Three ways internal communications can support agile operation at scale

It’s no secret that large organisations with traditional hierarchies are increasingly being buffeted by disruptive competition and dynamic markets. There’s a strong argument to suggest traditional structures are no longer fit for purpose.

Instead, businesses are increasingly looking to adopt agile principles to inform the way they operate, so they can compete more effectively with nimble and disruptive competitors. This way of working holds the promise of “higher team productivity and morale, faster time to market, better quality, and lower risk than traditional approaches can achieve” (Rigby, Sutherland and Noble, Harvard Business Review May 2018).

But not all functions are suited to using agile principles. Agile teams are by their very nature small and multidisciplinary; they are designed to solve complex problems through rapid prototyping and tight feedback loop; and they embrace change more than sticking to a plan. But this style doesn’t necessarily work for such business functions as Finance, HR and Customer Support.

However, in order to adapt to change, the parts of the organisation that suit an agile approach need to be able to work in partnership with these traditional functions. For example, teams working on prototypes may need to access budgets quickly instead of waiting for the annual budget process, or they may need to get customer data quickly and easily from Marketing, Sales and Customer Support.

Making sure that these two approaches work well together is easier said than done. For large-scale businesses, with global and – in some cases – disparate workforces, adopting an agile operation is a challenge for any CEO or COO. Not only must they decide the right mix of agile and traditional structures across the business, but they also need to make sure that agile teams don’t become encumbered by traditional bureaucracy.

How can Internal Communications practitioners support the new mix of agile and traditional approaches?

A key piece of the puzzle for overcoming these challenges and achieving an agile vision is through effective internal communication. Specifically, organisations need to inspire colleagues with new ways of working, explain how agile and traditional teams and functions need to work together, and enable colleagues at all levels to adopt these principles. They also need to facilitate the connections and knowledge flow that fuels agile ways of working.

In this respect, the Head of Internal Communications is a CEO’s or COO’s key partner in the process.

Here are three ways Internal Communications can help CEOs and COOs to achieve the vision of an agile operation at scale:

1) Inspire colleagues with what can be achieved through the right combination of agile and traditional operations

One challenge businesses have to overcome is conflict between agile teams and traditional teams, who – typically – fiercely defend the status quo. This might be in the form of not providing access to software or data within the short timeframes that agile teams require.

Internal Communications can help leadership teams solve these conflicts by:

  • Inspiring all parts of the organisation ­– both traditional and agile – with the vision of harmonious working, which delivers innovation and ensures organisations have sustainable futures in dynamic market environments
  • Educating all colleagues on agile values and principles, including the people that do not work in agile teams. Using role models is important here, as colleagues need to hear from key figures within the business, such as heads of functions from both agile and traditional departments, who can explain this new way of working
  • Setting out ‘rules of play’ between traditional and agile departments. This includes communicating the parameters of each type of department’s operation, and connecting colleagues so they know how best to operate together and what they can and can’t do
  • Creating communication tools for managers that help them play their new roles as facilitators and coaches within more fluid organisational structures
  • Celebrating great examples of how traditional and agile collaboration has led to market innovation, efficiency and improvement. This is about making sure everyone gets credit and feels part of the movement to work in this way.

2) Facilitate easy and effective access to collective company knowledge and education materials

Agile operation requires colleagues to get to information fast and learn new skills quickly. As company knowledge often sits within the remit of the Internal Communications team – often in the form of intranet management – it means IC has the responsibility to get people to read the information that will help them operate effectively.

A great deal of employee time is wasted simply looking for this information. However, with the use of technology – such AI and chat bots – businesses can ensure more of colleagues’ time is spent learning by connecting colleagues with those who have the relevant knowledge, and using information rather than simply finding it. This in turn facilitates the company’s ability to be agile.

Internal Communications can help leadership teams efficiently share knowledge by:

  • Adding AI-driven, conversational interfaces to intranet platforms, so people can get to the information they need more quickly
  • Giving employees quick and easy access to education materials and ensuring they are packaged in engaging, easy-to-access formats that test knowledge using creative techniques such as gamification
  • Encouraging colleagues to share knowledge across Enterprise Social Networks instead of using closed channels in discrete groups via email. This practice means knowledge is searchable and accessible by everyone in the organisation
  • Celebrating great examples of how (face-to-face and digital) connections, created by effective networkers across the business, have meant colleagues have shared more knowledge and achieved results.

3) Adopt more agile ways of working to role model these principles

Great communication is a key factor that underpins a culture of innovation and collaboration. Harvesting this core ingredient for agile operation requires the Internal Communications department to ‘walk the talk.’

Enabling fast development of effective peer-to-peer, top-down and upward communications can be a challenge, especially when the business prioritises high volumes of low grade Internal Communications or is focused on traditional top-down communications only.

Internal Communications can help leadership teams introduce agile principles by:

  • Adopting the ‘fail fast’ prototyping approach that agile uses. For example, applying concepts such as Google’s Knowledge Graphs to Internal Communications channels means colleagues can ask questions like ‘how many customers did we acquire last quarter?’ or ‘which skills should I focus on to improve my customer service performance?’ to access information effectively. This kind of innovation requires iterative R&D cycles
  • Launching beta versions of communications channels or innovations, and getting regular feedback from colleagues to constantly improve them
  • Working in small, cross-functional teams to better understand and solve communications challenges across every colleague touchpoint.

These three actions can help businesses gain the agility they need to compete in dynamic marketplaces and, in that respect, Internal Communications practitioners have a central role to play as one of the CEO’s or COO’s key partners in transforming businesses into more agile operations.

To find out more about FHF’s Employee Engagement and Change Services contact us at [email protected]

Philippe Crump, Specialist UK