Internal Communication is a Fine Art

David Cook, Cisco

I had the great pleasure of interviewing David Cook, the Communications Director for Cisco, Asia Pacific, Japan and Greater China, this week. Responsible for communications across a very complex and diverse region, David had some terrific insight toward internal communications as a skill in its own right, and he talked about how authenticity, honesty, and sincerity are vital for success within this core business function. Having faced some changes in the last few months, including a geographical reorganisation and a widely documented business re-focus, I thought Cisco could offer a valuable perspective on this area. David spoke honestly about what Cisco is doing to constantly improve its processes and how internal communications is seen as a cornerstone of Cisco’s strategy for success moving forward.

David’s responsibility in Asia Pacific, Japan and Greater China covers an incredibly vast region, from the developed countries of Korea, Japan and Australia, to the large emerging markets of India and China, as well as the smaller emerging markets of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. All countries have different languages, cultures, and business practises, not to mention that within a single country, there can be differences between provinces, sultanates or even major cities. So succeeding with your internal communication across such a complex diaspora is not an easy thing to achieve.

How would you differentiate internal communication from other communication functions?

Too often people think of internal communications as a one way stand-alone memo or web posting that can be done by anyone…and then consider it a job done. I definitely think there is a lack of understanding about what effective internal communications is. If it’s well planned, consistent and timely, internal communication can be the platform to drive real employee engagement and change across an organisation, but in my view, it must have sponsorship and understanding from the very top to be successful. If business leaders prioritise communication, it becomes a very powerful tool which I believe is fundamental for business success in most organisations.

These days we are swamped with real-time information in the press, blogs and other social media platforms. Employees can read news about their own company almost instantaneously and, as a result, employee engagement has to be a number one priority. Staff wants to hear from senior leadership – they want to know that they are in tune with the rest of the organisation and are thinking about the same things. They don’t expect all of the answers, but they do expect authenticity, sincerity and honesty. Our role as communicators is to be as transparent as possible with our messaging and to provide a platform so that employees feel informed and, most importantly, have a mechanism where their voices are heard and where they can provide feedback.

What is Cisco’s internal communication strategy and focus?

Firstly it’s about being consistent so that people know what to expect. Secondly it’s about delivering the right message at the right time to the right people. Thirdly, you have to appreciate that one size certainly does not fit all – functionally, geographically or culturally.

At Cisco, we are moving away from a “push” strategy to a “pull” strategy, and that means giving people the ability to sign up for the content they want, distributing information in a way that people seek, in whatever form they want it. This is easier said than done, but our biggest complaint is that there is just too much information and people don’t know where to go to get the things they really need and want. Currently we have internal Intranets for the Asia Pacific region, Japan and Greater China – called the Cisco Employee Connection (CEC). The Intranet is global, regional and local, and it’s our vehicle for communicating company news, business strategy, and general content. We have long since recognized that we must use multiple channels – emails with links to the relevant CEC, video, blogs, live broadcasts over the Internet, and more. As you would expect, at Cisco we use a lot of video and, over time, we have built this into a core aspect of our communication strategy. The key is presenting short and punchy 3-4 minute videos and providing a feedback forum for people to give input.

Video alone is not the answer though – it must come with the change management we talked about earlier. As an example of how this has evolved and become successful: the head of Cisco in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) decided to make his major announcements via short informal videos. Because he was consistent, communicated that he would be using video as his primary platform for important announcements, and critically, because his messages were useful and relevant, we are now at the point where the majority of our employees in ANZ will watch those messages within a few hours of distribution. That’s very powerful. But video isn’t for everyone, so we still use email extensively (sales people, for example, are on the road and would rather read an email than watch a video), blogs, and other ways of distributing information to ensure people get what they need in the way they like to receive it.

The next phase for us is to move towards what we call our Integrated Workforce Experience – IWE – our own social enterprise collaboration platform. Ultimately everyone will have their own desktop if you will – so it’s more than a platform for us to communicate; it’s about your own social business community. Whatever your role, there are communities to sign up to (or create), and through this vehicle, you get the information you need to do your job effectively and are connected with the right people with the appropriate knowledge and expertise. By signing up for what they want to receive, and what they need to receive to get their jobs done, content will be more targeted and collaboration with colleagues around the world enhanced. IWE will become not just a communication tool but a business asset for us. We’re not there quite yet, but we will be.

Moving to Asia three years ago from Europe, what is the main difference?

Apart from the obvious cultural differences, there were two issues I faced when I arrived here – a lack of internal comms expertise and not enough buy-in from senior management.

In Europe, it’s probably more evolved as a function so you tend to find specialists. When I came to Asia, there were very few internal communication specialists, but plenty of broad based comms people – mostly with a PR background. I was a PR person in a former life, and although there are some obvious similarities, the skill set for an internal comms person is very different.

Internal Comms is a profession in its own right and I have found it challenging to find a pool of good, experienced people in this region, but it is changing. It’s definitely a career opportunity for students in marketing and communication, as there is a skill gap in this very vital communications niche and the need for expert internal communicators will grow as this region continues to accelerate.

How do you know you’re on the right track?

We regularly undertake communication surveys. We ask our employees what they like and what they don’t like. We ask them how they like to receive information, such as video, email, blogs, etc.  The benefit of social media tools is that you can also see the number of views for pages, videos, etc. Different people prefer different tools, but these days, you have to work across multiple platforms. Naturally, video is very popular at Cisco at it is a core business for us, however it’s not always appropriate – for example in countries where IT infrastructure is still unreliable – so we have to accommodate different audiences and their requirements as best we can.

If someone asked you for some tips in adopting an effective internal communication strategy, what would you advise?

  1. Employees are smart – that’s why they work in your organisation – so don’t ever make the mistake of underestimating them – you’ve got to be honest, open and transparent
  2. These days you’ve got to provide a variety of platforms for real employee engagement
  3. You need buy-in from the top – executive support is the only way you can properly succeed – it has to be imbedded in your company culture
  4. Content is king. Think about your audience and target your message – long winded communications full of acronyms and corporate speak are usually a waste of time and hurt your credibility
  5. If you don’t already do it, consider developing a community-based portal – or you can think of it as enterprise social networking platform – that pulls people to it. The most important thing is integrating feedback mechanisms within everything you do. Encourage employees to ask questions and raise concerns but ALWAYS act on it. If you don’t, you won’t gain the trust and miss the opportunity
  6. Create a culture where employees feel comfortable asking questions and to an extent, challenging senior management. Asia has a reputation of people not asking the tough questions due to hierarchy-based cultures, but things are changing

If you do internal communications well and really invest in it as a business asset, there are many upsides, including a motivated workforce, stronger culture, and better productivity. Whether your company is going through good times or bad, high quality communication is critical and good organisations should properly invest in it. If you listen to iconic business leaders, communication is often listed as one of their “top three” success factors…and that is no coincidence!


Not being an internal comms expert myself, I think that’s great information, with many companies facing significant challenges right now. It’s also timely advice for Asia Pacific, a region continuing to experience rapid growth, so if you take this advice on board, being committed to, and passionate about, internal communications is definitely a core part of businesses succeeding and growing. So thanks David for some really great insight into an aspect of communications frequently underestimated.

Andrea Edwards

Managing Director


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