Dr Mary Welch is a Senior Lecturer in Communication Management in Lancashire Business School, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK
A generalist versus specialist debate is rumbling in academic circles.
One camp believes that public relations and communication management (PR&CM) education can equip professionals with a generic set of knowledge and skills to see them through any communication challenge. A perfectly reasonable argument in some ways, since fundamentals like good writing skills and knowledge of persuasion theory are essential to effective communication practice in any context.
The other camp believes general PR&CM knowledge is not enough. They want general knowledge to be supplemented with specialist in-depth insight to enable professionals to effectively contribute to specialist areas of communication practice like internal communication.
Perhaps it’s time to think about developing T-shaped internal communication professionals? T-shaped professionals combine broad knowledge and skills with in-depth specialist knowledge of a discipline.
I was a practitioner for fifteen years before becoming an academic in 2001 and found employee communication one of the most interesting and challenging areas of practice. Now, I’m interested in internal communication research and education. I conducted a surprisingly disappointing search of the academic literature for guidance on specific knowledge areas to assist internal communicators. The most useful practitioner framework I found had been developed back in 2004, was mainly skills-focused, and didn’t include vital current issues such as employee engagement.
There are scores of theories and concepts of special relevance to internal communication. So, I surveyed communication professionals to gauge interest in specific areas of internal communication knowledge. Participants came from the UK and other parts of Europe (87 participants) and included consultancy and in-house communicators.
The top ten topics of interest were:
- Internal communication strategy and objectives
- Employee engagement
- Leadership communication
- Organisational culture
- Internal communication evaluation
- Change communication
- Organisational behaviour
- Internal communication audits
- Employee internal communication needs
- Internal communication research
Some of these knowledge areas feature in the Commission for Public Relations 2012 general PR&CM education framework. However, three of the top ten key communication knowledge areas are not covered in that framework. Employee engagement; leadership communication; and, employee internal communication needs are absent.
Generalists may have awareness of these topics, but general awareness is far-removed from thorough, in-depth knowledge.
Think for a moment. Would you ask your family doctor to perform your brain surgery? Probably not. Specialist medical needs signal time to call in a specialist medical professional.
Likewise, specialist communication demands require specialist communication professionals. So, why would we expect general PR practitioners to effectively manage the challenges and complexities of internal communication?
Practitioners need to access specialist continuing education as their careers develop, so they can add in-depth specialist T-column knowledge to their broad T-bar general communication knowledge.
If we are developing the next generation of internal communicators to be specialist T-shaped surgeons of PR&CM, what specialist knowledge do you think they need to best inform their internal communication strategies and tactics and make effective contributions to employee engagement?