Dissect the roots of communication for employee productivity

Does your organization practice “internal coms”? Or have an “employee communication” team? It probably doesn’t matter how you refer to it, and I’ll tell you why in a moment. But I do have a preference.

For me, “employee” keeps the focus on people; “internal” implies a place. Communication doesn’t stay inside company walls; we’re too connected across boundaries. However, communication teams can make sure messages are relevant to employees, as one of the most important—if not the most important—company audience. I also leave the “s” off “communication.” Communication implies an ongoing pattern of dialogue. “Communications” to me implies tools or documents.

From railroads to research

Now that you know my biases, let me tell you about others’ use of the concept, grounded in history. “Internal communications” described the opening of economic opportunities. Railroads, canals, and stagecoaches were referred to as internal communications in 1800s England and early America. Ireland extended the term to treatment of people: “Inns are of very great importance in a system of internal communication, as nothing affords so striking proof of the state of trade in a country, as the condition of these houses, and the treatment which travelers experience in them,” according to an 1812 book, "An Account of Ireland."

A century later, the experience of people took deeper root in a Second Industrial Revolution, also called the rise of the corporation. Industrial managers experimented with techniques to persuade workers to produce more. The Hawthorne effect is a term coined to describe results of factory experiments in the 1920s and 1930s that ultimately revealed that extra lighting or cleaner workspaces did not increase productivity. Instead, the extra attention supervisors paid to workers involved in the experiment was what motivated them.

Sociologists found opportunity in more communication studies. How does information flow through an organization? Does communication appear adequate or credible? They focused on communication channels and methods between employees and supervisors. They determined that employees wanted top management to explain company operations. So, researchers concluded: Without communication, there could be no motivation, no leadership, no productivity, and ultimately, no organization.

Communication comes second

That line of thinking was turned upside down in 1990s research led by James E. Grunig of the University of Maryland. He said, “Such variables as motivation, leadership and productivity affect the way people communicate in an organization.” Excellent management comes first so that excellent employee communication can be integrated into daily operations to give meaning to work.

So whether you call it employee communication or internal comms, corporate productivity and morale don’t depend on a communication team, not at first. Instead, excellent management creates an environment where a communication team can clarify what it takes in the modern business world, one where economic opportunity demands constant improvement and innovation.

Adapted from the author’s book, “Give Voice To What Unites Us.” For ways to manage excellent employee communication, see bitly.com/give-voice.