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.


13 thoughts on “A world turned inside-out

  1. Indy says:

    In the international business side, this issue comes up for me all the time, so much so that I’ve started using the phrases “the law of leaky communications” and “leaky organisations” to try and get people to understand what is going on.

    For me it’s been driven by the reality that anything you release to “an audience” will find it’s way to others. To pick on one group just as an example, Investor comms types seem particularly unable to engage with this fact – it’s no longer possible to spin statements to suit investors without it (for example) reaching employees and likely killing morale… or indeed possible to spin statements for investors and not have them find out that employees are being told a different story.

    How do you handle this?

    At the corporate level, I like Lindsay’s utopian whole systems team in a way, because I definitely believe the people she lists all need to co-operate more than they typically do – especially for change initiatives. However, I wonder if it’s really a silver bullet, because things like the Marketing function (and HR) whose actions have huge communication/systems implications may be too large to fit workably into a dream team. I think such a systems group would be in a powerful position to organise communication more effectively, but it’s always going to involve negotiation and stakeholder management… so I think they are part of the skill-set.

    Cross-code vs generalist? Sounds a bit like a semantic quibble to me…

    • BT has actually made good progress with this – they have a person who acts as teh “Air Traffic Controller” among HR, Brand, Internal Comms, Corporate Comms, etc. I suspect he would have made a great diplomat…

      • Sean Trainor says:

        or a ‘libero’ in Catenaccio tactic terms.
        I know someone who, not to long ago, applied for a very senior IC role at BT and the key part of the recruitment assessment was to rewrite a press release for internal consumption in line with their new tone of voice. You have to smile.

  2. Sean Trainor says:

    At the risk of mixing sporting metaphors, I am a big fan of the ‘Total Football’ approach pioneered by Ajax in the 1970s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_Football.

    Not to be confused with ‘Jack of all Trades’ or ‘Multiskilling’ it is a philosophy built on organic and collaborative systems, leading to high performance in dynamic situations. Training the ‘Ajax way’ not only allows players to find their core strengths, it gives players far more spatial awareness and appreciation of their team mates’ positions. I think the benefits of flexible and adaptive working are both obvious and highly relevant in enterprise today.

    There are far too many parallels with systems thinking to mention here but suffice to say that enterprise boundaries (internal and external) are so fluid that communications cannot be engineered around fixed structures or audiences. The fact that your ’employees’ exist in in a multitude of stakeholder groups makes the endeavours of ‘message managers’ even more futile.

    So just as ‘Total Football’ made the Catenaccio tactics of the 60s redundant in football http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catenaccio I predict ‘Total Communications’ will make the defensive tactics of ‘man-to-man marking’ and the ‘liberos’ redundant in communications.

    And, for some, that’s just not cricket.

  3. commscrum says:

    I would never want to be seen as anti-semantic (which also ties into why I’m an Ajax supporter–for any club whose hooligans fight under the Israeli flag is not one I’d ever want to oppose).

    Generalism vs. “cross-code” specialism is a fine line–but there is a line there. It’s line between “some cross-functional awareness, good teamly intentions and sense of the greater good” and “having a deep understanding of why internal comms has been done differently from investor relations for 100 years.”

    Why is this important? Because if we are to truly integrate organizational communication, and if we want to be among those who lead that integration, there needs to be deep, empathetic understanding of what is to be integrated. Otherwise, we could do for organizational communication what Greece is doing for the Euro.

    Mike Klein–The Intersection

  4. It will take very special people to do this. People who understand how Corporate Reporting works, and ensuring links to CR are not just greenwashing … but who can also intelligently discuss Drivers of Employee Engagement with the employee survey army, then walk into a meeting and goe toe-to-toe with Corporate Brand about ensuring key customer facing employees know how to be brand ambassadors, and then make sure HR links the performance planning system to values and the business strategy. Off to lunch with the CIO to discuss enhancing the intranet and aligning social media efforts, then back in the afternoon to brief a design agency on creating a game to help engage three functions across 100 Local Operating Companies in a change programme, and finally the last meeting of the day is reviewing the CEOs speech and presentation at a conference.

    And I mean – to be able to do all these things with credibility and gravitas.

    • Yes, definitely Kevin. I think your comment points to another important and under discussed skill for internal/employee communicators. Process facilitation.

      Lindsay your notion of the whole systems team resonates. Sometimes/rarely if this conversation is any indicator the structure supports us and that’s great. I had that experience at Bombardier Aerospace my position [internal comms] reported jointly to VP HR and VP Corp Comms – no dotted line. It really was jointly and sometimes very challenging because of that. And, our Comms team had internal, media, pr, and marketing comms in one group. It worked beautifully.

      Beyond structure proximity is also extremely helpful. In the case of Bombardier Aerospace my office was literally next door to the VP HR and VP Comms. Surrounded by the Corp Comms team. And just down the hall from Strat Planning and Finance. If we should get close to any two functions, I’d suggest these two are pretty key. Certainly in my experience they were great early warning signals for the organization. And every now and then we could actually feed into the decision making process…

      Credibility and gravitas and the right informal networks!

  5. commscrum says:

    Meanwhile, the job postings these days are a minefield of requests for “professionals with strong intranet content management experience and excellent PowerPoint skills.”

    Mike Klein–The Intersection

  6. Maybe we should do someting like this – http://www.tbwagroup.be/


  7. Karl says:

    If you just talk about skills then the frequently banded about T-shape person makes sense. A deep understanding of a specialist area together with an awareness and base level in other aspects.

    Internal Comms is dead, long live internal comms.

    Like the media in the real world (?), people are subverting the professionals because in many cases they can’t be trusted (or lost trust) and the rumour mill is older than the wheel – it’s much more efficient, or rather there are more efficient ways to make use of it.

    The job has changed, the world has changed, we can no longer rely on being the only voice an employee hears.. you all mention that. We just need to adapt with the times. Not sure it is such a big deal?

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