Monthly Archives: June 2010

Where HR, Communication and Marketing (and others) meet

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Canary Wharf (‘from the belly of the beast’)

It’s been interesting to be both participant in, and observer of, the changes that have taken place across the functional disciplines in the “people” space over 20 years spent with organisations around the world.  Through business cycles, management fads, technology and generational change the rough and tumble among human resources, brand, marketing, corporate and internal communication has seen the territorial boundaries shift relentlessly.

And never so much as in recent years.  With cost-cutting driven to the limit in most industries, attention has shifted to the “people agenda” as a source of value creation and efficiency gain.  Harvard Business Review and The Economist (among others) have recently put it in the Top 3 drivers of strategic growth.  Suddenly “people practitioners” have found themselves in the spotlight, rubbing elbows with leaders and other functions.  The antiquated notion of individual functions having sole ownership for “captive” audiences internally or externally has become risible in all but the most Neolithic of companies.

While some organisations probably believe they have tackled the “multi-disciplinary” approach, few have gone far enough in truly sharing accountability and ownership – often, it would seem, because of the lack of political will to elevate certain functions above others in the real or perceived organisational hierarchy. People might be our most valuable asset in the annual report – but for heaven’s sake hold fire on actually doing anything about it in the organisational structure.

When else has the profession had more of a mandate, or had more evidence, to make important, meaningful and value-adding contributions to corporate brand strategy?  Employer reputation management (erm, that’s PR isn’t it)?  Driving organisational process and behaviour change (management consultant, anyone?); Brand engagement (marketing) and internal communication?  Aligning, motivating and recognising individual and team performance to the business strategy?  Ensuring we are attracting and help retain and inspire the right people – nowadays using tools that virtually ignore print and are driven by SEO, face to face and social media (IT expert?).

The biggest barrier facing us is our own behaviours.  We often don’t challenge structures, systems, beliefs and practices about the role of communication or indeed what it “is”.  This isn’t going to result in anything other than doing more of what we already do – a little bit better.  Competence might look professional, but we must go further.

As Geoff Barbaro says – try to find any area of business endeavour (or life) that doesn’t require communication.

It’s understandable: the core principal of 20th century business management is division of labour amongst specialists.  This is part and parcel of dividing work into manageable chunks, but as professionals we shouldn’t accept this status quo anymore.  We can, and should, act as the glue that holds the whole thing together and gives it its shape.

Of course we still need communication competence.  “It’s all about communication.”  But it’s also about rising to the occasion and taking employee communication into the “new world” of being a vibrant and effective strategic management discipline.  We’ve spoken about it for years, an ambition whispered sotto voce from the wings. But today more than ever it’s about confidence, raising our game and rising to the occasion.  I see no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to have 5 Communication Directors promoted to Chief Executive roles in the FT100 in the next 10 years.

Because there has never been a better moment to jump, unapologetically, into the driver’s seat – or at least ride shotgun.

Mike Klein–Commscrum en transition

Well said, Kevin.  But I’d go farther.  I don’t just think that we’ve reached a point where the contributions of “communicators” and “people specialists” is at its most needed and welcome.  I think we may indeed be at a real tipping point, where the very value of the organizations we work for is to be determined by how well we create context  as well as content.

For many years, the “real work” of business was all about the content–the products, the processes used to make the products, and the skill with which the resources (financial, mineral, vegetable and animal) were deployed to make the products.  Leadership, such as it was, was all about a combination of resource management skills combined with force of will.

We’re on the verge of something different.  Does that mean communicators are about to waltz into the C-Suite?  Not waltz.  But as business realizes the fundamental, intrinsic importance of context, we’re going to play in a couple of pivotal ways.

First,  we’re going to need to make our bosses as good as we are about this stuff–as vigilant about using language, as passionate about telling stories, as resonant with a room full of shift workers as with a room full of stock analysts.  That’s going to be difficult–we will have to make ourselves their peers, and that will require hard learning and hard work.

The second bit will be easier and more fun.  It will require defining, shaping and unfolding organizational narratives that leaders, staff, customers and other stakeholders will need to see themselves in.  These narratives will be as vital in industrial business-to-business organizations as they will be in fast food, fashion, or footwear.  If context is critical, we will be in the position to initiate in a way that our friends and rivals at the table cannot conceive.

Will that turn the tables? Who knows–but it’s a more interesting place than anywhere we’ve been in the last couple of decades.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Netherlands

For where I sit, the challenge here may not be about agreement or willingness to bridge the potentially linking disciplines – it is about the ‘AND’ issue.   What I mean here is that people find it difficult to concentrate on mastering their own disciplines AND simultaneously master the ‘common ground’ piece too.

This is a notorious challenge – particularly in leadership, I understand, where leaders find it tough for example, to deliver now AND think of the long term; to manage costs AND invest in people.  These seemingly opposing forces need to find a tension that works.  Similarly, being passionate about carrying something forward AND sharing it with others is a contrast:  it’s about ownership.

Only people who seem to have developed positive working relationships seem to be able to find this happy tension – doesn’t it say more about the need for team building?

Dan Gray – donning his scrum-cap in Riyadh

For me, the killer point in this post is the point about the biggest barriers to progression being our own behaviours. IMNSHO, this can’t be emphasised enough.

I’ve already posted a link to this on a previous comments thread – a really great piece by Warren Levy on CSR Wire.

It’s his observations on the interconnectedness of today’s world that really resonate – i.e. the reason we should be so concerned about companies’ unethical behaviour is because that behaviour is no longer only a risk to them; it now has the capacity to endanger everyone (as per the domino effect of the recent financial crisis).

It’s precisely this interconnectedness that should be driving our thinking as communicators. Business success depends like never before on collaboration, which puts communication at the heart of success.

But grasping that opportunity requires us to demonstrate a great deal more than just communication competence, and goes way beyond the merely “multi-disciplinary” (rather than truly integrative thinking, that’s just a larger group of people, each still with their particular biases and turf to protect!).

It all comes back the very first post I wrote here on the CommScrum about the need to be more “T-shaped”. Like the evolution from design to Design Thinking, we should be joining our creative confreres in directing our finely-honed empathic skills and audience understanding to helping organisations see round corners.

That’s what’ll see comms folk in the comfy chair in the CEO’s office – realising that our true value and potential lies less in the artefacts we create than it does in the thought processes that we follow, and their application to a damn sight more than just communication (back to Geoff’s point again!).


IABC at 50: The View from Cape Town

(The following is lifted from a fictional [?] 3 June 2020 copy of the Wall Street Journal purloined from the Time Travel exhibit at the Ontario Space Centre in Toronto during this week’s IABC World Conference)

CAPE TOWN:  In what has become the world’s most-covered business gathering since it supplanted the World Economic Forum in the number of press credentials requested last year, the International Alliance for Business Communication (IABC) convened its 50th annual World Conference amid unprecedented interest in communication as the central discipline of successful enterprises worldwide.

“When I came to my first IABC World Conference in 2010, IABC and business communicators were facing great opportunity–but scared to walk away from our roots.  We wanted to be good at serving, and afraid to be good at leading.  Baby, we’ve come a long way.”

So said Intel CEO Jerry Schultz, recipient of the Alliance’s Exceed Award, given to communication professionals who have risen to major leadership positions in global enterprises.  Schultz, 43, credited a key decision by IABC leaders in 2010 to treat its mission and its business objectives as related but separate challenges, as the catalyst for the Alliance’s spectacular growth, and ultimately a shift in the self perception of the communication profession into one capable of leading major enterprises.

“When I started out, we worked for the accountants, technology folks and finance people.  Now, more and more and more, around the world, they are working under our leadership.  There was never an 11th commandment that said ‘Thou shalt work for bean counters.’  It’s not about ‘proving our value to management’ any more.  Now, more of us communicators are the ones in the front of the table, and we are connecting, engaging and mobilizing people for growth, change and sustainability on a previously unimaginable scale.”

Such accomplishments, along with 900% membership growth over the last decade, were indeed unimaginable for IABC in 2009, when, buffeted by the last recession, the organization was losing members to social networks and found its international growth prospects hemmed in.  The time for pottering around the edges of an outmoded model and philosophy had clearly come to an end.

“We stabilized ourselves in 2009-2010, but quickly recognized that our audience and our members were not interested in a stable association.  They needed to become dynamic, no easy task in a group that saw itself less as a movement and more as a family,” said IABC President-Emeritus Julie Freeman.  “We had to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realised that focussing on the status quo would be the road to extinction.”

“The transformation of communicators from corporate servants to corporate leaders directly paralleled IABC’s own transformation from a North America-focused association of 15,000 into an alliance incorporating national and online communication networks – as well as several related associations in the PR and HR arenas such as PRSA, CIPD and others – with more than 200,000 advocates worldwide,” said Prof. Eb Banful of the Kellogg-Medill School at Northwestern University near Chicago, the first of several merged business and communication faculties at leading institutions.  “As the grumblings about ‘why don’t we get a seat the table’ shifted to a mission to bring communication  and communicators to the head of that table, it caused IABC to rethink and reject its core business assumptions.  The power of communication in all fields of human endeavour prevailed over discipline-specific territorialism, and’it’s all about communication’ became the new mantra for many of our high flying students.”

Current IABC President Rob Briggs of London was at first skeptical.  “We were great as an association–we had a dedicated membership, great camaraderie and great events.  But when we really saw this opportunity, we took bold decisions like reducing membership dues 90%, shifting to a sponsor-based financial model, and focusing on building the world’s best business audience.  We built it, and they came.”

And it’s not just ‘communicators’ who jumped on the bandwagon — indeed, slots and seats were at a premium in Cape Town.  The 3,000 Delegates, selected by their peers, received free travel and perks from sponsors seeking coveted access to their networks and enterprises.   Key sessions, such as tonight’s keynote debate between UN Secretary General Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the finals of the Gold Fibre Awards are boom-casted to member gatherings around the globe.

“After the dues reduction, the scariest decisions were to integrate our chapters outside North America with those of local associations who then became Alliance partners, and to spin off our accreditation program,” said former IABC Chair Mark Schumann, who set IABC’s redefinition in motion.  “We moved the action close to a broader audience.”

“But the benefits of those decisions drove a surge in membership and advocacy, a deepening of our global reach and our global connections, and the development of a credential that became attractive to business leaders from other disciplines seeking to demonstrate their communication bona fides.  Indeed, the ABC began to become a sought-after credential not unlike the MBA at the turn of the century, and was integrated into curricula at schools like Kellogg-Medill.”

Where does IABC go from here? “We still need to raise our game,” said Briggs.  “When business realized that communication was the world’s real currency, it started to welcome communicators to the top table.  But organizations communicate not just through their leaders, missions and performance.  Governance, ownership structures, and balancing shareholder and stakeholder interests are now things we’re being asked for answers about.  But these are challenges we are happy to face.”