Monthly Archives: July 2010

Clear boundaries or borderless and unlimited? What’s your view?

We’ve circled the wagons back at CommScrum’s increasingly virtual Global Headquarters and agreed that many previous CommScrum discussions have danced around the issue of self-imposed limitations, definitions and perceptions of what “employee” or “internal” comms is and isn’t.

Dan Gray – CommScrum Riyadh

Two broad camps appear to have emerged in the “glass ceilings” debate, shaped by people’s personal stylings of themselves – on the one hand, the dyed-in-the-wool siloed pragmatist as internal communicator; on the other, those of us of a more generalist disposition (among others Geoff, KK, Indy…) who might be accused of not colouring inside the lines.

Unsurprisingly, the former seems to take a rather more limited view of what communication is, what it’s for, and what the limit of our ambitions for the profession ought to be versus those of us of a more interdisciplinary orientation.

I find a recent comment by Alan Richardson very revealing – i.e. what makes the case for communicators as management consultant-types any more compelling than, say HR, L&D or OD? This perception of neatly drawn conceptual boundaries between disciplines is the crux of the problem, and (no disrespect to Alan) rather misses the point.

The point is that communications, viewed as a “meta-discipline” (in similar fashion to Design Thinking), is something that transcends and defragments all of these individual fiefdoms; and that this leap in mindset is a precondition of understanding the future leadership vision we have outlined in recent posts on the CommScrum.

Perhaps the two biggest “light-bulb” moments that have shaped my thinking in recent times have been:

1) The realisation that Marty Neumeier’s definition of a brand (people’s collective “gut feeling” about a company, what it does and how it does it) is virtually identical to Edgar Schein’s definition of where true organisational culture lies (i.e. at the level of tacit assumptions/preconscious beliefs about an organisation and how it functions). Brand and culture are essentially two sides of the same coin.

2) The realisation, similarly shaped by Schein, that what he describes as the “surface manifestations” of the culture (any number of touchpoints including stories, physical environment, structures/systems/processes) will always be infinitely more powerful in shaping people’s beliefs and attitudes than any explicit communications. (As we all know, it doesn’t matter a jot how beautifully articulated your values are, if bosses then go ahead and act in direct contravention of these supposedly treasured traits).

Both points come back to the fundamental question of authenticity, which, in our era of social communication and ever-diminishing trust in formal communication channels, is increasingly critical to business success.

The first point says you can’t view external and internal communications in isolation. Communications as meta-discipline embraces both as part of the same system.

The second point goes further, saying that you can’t view that system of communication as being independent of issues of strategy, structure etc. Communications consultancy (whether the source is internal or external) that doesn’t offer leadership on these questions can never be truly strategic. When was a strategy house like McKinsey or BCG ever engaged simply to “facilitate conversation”? Answer: never!

(Now throw in Geoff’s refrain that there isn’t a single field of human endeavour that doesn’t involve communications as a critical component.)

Join these things up, and you have created a powerful role for this new interdisciplinary animal as the most important leaders/guardians/curators of organisational authenticity – authenticity that connects tribes both inside and outside your organisation around an honest expression of what you stand for; that from an employee perspective, means that you attract the right people in the first place (for whom the right behaviours are second nature – no shoehorns required!); that those people stay (because the articulation of values and culture is demonstrably enshrined in strategy, structures and systems); that they become the most passionate advocates of the brand (waxing lyrical to their mates down the pub), so that when customers are asked to describe their impressions of the company, they add unsolicited to their reply: “…and I hear it’s a fabulous place to work.”

Bottom-line, we are entering (or have already entered, dependent on your view) an era where inside-out trumps outside-in; open and collaborative trumps closed and competitive; stakeholder value trumps shareholder value; wisdom of crowds trumps wisdom of experts; long-term sustainability trumps short-term profit maximisation; whole systems approaches trump functional silos; fast and fluid trumps slow and structured; multi-coloured trumps black and white; disruptive innovation trumps sustaining innovation; profound simplicity trumps complexity; Design Thinking trumps linear thinking… yada yada yada.

Now tell me what planet you’d have to be on in order for it to make sense to promote an accountant to shepherd their organisation through this era over someone with a background in interdisciplinary communication! Is there any reason why any of us so-inclined shouldn’t have ambitions on the C-suite?

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Paris  (Ah, the view from the Publicis Groupe building at 133 Champs Elysees.  C’est magnifique)

I agree of course in principle but I have to say “it depends.”  I’m not sure we’re in a world yet where many Boards and Shareholders would necessarily feel comfortable handing over the keys to someone with a “non-traditional” background.  I mean, would I  really want someone who is a walking encyclopaedia of internal communication academic studies, or a celebrated expert in using social media to engage stakeholders, anywhere near my board room table? No no no no.

On the other hand , it does work for some – say WPP, Omnicom, Publicis? WPP is run by an accountant, Publicis by a technologist/engineer and Omnicom by an ad man. Yet their market share and margins are all broadly comparable by and large so you can’t argue that commercial performance is affected – though having been at both WPP and Publicis I would certainly say corporate culture sure as hell is!  Would it work at say a big insurance company? Probably not.  But a professional services firm or IT organisation? Hmmn.. maybe.  We do see examples of larger corporates run by those with “less traditional” functional backgrounds – though many might have spend time in for example HR and Corporate Comms at some stage in their development (as general managers though and not often in a deeply technical role).  The issue is what value communication creates / can create / should create for the enterprise and the capability, track record and commitment of the individual in question.

I do believe, however, that we will see an increased emergence of non-traditional executives – not a sea change, but an emergence.  It’s already happening with numerous examples of HRDs in interim CEO roles; and CMOs sometimes taking up the reins as well.  One of the great things about being professional communicators is that you tend to *have to* hang around and learn different disciplines from IT to HR to Brand etc. to do your job well.  That cross-functional perspective will be increasingly valuable as a leadership skill in a complicated world – the days of 50% of CEOs being chartered accountants are numbered.

In terms of self-definition, for communicators, I also think a lot of it comes down to personal motivation and personal ambition.  I know plenty of intelligent, highly competent internal communicators who have no interest whatsoever in being a “leader” per se since being communicators is what they love.  Start talking balance sheets and margin and EBITDA and they run screaming into the hills.  Or they just aren’t that interested in the business of their business and would rather obsess about crisp copy, writing for the web and how to use social media to do more of what they do already (more of a problem, in my view).  So I guess my point is – for those communicators with the capability, the desire and commitment (thanks HBR) there is no reason why they couldn’t ascend to C-level roles and board responsibilities in FTSE100 firms.

Perhaps most importantly, at least to me, communicators with the capability and desire have almost an obligation to take opportunities to influence the strategic agenda of their organisation.  First, it’s what you they’re paid to do whether they want to admit it or not.  Second, it makes life more interesting and builds their value and skillset.  Third, it means they deliver more value and ROI if they do it half properly which is why we have companies in the first place.

In other words, there is no excuse for boring, more-of-the-same, poorly executed, strategically thin, firmly siloed communication in any business.  You might get away with it, but eventually it will catch up to you and someone else will take your job from you.  And you will deserve it.

Mike Klein–Commscrumming from Sarajevo, Bosnia (which may be the coolest city in all of Europe)

I think this argument misses the point–which is the extent to which communication (as opposed to finance or operations) has the ability to serve as an organization’s crucial source of competitive advantage.

Senior corporate leaders have long tended to come from control disciplines (accounting, engineering), and in recent years, finance (which has proven to be anything but a “control” discipline in the wake of the recent debacles in exotic securities.

But if you look at which disciplines are capable of achieving breakthrough results–of making 1+1=3, one is hard pressed to look outside of the communication disciplines.  If value is going to be constantly under attack from commoditization and digitization, having leadership focused on creating it rather than defending it may well make sense for all but the producers of the most physical and basic of the world’s commodities.  And even those players–who need to prove sustainability bona-fides to the branded businesses they supply, need to look to the communication disciplines as a core approach to defending their value.

Now, are all of today’s corporate leaders, business schools and institutional shareholders going to like this?  No.  But if Ford, for instance, is able to recognize that the value generated by its approach to social media is greater than that from its six-sigma lean manufacturing approaches, than watch out.

From Lindsay Uittenbogaard Commscrumming from Munich

Point 1 – it’s more about the perception of the role of communication:

Dan – I love your “light bulb” moments – and of course fully agree that with the breadth of communication possibilities being so vast, it would be small-minded to set out a pre-defined role for the communicator.   I too am an ‘out of the boundaries’ kinda person.    But to be the pragmatist 🙂 the perception of the role of the communicator is created when people see outputs and resultant change (referring to Dan’s point number 2 – the message is solidified by evidence, not words).

“What does communication actually ‘do’?”

“Oh, they do this, this and this. ..”

The more advanced will say, “and they were a part of x change because of their approach doing y and z.”

Top strategic level communicators can paint themselves all sorts of ‘outside the line’ concepts – but the implementation will always come down to something a little more sober, familiar – and as such, pigeon-holed.   Towards whatever clever desired outcome, communication work will probably always be involved in media / material / event production, messages, and the representation of concepts and information in one way or another.  That’s where people put us in their minds – regardless of their seniority.

However, as the inspired strategy turns into proven practice, the outputs – as observed – evolve…  as do the perceptions of the usefulness of those activities.    Our actions do define the perception of our role but few would say it has no limits…

Point 2 – Comms in the C-Suite?  It doesn’t fit – not just because of comfort but also because of relevance:

Kevin, I agree with the notion that communicators may not end up at the very top but will increasingly take on Executive roles because, I think Mike, this is the level at which the pursuit of finding more value falls.    The C-suite’s top priority isn’t about improving value via communication or six sigma – it’s about the fundamental mission of the organization, which is usually about money or market share and how to change something there.  Communication is a means, not a mission.

Take a dinosaur organization whose mission is to increase profit from a lousy low.  Sure, the communicator who wants to build their value and skill set, remain current, and do something truly majestic will want to escape from “boring, more-of-the-same, poorly executed, strategically thin, firmly siloed communication” (KK) and “influence the strategic agenda of their organisation” (KK).  But the heavy politics, inescapably pre-set agenda and laborious cost / programme / people cuts will take the heads in the Board Room away from creative communication – even though it can help a great deal.   It’s like thinking about fine, sugar-coated chocolate when you’re trying to eat dry peanut butter on thick brown bread.   Most people / sponsors just can’t do both at the same time and need to follow a hard, simple programme of a few key activities to stay focused.   Additionally, they will probably never have been exposed to the results of GREAT communication work before and so will never have seen the evidence of its the potential (back to Dan’s point 2) – so the C-suite will say they get it but won’t put their money and energy where their mouths are unless they are in a position to take a risk.

The CEO for this profit improving mission will definitely have risen from the traditional ranks – and rightly so.   In terms of making a direct and positive contribution to the realization of the business’ key strategic profit influencing activities  – dare I say it, the communicator would probably be a bit quiet at the table.  Instead, as an Executive, the communicator will likely get sponsorship to design and implement a digestible array of traditional communication activities to support the mission, which will probably suffice.  Given half the chance, the communicator might implement a kick-ass out of the box communication set of solutions that work a treat.  In terms of snakes and ladders – that would be our biggest ladder.

Take on the other hand, the forward thinking international organization who need to make a merger a big success in order to realize dramatic growth plans.   Let’s just hope the C-suite likes and trusts their Head of Communication, who just threw a six…

CommScrummers – a blog entitled “Context is King” was planned a few months ago but for some reason it didn’t surface.   The meaning in that was, that a good look at the business and its needs is required before any conclusions are drawn about where communication fits best.   Let’s not look at our theoretical potential, but at our real business challenges – and how we can work, one person at a time, to build the faith that will lead to evidencing what we think we are capable of achieving.

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Innovation – What’s Communication Got To Do With It?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard Commscrumming from the Netherlands

Here’s a bit of a rant….

Maybe it’s just the places that I’ve been hanging out in recently, but when a company strategy asks for innovation and the communication department is still mainly focused on improving alignment to strategy via mass media – I vomit.   Why? Because innovation isn’t something that people do sitting at their desks – it’s something that happens when people connect.

Many middle managers are still so preoccupied with trying to deliver to their main priorities alongside 200 emails a day that the cross-team collaboration piece that is so badly needed in order to generate innovation possibilities is fertile ground for the communicator.

Communication can support innovation by providing, for example:

  • events to stimulate new / hybrid solutions between departments,
  • knowledge sharing and social communication platforms to make  innovation fora and their content more globally accessible,
  • recognition for innovative developments that surface to encourage an increased innovation focus

…it’s a playground!

In other words, the narrow definition of communication as being simply a tool to broadcast messages of the Senior Leadership is still prevalent in many organizations, even when the requirement for people in the organization to communicate better / differently is being loudly broadcast by the communicators sending those messages.   Can you sense the ‘Grrrr’?   🙂

Are these kind of activities too close to the business for the high-level communicator?  Don’t communicators have the sponsorship?  How do business leaders imagine that ‘innovation’ will happen after the message is broadcast without this kind of intervention?

We’ve been here before on this topic – but the question I pose here now specifically on the topic of communication is: what will it take to move ‘organizational communication’ into more open, customized, fit for purpose spaces?

Rant over.  Looking forward to responses…

Mike Klein–Commscrum Prague

Here in Eastern Europe (where I’m on a brief visit), there’s a time-honored saying:  that one can easily love the taste of lamb but can’t handle the sight of blood.

It’s apt in this case.  A lot of folks in middle and senior places, having come up through the technical and financial ranks, now want all of the benefits that accrue from nurturing creative and flexible talent and the processes (like innovation and reciprocal communication) that such talent requires.

To a large extent, the discussion in the business world isn’t just about how to get the right talent and the benefits that come from having it–it’s about the undertone–how to do so with minimum shock and change to controlled, top-down, by-the-numbers cultures.

Like “bloodless” lamb at the supermarket, creative talent that can adapt to rigid cultures is available–at a price. Sometimes, that price is monetary, other times, that price is a willingness to accommodate slow change if one can play a major role in ultimately defining that change.

Ultimately–if the price of innovation is change, the challenge businesses will need to face is how to manage that change rather than now to avoid it.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London
Innovation is logically impossible in a vacuum (although Dyson was a great innovation as a vaccum).

The distinction to me is between the clicheed but nonetheless relevant “communication as a noun” and “communication as a verb” difference that lies in many ways at the heart of  the CommScrum movement.

With innovation, communication as a noun is necessary but not sufficient – it might support  “other people” doing innovation.  Don’t get me wrong, there is value in that,  particularly if you can make it work faster and better for your organisation.

But  as a verb it’s about “communicators/communication”  being participants in the innovation process.  (Note to self: don’t mention Design Thinking or one of our prolific commentators may feel compelled to remind us there is nothing new under the sun, change is impossible and a 1876 study said all this already).

You can innovate simply by bringing communication as a verb into the conversation, since communication is not traditionally a part of numerous business conversations.  And you will help the business perform better – particulary when it comes to brand, positioning and business strategy.  That leads to changes in organisational structure and processes et voila.

Dan Gray – strapping up his cauliflower ears in Riyadh

Not sure I have a great deal to add, except to pick up where KK leaves off on the point of systems and processes.

Pick up a copy of The Discipline of Market Leaders by Treacy and Wiersema. Look at how organisations that excel at innovation actually structure themselves. The point is that rigid hierarchy, top-down management and “tell and sell” approaches to communication, still so prevalent in many organisations, is fundamentally at odds with the loose-knit structures and person-to-person communication systems that are the hallmarks of innovative companies.

As a profession, we have to have the confidence to raise our game and advise on this “Organisational Design” piece – to deal with the underlying systems and processes of communication (the verb) as well as the craft of communication (the noun).

Actually, as said prolific commentator has already identified, what’s implicit in these systems and processes carries far more weight, and is therefore infinitely more valuable, than any explicit communication.