Internal communications in higher education

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By Jenni Kampf, Senior Internal Communications Officer, Cardiff University

The way we speak to our people, the way we enable and encourage them to engage with our universities, our aims, and our values, are all vital to creating and maintaining an active and passionate workforce.

I think the challenges facing internal communicators in higher education are unique. Our people are a rich seam of expertise, passion, and enthusiasm, and are what set us apart from other universities and companies. It's speaking to these people and encouraging them to engage with us that will return the biggest value, create a more engaged workforce, and bring about changes to benefit the entire university community.

The benefits of engaged employees to business have been long proven. In 'Internal communication effectiveness enhances bottom-line results'[1], Kathryn Yates quotes research by Watson Wyatt which showed that companies with high communication effectiveness produced a 57 percent higher total return to shareholders during a five-year period, compared with companies with low communication effectiveness.

Although we measure success in different ways as universities, I would have thought that employee engagement and effective internal communication impact upon our organisations, their culture and values, and help enable the achievement of our strategies. The challenge is to focus more on outcomes than outputs – and to try to measure the impact of internal communications on how our universities meet their strategic aims.

Universities are often large and complex organisations with a long and varied history – and a workforce where it's not unusual to have colleagues who remember how things were 20 or even 30 years ago. This can be really beneficial in terms of continuity and establishing a strong institutional  narrative, but also means that our internal communications can be shaded by what has gone (a long time) before.

Developing a consistent culture in this context is particularly challenging. Universities are made up of many different parts, often with different specialisms and aims – and in my experience the central 'University' is seen as somehow apart from the local Academic School or College structure. Our people often relate more to their immediate School or College (or even research institute), which can have very different cultures and values to the main university.

I think we need our universities to have a 'corporate' identity, an organisational 'voice' and strategic context. We can embrace the differences that make us unique, which enable our Academic Schools and Colleges to appeal to their communities and have their own identities, whilst viewing these in the context of the wider institution.

A recognisable voice makes it easier for our communities to engage with us, with our strategy, and with the future direction of the university. It means that they can know what to expect from internal communications, and how to expect the institution to speak about itself. The way we, as universities, speak should demonstrate our values. We should include, encourage and foster debate and different perspectives. We should know enough about our people to have these conversations.

Engaged employees who participate in these debates, who rigorously question those in power, and engage with the strategic direction of the institution, will become our strongest allies. They will help to drive our universities to improve, to continue to attract talented people and build a community all working together under the same values.

[1] 'Internal communication effectiveness enhances bottom‐line results', Kathryn Yates, Journal of Organizational Excellence:  (17 May 2006)

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