Monthly Archives: December 2009

Making sense of complexity – why we all need to be T-shaped

by Dan Gray–Commscrum London

An alternative title for this post might’ve been “Why IABC is destined to die on its arse.” As markers go, that’s a suitably provocative one to lay down, and it’s probably why I’ve been elected to bat lead-off for this new joint blogging venture (along with Kevin Keohane, Mike Klein and Lindsay Uittenbogaard.)

Why did I allow my IABC membership to lapse this year? For the simple reason that they – and many organisations like them – continue to adhere to the credo that it pays to be a specialist, seemingly oblivious to the fact that every other creative profession is swimming merrily in the opposite direction.

Take the gathering momentum of Design Thinking, for example, which is transforming notions of design from the beautification of posters and toasters to a distinctive creative thought process – a whole new way of approaching strategy, innovation and the solving of wicked problems, such as climate change.

It’s gaining massive traction because it’s tapping into the growing realisation that an increasingly complex, diverse and unstable world poses brand, design and leadership challenges that deep functional specialism alone is ill-equipped to deal with. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in his brilliant new book, Change by Design, they demand skills in two dimensions – not only sufficient depth of expertise to make tangible contributions from one perspective but, more importantly, the capacity and disposition to integrate thinking from across multiple disciplines.

The world of business communications has a lot to learn from psychologists like George A Miller, for example, with his insight that the maximum number of things anyone can hold simultaneously front-of-mind is seven (plus or minus two). When you think about the barrage of communications the average employee is subjected to, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why information fatigue syndrome is a very real phenomenon in many organisations.

Rapid change, audience overlap and media fragmentation have changed the rules of the game. Getting incrementally better at what you already do is becoming an irrelevance. The true value of communication lies in taking all of that complexity and making sense of it at a human level – a creative, synthetic process that distils a compelling core idea and relatively small number of supporting messages that people can actually relate to, and which actually adds value to the business.

For that, you need to be able to see beyond functional fiefdoms and start joining thing up. Failure to cross the “T” will forever condemn communicators to a life of downstream tactical execution.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Brussels

Like your style Dan–but I question your substance just a bit.

First, what you are describing is really a trans-disciplinary future, one where all of the traditional disciplines and toolkits available to the communicators will rapidly fuse, leaving only the truly transdisciplinary to thrive in the new environment. I think we’re in for a longer transition, Dan.

From where I sit in Brussels, where most of the current comms disciplines (Public Relations, Investor Relations, Public Affairs/Political Communication, Sustainability and Social Media) are well represented, there is starting to be some convergence and cross-fertilization.

The big blockage–until corporations and those who represent them start realizing that they need to communicate much more assertively and much less defensively, there isn’t going to be the money available to fully unleash this revolution.

The aftermath of Copenhagen will shift things somewhat–particularly in industries facing legislative or reputational doom. But those out of the immediate fire will try to hunker down as long as possible.

As for IABC–I wouldn’t count the ol’ International out. IABC’s priorities may need to be rearranged, with reduced emphasis on sustaining the HQ and Chapter infrastructure.

IABC needs instead to start moving towards a much leaner advocacy mission making better use of public networks and to giving newer (and more T-shaped) voices access to their more hoary channels like CW and Conference platforms. I’m going to be sending in my membership dues in February–but I know twisting your arm makes no sense until there’s some real progress.

Kevin Keohane — Commscrum Paris (thanks Eurostar)

Like Mike, I wouldn’t rule out IABC by virtue of sheer equity (or inertia, perhaps more appropriately).  Having said that, at least in Europe, I can say with statistical confidence that very few people who really matter in the communication industry have ever heard of IABC.

I do, however, wholeheartedly agree about the T-shaped issue with today’s communicators.  Indeed, IABC published an article in Communication World I wrote on the matter, to what can be described as tumbleweed-cueing silence.  Which is precisely the issue: the article was probably published in the wrong channel.  The kind of people who are members of IABC and read CW are not the audience who will easily adhere to a more holistic view.  I have nothing against IABC; I just think the organisation is very North American and navel-gazing, and a bit intellectually incestuous.  This results in its output being increasingly weak due to generations of inbreeding.  It never looks outside its front door.  It seldom invites people from ‘outside the family’ to generate thought leadership or to be provocative.  Instead you get yet another presentation about measuring the effectiveness of your employee engagement effort, or How To Use Twitter.  At one end, The Establishment and at the other, Me Too Fad Followers.  It’s about incremental improvements of approaches that already exist. As a result, it often feels a bit like a “member’s club” rather than a professional association, to me.

I’ve argued this for years: it is far better and more rewarding for communicators to go, for example, to conferences across disciplines than to communication conferences where they will hear what they already have heard before (probably from the same 5 IABC luminaries).

In the final analysis, I think communicators should look at their priority list.  If their priority list reads “1. Complete online benefits enrolment newsletter 2. Update intranet news feed with new press release  3. Check employee survey results” then they should worry.  If instead it reads “1.  Consider how to better align divisional business strategies with HR processes   2.  Track financial performance to management core brief delivery  3.  Engage with change management consultants around employee and manager involvement” then it’s probably a better picture.  Mike’s ultimately correct that the dysfunctions are as much the communicators’ faults as the businesses in which we ply our difficult trade.

Part of the solution isn’t to turn over the keys to unskilled communicators though: I am passionate about people communications as a strategic business management discipline.  Part of the solution is to become more broadly focussed, as Dan says.  This isn’t about diluting core content; it’s about broadening the scope in a disciplined, considered manner.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard–Commscrum Delft

Love the thinking, Dan.  Like the counter, Mike.  Get the bridge, Kevin.

But let’s be clear.  There’s a difference between making the IABC as a platform more cross-disciplinarian and bringing information from other disciplines into the hard core content of the IABC.

Professionals are definitely getting more out of connecting information from different fields together these days and the access we have to linked online information is obviously behind that.

It’s a hugely exciting development and those who are better at information filtering than at simply learning are laughing out loud.   People are picking and choosing what they want to learn about, but they still need solid sources from which to pick and choose.

The IABC could well integrate more information from wider fields into its topics, but it has to balance that up with keeping a focus on communication as opposed to Communication AND philosophy AND / OR sociology AND / OR psychology etc., otherwise it becomes too diluted.

People join things up, not platforms.  Unfortunately the IABC content is obviously not as up to date as we might like it to be, otherwise this blog would not exist.  A T-Shaped IABC (T meaning ‘two  – or more dimensions?) – in so far as it can be – is just a matter of time.

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It’s Time for Full Contact Internal Communication

For the last twenty years, the internal communication field has progressively become more sophisticated.  The culture of the field, however has yet to progress at the same rate.  To be honest, Internal Communication has remained a polite undertaking, reflecting a culture where clients and bosses are challenged rarely–and peers only in the most behind-the-back sort of ways.

Commscrum represents a small attempt to attack key industry issues in a way that is appropriately sophisticated–but at the same time pulls no punches. It intends to be in-your-face, and remember, in the scrum, there are no helmets or pads.