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!).


15 thoughts on “Where HR, Communication and Marketing (and others) meet

  1. Adam Hibbert says:

    Er, why?

    To me, the vision of Communicators as CEOs is a red-herring of epic proportions – a misreading of what’s appropriate to each function, what’s possible *and* what’s desirable.

    Picture the scene: Mr & Mrs [Organisation] spend some time with Keohane Marriage Guidance Associates. After several frustrating sessions, their therapist declares “oh, for goodness sake, you’re never going to get this right. I’ll play the husband from here on in.” …

    ewww …

    btw, on the question of the failure of organisations to redistribute influence, btw, according to one study, which despite the title takes in 50 years of organisational evidence [Heller F (1998) Influence at work: A 25-year program of research, Human Relations, Vol. 51(12) p.1425] the ‘major explanation’ of the failure to distribute influence is ‘resistance to changing power distributions through what are perceived to be zero-sum games’.

  2. Dan Gray says:

    To echo your previous Star Wars references, Adam, “I find your lack of faith disturbing”. 🙂

    I wouldn’t be so quick to pooh-pooh the idea of communicators as CEOs. Why shouldn’t we have designs on that?

    The current hegemony of beancounters in the C-suite is founded on industrial-age thinking, which has always placed operational efficiency, cost management etc. at the forefront of business thinking, but the world is changing.

    It’s not so long ago that design (rather like communications) was seen as predominantly about aesthetics and the creation of artefacts – putting a fancy set of clothes on the decisions of others (in some circles it still is).

    Yet look at the phenomenal success of Apple, particularly over the last decade. People may wax lyrical about Steve Jobs as Apple’s messiah, but the real secret of their success lies in the hands of a certain design genius, Mr Jonathon Ive.

    He’s the guy riding shotgun, as Kevin puts it, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he were offered the top job, if ever Jobs decided to wander off again.

    If designers can make it to these heady heights, then why not communicators?

  3. Kevin says:

    I think as well that “it depends.” Could/should a communicator lead in one kind of industry or company and not another? Certainly. But, again given the CommScrum mantra of joined-up thinking and confidence over competence, it’s not at all a red herring. Martin Sorrell (an accountant) leads WPP. Yet Publicis’ Maurice Levy came from IT. It’s not too far a leap from that to communications, above and beyond the references Dan makes…

  4. […] emotions first flared while I was reading the latest post over at Commscrum – they’re talking about the current environment for communicators and their role in the […]

  5. Mary Boone says:

    I am THRILLED to see references to design, complexity theory, and multi-disciplinary approaches to communication. I feel like I’ve stumbled across water in the desert.

    I think that increased need for collaboration and a shift to what some of the big consultancies are now calling a “relationship” economy will put communication in more in the forefront in the coming years. I just wrote a couple of paragraphs about this http://connect-inform-engage.blogspot.com/ Also, sustainability is going to drive the need for more collaboration because of scare resources. Not only will we need to share to succeed, we’ll need to share to survive.

    And yes, I agree totally with Dan that there will be more CCOs moving into CEO slots as collaborative communication becomes more central to the core value propositions of organizations.

  6. Dan Gray says:

    Going to one of Mike’s key points above, there’s a really nice quote from one of my former tutors, Eve Poole, in a recent FT article. Talking about her work with Tesco, using Ashridge’s Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP) she says:

    “Tesco are an interesting group with a strong culture. The participants are commercially sophisticated, but the simulation creates a community where traditional hierarchy or power structures don’t apply, so it is a real test of their raw influencing abilities.

    Like most leaders who excel operationally, this tends to be more stretching for them because success in the simulation tends to stem from personal impact rather than functional ability, as of course does leadership.”

    Amen, Eve!

  7. Adam Hibbert says:

    I’ll have a piece of that religion, too. BUT …

    I don’t think the parallels with Design (etc) hold for comms. This is not about a simple technical or aesthetic relationship. It’s about a relationship that’s charged with one of the most fundamental *oppositions* in human organisation: that between the ethical threads between human beings, on the one hand, and the often painful discipline of the market on the other.

    The evidence demonstrates that the world is *not* changing of its own accord, despite an admittedly thick wad of wishful thinking. Beancounters remain in charge, not because some dimwits have failed to catch on to our supposedly 21st century genius (first thoroughly documented by Follett in 1918), but because *no better control system* has yet been formulated, within organisations.

    Buckminster Fuller said something I believe to be true, that the only way to render something truly obsolete is to create something that is self-evidently better. I don’t believe we in the comms/engagement space have done that: if we had …

    • Dan Gray says:

      Not sure I follow you, Adam, as what you cite as the distinctions between comms and design are *precisely* the things I would cite as the parallels.

      The creative resolution of opposing ideas and constraints – and the fundamentally human-centred nature of the process – is exactly what Design Thinking is all about.

      If you’ve got a few mins to spare, check out one of my favourite TED talks by Tim Brown – http://bit.ly/grniG. (If you’re really strapped for time, jump straight to about 3 mins 55 seconds in.) Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

      • Adam Hibbert says:

        I’m profoundly suspicious of Design Thinking, which has all the hallmarks of another FOM, to my mind. I’ve had the privilege of working with Kevin McCullagh when he was running seymourpowell’s foresight unit, and I’d respect his judgement on this: ‘design thinking is a new story, not a new process’ http://tinyurl.com/ylfvsy6 .

        There isn’t a magic wand we can wave at the legitimacy crisis to vanish it away. Mistrust cannot be designed into extinction, unless what we mean by ‘design’ is ‘designing’ a regular human relationship into the organisation, ie, between all organisational participants.

        But you might as well call that ‘cocktail party thinking’ or ‘collaborative deliberation’ (ooh, er, *TM) or any of 1,000 possible FOM labels – when you get right down to it, that’s merely a *restatement of the problem*. None of it will magic away the powerful mistrust you experience as an employee, when your management request your engagement with the company, but find themselves unable to guarantee theirs to you. That’s not a design issue. It’s politics.

  8. Although I disagree, I would also point out that the Communicator as CEO is only a small part of the original posting. The point is that there has never been a better time to be part of influencing the direction of strategy.

    If I’m doing it, others must be too.

  9. commscrum says:

    And in keeping with my main current pre-occupation, the World Cup and the relative success of the land of my birth–the idea that “bean counters” remain in control “because no better control system has been developed” is interesting in football terms.

    Football is about the optimization of attack, defense and distribution. In corporate terms, “control” is about “defense”, but companies that are winning these days have adequate controls but much more effective attacking approaches than their competitors. Apple is obvious. Even Ryanair makes a great defense (cost and safety) into a great attack (price/seat availability).

    In non-consumer business, differentiation on defensive control-factors is unlikely to provide nearly as much scoring as an attack built around effective use of people, customer responsiveness and product leadership.

    All defense with no scoring=no winning.

    C’mon U.S.!!!!


  10. Adam Hibbert says:

    Interesting analogy, Mike – clarifies how you’re seeing the problem. To my mind, each of those three tasks is currently governed by the same control system. It’s always been the case that the system is applied with more ‘discretion’ in areas where the task is less clearly defined, more subject to circumstance and professional initiative. But it nonetheless provides the only known framework within which that good stuff can happen, sustainably.

    I’d resist seeing this as a negative. When humans organise, we need accountabilities. Despite the fact that the math can often seem inhumane, it does force us to focus on the stuff that adds value. It’s symptomatic of organisational life that we all yearn for a system of accountabilities that’s more fertile than the one we all know. But if wishes were horses …

  11. Heh there – from Jazz Festival week in Montreal

    And, what a riff this has been so far. Kevin, Mike, Lindsay and Dan – thanks as always for getting things started.

    Back to Kevin’s assertion that “there has never been a better time to be part of influencing the direction of strategy”, I’d agree. I left strategy design years ago because I found that the challenge of implementation was much more interesting and challenging [the human side] than the design side and because I found communications a much better place to influence strategy. Strange but true. Once you move to implementation it all gets very real.

    The past 5 years or so have been a more difficult story. Leadership here and I suspect around the world has lacked courage and imagination. The focus on survival – real or imagined [as in some big institutions [e.g. banks here] – has meant more financial metrics, more cost cutting and less human orientation to business.

    Whether we are on the cusp of a tipping point or an oscillation [this is a whole other story], if our profession is ready there will be much we can do to make a positive difference in the most senior leadership roles of our organizations.

    And, the question I have is as individuals and as a profession are we ready?

    Are we the people/function that you would vote most collaborative in any organization? Are we really the relationship people?

    We’re moving from message pushers and tools deliverers to story tellers and context creators. That’s good. But now can we become facilitators? Facilitators – of conversations and processes that help our organizations make better decisions not only in terms of day-to-day business, but in terms of other potential risks – governance, social, and environmental [yes Dan I’ve been listening].

    Can we get our heads out of our function and profession long enough to:
    – Listen to the real needs of our organizations and the people that work there
    – Get insight from other fields that can help us better understand what we do and discover how we might do it better?

    Yes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” [Pogo] The biggest barrier facing us is our own behaviours. Now what?

    More CommScrum please.

  12. Dan Gray says:

    One last riposte on thread 7 above…

    Whether DT is “new” or not completely misses the point – I mean, c’mon, Adam, citing Isambard Kingdom Brunel as an example of a great Design Thinker is a pretty clear indication that Tim Brown isn’t laying any claim to originality!

    The point isn’t whether it’s new or not. It’s whether it’s “of it’s time”, which I’d argue it absolutely is. Yes, it’s probably another example of the kind of oscillations that are always going on, but I’d guard against dismissing it as just a flash in the pan.

    A vast body of work from a great variety of sources (not just from the likes of Tim and Marty Neumeier, but from leading business school folks like Roger Martin), not to mention a very large, very diverse and very vibrant DT group on LinkedIn, would clearly suggest otherwise.

  13. Adam Hibbert says:

    “Of its time” … !?

    Dan, I suggested that Design Thinking may be a case of an FOM, a *fashionable* bit of management waffle which merely reposes the basic legitimacy problem in new clothes … and you jumped to its defence by pointing out that it’s very ‘now’, and everyone who’s anyone is into it …

    OK, you’ve convinced me!

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