Monthly Archives: February 2010

Changing the way we think about sustainability

Dan Gray – Commscrum London

How businesses approach sustainability is perhaps the biggest brand and communication challenge of our time – and one that most corporations are getting very wrong. Rather than try and re-hash my thinking, I’m just going to post an extract from my new book.

Take a look and see what you think. I reckon it picks up rather neatly on Kevin’s theme of working from the inside out, and poses some interesting questions about the where the balance of power ought to lie in communicating a credible commitment…

As man’s role in climate change has become clearer, so sustainability has become largely synonymous with environmental concerns – essentially, how can we continue to grow and develop as a society without causing irreparable harm to our ecosystem?

It’s also a term that has tended to be used almost interchangeably with the many others (CR, CSR, Corporate Citizenship etc.) that organisations use to denote activities and investments designed to illustrate their status as responsible enterprises.

Frankly, both usages get in the way of a proper and useful understanding of what it means to be sustainable. In its original and broadest sense, sustainability is simply about longevity – the capacity to survive and prosper over generations.

In business, that naturally includes dimensions of ethical behaviour (you’re not going to do very well if your stakeholders don’t trust you) and environmental stewardship (likewise, you’re not going to be able to operate efficiently if you’re reliant on ever scarcer and more expensive natural resources), but it’s about much more than that.

Asking how a business is socially and environmentally responsible and how it is sustainable should be two completely different questions. The latter is infinitely broader in scope, essentially: why will you still be in business in 50 years’ time?

Understanding sustainability in these terms takes it out of the realm of the sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, save-the-whale brigade and into the realm of what sceptical business leaders really care about – running a successful business. What’s more, it fosters a completely different mindset about how to tackle the issue. Sustainability ceases to be seen as a separate agenda, and is instead positioned as an integral part of business strategy and operations.

And that’s how it should be seen. Ultimately, sustainability is not a discrete function, programme or initiative. It’s a cultural thing – a fundamental belief and way of thinking that encourages us to consider the long-term implications of our actions. If you’re fond of soundbites, think of it this way:

CR without HR is just PR.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard Commscrumming from Delft

Sorry Dan – I’m finding it difficult to absorb the meaning here because I can’t get over your first statement about something being “perhaps the biggest brand and communication challenge of our time”.  There is no biggest or most important challenge when it comes to communication because there is no single, over-ruling perspective from which to make that claim.

As communicators, we support the objectives of our sponsors and they can present very diverse communication challenges, from awareness to positioning, behaviour change to information process efficiency.  You might argue that the most difficult communication challenges are where relevance of the topic to the audience is low and where the interest of the sponsor is also low: i.e fulfill requirement for all staff to return old hardware following an IT infrastructure upgrade by end Q2.   God help us!  Some communication can be so boring and insignificant, can’t it?

I get from your extract that the sustainability message has anchored incorrectly in the minds of proponents and participants alike.  Yes this is huge, but I don’t think it’s unique.   Isn’t this a typical part of change, particularly when the change is significant.  When all of the micro-messages that can fly around our worlds add up and a few easy-to-join-up dots are put together wrongly in our illogical subconscious brains, I suppose you get invariably get to: sustainability = ecology = volunteer work; equality = feminism = lesbianism; and more such big myths that need demystification.

If you are patient and your communication objectives are SMART (i.e. ensure that key leaders in the organization are able to accurately define x sustainability terms if asked by x date) then you just have a long (and interesting) road ahead to generating wider awareness that lead to effective actions.  The communication objective is not the same as the business objective.  In working towards that communication objective, it looks like the conceptual keys you hold to doing that are the right ones…

Kevin Keohane, CommScrum London

Like Lindsay, I’m the first one to resist anyone who says “X is the most important …” anything.  Just the same, there are few things that genuinely compete with the sustainability challenge – although I take your point.   (Except when it comes to, say, systems and design thinking applied to employee communication.  That is simply right, and other views are completely ignorant and wrong, as well as being utterly devoid of practical or intellectual merit, and in fact such views are a sure indication of the presence either Hiter, Stalin, David Beckham or Satan.)

Dan seems to simply be stating the case that “sustainability” as a business communication topic needs to continue to be taken out of the realm of philanthropy / environmental / community considerations and be applied in a broader context to what sustainability actually means for a business over the mid- and long-term. So, for example, rather than investment banks supporting clean water in Africa, they might think about microfinance and responsible lending / investment (which, dare I say, might have preventd one or two problems in recent years).  Better still, organisations start eliminating “waste” from their operations not just as a recycling drive, but as a way of improving operational efficiency.  You can be damn sure this would happen if a law were passed requiring businesses to take back whatever they sell at the end of the product’s lifespan. And so on.

So I completely agree with Dan’score point – that business can benefit from a sustainable approach, rather than viewing it as a “nice to have” bolt on that must be traded off for something else (i.e. profit).

And yet, it’s all too easy to wax Evangelical about these things.  The real shift is out of the dominant short-term business mentality, and out of Western consumer culture mindset … but them’s a much longer story…

Mike Klein–Scrum des Commes Bruxelles / Kommskrummen Brussel

Nothing pisses off senior execs more than being told how to run their businesses.  Communicators, even the most senior, are looked to at most for advice, rarely for direction.

Telling a CEO that you have the answer to the question of “how to run a successful business”–or telling her that “the real issue is whether we’ll be in business in 50 years time” would be enough to get all but the most indispensable communicator chucked out of a boardroom for good.

I agree with Dan that the current social/environmental focus of “sustainability” and the thinking and positioning of an organisation relative to long-term future alternatives are two separate things, requiring serious thought–but I disagree violently that longevity must be the goal of any organization.

I’d much rather see organizations fuelled by a commitment to particular causes or outcomes, and then either dissolve upon success, or reconstitute themselves to address new challenges.  Longevity for longevity’s sake reminds me of creepy people who have their heads cryogenically frozen in Florida.

I also think Dan unduly minimizes the importance of organizational engagement around social-environmental-political sustainability issues, as these issues often present real, perhaps even existential threats to organizational viability.  Rather than adopting the rightfully-fatal posture as “conscience of the company’s long-term future”, we ought to focus our sustainability efforts on deep internal engagement and astute political navigation.

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A world turned inside-out

Kevin Keohane-Commscrum Ireland (via London)

An earlier CommScrum post started the debate about “internal” vs “employee” communications.  I’d like to progress debate about the decreasing space between what we often consider to be “internal” vs. “external” communications.

Organisations require structure, and traditionally it’s easiest to structure around functions and tasks.  For example, Finance – IT – Marketing – HR – Operations – R&D – Manufacturing …  at the same time, when it comes to communication, the same rules no longer apply.  There has also been ample debate about “the way to organise your communication department” in past years, but this has mostly been about “Should it report to HR or Marketing or the CEO?”

I’d like to take this to another level, which is to say that the days of managing what I call “captive audiences” are well and truly over.  What I mean is, both internally and externally, it’s a fallacy to believe that any single function “owns” an audience.  For example, Corporate / Media Affairs owning “the media”; HR owning “employees”; Marketing owning “brand”; Investor Relations owning “investors” – and so on.  My 2007 blog “The end of internal communications” references this thought.

In essence, “audiences” in the grander sense don’t actually exist.  They are a purely rhetorical construct insofar as they only exist in the mind of the communicator.  As technology and transparency have forever and profoundly changed the way we communicate, share and seek information, audience overlap renders most functionally-driven models ineffective, possibly counter-productive and at worst irrelevant.  Your “employee” could be an investor; your “consumer” could well be a media content creator.

To summarise, once again I’ll bang the drum about “joining things up” and systems thinking.  OK, it will take a while.  OK, we’ll always need specialists. But a multiskill, generalist capability will eventually trump all when it comes to communicating with people.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Wales (via Brussels)

I completely agree about the lunacy of defending divisions between internal and external audiences–and instead, of better understanding and engaging with the interrelations between the range of stakeholder groups upon which organizational survival depends.

But I don’t think the “multi-skilled  generalism” you advocate is the answer.  Different stakeholder groups have different communication paradigms–namely that the flow and strategy required to succeed in politics/public affairs remains different between what works in media relations and what still works internally.  Rather than valuing generalism, we need what the rugby world calls “cross-code” professionals–people who understand how the rules differ between each discipline, as well as understanding what they will increasingly have in common.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – still Commscrumming from The Netherlands

Wow – I really like this one.  There was always something that irked me about those ‘where does communication belong?’ discussions – particularly when it came to ‘who owns it’.  Now I can see a way through.

As you say, Kevin – audiences are merged and communication defies any rules that compartmentalization might try to apply.   As you say Mike, you still need to apply different styles to different audiences and I suspect this is because readers like it that way.

It is widely known that when people read in a certain context, they put a different hat on.  They recognize specific words to have particular meanings in different situations, so understanding the language in a slightly different way.   Each context caters for a different perspective too – so we ‘re not tailoring to suit the audience, we’re tailoring to suit the context each communication is being received in.     I don’t see this stopping because it is more effective than writing for people without their ‘hats’.

Reflecting on Kevin’s point: in the language of communicators, the word ‘audience’ is not real – it’s just a construct in our minds.     However semantic this may seem, it’s a valid distinction because the way people think about something frames where it sits and who owns it.   Because communication content / audiences are joined up, in my dream world there is an umbrella part of organizations called The Whole Systems Team, which houses leadership development, communication, business improvement etc.  – and it reports to the CEO.   This would make NO sense to my grandmother  – whose world since her days, has truly been turned upside down….

Dan Gray – Commscrum London

You know I love this thinking too, KK. It’s why I ‘borrowed’ the core thought and used it for a definition in the glossary of my book (“Audience – a fictitious construct created by communicators for the purposes of segmentation”). It’s incredibly profound as a first principle, precisely for the way it makes you think, as Lindsay describes so well in her last paragraph above.

As for Mike’s issue with ‘multi-skilled generalism’, perhaps I can suggest ‘multi-specialism’ as an alternative term that might bridge the gap?

If by ‘generalism’ we mean being a jack of all trades and master of none (as is commonly inferred), then of course Mike’s right. But I don’t think that’s what Kevin’s suggesting here.