what are we writing? Therefore, what is the platform that is going to best connect with them?

Also as well with technology and platforms opening up, conversations are happening without any control happening from internal coms, so it's about seeing what is going on, and knowing how to play within those platforms. The other thing as well is that with all the technology and the tools, there are more metrics and monitoring tools that we can do. We could probably as internal communicators spend probably most days of the week looking through metrics trying to understand them. It really does challenge us to leverage that to make us be more effective, but also know what's right to review and what's not needed. You could get so granular these days, but we should use that to our advantage to make sure that we do continuously improve.

Chuck: Yeah, I think you bring up a good point around what some would describe sort of this rogue technology. I was at an event and an employee asked me, came up and said, what should I do about this? I've got employees who are using What's App to communicate with each other. What can I do? I was like, uh, nothing. Clearly, there was a gap in tools available to them, and they found a tool that met their needs to facilitate that communication. You make a good point that communication is going to exist without the [lesson 18:00] of IC. What is the response? How do you embrace, how do you learn about that technology, and maybe provide alternatives to it, but you certainly can't condemn them because that's only going to alienate them even more from the existing communication channels.

Jennifer: I absolutely agree, and it's a real kind of judgment piece. I think that's why having those segments beforehand is really important to help you make that valued response, or measured response, about how you respond to that. I think that it is about leveraging these for conversation and curation as opposed to control. Communication is now multi-directional, and I think that digital will be, because of that, one of the things that will continuously challenge us. We're just going to have to be more, I guess, fleet or foot on it. Also as we just talked about, learn to let go a little bit.

Chuck: Now the fifth layer we're going to talk about is coaching and facilitating. It was interesting in the last sector report that Gate House put out, they talked about how communicators recognize that one of the weak links was managers and helping them facilitate being better communicators. That being said, nobody had plans to actually help do that. Dig a little bit deeper into this coaching and facilitating layer.

Jennifer: Yeah, you're absolutely right. Gate House talked a lot about in that, and we've talked about it as professionals quite a lot about us being trusted advisors. This segment really relates into that, and I think it's such a key skill to make us effective as internal communicators. We talked a lot just now about writing and channels and storytelling, but there's people and face-to-face and our environment and what goes on around us and how our manager represents us, or how our manager communicates to us. There's all that kind of communication that takes place in the workplace. Really, for internal communicators, they really need to now play more of a listening and a coaching of others role. They need to be able to help leaders and also line managers learn how to communicate effectively and build relationships with their employees. That's such an invaluable point in someone's relationship with an organization.

They also need to facilitate conversations and see the connections between employees and leadership. Again, that picks on something we talked about a little bit earlier is about having that to go into leadership and say this is what people are talking about, this is what people are saying, this is what people are feeling to make sure that there's more of a collaborative approach in business, and leaders really understand the truth of what's going in. Also it's about giving a voice to employee needs and being that conscience of the organization. It's about speaking the brutal truth, and it's also about making sure that all voices are heard and often not just the loudest. We can all be bombarded by I guess noise and debate and what's going, but there's often people that aren't saying things or participating that have something really valuable that need to be listened to.

Chuck: Then the final layer we're going to talk about today is listening and measuring effectiveness, which you did mention in the previous one. I think that it's one of those things that as humans, we all know the value of listening. What does it mean here for this professional layer in the framework?

Jennifer: What we talk about in this area and what we're trying to delve a little bit deeper in terms of professional competency is about evidence-based decision making is often a watched word now in business. Really what we're trying to draw to is that you've done all this listening, you've done all this analysis and all these metrics, but what you really need to do is build your craft as reset professionals, making sure that you can design employee research programs, and it is about asking the right questions through the right tools and performance. Also again, the listening point, which is really important, it's about sharing how the, taking all that feedback that you're getting from employees, and demonstrating what your organization has done with that.

I think there's many people that sit there and go, oh, another survey. I'll fill this in and nothing will be done with it. It's really important if you listen and measure to make sure that you close that feedback loop to make it I guess have that listening element that we really highlight. Really as well, and then there is that element to really effectively measure our own communication activities to make developments and adjustments, and to be sure the right messages are being received and interpreted correctly. If anything that we do, if we don't measure, we don't know how good we are.

Also as well, with evidence is a really important skill because often evidence and research is really to demonstrate the impact of internal communication of business is what makes leadership listen. If you can go to leadership with real, real hard fact of why this is important and what that has done, that really helps bring the attention of why internal communications is so vital to that business. I guess this is something that at IoIC, we're still looking for in terms of that magic formula that says do X in IC, and you'll make X back in business. Really we need to work on establishing methods and models to show the link and impact of internal communications to business and organizational performance.

Chuck: Yeah, in the very first episode of something else I asked, what's the biggest lie internal communicators tell themselves? Rachel Miller from All Things I See, her biggest lie was that communicators know how to measure. I think that is a, I think they attempt, I think they try, I think they may cover up a bit at times, but I think it's not just measurement, but your words of measuring effectiveness. How effective is communication as key, not just measuring for data, but measuring for effectiveness?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I think that there is an area in my experience that I see that people do struggle with. I speak a lot to candidates and delegates, and we're still I think on that pathway to really defining our craft and making it a matter of being a measurement of effectiveness.

Chuck: At the core of this framework you mentioned it, you have, I'm just quoting here, an informed, engaged, and connected workforce. I'm curious, how do you or how does IoIC define this? Do you see this as this, sort of the ultimate goal? Is this the ultimate end game for communicators to have this informed, engaged, and connected workforce?

Jennifer: We did have a long conversation as I mentioned earlier around it, but ultimately what internal communications is here for as a business entity is to create an informed and engaged and connected workforce that drives towards organizational performance. Ultimately, if you have all those things, it would also not only help with the performance of the organization, but it would help with innovation and productivity, but also customer experience and the overall profitability of the business.

Chuck: Then the framework was just launched in the last month or so. As I'm understanding this, this is just the beginning for the skills framework. You guys, I know you are soliciting feedback on this now, but can you sort of share some insights or what the road map is going to look like going on into the rest of 2017?

Jennifer: Sure. As you kind of mentioned, we've just launched it. We put out this kind of circular graphic with some of the detail behind it. We're now gathering that feedback. In terms of the next phase, which we'll start working on early on in the new year, is to take this and really start to delve a little bit deeper. With each of those professional areas, we're going to start working on four or five competencies, and then levels of which people should look to build their skills in. It really becomes a real detailed competency framework, there's a lot more meat if you look behind the graphic itself.

That's the next phase, and obviously what we're trying to do at the moment is take in a lot of feedback so that when we go to that next phase, we can make sure that we represent that. Then following that, we are launching in probably around March/April this year, a continuous professional development program, which will be free to our members. What we hope this will be when we get the detail is something where they can sit down, take a step back from it, look at where they are, look at where they need to go, and really map out their own professional development pathway, and also sort of create some objectives and log their learnings against these areas. We want it to have a real practical application in the next phase.

Chuck: For people who want to follow along with this, where can listeners go to learn more about the framework as well as the IoIC?

Jennifer: Sure, so if you go to the IoIC website, which is www.IoIC.org.uk, the framework itself is live on the website in the professional development section. Also on the website you can find out lots more about membership, the training, the qualifications, and also about our own magazine and events, and also all of our awards activities.

Chuck: For those listening, I'll also have links to these on the ICology website as well. Well, Jennifer, I want to thank you for walking through that framework. I think it's a great resource for communicators, both very early on in their profession as well as those who may be in their profession 10, 15, 20, 25 years. I think it helps maybe guide, not just to point out where you need to work more or where you might have weaknesses, because I think that might be the focus of some, but I want to look at the professional holistically, to see where as an organization proper improvements can be made.

Jennifer: Absolutely, absolutely. Thank you, Chuck.

Chuck: Then now, listeners of the podcast, obviously there's a lot of communication professionals, but there's also just people in business who want to get better at communicating. Is there a final piece of advice you want to share with listeners?

Jennifer: Sure, I think one piece of advice that I often give to people when I talk to them is that, we're in a new year now so this is a great time, is to take some time to really reflect. For example, look over the framework if you like, and reflect on your experience and knowledge. It's interesting, I had a couple of people that emailed me going, I've looked over it and it's actually made me feel really good that I'm actually doing quite well and I'm hitting all the marks. That's been a really good thing for them to take that moment to really reflect. Also, think about outside of the framework. What has worked and what hasn't worked? Why has this happened for you this year? Reflective thinking is a great tool to build into your everyday approach because it really does help us to learn and grow as professionals.

Chuck: Well, Jen, I want to thank you for coming on ICology and sharing this new framework again. I think it can be a great resource, you make a good point around starting off the year being really reflective, but also looking forward at the same time, and using this framework in its continuing evolution as a guide for somebody to not just address their skills, but it could be their team skills or just overall manager skills, and focus on the organization. I think it can be a really great resource for communicators.

Jennifer: Well thanks so much, Chuck. It's been great for you to have me today. I really hope that this podcast really helped some people to take some time to think and reflect. If anybody has any questions or again, has any feedback for me, please always do feel free to contact me. My details are all on the website.

Chuck: Yep, visit LearnICology.com to catch up on old episodes and get to know guests better, read blog posts, check out events, also all episode transcriptions are available there. Keep an eye out for Something Else, the video series where I ask the internal coms community a question and you provide the answers. They're all at LearnICology.com/somethingelse. Please follow ICology on Twitter @LearnICology to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news. If you're not already a subscriber, listen to ICology on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and if you enjoy what you hear, it would mean a great deal if you took the time to leave a review. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.