Dan Gray – CommScrum London
We, the “scrum forwards” at CommScrum virtual HQ, figured it was time for a bit of a refresh by bringing some of our favourite chums onboard as guest bloggers. To kick things off, it falls to me to tee up Deb Hinton, Geoff Barbaro, Indy Neogy and Mary Boone, several of whom have been kind enough, in past comment threads, to say a fair bit about their backgrounds and past incarnations.
Going to KK’s killer slide in a recent DTIM post, it’s interesting to me at least that most of us have tended to follow a slightly circuitous route into organisational comms, and/or it only forms part of a much broader philosophy/skill set around human-centred approaches to strategy and value creation – and that, maybe because of that, we don’t share so many of the hang-ups and baggage concerning communicators’ “rightful place”.
We figured that was worth delving into a bit more, with reference (for a change) to folks other than Kevin, Mike, Lindsay and me. So – Deb, Geoff, Indy, Mary – it’s over to you to pack down for the first of what will hopefully be many guest scrums…
Geoff Barbaro – Melbourne, Australia
With the CommScrum forwards doing the hard work to set an outstanding foundation, it seems to be time for the backs to do the showy, flashy finishing. Thanks for the opportunity and the hard work. Our brief, if I’ve got this right, is to deal with the theme of hammer thinking in the context of our backgrounds, context being key as it were.
So we start with thinking like a hammer. If you apply a label like “internal communications” you get trapped by that label and miss the real impact and possibilities of your work. My belief is that labels, by their very nature, are limiting and often dangerous.
I had this smashed into my brain, smashed through my arrogance, lack of self-awareness and immaturity, by people who, as a group, are often labelled as the most disadvantaged people in Australia.
In the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to help the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The members of our Indigenous Communities were dying in police and prison custody at much faster rates than any other people and this became a major issue as the 200th anniversary of the “settlement” of Australia approached.
I felt proud to be part of this, to be able to help the people who I felt were being discrimated against, who needed to be given our help, including education, decent housing and health assistance, as well as protection from police and prison guards who didn’t understand them.
I was thinking like a hammer. I was thinking like a blunt object of force and power with the only answer that would work. The hammer has no capacity to listen, to feel, to be human and it is damned difficult to make it change direction or do anything other than hit things.
As I stood in the red dirt of Yuendumu in Central Australia, looking at what most would describe as a shanty town, the wrecked cars, the decrepit houses, the people in their dirty clothes, I listened to the members of the community who came to speak to the Royal Commissioner.
Suddenly I knew what it was like to be a nail. Here were proud and passionate people, with strong views and incredible stories. As each person spoke, I felt the sledgehammer demolishing everything I had ever believed and failed to question.
The houses were decrepit because they were inappropriate for their lifestyles and the geography of Central Australia, the clothes dirty because the red dust surrounds Yuendumu for hundreds of miles. These people were treated as unintelligent and uneducated, yet they all spoke at least six languages (where I have been a total failure at learning a second) and were putting together brilliant, passionate arguments and innovative solutions. There were disagreements and disputes about methods, but respect for each member of the community and the culture they shared.
There was one thing that I kept hearing over and over again. Get out of our way. Everything that had ever been done to “help these poor unfortunate people” had in fact tried to change them, to limit their choices, to make them something they weren’t, to help them with assimilation and integration. And despite a couple of hundred years of pressure, here was their culture, surviving and strengthening, and here we were being told to remove the barriers, to remove the patronisation and allow Aboriginal people around Australia the same opportunities for self-determination that everyone else has.
So that’s the context of my background. Now for the theme.
If you use the label “internal communications” you tend to think about messages, staff, performance, change management and communication tools. If instead you start from the people who create an organisation, internal and external, and the shared values, visions and intent (OK Mike, it’s working!) that brought them together, you start to think about people, relationships and the tremendous influence your people have on your customers, communities, shareholders, suppliers and other stakeholders.
You realise that much of your role is to identify and remove the barriers and boundaries that have been created and open up opportunities for other people in the organisation to achieve their successes. Your role or objectives may remain the same (that’s doubtful), but the way you go about it changes entirely. And you certainly begin to understand the power of listening, of learning and of leadership. Indeed, you even begin to ask if there is any real difference between internal and external communication, whether it is an artificial divide created by managers to exert power and control, or by consultants to create a niche market to get work.
I believe that your internal community is responsible for the overwhelming majority of relationship and reputation building with your external stakeholders, which is the activity often labelled “external communication” and allocated to marketers, salespeople, business developers and external communicators with the same limiting result.
I grew up as a tool, in pretty much every possible way that term is applied. A life changing experience helped me reject the notion of “rightful place” or any limiting barriers. It’s a process that I hope will never stop and I do everything in my power to stop myself thinking like a hammer again.
Deb Hinton – Montréal, Canada
Dan, thanks to you, and the rest of the fab four, for inviting me to help get this scrum going. And Geoff thanks for kicking things well and truly off for the guests side of the scrum with such a powerful and touching story.
So, diving right into the deep end… I’m not sure that I buy the metaphor Dan. Or I buy the metaphor, but not as applied to this discussion.
First off, our profession is so new [I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s probably less than 40 years old] that I’m not sure there are “traditional” backgrounds that internal communicators come from. But even if there were, I think it’s a red herring.
I really think the main point we’ve been trying to make at CommScrum for a while now is that there is a lot of really bad ‘internal communications’ going on out there. And, when it’s bad it’s terrible no matter what the background or training of the communicator was.
I found it interesting Geoff that your epiphany came about in a place as far from the organizational world most of us ‘internal communicators’ are living in as one could imagine. And, I think that’s our biggest challenge whatever we call ourselves or however we position ourselves. These are hard places to be human in.
Titles, cubicles, hierarchy, formal and informal power structures, jargon, clichés, acronyms, boardrooms, written and unwritten rules, symbols – an anthropologist’s field day. In its own way as challenging as the world in the outback of Australia. And as full of creativity and energy as you can find anywhere.
The challenge we have as internal communicators is to keep that humanity present – no matter what our background. If we can do that, then I think we’d find our orientation to our work [calling] and internal communications [and organizations] would change radically and for the better.
Indy Neogy – London, England
Thanks to the original gang for inviting me to write and the other three for letting me in the “new gang.” Geoff’s story is special – I’m pretty sure my corporate storyteller business partner would advise that we just leave it there. For better or worse, I treat blogging as a conversation – so I’m going to press on.
I take Deb’s point about retaining the sense of humanity in the work – but I think that internal communications as a profession has developed a culture and worldview and that some of the assumptions involved do contribute to “a lot of really bad ‘internal communications’ going on out there.”
I don’t think a background doing something else is a prerequisite for being careful about the assumptions of the profession – but as in every case about cultural assumptions, it can help.
If I trace a genetic code in my comments on Commscrum I’d first have to admit that there are no stories to compare with Geoff’s. Of course, I’d love to ramble through the totality of my experience but right here and now, one particular influence comes to mind: Working in IT, as a specialist and then a manager.
I experienced a lot of internal communications, in good times and bad for the company. “By the book” those communication efforts seemed average to good. And yet… they didn’t feel rooted in my reality or the reality of the people working with me.
You can call this just more “bad execution” – but I think there’s more to it. I think the profession defines itself too strongly with reference to the excellent tools it has developed and not enough from a sense of how the information involved fits into the information flows and meaning flows the audiences already experience. And because so much information and meaning originates in the content, processes and structure of the actual work, “keeping the humanity present” means much greater involvement with those elements of daily life than is often thought.
Mary Boone – Essex, Connecticut
I join my colleagues above in thanking Dan for the invitation to share some ideas here. Apologies for typos or grammar issues in advance – it’s my husband’s 50th birthday so I’m in a bit of a time crunch.
I am in complete agreement with Geoff about the power of language and labels and I, too, see decreasing value in the internal/external distinction. In fact, I think that it is even worthwhile to revisit the distinction between Marketing and Communication. In all cases, we are concerned with human communication between and amongst a range of stakeholders. And our traditional association of Marketing with a “broadcast” approach has limited our perspective – I think this laser-focus on a broadcast model is why so many people in communication (and marketing and advertising) have been broad-sided by social media. I remember reading Katz and Kahn in graduate school 25 years ago and having an epiphany when I read about “lateral communication.” That was when I first saw the glimmers of the true possibilities of communication as a discipline to change the world.
What elements do all “forms” of communication share that transcend our boundary labels of internal, external, marketing, advertising, etc.? Here’s a start at a list: authenticity (which is associated in my mind with “humanity” mentioned above but for me also encompasses “truthfulness” and “candor”), interaction, clarity, precision, and emotion. “Communicators” in all of these “sub-disciplines” need the ability to interweave these elements into their approaches to connecting stakeholders.
In terms of the “hammer” metaphor, I do believe that taking a multi-disciplinary approach to human interaction is helpful – primarily because of the complexity of human beings and relationships. While I have two degrees in Speech Communication, my experiences in the OD, OE, Design, and IT fields have contributed mightily to my understanding and perspective on communication. A single focus on one area of study or one discipline makes one more susceptible to a “hammer” approach. Of course, my liberal arts bias is showing here. I’m not saying that every communicator needs to have a multi-disciplinary educational background – rather that professional communicators need to be intellectually curious about different points of view and willing to apply new perspectives to their own work.