By Gloria Lombardi

When social historians look back on the early 21st century, the ubiquity of mobile phones in the lives of the world’s population will, no doubt, loom large. But in the here and now, what do we know about how people interact with their smartphones? In particular, how much do we know about the usage of apps? At what times of the day are they used? What particular type of functionality is valued? Where are they used? And, from the perspective of organisations, what lessons can be learned from those behaviors and applied to the world of work?

To glean insights to these questions, AB – a UK-based internal communications agency – has just invested in a research study, and in order to get the broadest range of views, is encouraging everyone to participate.

KatieI wanted to speak with Katie Macaulay (pictured right), Managing Director at AB and author of From Cascade to Conversation, to explore the rationale behind the research study.

In this broad-ranging interview, she shares not only her views on employee mobile apps, but also expands on the skills that internal communications teams should develop to stay ahead of digital transformation and the future of the internal communication discipline.

Gloria Lombardi: Why did you invest in a research study?

Katie Macaulay: The market for employee apps has just started – and there is a lot of growth in that market. At AB, we produce internal communications for workforces such as the Royal Mail or the Post Office. Those organisations have thousands of non-desk-based employees. Yet, despite significant technological advances, there are still some very hard-to-reach employees out there.

appsLast year people downloaded 130 billion apps, worldwide. Studies show that we pick up our phones on average about 85 times a day. Our mobile devices are completely integrated into our personal lives.

So, through the research survey, we want to find out what can we learn from those behaviours outside work that might be relevant in the workplace. What insights can we harness about the types of apps that people are using in their personal lives? And, how can we take those lessons and relate them back to people’s work lives?

I believe that there is so much to learn from how mainstream apps such as those offered by Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps and Pokemon Go! The big problem for internal communicators is the budget – they simply do not have the budget to go out and build these sorts of apps. And that is really the idea behind the survey. We ask questions whose answers can give insights to build the next generation of apps for employees.

GL: Do you have any particular expectation of the outcome of the study? Are you expecting any particular results?

texting-1490691_960_720KM: We have an open mind to the results. But, we are particularly interested in finding out simple, yet effective, and tactical factors for building employee apps that are more accessible, popular, and increasing their usability.

Returning to the point about tight internal communications budgets, there is good news when it comes to apps. Just two to three years ago, you would probably need to spend at least £60,000 to build a good app. Now, with the rise of off-the-shelf solutions, you can spend as little as £10,000-15,000. So, a lower investment is required.

Yet, with off-the-shelf products, there is still the danger the apps are not completely tailored to the audience’s needs. So, it is about discovering the little insights that can help to make internal communications apps more usable.

At the end of the day, for a lot of workforces, we have to encourage them to download those apps on their personal phones. Their organisations are not giving them smart devices. Will the average employee be willing to download those apps to their own phone? That is the challenge. There must be something in it for the employee. Whether it is rewards, prizes, or even a simple scoring system where they can see the top news and they receive recognition for using the app. Those are the types of routes we need to go down.

GL: You highlighted two relevant challenges: budget, and the workforces’ motivation to download and use an internal communications app on their mobile devices. Based on your experience with client organisations, what other barriers might impede the successful take-up of employee apps?

man-1527674_960_720KM: Some barriers are tactical. For example, the storage capacity. Some employees, particularly the younger demographic, who may be spending a lot of time on their phones, simply don’t have the storage capacity to download yet another app on their device. So, it may be as simple as ensuring the app doesn’t take a lot of storage capacity in order to increase its chance of being downloaded.

On the other side, there is a strategic problem: security. For example, an IT department asserting that the organisation cannot have an app that anyone can download – it has to be within a secure environment. So, you have firewalls. Yet, not everyone is going to submit their own personal device to that kind of environment.

Personally, I think that the security issue will fade over time. I often smile to myself when I get into deep conversations about security with internal communicators because the honest truth is that any of our printed magazines could be left on a train, for other people to potentially pick up and read. And, they do not need to plug them in!

Over time, the concern about security will lessen, but, at the moment, internal communicators need to have the IT department on their side very early on. And the content has to go through a fairly rigorous process to make sure that, if it gets into the outside world, it is not going to do any reputational damage to the organisation.

But it, of course, depends on the organisation – some companies are much more relaxed. Other organisations, such as those in the professional services sector, are more worried.

GL: Which skills should internal communicators develop to stay relevant in a world where technology is impacting every business and industry?

women-1209678_960_720KM: We, internal communicators, need to be more tech-savvy. But, we should still value our own core skills, which is about engaging, informing and motivating employees. To do that, we need social media, film, journalistic skills and more. Yet, we don’t have to have all of those skills by ourselves. What we need are excellent project management skills and commissioning skills. So, we shouldn’t fret about whether we have all those skills. But, we need to know how to work with the people that do.

At AB we look at Prince2 project management methods, which can be applied to any kind of project.

We also look at culture to make sure that when we are bringing in mainstream developers who feel that they can integrate into an agency that is exclusively about internal communications, but that their core skills are still recognised. It is about integrating those skills into our teams and working more with specialists.

Organisations are going to have more interesting teams going forward – teams will be full of people of many different ages and types of skills. And, it is the interplay between those people that will provide the most creative, innovative and exciting solutions.

GL: Could you give me an example of an organisation that is successfully adapting its internal communications offering to the digital and mobile workplace, and is creating engaging employee content?

PULSE10_coverKM: The best example I can give is KPMG. The global organisation, not just the UK firm, had a particular challenge. The 150 top global partners are based around the world. They mainly work at airports, on planes, and at client offices. They are totally mobile, the whole time, and they are all operating in different time zones. Yet, they are also the clients facing workers who really drive the business.

KPMG wanted to communicate with them and provide them with thought leadership information, which would help them to have interesting and valuable insights for conversations with the world’s leading CEOs and finance directors. The firm took a very interesting route. They have completely co-authored that content with the audience. Each issue of their publication, which is called Pulse, comes out four times a year. The Managing Editor of Pulse picks a theme, and every issue is co-created between us (AB), the clients and with the firm’s partners. So, the publication offers the real client perspective.

Pulse is delivered in different ways – partners can have a perfect printed copy of it. But, they can also access it on their mobile phones, laptops, and other digital channels.

While much of the content is written, some of it is infographics. Some of it is film. This is the world we are living now – it is about choice. It is about variety. And it is about co-creating the content with the audience so that they feel that it is relevant and meaningful.

And, of course, when the content is digital, the organisation can immediately see what’s most viewed, what’s most valued, what’s been most clicked, downloaded, and where in the world that content has been read. So, that gives the firm immediate feedback that is really useful when it comes to developing the next issue of the publication.

GL: Looking in to the future how do you see internal communication evolving over the next decade?

KM: We have been talking a lot about whether, eventually, there won’t be any distinction between internal and external communications. Over the next 10 years, that debate will play itself out.

Personally, I believe that employees are very different from the external audiences. They are different from customers, clients, even shareholders, in that they see under the bonnet.

The idea that there is no difference between internal and external, and that everyone can see the same things, could result in employees just being given blunt sales marketing messages. And that is not good for employees.

While organisations have to become more transparent, there is still going to be a place for pure internal communications. We will still have a discipline, and it will still be recognised, if not more so in 10 years’ time.

In terms of content, there is no doubt that in the next 10 years employees are going to be much more involved in the creation of that content. And that is only right.

Measurement is also going to get better, live and instant – we can’t tell how many people read paper versions of what we have produced. But, on digital channels, we should be able to see exactly when, where and how long for. So, our measurement is going to improve, which means our decisions will improve – they will be based on hard evidence as opposed to our hunches.


If you would like to take part in the AB survey, it will be open until Monday 15th August. Respondents will receive an executive summary of the findings upon request.