Agile – what’s the story for internal comms?

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Dan Barley
Dan Barley

Guest contributor Dan Barley is a Change Communications Specialist at Schroders Investment Management, where his role is to develop and deliver internal communication strategies for transformation programmes that affect employees across the business. He has almost 20 years’ experience in communication and training. This post is based on research for his CIPR Internal Communication Diploma. It represents his personal views and findings, not those of Schroders.

It’s not news that many large, traditional businesses feel threatened by tech start-ups. And it isn’t a surprise that they’re defensive about Brexit uncertainty. Ten years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, apparently settled certainties of global economics and business are up in the air.

So it isn’t a surprise that traditional businesses with their complex, legacy systems and operating models are very keen to become more nimble in the face of threats that for some are existential.

In search of responsiveness, many have looked to learn from two complementary philosophies that grew out of very different types of business environment. Lean pioneered in large production-line manufacturing environments; and Agile a philosophy that emerged over many years from the software development world.

Traditional businesses in areas like investment management or insurance feel the fintechs snapping at their heels, and they know they need to move their feet. But it’s still early days for Agile in these types of firms.

According to global consulting firm, McKinsey, while tech sector businesses have used agile practices to deliver goods and services more efficiently, most traditional companies in other sectors are only experimenting with Agile practices in discrete pilot projects.

McKinsey argues that the real benefits come from applying the approach across the whole organisation. But that means multiple business units and product groups need to act together to rethink their processes, structures, and relationships. In other words, it takes true business transformation.

So where do internal change comms and employee engagement sit in all this?

The classic ‘waterfall’ approach to managing business change tends to assume that you can fully specify and define a problem, and that there are clear and predictable solutions. It calls for extensive and detailed forward planning, with centralised command-and-control management to deliver change. So, at its most extreme, the communication is formal, and one-way the managers of change telling everyone else what’s going to happen to them and when.

Agile, on the other hand, assumes that the world is anything but certain and predictable, so it emphasises the importance of people and their creativity rather than processes. Change is achieved through continuous, iterative development by small teams. The teams themselves are empowered to make incremental design improvements, with testing based on rapid feedback.

To some this sounds like a recipe for chaos and lack of control. But it’s really about moving away from the notion that the natural state is ‘Business As Usual’ (BAU) which we periodically need to ‘unfreeze’ in order to carry out an upgrade or change. In our digital age, we can see that businesses need to be in a continuous state of development and incremental change. There is much less distinction between BAU and Change.

This dynamic, fluid state calls for a radical re-think of the relationships and dynamics between individuals, teams, managers and strategic leaders and internal communication is all about successfully enabling these relationships. Agile practices have communication baked in. They emphasise the importance of daily face-to-face interaction at team level. Visual communication and management tools like Kanban boards help to manage workflow and prioritisation.

For small organisations like start-ups or relatively independent teams, this might be enough. But the challenge for big complex organisation is how to make it work at scale. For a start, it raises tricky questions about how organisations like these manage the cost of innovation and continuous improvement you can forget Agile teams if your change funding and governance is waterfall-based.

Agile at scale enterprise agility needs all those independent, empowered, self-organising teams to have a common purpose.

Corporate and programme level communications have a really important role to play in getting everyone aligned around the vision, strategy, culture and values. The glue that binds the organisation together.

Most of the research studies about effectiveness of agile teams and the role of communications only looks at the team- and project-level effects. They find that Agile practices with its face-to-face communication in small, autonomous, self-organising, co-located teams are effective. But for business leaders who don’t want to create a kind of chaotic, wild-west of competing teams within their organisation, how do you balance business agility with strategic and global coherence? As a profession, surely we communicators have the tools to bridge the gap.

In these relative early days of enterprise-level scaled agility that I’ve described, there isn’t much evidence around about the most effective internal communications practices.

So this is our challenge how should we re-define the role of internal communications practice in an age of agility?

Are you an internal communications practitioner in an agile organisation? I’d love to hear more about your experience.