Internal Communications and Staff Engagement in World-class Universities

Network Director Louise Simpson worked with four UK universities on a project funded by the British Government’s Higher Education Funding Council to develop best practice in internal communications for higher education. The outcome was the HEliX (higher education: leading internal communications) framework – a series of 32 indicators for measuring and benchmarking.

The indicators developed for British universities for HEliX were also thought to be important for world-class international universities.

In 2009 the World 100 Reputation Network adapted the framework’s ‘health check’ into an online survey tool. 22 of the world’s top 200 universities undertook the survey.

The research found that although they put effort into creating a vision, they were poor at cascading information down to colleagues or ensuring senior directors and leaders have excellent communications skills. Whilst the senior executive team was highly visible and communicated regularly with staff, internal communications was not integral to university decision making. There was little connectivity between the senior management and other departments in terms of messaging or communications systems.

Roughly two thirds of the indicators for good internal communications were judged to be well executed (good or outstanding in these universities), but a third were well below standard (judged to be absent or just developing).

The indicator given the highest importance score (Excellent communications skills is an essential selection criterion for all senior executive and heads of department positions) is one where performance was actually rated very poor.

In the areas of best practice, the world-class universities appeared strong at crisis communications and news dissemination. They were also good at campus communications, although as an area it was felt to be fairly unimportant.

Staff engagement was highly valued by most world-class universities, but performance was patchy in some surprising areas, and best practice indicators that might improve performance (such as regularly evaluating communications, and having a strategy for it) were weighted as being of low importance.

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For more information about HEliX see