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Strategic Internal Communication & The Dialogue Box

Dr David Cowan answers questions about why strategic internal communication is more important than ever and how his Dialogue Box tool can help companies achieve higher levels of engagement.


1. What motivated you to write this book?

There are a couple of reasons for writing the book. I wanted to put together the various ideas and experiences of my career into one accessible place, where others can benefit and perhaps learn some new ways of thinking. The main reason was to present the Dialogue Box to a wider community. I believe it is an innovative tool that approaches internal communications the way we need to think about it today, because internal communications is too often governed by yesterday’s thinking.

2. Why is good internal communication so important for successful businesses?

First, this is not a not a choice anymore. Transparency means employees have the right to know more, but also means they see more. The past of broadcasting to employees is long gone. We now need to connect. This is a positive thing, and it’s a bottom line thing. A more informed and engaged employee is a more productive employee. Organizations need to dialogue with employees and move away from command and control of information to creating a better sense of a community at work. When I first discussed my thinking at a conference many years ago, an audience member asked if I wanted to create a democracy, and I guess yes, this is what the book and the Dialogue Box does for an organization.

3. What is HR’s role in this?

In the book I position what I call the triangle of HR, internal communications and employee engagement. They all have one thing in common, which is they look at the employee as a whole person. Employees are not simply a function, a unit of human capital. Yes, they are people who have a job or career in the company, but they also have external pressures, hopes, dreams and all those other things that are part of being a person. This means understanding their emotions and treating them with respect.

HR has the traditional function of keeping personnel files, managing compensation and benefits, and all those other important tasks. However, they need to communicate effectively with employees and ensure that what employees are told matches the HR promise. Likewise, they need to be engaging with employees, listening to them and understanding them, and seeking to have connecting dialogue. These are all interlocking parts.

I’m increasingly of the view that they all belong in one function, but traditionally internal communications is seen as part of corporate communications. However, I think people working in internal communications tend to have more in common with HR colleagues than corporate communications. Also, this is breaking things apart as a function, rather than what connects them to the organization. It is the employees that connect HR, internal communications and employee engagement to the organization as an organic whole, and all of this is in a state of flux. The core role of HR is to be part of the dialogue, and be prepared to change as the organization and the world changes.

4. You contest in the book that there is such a thing as organizational culture. Why is that?

I think this is probably the most controversial statement in the book, and it can be discussed in many ways. What I wanted to do is to look at organizational culture afresh and to provoke people into thinking about their culture, and challenge many of the assumptions they may hold about culture and organizations. There was a cottage industry amongst consultants based on the assumption that a company has an unified organizational culture, and it seemed to need help in locating that culture or shaping it internally and externally. I suspect this is a fools’ errand, though arguably a very profitable one for the consultants! Organizations have many cultures, and the attempt to create a single culture runs across these lines and also tends to be a culture made in the image of the leadership, which is quite far from many of the employees. In accepting there is less uniformity and by recognizing the diversity of people and their interests, leadership will understand their organization better and in a more dynamic and productive way.

5. What place does understanding emotion have in strategic internal communication?

A lot of communication with employees is about emotional management. When the news is good you want to boost the emotions, and when the news is bad you want to calm things down. It is also more than this. It is important to recognize the emotions in decision-making and management. When we get this wrong we can find the way we have managed things can put people on the defensive or make them hostile. This is most evident in news management, where the most common complaint from employees is that they hear news from external sources, the media or customers, before they hear it from the management. This suggests a lack of consultation and a lack of good timing, and it alienates employees. When we talk about engagement we are looking not just for an intellectual assent but an emotional embrace. Today, we live in much more sensitive and emotional times, and so organizations need to become better at managing the emotions.

6. Tell us about the Dialogue Box.

The Dialogue Box is an innovative tool, which is very intuitive. It works with a lot of what people already sort of know. It is structured around the left and right sided brain, intelligence and emotion, and the objective and subjective nature of our thinking. There are four zones to analyze in the Dialogue Box – intelligence, emotion, interpretation and narrative – which lead us to discover the dialogue word. This dialogue word will act as a connecting word and a compass for dialogue in an organization, and can be used before or after a challenging situation in an organization. When I do training sessions with organizations the dialogue word is hardest part to achieve, and the part where I am most involved. The work done in discovering this dialogue word is a real challenge and it’s very satisfying for all participants. I’ve had situations where we’ve all been so involved in discovering this word we’ve forgotten break times!


About the author: Dr David Cowan is an author and a visiting scholar in the Communications Department at Boston College, USA. Over his career he has worked with a variety of clients, including SABIC, Honeywell Aerospace, SAP, Saudi Aramco, Hewlett-Packard, and has taught the Dialogue Box to over six hundred participants in America, Britain, China, Netherlands, India, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and South Korea. He is former Global Head of Internal Communications at ArcelorMittal and has also worked at the World Bank and as a finance and technology journalist. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and the University of St Andrews, where he earned his PhD.

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