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!).