Reflections on an internal communication PhD

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

Six years on, the final amendments to my PhD thesis have just been approved by the examiner at the University of Central Lancashire. So it feels like a good time to reflect on the process and what I’ve discovered along the way.

The thesis is 83,683 words long and it incorporates more than 300 references to academic text books, reports and journal articles. It includes three chapters of conceptual analysis, essentially a review of internal communication and how it is measured. There is a chapter on my research methodology, there are two chapters on my research findings, and a final chapter on my conclusions. That’s a lot of writing (and re-writing).

The research itself involved a survey that was followed by interviews and focus groups. A total of 2066 employees completed the questionnaire and I conducted 27 interviews and nine focus groups involving 77 employees. This is, apparently, quite a lot of research for a PhD. However, although it took a lot of organising it was worth the effort as it enabled me to explore how far satisfaction with internal communication was consistent across five organisations. From my reading of many academic journal articles this is something that I think is a weakness in single case study research.

The analysis of the survey data took a very long time to complete, partly because I had to learn how to do correlation and regression analysis. These are statistical techniques that allow you to test associations between two or more things. For example, I was able to explore how far specific aspects of internal communication (such as employee voice) are associated with employee engagement. Learning how to do this was really tough. However, I now understand the limitations of employee engagement surveys that simply show a basic percentage score for questions asked. And, by the way, employee voice was strongly associated with some dimensions of employee engagement in my study. More of some of the other findings later.

Analysing the interview and focus group data was also extremely time consuming. Open comments collected in the questionnaire amounted to 23,991 words and transcripts for the interviews and focus groups amounted to a total of 176,759 words. I used a technique called template analysis to make sense of what was said and that required several iterations of reading and coding. This really added depth to the survey findings. For example, a deeply held fear of speaking out (that is often not discussed) emerged and this explained some of the low levels of satisfaction for employee voice in the survey. This taught me that analysis of qualitative data should never be rushed. If it is to be done well, it is a slow and deeply reflective process.

It is difficult to summarise all the findings from my research in this blog. I’m also constrained by what I can say as I plan to turn the thesis into several journal article submissions and editors don’t like it if you’ve already published information somewhere else. However, I can say that internal communication is associated with organisational engagement (which is different from job engagement). No surprise there of course. You’d expect this. However, my study suggests that the association is more of an emotional than a rational (cognitive) connection. When employees receive the information that they expect in the right way and when they are given a voice that is treated seriously this makes them feel more valued. And this is also associated with what employees do to help the organisation succeed. Importantly, these associations were consistent for all five organisations in the study, although more research is required to establish this as a generalisable finding.

Another key finding is that employees expect senior managers, not line managers, to talk to them about how the wider organisation is doing. This is because they know that line managers do not have nearly as much in-depth knowledge about what is going on as senior managers. Instead, employees expect line managers to talk about local team matters. This has clear implications for cascade style briefing systems.

Employees in my study said that they prefer senior manager communication to be face to face in small gatherings, where the emphasis is on informal communication with plenty of opportunity for discussion. However, in two organisations in my study satisfaction with senior manager communication and employee voice was poor, reflecting some of the results reported in other studies.

As part of a critical realism approach to the thesis, I also considered why levels of satisfaction with internal communication are not higher. Two potential explanations were discussed:

1. An emphasis on shareholder value rather than employee value

2. The professional status of internal communication practice as a marginalised and weakly represented function.

These are potential systemic explanations that can be related to power structures that may not always be very apparent. On the first point, although senior managers say they recognise the importance of internal communication, it is perhaps only a surface level recognition. As one employee said to me about a comment made to senior manager at an employee roadshow event, ‘he smiled, but not with his eyes’. It seems to me that the focus on shareholder value dominates a lot of business studies and executive training, whereas putting employees first is rarely explored in as much depth.

On the second point, we are witnessing an increasing appreciation of the professional status of internal communication which is underpinned by training and education. However, at the same time, practice continues to be marginalised by many PR and HR academics (and practitioners) alike. Furthermore, although there are estimated to be 45,000 internal communication practitioners in the UK, only a tiny percentage are members of a professional institute which means that those institutes have limited resources to represent the profession and to argue the case for its value (for employees and organisations).

These are both big issues. But unless we acknowledge them and start to address them then the potential benefits of good internal communication are going to take an awful long time to be realised.

Although the research has generated many interesting findings, as mentioned above, I can’t publish them all in detail here. However, the following points summarise the implications of what I found for practice:

• Senior managers should allocate more time for personal communication rather than expect information to be cascaded through levels of management

• Senior manager ‘town hall’ style events could be replaced or complemented with face to face events with a smaller number of employees so that they feel more comfortable in making a contribution

• Employees expect senior managers to update them on where the organisation is going, the strategy, progress and what the future looks like, using the ‘language of the people’, not corporate PowerPoint presentations

• Employees expect managers to listen to what they have to say as they report that this is a sign of a progressive organisation

• The emphasis of line manager communication should be local operational issues.

These are, I believe, key recommendations for practice. However, the point of doing a PhD is not just to do some research that might be important for theory and practice. It is a deeply challenging process on a personal level. Like all good education, it forces you to think very hard and learn new skills. There are no shortcuts.

I now also appreciate why academics are seen as more credible than many other commentators (as highlighted in the Edelman Trust Barometer). It’s because their work is peer reviewed and it is based on research methods that are not influenced by consultancy products or services.

So, I’m glad I did it. Along the way I was very lucky to have an extremely supportive supervisor, Dr Mary Welch and a very understanding wife.

And I’m now looking forward to getting some time back in the evenings and at weekends to watch lots of mindless telly.