Tag Archives: strategy

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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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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