Tag Archives: interdisciplinary

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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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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