Tag Archives: communication

Central comms is out, team comms is king.

Monologue post-starter from Lindsay Uittenbogaard Commscrumming from The Hague

Your annual communication survey results have just come in. On initial inspection, they show a fairly healthy appreciation and appetite for managed communication. As the comms responsible, you sit back feeling proud and a little bit smug actually, that the steps you took to encourage more frequent dialogs between senior leaders and staff; to ensure that Line Managers had enough of the right information to brief their teams on the latest developments on a regular basis; and to refresh your intranet pages – however painstaking it was, all paid off.

You take the results home and decide to spend a half day the following morning going through the freeform comments (while drinking your favourite coffee in your favourite mug as a kind of mini celebration).

So then, as you pore over the data – a scary thread emerges. There are some 20,000 staff in the organization and most of the respondents seem to be saying that their communication requirements differ quite considerably from the need that is articulated in your strategy in subtle but crucial ways. Many of those staff members are contractors, with an average employment duration within the organization of about 3 years. They work all over the world, although there are a few office hubs in key locations. You see that their world starkkly splits into ‘operational topics’ and ‘management topics’ with these needs:

for operations
– a great sharepoint platform with good support and site development resources, including external site capability for collaboration with suppliers and customers
– the availability of ad hoc communication support on 2 levels:1) = intelligent information administration, 2) = project management
– top quality, readily available soft skill training in, for example Best Practice customer interfacing, virtual teaming etc
– a clear, simple and intranet site with a great search function so that all of the general company information like admin forms, organigrams, latest company presentations etc can be easily sourced
– a good onboarding program, tailored to each location
– a mechanism for capturing and sharing learnings.

for management
– for their line managers to keep them in the loop at least once a month on overall organizational developments that affect their teams, as well as other developments in general
– for senior leaders to be visible and accessible enough that each staff member could have a voice and a connection at that level should they need it – but to be able to read about what the top level agenda looks like and why from the CEO via the newsletter on a monthly basis as a way of double checking what their manager tells them as well as assessing how safe the company is as an employer.
– a big, professionally managed annual event / roadshow that takes stock of the year past and the year ahead and allows people to celebrate, face to face.
– and an unspoken given – alignment with external comms, affiliation with the brand identity and professionalism.

What they say they don’t want is:
– to have to fight for communication support for their work / try to find their way around company communication and information management resources on their own.
– an intranet homepage that assumes it is their landing page, hosting a round up of news and links from in and outside of the organization. If they want to find something, google is better. The intranet is not maximised on their desktop all day long.
– a company newsletter that assumes it is the answer to all of their communication requirements, including information on staff joining and leaving, public holidays and the recipe of the month. They will scan a newsletter for around 50 seconds to see if there’s anything they need to know and that’s it. Recognition is nice. Staff appreciation is important but they don’t want to be part of a cringey, false club that is the equivalent to a ‘welcome drinks do’ on the first night of a package holiday. Real societal connections at work are local.
– a warm and cuddly communication style. People have their own lives: they don’t need their employer to ‘be their friend’, they don’t trust the ‘published communication line’ very much anyway (or they read it in context).

In short, communication management has become less about ‘mass engagement’ but more about how comms can support a team within an organization. It can facilite better quality team engagement with the overall company vision so that each member of that team knows how its work can best contribute to overall value. It can provide the right resources when needed so that team can meet the stakeholder engagement and information management requirements of teams and projects. That’s it. Forget leader as servant, forget central comms as being the centre – the team is king and the better we can support that, the more valuable we are and the more solid our footing.

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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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Changing the way we think about sustainability

Dan Gray – Commscrum London

How businesses approach sustainability is perhaps the biggest brand and communication challenge of our time – and one that most corporations are getting very wrong. Rather than try and re-hash my thinking, I’m just going to post an extract from my new book.

Take a look and see what you think. I reckon it picks up rather neatly on Kevin’s theme of working from the inside out, and poses some interesting questions about the where the balance of power ought to lie in communicating a credible commitment…

As man’s role in climate change has become clearer, so sustainability has become largely synonymous with environmental concerns – essentially, how can we continue to grow and develop as a society without causing irreparable harm to our ecosystem?

It’s also a term that has tended to be used almost interchangeably with the many others (CR, CSR, Corporate Citizenship etc.) that organisations use to denote activities and investments designed to illustrate their status as responsible enterprises.

Frankly, both usages get in the way of a proper and useful understanding of what it means to be sustainable. In its original and broadest sense, sustainability is simply about longevity – the capacity to survive and prosper over generations.

In business, that naturally includes dimensions of ethical behaviour (you’re not going to do very well if your stakeholders don’t trust you) and environmental stewardship (likewise, you’re not going to be able to operate efficiently if you’re reliant on ever scarcer and more expensive natural resources), but it’s about much more than that.

Asking how a business is socially and environmentally responsible and how it is sustainable should be two completely different questions. The latter is infinitely broader in scope, essentially: why will you still be in business in 50 years’ time?

Understanding sustainability in these terms takes it out of the realm of the sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, save-the-whale brigade and into the realm of what sceptical business leaders really care about – running a successful business. What’s more, it fosters a completely different mindset about how to tackle the issue. Sustainability ceases to be seen as a separate agenda, and is instead positioned as an integral part of business strategy and operations.

And that’s how it should be seen. Ultimately, sustainability is not a discrete function, programme or initiative. It’s a cultural thing – a fundamental belief and way of thinking that encourages us to consider the long-term implications of our actions. If you’re fond of soundbites, think of it this way:

CR without HR is just PR.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard Commscrumming from Delft

Sorry Dan – I’m finding it difficult to absorb the meaning here because I can’t get over your first statement about something being “perhaps the biggest brand and communication challenge of our time”.  There is no biggest or most important challenge when it comes to communication because there is no single, over-ruling perspective from which to make that claim.

As communicators, we support the objectives of our sponsors and they can present very diverse communication challenges, from awareness to positioning, behaviour change to information process efficiency.  You might argue that the most difficult communication challenges are where relevance of the topic to the audience is low and where the interest of the sponsor is also low: i.e fulfill requirement for all staff to return old hardware following an IT infrastructure upgrade by end Q2.   God help us!  Some communication can be so boring and insignificant, can’t it?

I get from your extract that the sustainability message has anchored incorrectly in the minds of proponents and participants alike.  Yes this is huge, but I don’t think it’s unique.   Isn’t this a typical part of change, particularly when the change is significant.  When all of the micro-messages that can fly around our worlds add up and a few easy-to-join-up dots are put together wrongly in our illogical subconscious brains, I suppose you get invariably get to: sustainability = ecology = volunteer work; equality = feminism = lesbianism; and more such big myths that need demystification.

If you are patient and your communication objectives are SMART (i.e. ensure that key leaders in the organization are able to accurately define x sustainability terms if asked by x date) then you just have a long (and interesting) road ahead to generating wider awareness that lead to effective actions.  The communication objective is not the same as the business objective.  In working towards that communication objective, it looks like the conceptual keys you hold to doing that are the right ones…

Kevin Keohane, CommScrum London

Like Lindsay, I’m the first one to resist anyone who says “X is the most important …” anything.  Just the same, there are few things that genuinely compete with the sustainability challenge – although I take your point.   (Except when it comes to, say, systems and design thinking applied to employee communication.  That is simply right, and other views are completely ignorant and wrong, as well as being utterly devoid of practical or intellectual merit, and in fact such views are a sure indication of the presence either Hiter, Stalin, David Beckham or Satan.)

Dan seems to simply be stating the case that “sustainability” as a business communication topic needs to continue to be taken out of the realm of philanthropy / environmental / community considerations and be applied in a broader context to what sustainability actually means for a business over the mid- and long-term. So, for example, rather than investment banks supporting clean water in Africa, they might think about microfinance and responsible lending / investment (which, dare I say, might have preventd one or two problems in recent years).  Better still, organisations start eliminating “waste” from their operations not just as a recycling drive, but as a way of improving operational efficiency.  You can be damn sure this would happen if a law were passed requiring businesses to take back whatever they sell at the end of the product’s lifespan. And so on.

So I completely agree with Dan’score point – that business can benefit from a sustainable approach, rather than viewing it as a “nice to have” bolt on that must be traded off for something else (i.e. profit).

And yet, it’s all too easy to wax Evangelical about these things.  The real shift is out of the dominant short-term business mentality, and out of Western consumer culture mindset … but them’s a much longer story…

Mike Klein–Scrum des Commes Bruxelles / Kommskrummen Brussel

Nothing pisses off senior execs more than being told how to run their businesses.  Communicators, even the most senior, are looked to at most for advice, rarely for direction.

Telling a CEO that you have the answer to the question of “how to run a successful business”–or telling her that “the real issue is whether we’ll be in business in 50 years time” would be enough to get all but the most indispensable communicator chucked out of a boardroom for good.

I agree with Dan that the current social/environmental focus of “sustainability” and the thinking and positioning of an organisation relative to long-term future alternatives are two separate things, requiring serious thought–but I disagree violently that longevity must be the goal of any organization.

I’d much rather see organizations fuelled by a commitment to particular causes or outcomes, and then either dissolve upon success, or reconstitute themselves to address new challenges.  Longevity for longevity’s sake reminds me of creepy people who have their heads cryogenically frozen in Florida.

I also think Dan unduly minimizes the importance of organizational engagement around social-environmental-political sustainability issues, as these issues often present real, perhaps even existential threats to organizational viability.  Rather than adopting the rightfully-fatal posture as “conscience of the company’s long-term future”, we ought to focus our sustainability efforts on deep internal engagement and astute political navigation.

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