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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

GREATEST DEVELOPMENTS:

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

THE BEST

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.

WORST

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

BEST

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…

WORST

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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Time to Say Good Night to “Employee Engagement”?

Commscrum Belgium–Mike Klein

To be sure, the intentions behind the “employee engagement” movement of recent years were more-or-less honorable, to create working environments where employee participation was appreciated, and to ensure organizations used language that didn’t discourage such participation out of hand.

But as time went on, a prevailing definition for “employee engagement” came to indicate “the discretionary effort contributed by employees,” (as if there was such a thing as “non-discretionary effort” in organizations that benefit neither from slavery nor sleepwalking). Moreover, many in the internal communication industry leapt in as offering “employee engagement solutions” that could help generate extra-special-discretionary effort well beyond that warranted by what their clients were willing to reciprocate with.

Such efforts, in turn failed to protect many from outsourcing and recession.  The frequency with which I’ve heard ‘I was engaged, but I got fired’ from my fellow unemployed internal comms pros, indicates evidence of a perverse one-sided inversion of the original intent of “employee engagement”, one not lost on those who’ve survived those troubles.  And yet, not only is this deemed acceptable in some quarters, but the route suggested by many traditionally-minded folks in our industry (and in HR, to be fair) to move organizations beyond the layoffs, outsourcings and upheaval of recent years is, guess what, “more focus on ‘employee engagement’”.

No way.  Indeed, it’s time to kill the term “employee engagement” and spread its ashes all over Iceland.  To our industry, it’s become no less toxic than the term “sub-prime mortgage” in the finance world.

Don’t get me wrong. We need engagement all right.

Internally, we need “two-way, cards on the table, let’s come to grips with the new world of business’ engagement”.  We need a kind of internal engagement that openly addresses employee expectations about transparency and the viability of business strategies—and facilitates mutual recognition that employees are representatives of their businesses inside and outside working hours and need to conduct themselves accordingly.    And, for organizations to win, they need to create a kind of engagement that aligns the best things those organizations have to offer with the best things that employees (and other stakeholders) have to contribute.

We also need a kind of engagement that respects (and where apt, incentivizes) different kinds and degrees of engagement—so that if the goal isn’t to turn everyone into a smiling 20-year service award winner, but perhaps into innovators, change agents or even competent but temporary staff, the tone and policies of the an organization appropriately reflect this.

I’m not saying “disengage”—indeed, it’s time to engage.  Not capitulate, not self-flagellate, but really, deeply and powerfully engage. In as many directions as required.  And not hide behind a sweet-smelling but easy-to-see-through fig leaf called “employee engagement”.

Dan Gray – Commscrum Riyadh

For once, let me see if I can get in ahead of KK with a few views that I know we share…

Above all, there’s one line in this post that cannot be emphasised enough – “We need a kind of engagement that respects (and where necessary incentivises) different kinds and degrees of engagement…”

Amen to that. Context is everything!

There’s a reason that Treacy & Wiersema’s “value disciplines” continually top the unofficial Gray-Keohane (or is that Keohane-Gray?!) index of top management models. It’s that, in nailing a company’s colours to the mast of operational excellence, product leadership or customer intimacy, it forces the organisation to consider how they structure themselves accordingly.

The underlying dynamics, systems and processes – including those related to communication – are, or at least ought to be, completely different, depending on that choice. (It’s why one of Indy’s earlier comments about creating a seamless offering across comms and organisational consulting is absolutely spot on.)

Likewise, there’s a reason we repeatedly return to the subject of situational leadership. It ought to be self-explanatory that the kinds and degrees of engagement necessary vary dramatically between, say, a team or organisation in crisis mode versus one that is already highly-motivated and working well.

Anyone who peddles the myth that there is a universally applicable set of engagement drivers and “solutions” for improving business performance is, frankly, talking out of their hole!

Engagement is far less a process than it is a state of mind. It is, by definition, subjective and different for each individual and collections thereof. Some get their kicks from the freedom and opportunity to be geniunely creative; others are just stoked when their numbers add up!

One final thought – if we truly believe in the power of diversity (as all HR departments and organisations profess that they do these days), then it is also, by definition, in a constant state of flux. If we truly respect and value difference, then the group dynamic is redefined by each new member.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague

As Mike says, the original intentions were good – my understanding is that employee engagement was originally a way of involving staff in organizational developments so that they could contribute to and share ownership of the journey and the results.    Call me naive, but I don’t think there was ever any perverse thinking that purposefully twisted that good intention to squeeze the last energy out of people.  I just think employee engagement is difficult to implement and even more difficult to find sponsorship for.  A lot of people who try it haven’t seen best practice, don’t have the experience, warp their plans through compromise and simply mess up.

Engaging employees successfully is tricky because firstly, most big organizational decisions do not benefit from being discussed en mass, so its critical to identify the more detailed parts of strategic decisions that can benefit from the input of multiple perspectives and ideas.   Based on this then, secondly, once an employee engagement has programme been well designed (assuming for the sake of this discussion it is for a specific purpose, rather than as an ongoing mindset), it is even more difficult to implement that plan because staff and leaders alike are riddled with biases, political pursuits, motivations or criticisms that can color their views on what should change, could change, and how.   Their schedules are also a force to be reckoned with because at least the beginning of any engagement exercise has to be face to face.  Finally, if you can get your leaders fully behind this so that you have the resource and support that you need, and you’re coming close to a miracle.

I would guess that because so many well-meant attempts to engage employees have led to less than positive experiences and outcomes, the meaning of employee engagement has taken a negative spin.  Maybe we should be blogging about what works and how to get it right rather than about changing the name.

Dan writes about the importance of context and it has always struck me that, just like how the Myers Briggs Type Indicator tool breaks down personality characteristics into 16 traits, there must be a similar way of classifying communication contexts.  It would be great to see proven approaches to different communication challenges set out based on their various contextual differences.   Employee engagement would be one of those challenges well worth investing that prep time in – it is one of the more inspired strings to the communication bow, after all.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London

Nothing gets my back up quicker than someone coming in and challenging the definition of what “engagement” is: there’s a guy on the conference circuit who always begins his presentations with “It isn’t about engagement – it’s about involvement.”  As if involvement is somehow absent from everyone else’s definition.  So I agree with Lindsay, let’s not waste our time or anyone else’s splitting hairs about the definition.  I think we know what we are talking about here.

To me, as Mike says, engagement got slightly perverted by two issues.  The first was a belief that, thanks in no small part to the Measurement Mad, suddenly it was about moving numbers on reports up – if the “drivers of employee engagement” were identified, and actioned, and the numbers went up, people were therefore engaged.  The second was the continuing lack of joined-up/cross-silo cooperation among internal functions — so “engagement” from the HR perspective tended to be all about The Gallup Q12 and making sure the employee experience was positive; while from the Brand and Marketing side of things it was all about wthere you had Brand Champions, Sideliners, Mavericks, or Major Losers (you know, the 4-quadrant model of who was and wasn’t engaged in living the brand and delivering the right experience to the customer).  Seldom did the ‘twain meet.  That ties into Mike’s point:  most of the benefits are pointed inward (the business benefits of employees liking coming to work) or outward (the business benefits of employees focussed on customers), all of which benefits the organisation … but also ends up looking like a  Mexican standoff.

I don’t think the focus on business benefits is a bad thing at all; it’s how you get resource released to do what we do.  What needs to happen is a more holistic view and a disciplined (that’s right Dan: a Value-Disciplined) approach to it that all points inexhorably to one thing.  What that thing is depends on what the business is trying to achieve and how it is going to get there (and more often than not you’ll need your people to get there so why on earth would you separate them?).

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Commscrum and “Free Associations”—A Conversation

In this posting, the men and the woman of CommScrum discuss their short history, their commitment to free discussion, and the reactions they have received from unexpected places…with real-time conversation from the ethers of Skypechat:


Mike: Here’s how I’d like to start:  So, we’re into our fourth month of CommScrum–where we promised to break some taboos and challenge conventional wisdom–how do we think we’re doing?

Lindsay:  I think we’ve produced some good stuff and had some fun doing it.  The format’s been easy and the interaction we get is great so I can see this going for a while.

Kevin:  I like that we have brought out some sacred cows and if not slaughtered them then at least grilled and seasoned them a bit.  But we could still be more challenging.  I don’t want to become too polite or we’ll turn into what we are trying to distance ourselves from.

Dan: We have established a core of engaged folk (Sean Trainor, Sean Williams, Debbie Hinton et al) on both sides of the pond who like what we have to say, and are happy to chime in on a regular basis. Now its a question of how we widen the net further, in my book.

Mike: To be fair, we’ve clearly drawn blood a bit though, which I think we should acknowledge ourselves for.  We have one core principle guiding us, which a belief that there is nothing or no one in the communication world whom we can’t challenge, so long as we challenge on substantive grounds.

Kevin: And I don’t think drawing blood is an objective in itself.  It’s just an outcome of focusing on things that need to change in our profession if we are to remain relevant and innovative.

Mike:  One thing we’ve identified that’s crucial—is that there seems to be all-pervasive element of our profession’s culture that’s holding us back–a belief not only in hierarchy for its own sake, but that those in hierarchies hold their positions by right, making it wrong, impolite and even treacherous to challenge them publicly.

Kevin: Indeed.  We are at a sort of crossroads in terms of professionalism and how we associate – with an unprecedented range of options available to us. In the UK alone we have CIPD, CIPR, CiB, as well as EACD and IABC internationally.  As our profession has specialised, so has it fragmented.  It’s actually becoming hard to decide where to commit your time and energy in terms of best practices, next practices, networking and so on.

Mike:  Even though Commscrum is in its infancy, I think we have carved out a place in this fragmented world where comms pros who think the industry needs an ideological shakeup can connect with like-minded pros.

Kevin: Agree.  I’m getting lots of positive feedback that CommScrum is a place to have open conversations, rather than polite inwardly-focused chats behind closed doors.  I have had the opposite experience from IABC however and sort of drifted away – partly because of work pressures but because I felt it had become insular.

Lindsay:  Lets not forget that the IABC is a resource that offers a lot more where there is a critical mass of local and regional members that can float beneficial events and offer great networking opportunities. – i.e. North America.  Over there, it’s basically a big club for communicators complete with staff, accreditation and annual conferences – take it or leave it.

Dan:  Where I see myself getting value from any one of these sources is in uncovering alternative perspectives that encourage me to think differently, though. I certainly don’t get that from IABC these days.  In fact, I’ve encountered the opposite, because of the views we have expressed about IABC on Commscrum before.

Mike:  Are you talking about the email you received from a regional IABC officer expressing dissatisfaction with previous mentions of IABC in Commscrum postings?

Dan:  Yep – I’m headed out to Saudi next week for a 9-month contract, and I’d asked him if he knew anyone out there – a pretty simple and innocent request. Not only did he make it very clear he was unimpressed with my “recently expressed views”, he said he’d only help me network with IABC members in the Middle East if I renewed my membership. He even said – and I quote – “hey, nothing’s free these days.” Unbelievable!

Kevin: Wow. Yeah … I think sometimes people forget they are volunteers on these “boards.”  I was one of them!  I mean, it’s not like the elections are ever opposed and people are clamouring for roles.  Quite the opposite in my experience.

Mike:  But ironically, IABC’s own “Code of Ethics” calls for professional communicators to understand and support the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas, and to act accordingly.

Lindsay:   No denying that.  We Commscrummers – and anyone else who wants to share their professional views should be able to do that without reprimand.  I like being part of Commscrum because it stands for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and we don’t pretend to always be right.  We float ideas so our readers can shoot ’em down.

Dan: It’s a difference between an “instructional/right answer” focus (IABC) and a “thought leadership/chew on this” focus (Commscrum)

Mike:  IABC doesn’t have a monopoly on ‘right answers’, and I’m afraid it is missing the boat on the biggest issues facing us all right now.  IABC has some massive choices to make as we move into the social communication era–where democracy will confront hierarchy like never before, internally, in the industry, and in the business and organizational worlds as a whole.  To be sure, IABC fills a great social role in North America where communicators are dispersed, but it’s not needed for that in Europe. Germany in particular is getting along fine without any IABC involvement whatsoever.

Kevin: To be fair, I think IABC Chair Mark Schumann is spiritually “one of us” – he gets all this.  His challenge, and his successor’s, will be overcoming IABC’s propensities toward introspection and inertia.  And you can’t generally overcome inertia without some disruption.  There’s the rub. The thinking that got us here is not the thinking that will get us out of here.

Mike: What I see–IABC has great members–everywhere, Europe, NA, Asia.  It has some smart leaders, some real lions (like my buddy Ned Lundquist in particular), and does some good stuff.  It needs to keep doing the good stuff that informs and strengthens us as practitioners.

Lindsay: Absolutely.  Let’s keep things in perspective.  Some people get a lot out of it – but looking at it another way, the more introspective IABC becomes, the more people will seek information and truth from other sources – like Commscrum.  We’re all players in this evolution.

Kevin:  Let’s go to another example though.  IABC flew Mark Schumann over to Europe talk about employer brands.  That’s great, but, um, we happen to have some employer brand experts in Europe, thank you very much.  And as good as Mark is, there’s no blue water between him and say Simon Barrow.  Why didn’t they invite Simon? Certainly his perspective and experience is more relevant to a European audience.  Even I did employer branding for Coca-Cola and BP.  We aren’t exactly lightweights over here.  But I “left the IABC flock”, so it seems am persona non grata.  And my employer doesn’t sponsor IABC either. Yet my practice is officially launching in India next month, three offices of employee communications pros, then China.  And I don’t see IABC there at all.  It’s a real problem.

Lindsay:  What do you mean?  It’s a problem that they haven’t grown to cover the entire planet?  They have 14,000 members…

Kevin: But that’s mathematical – 50 states plus say an equivalent 5 in Canada, event with 100 people per region you hit 5,500 pretty quickly. The you get some large densities et voila.  It’s a problem that they claim “international” yet 90% of the members are on one continent.  Many of them presenting on cross-cultural, international communication issues when in truth their experience is working within a North American MNC.  As a long-term expat I have real problems with that.  It’s like being named the “World Champions” in American Football…

Dan: And emerging markets can, and do, leapfrog a lot of the incremental-competence-improving stuff that holds back the profession.

Kevin: I think we can’t over-emphasise this issue.  The equivalent is people in India and China who have gone from no phone to iPhone – never had a land line or a cruddy old brick.  That is the shift we are looking at.  Social media isn’t a channel; not something you learn about at a conference; you just do it.

Mike: Or, in Germany’s case, going from “newsletters and posters” to white-hot social media without getting mired in “employee engagement.”

Kevin: Precisely.

Mike: Nevertheless, IABC (and certainly its loyal members) don’t want to find themselves on the losing side.  Competent, confident ideological neutrality—that’s where IABC needs to position itself if it’s to thrive in the new environment.

Kevin: Is there a role for the “professional communicator” in 5 years time?  Assuming so, how should we organize ourselves?

Mike: That raises a further question–is IABC worth reshaping, or does it need replacing?  For example, in terms of industry infrastructure,  the IC group in Germany, IK_Community has 1000 members, no dues, and is totally organized through social media.  Melcrum and Ragan have followings in the tens of thousands for online and offline offerings alike.

Dan: As for ideological content, where we fit into the business picture is grounds for lots of discussions—for example, the words ‘brand’, ‘communication’, and ‘business’ put in front of the word ‘strategy’ are actually the same thing.

Kevin:  Agree, and I won’t bang on about multispecialism again here.  Another question – does IABC become a market shaper or a market maker?  I suspect the latter or fade into irrelevance.  I mean CIPR and CIPD are already making pretty strong inroads in the UK as well.  But IABC isn’t going to fade, it has such a strong North American footprint.  And again it has so much that is positive about it.  It just frustrates me, I guess… in my heart I feel it could be dominant if it could only shift its gaze from its own navel…

Mike: Maybe there’s a need for a “matrix” approach—we keep the “associations” as support infrastructure (skills training, accreditation, access to other members etc.), but the thought and commercial leadership moves to “movements” and “tribes” of like minds,  and small networks–perhaps even acting and competing as virtual firms.

Not fragmentation, tribalisation!

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Making sense of complexity – why we all need to be T-shaped

by Dan Gray–Commscrum London

An alternative title for this post might’ve been “Why IABC is destined to die on its arse.” As markers go, that’s a suitably provocative one to lay down, and it’s probably why I’ve been elected to bat lead-off for this new joint blogging venture (along with Kevin Keohane, Mike Klein and Lindsay Uittenbogaard.)

Why did I allow my IABC membership to lapse this year? For the simple reason that they – and many organisations like them – continue to adhere to the credo that it pays to be a specialist, seemingly oblivious to the fact that every other creative profession is swimming merrily in the opposite direction.

Take the gathering momentum of Design Thinking, for example, which is transforming notions of design from the beautification of posters and toasters to a distinctive creative thought process – a whole new way of approaching strategy, innovation and the solving of wicked problems, such as climate change.

It’s gaining massive traction because it’s tapping into the growing realisation that an increasingly complex, diverse and unstable world poses brand, design and leadership challenges that deep functional specialism alone is ill-equipped to deal with. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in his brilliant new book, Change by Design, they demand skills in two dimensions – not only sufficient depth of expertise to make tangible contributions from one perspective but, more importantly, the capacity and disposition to integrate thinking from across multiple disciplines.

The world of business communications has a lot to learn from psychologists like George A Miller, for example, with his insight that the maximum number of things anyone can hold simultaneously front-of-mind is seven (plus or minus two). When you think about the barrage of communications the average employee is subjected to, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why information fatigue syndrome is a very real phenomenon in many organisations.

Rapid change, audience overlap and media fragmentation have changed the rules of the game. Getting incrementally better at what you already do is becoming an irrelevance. The true value of communication lies in taking all of that complexity and making sense of it at a human level – a creative, synthetic process that distils a compelling core idea and relatively small number of supporting messages that people can actually relate to, and which actually adds value to the business.

For that, you need to be able to see beyond functional fiefdoms and start joining thing up. Failure to cross the “T” will forever condemn communicators to a life of downstream tactical execution.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Brussels

Like your style Dan–but I question your substance just a bit.

First, what you are describing is really a trans-disciplinary future, one where all of the traditional disciplines and toolkits available to the communicators will rapidly fuse, leaving only the truly transdisciplinary to thrive in the new environment. I think we’re in for a longer transition, Dan.

From where I sit in Brussels, where most of the current comms disciplines (Public Relations, Investor Relations, Public Affairs/Political Communication, Sustainability and Social Media) are well represented, there is starting to be some convergence and cross-fertilization.

The big blockage–until corporations and those who represent them start realizing that they need to communicate much more assertively and much less defensively, there isn’t going to be the money available to fully unleash this revolution.

The aftermath of Copenhagen will shift things somewhat–particularly in industries facing legislative or reputational doom. But those out of the immediate fire will try to hunker down as long as possible.

As for IABC–I wouldn’t count the ol’ International out. IABC’s priorities may need to be rearranged, with reduced emphasis on sustaining the HQ and Chapter infrastructure.

IABC needs instead to start moving towards a much leaner advocacy mission making better use of public networks and to giving newer (and more T-shaped) voices access to their more hoary channels like CW and Conference platforms. I’m going to be sending in my membership dues in February–but I know twisting your arm makes no sense until there’s some real progress.

Kevin Keohane — Commscrum Paris (thanks Eurostar)

Like Mike, I wouldn’t rule out IABC by virtue of sheer equity (or inertia, perhaps more appropriately).  Having said that, at least in Europe, I can say with statistical confidence that very few people who really matter in the communication industry have ever heard of IABC.

I do, however, wholeheartedly agree about the T-shaped issue with today’s communicators.  Indeed, IABC published an article in Communication World I wrote on the matter, to what can be described as tumbleweed-cueing silence.  Which is precisely the issue: the article was probably published in the wrong channel.  The kind of people who are members of IABC and read CW are not the audience who will easily adhere to a more holistic view.  I have nothing against IABC; I just think the organisation is very North American and navel-gazing, and a bit intellectually incestuous.  This results in its output being increasingly weak due to generations of inbreeding.  It never looks outside its front door.  It seldom invites people from ‘outside the family’ to generate thought leadership or to be provocative.  Instead you get yet another presentation about measuring the effectiveness of your employee engagement effort, or How To Use Twitter.  At one end, The Establishment and at the other, Me Too Fad Followers.  It’s about incremental improvements of approaches that already exist. As a result, it often feels a bit like a “member’s club” rather than a professional association, to me.

I’ve argued this for years: it is far better and more rewarding for communicators to go, for example, to conferences across disciplines than to communication conferences where they will hear what they already have heard before (probably from the same 5 IABC luminaries).

In the final analysis, I think communicators should look at their priority list.  If their priority list reads “1. Complete online benefits enrolment newsletter 2. Update intranet news feed with new press release  3. Check employee survey results” then they should worry.  If instead it reads “1.  Consider how to better align divisional business strategies with HR processes   2.  Track financial performance to management core brief delivery  3.  Engage with change management consultants around employee and manager involvement” then it’s probably a better picture.  Mike’s ultimately correct that the dysfunctions are as much the communicators’ faults as the businesses in which we ply our difficult trade.

Part of the solution isn’t to turn over the keys to unskilled communicators though: I am passionate about people communications as a strategic business management discipline.  Part of the solution is to become more broadly focussed, as Dan says.  This isn’t about diluting core content; it’s about broadening the scope in a disciplined, considered manner.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard–Commscrum Delft

Love the thinking, Dan.  Like the counter, Mike.  Get the bridge, Kevin.

But let’s be clear.  There’s a difference between making the IABC as a platform more cross-disciplinarian and bringing information from other disciplines into the hard core content of the IABC.

Professionals are definitely getting more out of connecting information from different fields together these days and the access we have to linked online information is obviously behind that.

It’s a hugely exciting development and those who are better at information filtering than at simply learning are laughing out loud.   People are picking and choosing what they want to learn about, but they still need solid sources from which to pick and choose.

The IABC could well integrate more information from wider fields into its topics, but it has to balance that up with keeping a focus on communication as opposed to Communication AND philosophy AND / OR sociology AND / OR psychology etc., otherwise it becomes too diluted.

People join things up, not platforms.  Unfortunately the IABC content is obviously not as up to date as we might like it to be, otherwise this blog would not exist.  A T-Shaped IABC (T meaning ‘two  – or more dimensions?) – in so far as it can be – is just a matter of time.

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