Are we just Talking Heads on a road to nowhere?

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Queensway

PWC’s 2011 Global CEO Survey puts the talent agenda – that is, branding, acquiring, inspiring, developing, mobilising people – as the number one issue that will result in driving change & growth in 2011-2012.  Clearly, employee engagement and communication are at the heart of all of this.  The Economist Intelligent Unit Companies at a Crossroad report says the same thing. McKinsey Quarterly focuses on Organisational Health as a source of competitive advantage. Again, processes aside, it’s all about communication.

The IABC Research Foundation publishes a study telling us that the economic downturn has had an effect on budgets, manager communication is important, email (83%) and intranets (75%) are key channels, social media is catching on, and people use surveys to measure employee opinion.

OK, I know, I seem to bash IABC a lot, but honestly it’s in the way that you get frustrated when someone you love acts like a complete idiot and embarrasses themselves time after time, when you know their heart is in the right place.  Really – take that report off the site and hide it, and refund its cost pro rata to members.  For environmental reasons if nothing else.

But really, we might as well take the word BUSINESS out of the organisation’s title.  Because we just don’t talk business, it seems, in IABC content anymore.  Measuring business isn’t business.  Surely the IABC study should be about how communication and engagement can deliver all these growth imperatives for leading businesses; strategies and tactics for how business communicators can be the drivers of these critical success factors.  Instead … well, read the report if you can stomach it.

IC needs to start thinking in C-suite terms.  I’m not saying we should all aspire to be CEOs or CFOs, but at least think in terms of how what we do delivers the stuff that CEOs need (and it isn’t about the tactics, though we seem relentlessly committed to staying in that comfort zone).  The irony is that, in my experience, these conversations are easier at C-level anyway since you save all the insecure, jargon-littered territorial pissing across functional silos.

Sigh. Thoughts?

Dan Gray – CommScrum West Brompton

Plus ca change (as your Publicis masters in Paris would say), n’est-ce pas?

I find myself looking back to our very first CommScrum ruck and, in particular to Mark Schumann’s comment on it – how the communication world he entered bore little resemblance to the one we’re in now, and about how IABC was in the process of kicking off a major piece of research to get to grips with the consequences.

Judging from your links above, the results of that exercise don’t appear to have born much fruit, do they?! (“We’ve learned from our mistakes, as a result of which we can now repeat them exactly!”)

Looking back over those words, I think I can see part of the reason why. Just look at the wording of the purpose of the research…

…so we learn, firsthand, what it takes for a professional association to be relevant, and to deliver value that professionals consider essential. [emphasis added]

i.e. not the essential function of communication in a changing business context, but specifically the function of communication associations; not guided by what business leaders / employees / customers / investors / communities consider to be communication’s essential contribution to their lives and livelihoods, but by what its own existing member base thinks about what they need. Go figure if all that’s farted out is more of the same. (Not meant as an ad hominem attack on Mark, btw – far from it – rather the inertia seemingly brought about by a counterproductive, narrow-minded interest in self-preservation on the part of the wider institution.)

Look, we all know what needs attention and why – perhaps best articulated by Mary Boone in her great comment on our ‘glass ceilings’ debate a while back.

My one overriding thought on all of this is that it’s a bit like the debacle at Copenhagen last year. If that taught us anything it’s that, if you believe that something has to be done urgently to tackle the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change, population growth and diminishing resources, there ain’t much point in waiting on politicians to take the lead. You have to just get out there and do what you already know needs to be done.

In the same vein, it’s time for us to forget about what professional associations are or aren’t doing (they’re always going to be behind the curve) and just get on with doing it ourselves.

Commscrummer Lindsay Uittenbogaard in The Netherlands

I guess there’s only so much theorizing you can do about internal comms without it needing to be backed up by good practice before we can justify moving to the next level. And this discipline doesn’t seem to be getting to that next level, judging by the level at which the content in those reports is pitched. In fact, if we’re going to be darned depressing about it, sometimes it just feels like we are going backwards, in a catch 22.

Our work can only as good as the leaders we support (through their enablement, sponsorship and leadership) – and leadership appreciation of communication – has that stepped up? And just like other support functions – IT, Finance – people only notice when it’s not working: let’s face it IC will never reach 100% effectiveness. And then there’s the reciprocation angle – communication is a two way street – does IC have participation or is it met with auto-delete? Well I guess all that comes down to how good your work is – which takes some time to cultivate in your own unique working context.

So you need time, skill, management patience, management comms appreciation and talent, management sponsorship, a forgiving yet open culture, and a budget. So the odds are on that most of us are going to fail… perpetuating the lack of management patience, comms appreciation and talent, sponsorship: hence the catch 22. On the other hand, those who can stomach this as a backdrop and succeed can take it all. So I don’t want to bash IABC, I think they’re just pitching at a level where most IC professionals are still working.

By the way – although I agree with you, Kevin – measurement is business – a part of it at least.

Mike Klein: Commscrumming away in the land of the almost-midnight sun

We’re not on a road to nowhere.  Neither is IABC, though the road they are taking to satisfy their middle-market constituencies leaves them vulnerable to some criticism.  But I do believe that old-school, broadcast, channel-focused internal communication is in the process of a downgrade.

Increasingly, business success is dependent on smaller groups of people with bigger impact.  As this is shifting external communication away from a pure focus on press relations, it is shifting internal communication away from an emphasis on broadcast media and dutiful measurement.

Both kinds of work will still be necessary, but seen as more implementational and junior than it has been in recent years. In contrast, the drive for “social business” continues apace, and may well be where practitioners are seen as having the highest value-add, particularly if they show a penchant for identifying and mobilising high-value audiences and constituencies as opposed to just being able to maintain a suite of online accounts.

Sure that’s a long way from IABC’s current research, but it’s also a way from where the newly enlightened communication converts of McK and PwC sit as well.    It’s nice at a certain level that the management consultancies recognise what we recognised about organisational communication years ago, but it will be interesting to see if they have any intention to staff up or skill up professionally, or simply to blag their way into the business with amateur skills and a dated approach.  Indeed, it would be very interesting to see if anyone at McK or PwC might find the IABC research useful?


21 thoughts on “Are we just Talking Heads on a road to nowhere?

  1. kevinkeohane says:

    Mike, I think you’ve sort of missed the point. Of course anyone would agree that “old-school, broadcast, channel-focused internal communication is in the process of a downgrade” — yawn — old news.

    Frankly, “social media” has pretty much bypassed many IC people while they were going to conferences to learn more about how to use “social media” to implement old-school, broadcast, channel-focused internal communication.

    My point was that if you look at what communication associations, by and large, were saying and doing 10 years ago, vis a vis what business strategy consultancies and digital agencies (for example) were saying and doing 10 years ago, it’s pretty self-explanatory. I think Dan nailed it in his riposte.

    Contrast this with the typical responses these sorts of posts get on various internal comms/ employee engagement fora (including LinkedIn) and it’s pretty clear that what you call “middle market” is in fact “best practice” — award-winning at that.

  2. Sean Trainor says:

    @KK I think comparing Professional Associations with Big 4 Consultancies is a bit ‘apples and pears’ and there is something very self-fulfilling and self-indulgent about all the research cited (and the rest). I’d love some impartial research to be commissioned that makes the linkages you mention Kevin. Research that brings together collective thinking from the sadly disconnected worlds of academics, consultants, practitioners and business leaders. I’m hoping it will be a key outcome from Macleod phase 2 and I’ve already planted that seed.

    Until such time, well done the boys and girls at PwC and McK for making the case. I’m not convinced that comms people (or Associations) are the right people to influence the c-suite. I actually believe that most of the c-suite ‘get it’ more than most comms people. On top of that they absolutely get their business.

    I was discussing this with a Chairman of a major organisation last week and he was quoting all sorts of best practice from his peer group. Having served as CEO for a handful of blue chips in his career, there was a tint of envy amongst his plaudits. Without exception, the best work (in his opinion) was being done in private companies that didn’t have a board to answer to. “If only I had that privilege” he said.

    Maybe the influence would be better served at the NED table?

    • Dan Gray says:

      Really interesting point about becoming NEDs, Sean. Funnily enough, my father wrote about just that a couple of months ago (albeit from the perspective of a designer but, heh, we’re all creative professionals, right?).

      See the second post down on his Product Design + Innovation blog here –

    • kevinkeohane says:

      @Sean. Hmmn. Sometimes the nature of the question determines the nature of the response I suppose … I don’t see it as apples and pears at all, both parties are trying to establish thought leadership around a topic for clients they serve. A matter of taking a slightly less functionally-focussed perspective perhaps?

      • Sean Trainor says:

        With all respect Kevin, I think there is a massive difference between Consultancies and member Associations (whatever their function). Both have an element of thought leadership in their remit but I would argue that it is neither group’s core function. There is also a big difference between serving clients and engaging members. If members are looking for tactics to help their professional development and less thought leadership then what’s the problem? A large proportion of income for the Big 4 comes from running tactical, analytic projects. I don’t see them complaining.

    • kevinkeohane says:

      Fair enough and all true, but this still doesn’t negate the value of comparing the way these different organisations choose to investigate and present their TL. Again, whether its selling BPR or Best Practice comms, it’s about how the issue is framed. I thought communications management was by and large about helping solve business issues. The communication disciplines, to me, are just a range of specialist tools in the arsenal. In my opinion, associations are way too far on one side of the continuum.

      Maybe we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

      • Sean Trainor says:

        I agree with everything you say Kevin. There are associations like the Managing Partners Forum and Corporate Executive Council that look at things more from the business/sector perspective and I think that is very healthy. I am the strongest advocate of communications for business sake not the other way around. I can only speak for CIPR, but we actually rely on our members to shape the agenda, not the other way around. If members want debates on hyphens (which they dont BTW) then who am I? Associations are only as strong as their members’ involvement. That involvement can be frustratingly passive at times, so progress is slow. Ho-hum. But I would like to think that some small incremental steps are being made.

  3. Thoughtful comments, all! As someone who’s an affiliator (I’ve lost track of how many organizations I belong to), I’ve become extremely troubled by several of my professional associations. We’re caught up in minutia rather than addressing the complex challenges of the day and anticipating how to help leaders and ourselves deal with emerging issues.

    Later this week I’m launching a survey to assess the current and future state of strategic communication advisors as I couldn’t find any good current data.

    I’m also experiencing so much more sophistication about communication-related issues inside organizations at all levels than I saw a few years ago. If IC staff members and our professional organizations continue talking mostly to ourselves and measuring only what we’re doing, we’re going to become dinosaurs.

    • Sean Trainor says:

      I believe some good academic research was presented at Bledcom last weekend, including a study that demonstrates a strong correlation between organisations that prioritise employee communications and business performance. Might be worth a look.

  4. Adam Hibbert says:

    Communications Executive Council are popping in next week to walk us through their (unsadly, well connected) report on building a change-ready organisation. It’s precisely the kind of material, practical and transformative input the IABC et al *could* be producing if they knew what their homework was – crunchily illustrated with case studies, profoundly underpinned by a grasp of what the challenge and the opportunity looks like in today’s corporate machine, with the right context and the right data to unlock doors. I am deeply indebted to my employer for paying the CEC sub.

  5. This debate ignores that fact that newborns do not arrive in the world as full-fledged highly skilled strategic communicators with an army of tactical automatons to implement their enlightened plans. Acquiring the professional skills necessary to serve the C-suite is a long apprenticeship. One of the major contributions of the professional associations is to facilitate that journey.
    The associations can engage in all the high-brow thought leadership all they want; if they don’t help people acquire the right skills to bridge between strategy and tactics, then it’s all a lot of hot air or what one of my profs at Université Paris Dauphine delicately calls intellectual auto-delectation.
    To take the example I know best, there is a lot of movement behind-the-scenes at IABC to make this career progression more explicit and more robust. That includes developing a master curriculum and lifelong learning points (rather than one-off accreditation) and bringing the Research Foundation closer to the core strategy of the association and its members’ daily concerns. I imagine that similar processes are underway at other professional associations. Associations are unwieldy things, dependent on mobilizing volunteer resources, and thus not able to turn around in the blink of an eye.
    At the same time, I don’t think I’d like a world where the communications profession was defined solely by consulting firms. After all, as much as they may contribute, they are not disinterested parties: much of their thought leadership has a marketing motivation. That’s fine, but it could mean that they ignore useful, even necessary, but non-lucrative topics.

    • kevinkeohane says:

      Hi Kristen, Really good points and ones that I fully support, and I am not saying the big consulting firms should define the profession. Just the same, my point is in line with yours: What can associations learn from the PWCs et al (and of course others) to have a more broad-based and whole-systems view on communications and its role in markets, businesses, and communities? How can we make sure that when the newbies are building their skill sets, competences and (more importantly) confidence that they don’t get brainwashed along the way by “institutionalised” thinking that incrementally getting better at tactical skills will net strategic skills. I’d love to see a world where that happens in parallel with building more strategic, and dare I say commercial, ways of thinking?

      Also, just in passing, isn’t it interesting that in classic IABC mode this thinking is happening, as you say, “behind the scenes”. Surely engaging the widest possible range of the professional community to co-create the solution would add value, rather than a small number of “experts” unexposed to a deeper marketplace of ideas and approaches?

      Interestingly, your observation that their (or anyone’s) Thought Leadership has “marketing motivation” illustrates the point markedly.

      • Dan Gray says:

        100%, KK. Love your observation in passing, btw. Not for the first time, the phrase “physician heal thyself” springs to mind!

    • Sean Trainor says:

      I wouldn’t like a world where all communicators were strategic or aspired to have a strategic role….Or maybe I would….There certainly would be a lot less of them, and we wouldn’t need Associations, publications, events or industry research, a weekly conference call would be suffice (but who would arrange the call and take the minutes?)

      • kevinkeohane says:

        Sure thing Sean – and I guess wouldn’t like a world where all communicators deliver reams of tactical stuff that is not remotely aligned to achieving what their organisation is really trying to accomplish. spending its time measuring whether email or intranets are the best channel and regaling each other in hour-long debates on whether anal-retentive has a hyphen/

    • commscrum says:

      Well said, Kristen…

      Mike Klein

  6. Dan Gray says:

    @sean – you flatterer you! (re your comment under 2 above)

  7. Sean Trainor says:

    @KK I worked for a Chairman (ex-FD) who got excited if the hyphen was too long on his press releases (I’ve still never worked out the random assignment Word makes to the size of hyphens)
    So, I guess there are anal-retentives (is there a hyphen?) in every profession (and at every level), so why should comms be different?

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