The Growing Importance of a Strategic Approach to Innovation Communications

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In the past year or so corporate innovation leaders have clearly taken an “ecosystem” perspective to their innovation activities. What this ultimately means is that they view all of their program’s activities as a connected whole and driving towards higher-level goals, often aligned with broader cultural change.

This (relatively new) perspective is having some downstream impacts, some of which were widely discussed at the recent Chief Innovation Officer Summit in NYC. One such impact is the increasing focus on sophisticated internal innovation communications planning efforts by corporate (and HR / Talent) leaders, often for the first time (check out my recent article looking back at major innovation trends for 2015).

Communication activities have always been a part of almost all innovation activities. What is changing now is that innovation leaders are considering internal communications as a central element of their programs. In response, they are directing significant attention and resources to develop strategic (and tactical) frameworks to guide their employee-focused communication efforts over time. This is a long-overdue and very welcome development.

There are a range of benefits that these strategic, integrated innovation communications planning efforts can generate for leaders, including;

  • Scaling impact across disbursed businesses, often leveraging limited direct innovation resources
  • Identifying, demonstrating and driving consistent processes and results
  • Clearly defining innovation, in a way that is both personal and tangible, for an ever more complex range of employee needs
  • Rewarding and recognizing personal success for key employees
  • Promoting a perception of innovation program success
  • Aligning innovation efforts with corporate and business unit goals. Taken further, these plans can be positioned to better deliver those messages in actionable ways
  • Enhancing a personality and voice around innovation, that may be more open and approachable than the typical corporate tone

Before heading off and developing a communication plan, it is important to note that these are medium to long-term initiatives. Short-term communication activities are what innovation leaders should be moving away from. It is important to recognize that planning efforts do take time, and can be resource intensive, at least in the early development stages.

The elements included within communication plans change on a company-by-company basis, but there are several consistent elements that should drive success, including:

  • An outline of the strategic goals for an innovation program, aligned with and supporting, existing corporate and business unit priorities
  • A definition of employee target audiences (can be categorized / tiered if needed) that relate to an innovation program (or don’t, as may be the case)
  • An understanding of key communication channels, either currently existing, or newly developed. This should include an outline of the relevant timelines, content review processes, channel effectiveness and identification of potential editorial issues.
  • An outline of key, consistently delivered messages for the innovation program. This should carry over into messages that are specific to individual innovation activities covered by the plan. These key innovation specific messages should align, at some level, with the broader key corporate and business unit messages that are being distributed at any time.
  • A tactical communication map that outlines how messages and their delivery will flow over a period of time (generally a year), broken down by audience
  • It is important to note that communications can be resource intensive efforts, so you need to understand both the types and volume of resources required to carry out the efforts that have been outlined within the plan.

Over the past 5-10 years there has been a determined and consistent effort to consolidate and restrict internal communications within corporate organizations. The result is that it can be difficult for innovation program leaders to get their messages across to their intended audiences. For this reason, innovation communication planning efforts are often designed to lay the groundwork for the development of new internal communication channels. These new channels can be directly controlled by centralized innovation teams or by internal communication groups. Whoever owns the channels, planning for appropriate resources and oversight is essential to ongoing success.

It is actually pretty easy to build and launch a plan and even to launch a new communication channel. Everyone get’s excited, blows up balloons and eats cake. It’s fun! What can be far more difficult is to successfully manage and improve an ongoing communication channel over time, with an actively engaged audience and robust content flow. Innovation program leaders and their teams are extremely busy and often find it difficult to maintain focus and quality of these efforts over time. For this reason, a range of service providers such as Culturevate are playing a more active role in supporting these efforts with their corporate clients.

It was so great to hear so many innovation leader and vendors talking about the need for effective communication planning at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit, and I look forward to hearing more of these efforts going forward.