Research Update (May 2024)

April was a productive month for the History of Internal Communication project which spoke to practitioners at a webinar, launched a timeline resource, celebrated the 500th listener on their podcast, and commemorated significant historical events. April’s research update looks at the progress made on this project.

Engagement with practitioners

This April, the History of Internal Communication project team gave a webinar as part of the simplypresents series, attracting listeners from organisations such as National Highways, Sport England, Viasat, and EY. The session offered a fascinating journey from the 1880s to today, revealing how shifts in society and industry have sculpted the evolution of internal communications. The team highlighted the transition from company magazines to digital platforms, noting the enduring challenges and the fundamental principles of good communication strategies that bridge the past and the present. The webinar wasn’t just a lecture. It was an interactive session that attracted a stream of insightful questions from the audience and a fascinating discussion of internal communication’s history. This event marked a significant milestone as the first of a series of workshops supported by the project’s ESRC funding.

Looking ahead, the team is excited by the stream of upcoming engagements with the internal communication community. In May, they will share insights alongside Sophie Clapp from Boots at the simplyIC event, where they also plan to distribute the first copies of a new booklet on the history of internal communications. The team were also delighted to be invited to speak at the Unite 24 employee engagement event in October, where they will appear on a panel alongside Jen Sproul from the Institute of Internal Communication and other speakers.

The project will also be sharing its findings in the academic world in the coming months. The team were thrilled to secure a spot at the prestigious Academy of Management conference in Chicago this August. Their presentation will explore how organisations craft ‘temporal narratives’ (stories that link the past, present, and future) to shape their identity and influence employee perceptions. Such narratives not only recount history but are also tailored to meet current organisational needs and objectives, highlighting a collaborative narrative-building process involving both leaders and employees. The team will also be speaking on this topic to the Association of Business Historians conference in York in June.

Online content

April was an important month for the History of Internal Communication project’s online presence. The highlight was the launch of the Downloadable Resources section on their website. Inspired by a suggestion by Rachel Miller from All Things IC, the team have designed a timeline detailing the key developments in internal communications from the inaugural company magazine in 1878 to the present. This timeline not only celebrates milestones but also outlines the evolution of key institutions like the Institute of Internal Communication, the CIPD, and the CIPR. Available for free download, this resource is perfect for enhancing presentations or enriching online content.

The timeline produced by the project. Available for download here.

The response has been positive, with numerous practitioners sending us praise for the resource. The team is eager to hear more suggestions for resources that would benefit the internal communication community, with supporting professionals being one of the commitments that helped secure the funding for the project. Regarding this ambition, the team had an interesting discussion with Northumbria University’s Research & Innovation Services about how engagement such as this resource could contribute to a future impact case study.

In another exciting development, the History of Internal Communication podcast celebrated reaching its 500th listener with its latest episode. This instalment featured Sue Dewhurst (former Director of The SD Group) and Liam Fitzpatrick (Co-Founder of Donhead Consultants), who recounted their creation of the UK’s first competency framework for internal communication in 2001. Their conversation provided valuable insights into the challenges they faced, the competencies that have become professional benchmarks, and the ongoing professionalisation of the field.

The project also marked a significant historical milestone with April’s Source of the Month blog post, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the five-day working week by Boots. This pioneering move, initially an experiment during the interwar period’s push for industrial welfare triggered a broader dialogue on labour efficiency and employee welfare that went beyond Boots into the national press and other major organisations such as John Lewis. The widespread discussions on labour standards in Britain that the move spurred ultimately influenced post-war labour practices and had a lasting effect on work-life balance in Britain.

Archival research

The engagement activities of the project rests on its extensive archival research, which continued to uncover important insights over the last month. A significant milestone was achieved at the National Archives with the completion of research into the National Coal Board. The team have a particular interest in Coal News, a publication that started in 1961, due to its commitment to independent journalism. This publication played a key role in shaping both internal and external opinion during a period of contentious pit closures. Alongside the fascinating interview with Sue Dewhurst and Liam Fitzpatrick for the podcast, the team visited the British Library to view the competency framework that they wrote. This pioneering document was instrumental in defining and structuring the essential skills for internal communication practitioners at a time when the field was endeavouring to establish itself as a recognised profession.

Looking ahead, the team is preparing for a series of visits to the Cadbury archive in May. Their focus will be on the Bournville Works Magazine, an early example of a company magazine that began circulation in 1902. Additionally, the team will examine Cadbury’s collection of board minutes, which, like previous findings from the BBC and John Lewis archives, are expected to offer invaluable insights into the behind-the-scenes strategising of internal communication that is often hidden in its content that is commonly found in archives and libraries. At the National Archives, work will move on to British Rail as a case study and the team will explore various staff publications such as Rail News. This next phase of research looks set to uncover further insights into how internal communication has been used over time to shape employee engagement. As the History of Internal Communication project continues its exploration of archival documents, its outcomes look set to further our understanding of the field’s evolution and practice.

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