Research Update (December 2023)

Collaboration with Partners

November was a busy month for the ‘An Institutional History of Internal Communication in the UK’ project. The highlight of the month was our attendance at simplyEXP, an event organised by our project partners simplycommunicate. Beyond the archival research, gatherings such as this provide a unique opportunity to connect with current practitioners.

A panel discussion at simplyEXP

This is an invaluable resource for understanding the developments of the past three decades, since the rules of business archives normally prevent us accessing the more contemporary history of IC during this period. The 1990s has proven a particular challenge, being too recent for archival research and too distant for the recollection of many practitioners. We were delighted to talk to Rupert Coghlan of Firstup, who has looked into the early examples of intranets, a topic that is hard to research in archives.

Among our other project partners, we owe particular thanks to Lola Gomes de Mattos of the British Library. This month a cyber-attack has caused a suspension temporary of the catalogue and ordering system for a number of weeks. Thankfully, the library’s support has allowed us to access materials through the old, analogue methods!

Archival Research

Another element of our project is our archival research. In November, the team commenced its investigation into John Lewis, our third organizational case study. Located in the picturesque village of Cookham in Berkshire, the John Lewis Heritage Centre was a pleasure to visit. The adjacent Odney club, founded in 1927 shortly before the foundation of the partnership, is an important part of the organization’s history. It is a physical manifestation of John Spedan Lewis’ vision, intended to be a country club accessible to all, embodying the democratic principles that he envisioned.

We received a warm welcome from staff and their in-depth knowledge of their holdings meant we were able to view some fascinating items. Particularly valuable was the vast collection of memos written by John Spedan Lewis, who turned his father’s business into the partnership model that is so iconic today. His close involvement in the minutiae of the organization’s activities has left a hugely useful record for us historians a century later!

We have also been viewing a sample of The Gazette, the internal publication of the John Lewis partnership which has been running since 1918. It has been fascinating to see how the organization’s unusual structure has shaped its internal communication. The content of the magazine has been very different from what we have seen in other organizations. The tone is much more like a report to shareholders than other organizations’ publications. A ‘democratic polity’ discourse fills much of the magazine, which focuses on meetings of partners’ and managers reporting back to the partners of the organization’s performance.

Preliminary work on our fourth case study, the BBC, commenced with an exploration of its Ariel magazine, which began in 1936. In a forthcoming visit to the BBC Written Archive Centre in Caversham, Reading, we hope to uncover the behind-the-scenes discussions that shaped the broadcaster’s internal communication landscape.

Sharing Our Findings

Central to our project is the dissemination of our discoveries. The eleventh episode of the History of Internal Communication podcast welcomed Liz Clayton-Jones, Founder Director of Beehive Performance Ltd. Her insights challenged the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to internal comms, emphasising the need for tailored strategies to accommodate diverse communication needs. Our latest Source of the Month blog post explores the role of celebrity culture in internal communication, tracing its roots back to 1882. Examining how companies like Boots and Unilever leveraged famous personalities, the post underscored the transformative power of internal communication beyond mere information flow, fostering brand communities and employee engagement.

For academic audiences, we have also begun work on an article that will look at how internal communication in the past used rhetorical history. This is a term that refers to the strategic use of history by organizations to serve goals in the present day. Existing research has tended to focus on its current use, but we are using our research to focus on the use of rhetorical history in the past. It has also tended to focus on its use for external audiences rather than internal ones. The past year’s research is supporting us in developing a new theory on how history is used by organizations in their internal comms. In the coming year, we look forward to engaging in discussions with both academic and internal communications communities on our evolving theory on the use of history in organizational communication!

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