If you think like a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail

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.


The Age of Intent

Mike Klein: Commscrum Scandinavia


For many years, there has been a big chase on to find out what drives performance—and profitability in organizations. This chase has led to a lot of suspects, a lot of ideas, and more than a few insights. But the real truth—the real driver of extraordinary performance—has been buried in a pile of terminology and obscured by sectarian selfishness.

“Engagement” screamed one pack. “Behavior change” howled another. “Policies and procedures!” “Values”! “A sense of higher moral purpose!!!!” “Better communication!!!!!” “Leadership!!!” “Management!!!”

The problem with these words and their associated sectarian sentiments is that they all spoke to manifestations of something far bigger, more powerful and more universal—a factor I think is as big as financials and operations at the very heart of organizational performance.


Intent is the organizational “why”. Every organization has an organizational why—an intent of some sort. And intent is no less powerful than resources—or skills—in the financial and operational arenas.

Why is this a “new” conversation? Partially, it’s because our thinking has only just become clear and sharp enough to look at the range of behavioral, motivational and cultural issues as manifestations of one core corporate driver, and partially, it’s because the business world has continued to focus on finance and operations as “the real work”.

The ramifications of identifying and addressing intent as a third core driver of performance are monumental—and I hope stimulating of a long, powerful and productive conversation. But here are a few hypotheses to start the discussion with:

  • Purposes, values, goals and performance measurements are all manifestations of intent and need to be treated as such
  • The lack of coherent or stated purposes, values, goals, and performance measurements is also a manifestation of intent
  • Intent is at the heart of the value chain and creates and destroys the bulk of an organisation’s value. And those who work with refining, championing, and sharpening the delivery of that intent are people who do “real work.”
  • If communication and communicators are to be quick winners in this world, we need to start taking ownership of intent—consistency, integrity, resonance and distinctiveness of actions as well as words
  • Organisational inconsistencies are inconsistencies of intent rather than simply inconsistencies of internal and external messaging that a good old-school PR pro can handle
  • While the CEO and Board are ultimately responsible for the public definition (or unspokenness) of organizational intent, communicators and HR people are extremely well situated to reinforce, amplify, illustrate and operationalise that intent into actual daily practice.
  • Intent drives sustainability strategy.
  • Intent drives strategy, period.
  • Nothing destroys value like a measurable gap between stated intent and actual performance.
  • Nothing creates value like a measureable path between stated intent and actual opportunity.

It is important—vital—for today’s communicators to recognize that intent is “our” space. The only thing that is really new is that the opportunity is there for the rest of the business world to recognize its centrality—or absorb a beating from choosing to ignore it.

And this is not a breaking down of silos between internal and external communication—indeed, internal and external comms will require different craft skills for some time. It’s a breaking down of the glass walls that have kept communication on the organizational periphery. And it looks those walls have even been melted down into the clear, clean and substantive links we form at the very heart of the value chain.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London

I’ll keep it uncharacteristically brief and not very Commscrum to say I agree, but I do. I think the issue is – what intent, whose intent? Or – perhaps more importantly in your post – the LACK of it. It’s probably the latter that is oddly the most pervasive in many organisations. Business As Usual allows you to not worry about intent.

Enter Value Disciplines, stage right, again. Is the intent Operational Excellence? Products and Service Excellence? Or Customer/Market Intimacy? Sure, many of these “intentions” will overlap but I just conducted an exercise that demonstrated that a company that stated the “intent” of Customer/Market intimacy spent 90% of its effort engaging and communicating about Operational Excellence. Which wasn’t contributing much to consumer insight. Maybe that’s another post… exit, pursued by a bear, on the road to hell.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague

And another agreement here, wholeheartedly! Fantastic post, MK. Seminal, possibly 🙂

This ‘intent’ that you describe, seems immediately to overshadow and connect a combination of efforts in our field that now seem immature: cross-discipline alignment, congruence across the whole organizational strategy – and truly living that, connecting the brand with behaviors etc.

Now, dare I burst this pink fluffy intellectual bubble by asking – isn’t the identification of ‘intent’ just wrapping up lots of old things together into one new! improved! challenge that still has the same barriers to overcome?

The leaders of any given organization would probably not contest the notion of really nailing ‘intent’ as a driver but might have some doubts about whether or not his / her team of individuals (that all have their own perspectives, cultures, styles, competences…) are able to actually ACHIEVE a strong and unified level of ‘intent’ to the extent that you envision. Of course in many different ways, people have been trying to pin down a common core intention (particularly leaders, communicators, HR practictioners, change agents etc) for many decades. The difficulty is bringing these people together to really think and act as one – and the crux of the problem is that ‘intent’ is something that individuals or teams need to own, to fine-tune themselves… it is almost personal. It would need to be recognized that political games would need to step down, as would innovative thinking of the ‘rogue’ kind (that has been known to end up contributing to wider strategy as a fluke).

The above concern around DOABILITY could just be something that sounds right but is just infact pure pessimism. Can a mass of individuals in an organization pull together to manufacture and deploy clear, crisp and consistent intent?

What do you think?

Dan Gray – CommScrum London (at least for now)

Bugger. I’d deliberately hung on till last in the hope that either KK or Lindsay might say something that I could pile in on, because I too love the post, Mike (all very un-CommScrum I know!).

You’ll recall that when you and Mr Trainor had your usual spat about terminology on the “Time to say goodnight to employee engagement” post, I referred to these labels as “the first signal of intent” (a phrase that’s also used by Bill McDonough in one of my favourite TED Talks on design for sustainability). So I’m intuitively drawn to your thesis.

Then KK brings up Value Disciplines again as a valuable lens to identify and institutionalise that “intent” – to get organisations thinking about, and structuring themselves around, that one thing (the crux of Lindsay’s comment) that they can really excel at. Zero disagreement there either. Damn it!

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.

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.

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!).

IABC at 50: The View from Cape Town

(The following is lifted from a fictional [?] 3 June 2020 copy of the Wall Street Journal purloined from the Time Travel exhibit at the Ontario Space Centre in Toronto during this week’s IABC World Conference)

CAPE TOWN:  In what has become the world’s most-covered business gathering since it supplanted the World Economic Forum in the number of press credentials requested last year, the International Alliance for Business Communication (IABC) convened its 50th annual World Conference amid unprecedented interest in communication as the central discipline of successful enterprises worldwide.

“When I came to my first IABC World Conference in 2010, IABC and business communicators were facing great opportunity–but scared to walk away from our roots.  We wanted to be good at serving, and afraid to be good at leading.  Baby, we’ve come a long way.”

So said Intel CEO Jerry Schultz, recipient of the Alliance’s Exceed Award, given to communication professionals who have risen to major leadership positions in global enterprises.  Schultz, 43, credited a key decision by IABC leaders in 2010 to treat its mission and its business objectives as related but separate challenges, as the catalyst for the Alliance’s spectacular growth, and ultimately a shift in the self perception of the communication profession into one capable of leading major enterprises.

“When I started out, we worked for the accountants, technology folks and finance people.  Now, more and more and more, around the world, they are working under our leadership.  There was never an 11th commandment that said ‘Thou shalt work for bean counters.’  It’s not about ‘proving our value to management’ any more.  Now, more of us communicators are the ones in the front of the table, and we are connecting, engaging and mobilizing people for growth, change and sustainability on a previously unimaginable scale.”

Such accomplishments, along with 900% membership growth over the last decade, were indeed unimaginable for IABC in 2009, when, buffeted by the last recession, the organization was losing members to social networks and found its international growth prospects hemmed in.  The time for pottering around the edges of an outmoded model and philosophy had clearly come to an end.

“We stabilized ourselves in 2009-2010, but quickly recognized that our audience and our members were not interested in a stable association.  They needed to become dynamic, no easy task in a group that saw itself less as a movement and more as a family,” said IABC President-Emeritus Julie Freeman.  “We had to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realised that focussing on the status quo would be the road to extinction.”

“The transformation of communicators from corporate servants to corporate leaders directly paralleled IABC’s own transformation from a North America-focused association of 15,000 into an alliance incorporating national and online communication networks – as well as several related associations in the PR and HR arenas such as PRSA, CIPD and others – with more than 200,000 advocates worldwide,” said Prof. Eb Banful of the Kellogg-Medill School at Northwestern University near Chicago, the first of several merged business and communication faculties at leading institutions.  “As the grumblings about ‘why don’t we get a seat the table’ shifted to a mission to bring communication  and communicators to the head of that table, it caused IABC to rethink and reject its core business assumptions.  The power of communication in all fields of human endeavour prevailed over discipline-specific territorialism, and’it’s all about communication’ became the new mantra for many of our high flying students.”

Current IABC President Rob Briggs of London was at first skeptical.  “We were great as an association–we had a dedicated membership, great camaraderie and great events.  But when we really saw this opportunity, we took bold decisions like reducing membership dues 90%, shifting to a sponsor-based financial model, and focusing on building the world’s best business audience.  We built it, and they came.”

And it’s not just ‘communicators’ who jumped on the bandwagon — indeed, slots and seats were at a premium in Cape Town.  The 3,000 Delegates, selected by their peers, received free travel and perks from sponsors seeking coveted access to their networks and enterprises.   Key sessions, such as tonight’s keynote debate between UN Secretary General Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the finals of the Gold Fibre Awards are boom-casted to member gatherings around the globe.

“After the dues reduction, the scariest decisions were to integrate our chapters outside North America with those of local associations who then became Alliance partners, and to spin off our accreditation program,” said former IABC Chair Mark Schumann, who set IABC’s redefinition in motion.  “We moved the action close to a broader audience.”

“But the benefits of those decisions drove a surge in membership and advocacy, a deepening of our global reach and our global connections, and the development of a credential that became attractive to business leaders from other disciplines seeking to demonstrate their communication bona fides.  Indeed, the ABC began to become a sought-after credential not unlike the MBA at the turn of the century, and was integrated into curricula at schools like Kellogg-Medill.”

Where does IABC go from here? “We still need to raise our game,” said Briggs.  “When business realized that communication was the world’s real currency, it started to welcome communicators to the top table.  But organizations communicate not just through their leaders, missions and performance.  Governance, ownership structures, and balancing shareholder and stakeholder interests are now things we’re being asked for answers about.  But these are challenges we are happy to face.”

The best and worst developments in employee communication

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Notting Hill

Looking back at the past 5, 10, 20 years, it’s interesting to dissect the forward and backward progression of the employee communication discipline in light of changes in business climate, management strategies and fads, technological advances and the emergence of societal trends at local and global levels.

Each ‘Scrummer will put up their own Top 3 Best and Worst in terms of trends and/or practices and then the games can begin.  So here’s mine:

The Top 3 GREATEST developments in employee communications in the past 10 (or so) years:

1.  The emergence of social media technology and user-generated content.  We all know top-down is not always the best internal communications approach, but it was always challenging to come up with other ways of peer to peer and bottom up that weren’t either too small to be really impactful or too expensive to sustain.  We all know that involving people in change that effects them is the best route to success, that people take ownership of the things that they help shape.  But again, often easier said than done. The rise of  the profile of “social media” has made it a lot easier to create effective alternatives to top-down.  Of course, social communication isn’t reliant on technology – but by Jove it has become a hell of a lot easier to do.

2. Storytelling. I debated about 5 different Top 3s and the recognition of the power of Storytelling won out.  Surprised me, too.  But in my experience, the primal human desire to tell and hear stories — whether in a 3 year old or a 90 year old – was long ignored and remains just as powerful as a mechanism now as it did when certain people were pioneering this 10 or more years ago and being ridiculed for being “Pink and fluffy quasi-psychological theorists.”  Storytelling – truly a best practice, regardless of how it’s implemented?

3.  The emergent revelation that, having cut costs and Six Sigma’d everything to death, communication matters, that internal and external communications are inextricably linked, and that internal is as commercially important as external.  After banging on about “joined up thinking” for years in pitches, work with clients, my book and posts dating back 3+ years, green shoots of evidence that alignment is beginning to happen are coming through everywhere – and not just in traditional “live the brand” and “internal launches” but actual strategic, cross-functional, inside-out alignment.  We still have a long way to go of course… but there is evidence of progress and I believe this is where the next “paradigm shift” (vomit, I hate that term) will happen in our profession.

The Top (bottom?)  3 WORST developments in employee communications in the past 10 (or so) years:

1.  The overshadowing influence of measurement-led approaches to employee engagement. We’ve beaten this to death in previous posts, but measurement seems to be edging back towards a more reasonable sense of priority and scale.  Of course measuring effectiveness and impact – both from an ROI and a risk mitigation perspective – is critical.  But spending equal amounts on measurement as on critical employee communications delivery is absolute madness.

2.  Internal communicators abandoning the strategic high ground and focussing on channel management and allowing the employee engagement space to be “divided and conquered” by HR, Change Management and Marketing. Somewhere along the line internal communications managed to surrender employee engagement to HR and employer brand to marketing or HR in many organisations, with the rationale that their job was packaging, air traffic control and channel management.  Big mistake that has had lasting repercussions and resulted in more messages and more noise, and less impact, in many organisations.

3.  The belief that technology (especially Intranets, most specifically those based on Sharepoint) can solve all their employee communication problems. An interesting foil to point 1 in my Top 3 list, but we have all seen companies where “We’ve communicated – it’s on the intranet” is a very real phenomenon.  Combine this with the marketing might of Microsoft and madness of crowds sheep like behaviour, we now often see “award winning” intranets that are unfit for purpose and failing to remotely deliver on their potential and promise. Echoes of our “best practice” debate apply here just as much as to employee engagement.

Follow up from Lindsay Uittenbogaard in The Hague


1. The recognition of (most) leaders that actually, communication is important – even if that notion is still a bit woolly in the minds of many.   Internal communication generally isn’t seen as PR on the inside anymore. I would say that this has been our biggest step forward – caused by…

2. The credibility that communicators have established for their profession, so far – we could have perpetuated the idea that communication is a fluffy addition to real business by doing a crap job.  We should be proud of ourselves, folks.  We have earned our profession a credible place in the overall discussion.

3. The link between communication and knowledge sharing (with social communication and tools like SharePoint) helps connect information transparency with communication and business performance. I don’t think this crosses Kevin’s point that a major flaw of communicating via technology is a tick box mentality.  This is about creating clarity, which for me does not stop at traditional ‘managed media’ communication.  The sources and flows of communication are multiple and we’re on it.

THE TOP 3 WORST DEVELOPMENTS – quickly coming to mind are:

1. The failure of leaders to significantly invest in the development of communication competences in their managers and staff – we are all communicators but we’re not necessarily born that way.  Good communication practices of line managers and staff can arguably add the most value to business of all communication activities.

2. The failure of communicators to properly define the professional internal communication space to all relevant parties, so leaving still hoards of people who don’t really know how to interact with communicators or participate to their own benefit (links with point 1).  This is not exactly the converse of point 2 GREATEST DEVELOPMENTS, above – it is more that we tend only to focus on convincing our sponsors – not our broader stakeholders – what communication can be all about and the relevance of that to all.

3. The failure of leaders to recognize the benefits of a board-level-represented communication function – I echo Kevin’s point 2 WORST DEVELOPMENTS above.  Communication taken from the perspective of another discipline skews its application – in my mind away from the most value.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Place Stephanie/Stephanieplein


1.  Free Association for Internal Communicators

One of the weirdest moments of my career in internal communication took place in 2003, when I had the temerity to attempt to organize a “Lateral Communications Interest Group” under the IABC umbrella, using IABC’s own nascent social media tools.  Rather than support, encouragement, or assistance, I received a six month suspension for spamming and for unenumerated violations of the IABC ethics code, along with some tart sneers about how the chapter level was the “appropriate” place for such activities.

Today, LinkedIn alone has dozens of separate social media (today’s term for lateral communication) networks and dozens of internal communications networks (including our own fast-growing CommScrum group).  It’s no longer a requirement to ask permission from San Francisco to approach IABCers–or other communicators–around the world about shaping a new direction for our industry.

2. The Unthinkable is now Discussable

Even five years ago, even with abundant research saying that cascades and other control-centric communication tools were ineffective or harmful, the idea that communication flowed in anything other than a top-down direction was unthinkable in some quarters, and in others, still undiscussable.

While I think there is too much emphasis on the “media” side of the social communication revolution, that the social and lateral side of communication is  now open for business–and for open discussion with clients–is something worth sustained cheers.

3.  Leadership by Blogging (and Tweeting)

Internal communication is not neurosurgery, to paraphrase a phrase.  The major ideas, the major energies and major veins of activity can be shared well through a combination of leadership, persistence and good old fashioned writing.

That’s why the emergence of a solid internal comms blogosphere in the last couple of years, and the emergence of a tweetosphere willing to receive countless links to new articles and initiatives, has created a strong worldwide community floating and shooting ideas far more quickly than they could in a series of lunches, lectures, pricey conferences and chapter meetings.


In the aggregate, there is really one “worst”–the last stand of the Status Quo–fighting as hard as it can to deflect or parry the changes being wrought within the industry, and doing its utmost to deny oxygen to emerging leaders and experts.  In three acts:

1. “Employee Engagement” as a Measurement

It is not simply (as stated above) that there is too much measurement focus around “employee engagement”–it’s that measurement has allowed a two-way process (the way employees engage with employers) become a top-down, one-way measure (the extent to which employees are willing to contribute in excess of their compensation and any explicit commitment on the organization’s part).  Aside from creating an unsustainable gap in the cultures of these organizations, the persistence of such an approach to “employee engagement” is further reinforcing the last stand of top-down, one-way internal communication.

2.  “It’s all about MEDIA!!!”

The response of the incumbent IC industry–publishers, associations, agencies in particular–has been to focus on how cool, cheap and indispensible social media can be, particularly as an adjunct to existing top-down communication strategies.  In so doing, they attempt to sweep under the rug how the underlying shift towards social communication renders those strategies (and their supporting structures) obsolete.  They buy some time and fill lots of seats, but throw large numbers of people off track.

3.  Competence over Confidence

Not long ago, there was a huge furore in the industry about whether internal communicators were sufficiently “competent”, or in particular, whether they could complete a common suite of tasks and activities with wagging tails and bones held firmly in jaw.

That talk has seemed to be in abayance, but it’s had an underlying corrosive impact–in that the idea that an internal communicator’s value is derived from a basic level of tactical competence undermines that communicator’s willingness, and perhaps even standing and ability, to challenge  and influence strategic decisions.  Indeed, once the smoke clears from the current upheaval, the best thing the industry can do collectively is focus powerfully on raising and reinforcing the confidence of communication practitioners.

Dan Gray – Doin’ his thang in Riyadh


1. Erm… what Mike said. I nearly wrote ‘The emergence of the CommScrum’, which sounds way too self-congratulatory by half (in all seriousness, though, I think the community we’re developing here is a really special one and I, for one, have found pearls of wisdom in the comments threads here that I’m not seeing anywhere else). Let’s just say it’s what the CommScrum represents, and Mike’s first point covers that nicely.

2. “It’s all about communication.” One of said pearls of wisdom came from Geoff Barbaro in a comment on a previous post – that there isn’t a single field of human endeavour that doesn’t have communication as a critical component. When I studied at Ashridge (where “It’s all about communication” ranks alongside “It depends” as the ultimate stock answer for MBAs), I genuinely felt for the first time that the empathic skills and audience understanding people like us bring to the table was widely appreciated as a valuable strategic discipline.

3. Recognition of the importance of internal comms to external branding efforts – i.e. that (especially for corporate brands) it’s the proper branding of internal culture that begets a brand its authenticity. As KK mentioned in one of his recent posts on DTIM, we’ve had several clients who’ve had this light bulb go off, and it’s made for some really interesting and challenging work. They’re still in the minority, but it’s a start…


1. Erm… what Mike said again (Kevin too)! Of course we must demonstrate the value we add, but that does not necessary mean ROI, and it certainly doesn’t mean quantitative measurement of a universal “thing” called engagement. The persistence of the notion that this the only/best way to show ourselves as serious business people is corrosive and the single most significant barrier to the advancement of the profession, because it encourages…

2. Competence over confidence. I can’t argue with Mike’s second point either, and it’s a corollary to Kevin’s point on technology above. The idea that developing functional competence is the key to solving all your communication problems is equally flawed. In an increasingly complex, diverse and unstable world, it’s the ability to understand strategic context – to “join the dots” – that is infinitely more valuable. I still don’t see any of the professional associations grasping the interdisciplinary nettle.

3. The endless debate over definition of terms. I know Mike like’s to say that “with words we define our world”, and he’s right, but sometimes they are inadequate – even for people who communicate for a living. “Engagement” is such a subjective term – different for different individuals, groups and organisations; different even for those same people on different days – that trying to come up with catch-all definitions is to put a straightjacket around a concept that is much richer and more dynamic than words can properly express (a bit like “The Force”). So maybe we should stop trying – or at least concentrate on a more situational approach that defines engagement relevant to a particular set of circumstances.

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Communication is not a support function/Risk Management vs. ROI

Kick off by Lindsay Uittenbogaard, CommScrumming from The Hague

In 2001, COSO, a noted advisory body on corporate governance and risk, developed a framework that managers could use to evaluate and improve enterprise risk management in their organizations.

After several high-profile business scandals and failures (e.g. Enron, Peregrine Systems and WorldCom) the calls for enhanced corporate governance led to the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley legislation and International COSO standards became very widely used.

One of the eight components of the COSO enterprise risk management framework is communication.  The handbook defines this aspect as: relevant information is identified, captured, and communicated in a form and time frame that enable people to carry out their responsibilities. Effective communication also occurs in a broader sense, flowing down, across, and up the entity.

The reason this is significant in the CommScrum forum is because Enterprise Risk Management is becoming increasingly mainstream as a whole Management strategy.  It doesn’t view ‘core business’ as being more important than ‘support functions’.  It doesn’t cut communication budgets before sales budgets.   It takes more of a whole systems perspective, realizing that the achievement of ongoing business control (to meet changing world requirements) is a multi-faceted, inter-dependent process.

The risk management inclusion of communication is just an example.  It would be possible to talk about how communication is a central component of lots of different business modes / strategies / processes too.

If you move further on down that train of thought a little, then it seems the interests of the Communication Department are actually broader than the interests of their Leaders (CEO excepted).  Because communicators pursue objectives that are relatively long term: about connecting people to strategy, achieving change, getting the right information to the right place, and building communication competency – then they require leaders to support them by participating and exemplifying good communication practices in order to achieve those wider objectives.

Looking through the COSO lens and then thinking about how communicators need the support of their leaders, arguably more than their leaders need them,  takes me to my point: communication is not a support function.  It is, in it’s own right, a critical part of an organization.    Let’s continue to talk it towards those terms.

Mike Klein – CommScrum Saint Gilles-Sint Gillis

“Communication isn’t a support function” should go without saying, particularly with CommScrum readers.  And while the COSO approach is heartening, it actually raises a larger issue–that of how the value of communication is measured.

For too long, the communication mainstream–particularly the publishers and associations–have leapt onto the bandwagon claiming “Communication must demonstrate it’s return on investment (ROI)”, and more insidiously, “Communication shouldn’t be done that doesn’t demonstrate ROI”, and “no communicator who  doesn’t take his/her ROI demonstration responsibilities seriously can’t be considered a serious business person.”

What COSO has done, perhaps inadvertently, is move the role of organizational communication into a risk management role, where I think it mainly belongs.  While risk management is harder to quantify into a dollar figure than ROI, it reflects the role of effective communication far more effectively.  As in “you’re spending a billion dollars on a change program and you wonder whether to spend $200,000 on a fairly lean communication approach.  Which is more important–protecting a $1 billion investment or saving $200,000 and having people make the communication up as they go along?”  Or, in footballing terms, is a good defender’s real measure the number of goals he scores or the number he keeps from being scored on him?

I never knew why risk-based measurement and demonstration of communication’s value has become so toxic, particularly given that ROI measurements can often be seriously contrived.  If COSO’s thinking reopens a real debate between Risk and ROI, it would be huge indeed.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London

And we all know Sarbanes-Oxley has not only prevented corporate risk from coming to roost, but made everyone’s lives a lot easier, right?

Joking aside, of course communication shouldn’t be a support function as we’ve argued here many times.  At its best, a good business strategy should have its core rooted in the heart of the consumer/client/customer and arguably other stakeholders – all of which richly benefit from audience understanding/centricity.

So is it about ROI or is it about Risk Management? well, clearly, it is about both, but as Mike says perhaps the balance has swung too far.  There are always upside and downside considerations in business management, so why not comms management?

So from this perspective, looking at communication from the risk management perspective is sensible: What are the risks (commerical and cultural, personal and professional) of unclear, conflicting, inconsitent, poor communication to, from and amongst stakeholders?

My initial reaction was “you’re having a laugh” – the world of Risk Management does not beckon me very appealingly – so with the caveat that it can’t become a slave to the bureaucratic, doublespeak “CYA” model of risk management (and the COSM definition made me a little sick in my mouth – it’s a bit like saying “Money should come in to the business, and after expenses, interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation any remaining money can be called profit” – but it’s a step in the right direction…. ) then by all means, Risk Mitigate away!

Dan Gray – Commscrum Riyadh

Forgive me if I’m missing the point (I may be going stir crazy in my hotel room here), but if someone were to tell me that my primarily role as a communicator was as a ‘risk manager’ (as Mike appears to be saying above), I’d tell’em to go take a hike.

I don’t think anyone here would argue with Lindsay’s central point that comms is more than a support function, however the use of ERM to illustrate the point, frankly, chills me to the bone.

I must confess, my immediate reaction to reading this was similar to Kevin’s (i.e. yeah, right, and greater emphasis on risk management has done a bang-up job in preventing massive corporate cock-ups!). However, unlike Kevin, I’m finding it hard to move beyond that observation.

Take BP, for example, which apparently spends $100 million a year on Sarbanes-Oxley and presumably takes ERM very seriously. That hasn’t stopped it from perpetrating arguably the biggest piece of corporate comms BS in history with its ‘Beyond Petroleum’ greenwash.

Had it been genuinely committed to CR, it wouldn’t have been drilling to depths beyond those permitted, it wouldn’t have outsourced the drilling in the first place, and it would certainly have borne the extra expense of installing an automatic switch to close off blow-outs. Now, instead of a bill for $50,000 for one of those, it’s had about $30 billion wiped off it’s stock value.

And lest I digress too far with my little ‘sustainability rant’, let’s look at where that’s left the focus of the comms effort now – playing the very unedifying games of disputing high leak rate figures and Olympic-standard buck-passing between BP, Haliburton and Transocean.

That has “comms as support function” written all over it – attempting to clean up the mess that others have left behind.

Three reasons why your “best practice” very probably isn’t

Dan Gray – CommScrum Riyadh

Kevin and I, in particular, have been engaging in some pretty serious rucking in recent comment threads on the subject of “best practice” and why – by definition – it isn’t. So we figured it was probably worthy of a post in its own right to tackle this thorny issue head-on.

Whilst it’s my turn to bat lead-off, I’m going to start by quoting the esteemed Mr.K, with one of his comments from the last CommScrum post, which gets right to the nub of the matter:

Where does “best practice” come from? Erm… innovation. It didn’t just fall off a tree.

Of course, that’s always been true. But it’s never been truer than now, for several reasons that deserve slightly closer scrutiny. Being a firm believer in the power of the rhetorical rule of three, I’m going to stick to what I see as the three “biggies”, and I’ll leave it to my fellow CommScrummagers, and to you, to add to them, embellish them or cut them down, as you see fit…

1) The pace of change

Quite simply, the shelf-life of any so-called best practice is shrinking as a function of the sheer pace of change. By the time it has become recognised as best practice by the masses, next practice is probably already half-way to superseding it. Today’s newspaper, as they say, is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper.

2) The degree of change

Interconnected with that is the degree of change, best described by reference to Clayten Christensen’s distinction between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovation. Sustaining innovation refers, essentially, to the incremental improvement of existing mainstream approaches, whereas disruptive innovation is the kind of rule-busting stuff that defines new space.

Not to bang the tired drumhead of Design Thinking again, but one of the things giving that movement massive traction is the realisation that we’ve pretty much Six-Sigma’d everything to death, to the point where quality and efficiency are mere table-stakes. Increasingly, next practice – in communications, just as in any other strategic/creative discipline – is not going to be defined by building incrementally on what’s already there, but by seismic shifts in practice.

3) The sources of change

A third interconnected component (and the most important of all, as I see it) is where the inspiration for next practice is coming from. The very existence and popularity of this blog is testimony to the fact that that inspiration is increasingly dependent on an inter-disciplinary orientation, not an intra-disciplinary one.

Again, not to unduly rake over old ground, but comments about the “closed shop” of professional associations – both in terms of defining what communication actually is, and in restricting access to new and different perspectives on how to do it more effectively – indicate that, if you’re only looking inwards for best practice, you’re probably missing out on a lot of really great ideas.

For example: my most enjoyable and successful project ever – one that the client is still raving about over two years on – is an employer brand project I worked on together with Kevin. The critical ideas that drove our approach, and the insights that underpinned the proposition came from three main sources:

Indeed, when I reflect on the books and ideas that have most influenced my thinking and practice over the last few years – any one of Marty Neumeier’s brilliant whiteboard overviews, Tim Brown’s “Change by Design” or James Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds”, among others – one thing becomes very obvious:

You won’t find the words “communication” or “engagement” anywhere in their titles.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Bayswater

Sounding a bit too much like a mutual admiration society for my liking, but thanks just the same.

The way I see it, much of the traction for and against “best practice” and its packaging and deployment comes from one of two prevailing mindsets that we can perhaps track back to the evolving (and we need to revisit this at some stage) Typology of Communicators from an older post:

Camp 1:  “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.”  Best practice is a safe, defensible refuge. I’d rather be 60% right than 100% out on a limb. If it comes from The Association and cost £499, it must be good.  You’ll probably find stacks of business books with engagement and communication in their titles adorning the bookshelves, and membership cards and certificates from one or more professional associations in their wallets and on their walls. Conference attendance is similarly about “employee communication and ______ (insert latest buzzword)” with the usual suspect speakers who are on tour, again, instead of doing actual innovative work in the field.   They tend to favour a certain discipline focus (journalism, human resources, marketing, IT, PR etc.)

Camp 2: “If I can download it from a site for £499 and plug it into an existing challenge, by definition its value is suspect.”  I’ll have a look and then adapt, butcher, or discard as I see fit.  You’ll probably find a lot of books without the word communication in the title on their bookshelves, as well as “past due” invoices from lapsed association memberships in their inbox.  The last conference they attended was “OpenSoho” – where lots of digital people in the UK converged to discuss the latest trends and cool thinking in the digital world.  Before that they were at a seminar on Sustainability presented by Interface Carpeting, Adnams etc. hosted by tomorrow’s company.  They tend to argue with their clients/CEOs, who often think they are expanding the brief beyond “communications”.  They have no loyalty to a discipline and are channel agnostic.

OK, I have a foot in both camps as do many of us.  But innovation is about connecting two (or more) things in a way that weren’t connected before.  “Best Practice” thinking resulted in mankind taking 4,000 years to put wheels on luggage.

But the point is, as Dan says, using “Best Practices” religiously results in zero progress and no new best practices.  This posting from Knowledge@Wharton could never have come from the traditional communication camp, and yet these ideas are brilliant and inspiring – and all about communication – and if 2 or 3 of us try them out, hey they might be tomorrow’s “best practice.”

And there are some “best practices” that probably do stand up to interrogation and scrutiny.  My point is they should be the starting point, not the end solution.

I also recently saw this, a great white paper on best practice vs innovation that is worth a read.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Magret de Canard

Agree with both of you, but I’ll go farther on a number of fronts:

1) Innovation: One of the best definitions of innovation that I’ve heard, so much I’ve forgotten it’s source, is that innovation occurs when successful ideas or concepts are combined from two different areas.

I know this from personal experience (having spent the last ten years in internal communication finding things I could apply from my previous ten years as a political consultant) and also from seeing innovations out in the world.  It’s not about building a better mousetrap–its about a mousetrap-vacuum cleaner that takes housecleaning to a new level.

2) “Best Practice” vs. Next Practice:  While I’ve previously sparred with those promoting “competence” as the key quality of the internal communicator, competence certainly has a place as a baseline.  Execution of “best practice” also falls into the “competence” scope, with perhaps a little creativity connected to choosing which “best practice” to use. But working for clients or bosses who insist on using “best practice” all the time can be a brutal experience–never allowing the space to develop modifications or rethink assumptions or, from artistic standpoint, to allow one to own the solution.

3) Social and Networked communication: given that the social and network dimension of communication is only beginning to be understood and considered acceptable to work with in corporations and on business challenges, there’s damn little best practice out there, and much of that often focuses on specific technology (how to use twitter) vs. the underlying strategy and theory (analyzing how twitter accelerates network growth and the speed of communication within networks).  In that case, reliance on best practice rather than original strategic thinking can lead to serious underperformance.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague

To echo the above, as Kevin says, Best Practice usually means proven, safe and defensible.  Finding Best Practice asks “What have people done before that reduces our risk; what can we do to ensure we’re not just making it up?”    And absolutely Dan, Best Practices age – and following the Best Practices of others can compromise innovation.

My brief tuppence here comes back to the requirement for unique communication approaches because each context to which communication is applied is absolutely unique.   There is no ‘Best Practice communication’ (unless, as Mike says – you are talking about basic competence aspects, like common features of great webpages).   Having an understanding of practices that have worked well in the past can only be advantageous to a new situation if they are viewed as a comparative guideline – a great start for new thinking.

It seems that we’re all on the same scrumming side here for a change 🙂

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