Chapter 5 of the History of Internal Communication (1878 to 2024): The Digital Era and the Journey into the Future

Across this week, we have explored the major chapters in the history of internal communication. The final chapter, which we are still watching unfold today, has seen digital technology revolutionise the way that we communicate.

Although the origins of digital technology are much earlier, the 1990s is the decade in which it began to have a great impact on day-to-day communication. Practitioners had already come to seen communication in much broader terms due to the changes looked at in yesterday’s blog post. Technological advancement, however, offered the means to reshape the way organisations communicated internally. The advent of intranets, believed to have begun with Sun Microsystems’ Sunweb in 1994, laid the groundwork for a new era in organisational communication.

Ever since, there has been a constant arrival of new technologies that have changed the way in which organisations communicate. Although it had existed many years before, email became established in the later 1990s as the default way of corresponding with colleagues in other departments. In the 2010s, social media platforms designed specifically for work began to be released, most notably Yammer, Slack, and Facebook Workplace became integral parts of the communication landscape. The implications for communication from the late-2022 release of ChatGPT has quickly became a major topic of debate among practitioners.

Article on apps from the IoIC’s Inside Out magazine (Jul 2014)

These digital technologies were not just new channels, but also changed the nature of communication. They provided increased opportunities for two-way communication, knowledge sharing, collaboration, and employee engagement. Yet employee surveys have always highlighted mixed feeling about new digital technologies. While being appreciated for their speed and ease, emails have also been criticised for minimising feedback and sometimes creating barriers to communication. Equally, many intranets have faced criticism for their lack of interactivity. Some studies of Internal Social Media have found no clear relationship between its use and the effectiveness of internal communication.

For many working in internal communication today, the focus is not about introducing these new technologies, but doing so in a way that supports effective communication. The Institute of Internal Communication plays a vital role in facilitating this discourse. Current debates highlight how technologies must also be supported by a wide range of other considerations like leadership and organisational culture.

Technology has not been the only feature of the last thirty years. Steps towards professionalisation have become a major feature, led by the Institute of Internal Communication, as the organisation became known from 2010. Steps had already been taken on this path in the form of awards, having had house journal awards as far back as the 1950s and the Communicator of the Year award since 1972.

Another important feature of a profession is a code of conduct. The BAIE began to debate this in the 1970s but, at the time, concerns were raised about how they might restrict freedom. By 1990, however, a consensus had been reached on the contents of a new Code of Conduct. Work on professional standards has continued, such as the competency framework introduced in Sue Dewhurst and Liam Fitzpatrick’s 2001 manual for practitioners.

Most recently, courses and qualifications have reinforced the drive towards professionalisation. A postgraduate diploma in internal communication was initiated in 2000, followed by a master’s degree in 2009.

The story of this week’s blog posts has spanned more than a century, yet there have been ongoing themes across these years. Institutions like the Institute of Internal Communication have been vital in shaping organisational communication through facilitating the exchange of good practice and setting professional standards. In the early years, institutes focused on welfare work. The transformation of welfare work into personnel management gave rise to institutes focused more specifically on communication.

Major steps have been taken towards the formal recognition of internal communication as a profession. The establishment of codes of conduct, competency frameworks, and educational programmes, notably the postgraduate diploma and master’s degree, has raised the bar for internal communication practitioners. These initiatives mark a journey towards a more structured and respected professional identity. With multiple institutes holding a stake in communication, an important next step will be how to set the universal standards recognised by all communication professionals.

Throughout its history, communication has always been a social activity and not merely a business function. As such, it has been particularly affected by changes in the world in which an organisation operates. There has always been a need to adapt communication methods to new channels, while maintaining the underlying principles of good communication. In recent years, this challenge has taken the form of rapid technological change. Alongside professionalising, the upcoming years will be about striking a balance between embracing technological advancements and maintaining a human-centric approach, just as welfare workers sought to do a century ago.

Sources for the History of Communication blog series

Hansen, Gro Elin, ‘Discovering the History of PR’, Profile (Nov-Dec 2004), pp. 16-17.

Heller, Michael (2008). Company Magazines 1880-1940: An Overview. Management & Organizational History, 3(3-4), 179-96.

Heller, Michael & Michael Rowlinson (2020). The British House Magazine 1945 to 2015: The Creation of Family, Organisation and Markets. Business History, 62(6), 1002-1026.

Jones, Kathie, ‘A History of Facts Recorded on the Creation of the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE) and its Development (via the British Association of Communicators in Business (CiB) to Become the Institute of Internal Communication’, unpublished work (2011).

Ruck, Kevin, & Heather Yaxley (2013). Tracking the Rise and Rise of Internal Communication from the 1980s. The Proceedings of the International History of Public Relations Conference.

Ruck, Kevin (2015). The Evolution of Practice and the Changing Role of the Practitioner. In: Heather Yaxley, Kevin Ruck, & Ann Pilkington (Eds.), Exploring Internal Communication: Towards Informed Employee Voice. Aldershot: Gower Publishing, 27-43.

‘100 Years of Leading HR into the Future’, (22 Oct 2015) [http://www.cipd.co.uk].

BAIE, BAIE: The First Twenty Five Years (1974), p. 30.

BAIE, This is the BAIE (1953).

BAIE Council Meeting Minutes (13 Jul 1978).

BAIE Council Meeting Minutes (11 Jan 1990).

Boots, Comrades in Khaki (Apr-May 1916).

‘Editorial’, Welfare Work and Personnel Administration (Jun 1929), p. 101.

IoIC, Inside Out (Jul 2014), p. 3. Lever Brothers, Progress (Oct 1899).

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