Internal communication and the available brain time syndrom

Summary : the recent evolution of intranets make internal communication face many new challenges. First they have to broadcast their message on a information system that’s more and more split and where their own media will be less and less a mandatory landpage, capture users’ attention while everything (and even the interest of the enterprise) make the latter focus on more productive activities. Internal communication will have to reinvent its cornerstones on concepts like “sense”, “contexte”, “split media” and “attention”. Successful communication will be the one that will find its place in a decentralized and contextualized digital universe.


The purpose of internal communication is to deliver the corporate message, to inform employees. The purpose of employees is to do their job. One of the enterprise and managers’s biggest concern is to prevent key resources wasting, people’s time and attention being one of them.

The way internal communication, employees, managers and the enterprise try to meet their goals, each of them paying very little attention to the others’ concers is quite funny to observe from an external standpoint. It’s more worrying from an internal standpoint.

Communication communicates, everywhere it can, where it has the more chances to meet their audience. So, logically, on the intranet when internal communicants makes anything to be sure their message is well placed, occupy most of the screen. A little bit like brands fighting to have to best place to display their ads in cities.

Messages are hierarchized in a way that’s logical for any headquarters person : the most important is the corporate news, then branches news, then business units new etc…

As for them, employees focus on what matters to them. To such and extent that, when an intranet is mainly dedicated to corporate communication, the first thing the do is to close the window that automatically opens when they launch their browser because it’s been used as a mandatory home page. They focus first on what’s related with their word, then their close environment, then what’s happening elsewhere in the organization and, last, the far and neutral corporate message. In short that’s exactly the opposite of the way internal communication is hierarchized. There’s another funny side : when internal communication says something that really matters for a given employee, the employees seldom manage to find the information.

Hence surprises when one have a look at the “transformation rate” of corporate news even if they are pushed on employees’ homepages. Wide broadcasting, mandatory display…and few reading.

Managers can have a different analysis : communication tries to capture employee’s attention, what is resource they try to protect from any distraction that’s not immediately useful and productive.

In the end it seems that the goals of the ones are contradictory with the goals of the others and that the success of needs the failure of the others. But, from a global standpoint, it’s essential to reconcile all parts. Yes, employees should focus on their mission and businesses need to deliver their message and news because it improves engagement, understanding, situational awareness etc… But is it possible to find a balance ?

Balancing the situation would be a good thing since we can see so many people complaining about a situation when the ones speak and the others say “I’m not listening, I’ve got a job yo do” in which everyone is a looser.

A beginning of an answer relies in four words : sense, split media, context and spreading

• Sense: employees do what makes sense to them. It determines their “path” on the intranet, what they read or not, the tools they use. In other words, putting a message under their eyes does not mean they will read it. It even generates frustration and dissatisfaction if it makes their browsing more painful, makes them scroll to find what they were looking for.


• Split media : if portals will still be the point of aggregation of an intranet that’s being made of more and more different tools, the zone dedicated to internal communication will only be a zone among many others, its content management system a tool among many others. Between business tools, social platforms, enterprise app strores, the internal offer is growing and employees will give preferential treatment (attention) to what makes sense to them. Logically, the percentage of time they’ll spend on corporate news will decrease. Except if they have reasons to go there.

• Context : I’ve been talking about the need to bring social contents in business applications for a while. The reason is easy to understand  : putting this knowledge and networking potential in the context of work, of people’s mission. That will be the same for internal communication : that’s not because it’s being hosted in a central point that it can’t be distributed elsewhere. Maybe in business applications when it makes sense, surely into social platforms. Why not having some corporate content suggested on the side of a page when it relates to the topic of the community, the ongoing discussion ? A smart way to relevant targeting.

• Spreading : when an intranet successfully articulates corporate communication, business applications and social layers, rather making the most of it and use employers as relays. Many “new gen” intranets allow readers to rate contents, even corporate ones. Why not going further and allow them to share a content they found interesting with their internal network ?

In fact, internal communication is in the same situation as traditional medias when the social web took off a couple of years ago. Before they used to protect their contents, forcing readers to start their navigation on their page, pushing content. Today they make their content sharable, easily linkable on any network and try to make them (or links to them) appear on pages internauts visit, depending on the context of the page.

We can also easily compare the situation with TV. Before, what was central was the show and channels used to sell the “available brain time of their audience” to brands. Today, digital recorders remove ads from show, we can enjoy VOD without commercials and, most of all, no one was watching commercials. People using the “ad break” time to get a drink in the kitchen…or do something else. Replace “show” with “work” and “ads” with “corporate communication”….. Conclusion : would you want the commercials that make sense, that people like, watch on youtube and share on facebook or the one during which people go to the bathroom ?

We got confirmation at the last international intranet managers conference in november in Paris; What did some speakers say ? “In our company, end users say ‘stop spamming us with corporate content that are useless for us and prevent us from focusing on our work” or “people moved from the intranet to our recently launched social networking platform because the intranet was too much about corporate communication”. What’s interesting in the second case is that this acknowledgment helped them to find a new balance. That’s also one more reason to bring social platforms in the intranet and not use them as standalone tools.

In short, instead of communication for oneself and occupy the space, the challenge will be about communicating for and with employees.

That’s a multi-step challenge for internal communication :

• the message : messages that make sense (don’t talk about you but about what people care about…like brands are starting to do on the web). Messages with styles and format that make the message more enjoyable, understandable.

• the media : there will be a central point were information is published but a hierarchized and split distribution. Hierarchized depending on employees’ concerns (the employee of a subsidiary has interests that are not always the same as the HQ team…both matter but not in the ame order). Split, because if the original message is in an identified and classified container, copies, aliases, links to it will have to be spread all over the enterprise “digital universe” according to context (semantic matters here).

• the very role of internal communication : moving from a self-sufficiency model (the system works for its own purposes and is message delivery machine, telling the work is done because all spaces are occupied) from a shared value model (the message targets employees’ needs, communication delivers value to both employees and the organization).

Complicated ? Not that much. Needing to reinvent oneself et one’s mission ? Certainly. Impossible ? At Dassault Systemes internal communication now happens only in communities. Too extremist ? The last release of IBM’s intranet moved the internal communication message away from the center of the homepage to replace it with a “connect and share” feature that tells people what’s happening in their network, communities, workgroups… The corporate message have moved to the sidebar.

To be successful tomorrow, communication departments will need to find their place in a decentralized and contextual digital universe. Those who’ll refuse the change will spend their time generating what managers and end users call a disturbing noise. A situation where everyone will be a looser.


Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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