Thursday, 30 August 2007

Are you a great communicator?

I'm not.

That may sound odd given my role in helping improve communication, but it's actually important on a number of levels:

1) It's glib, but we all need to be aware of our personal strengths and weaknesses. I'm working on improving my communication, are you?

After all, if it's not a priority for you, why would it be for anyone else in your organisation?

2) Communication is too vital to be just left to the people who are good at it. Communications professionals sometimes focus too much on putting messages across (as I've mentioned, it tends to be a core part of their business case) and not enough time helping others communicate.

The grey financier, the quiet and mumbling engineer, (forgive the stereotypes for a moment) all have vital information they need to communicate with others for the good of the organisation.

What can we do?

  • On a personal level, if you're a good outward communicator, or your job is largely "putting messages across" you should ask yourself: "am I a good listener? Do I listen enough?"

  • Sometimes I see frustrated communications professionals who just want to get hold of the hiring process and make sure only good communicators get jobs here." It's a nice idea, but we have to live in the real world. Outside of the communication function we employ people primarily for their other skills. There isn't always a good communicator amongst the candidates and we can't always attract them even if there is.

  • Most vitally, we need to understand our role as helping the people who need to communicate. Part of this is offering support services, both in terms of communications training and development and acting as an "agency" for internal clients who wish to publicise larger projects etc.

  • On top of this, the new approach in internal communications needs to be about finding systematic ways to help the bulk of people (i.e. not naturally great communicators) in an organisation communicate with the people they need to. This requires an understanding of processes that people work with and the problems in communication between different groups.

  • Potential remedies range from programs to bridge cultural gaps, through new channels of communication to changing the incentive schemes around activities. (This is a topic I'll pick up again later.)

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Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Moving away from Command and Control

In my last post, I highlighted Lee Smith saying that "many of our current approaches to internal communication remain essentially about coercion, command and control."

I said then that I'd expand on the logic that links that statement to the approach I'm promoting, but first it's worth making a short detour through the history of internal communication.

In the beginning was the word...

and the word was written in the in-house newsletter. If one had to name an originating strand in the story of "internal communications" it would be in the organisational newsletter. Many of them were started without a clear purpose, just vague notions of "community building" or "enhancing shared identity" and production placed in the hands of whoever happened to be available.

Over time, people started thinking about that position more carefully. First we saw some journalists brought it to do the writing, which gave us a sense of "mass media," a subtle shift towards "few to many" communication and away from the "community odds and ends" that many newsletters began with.

Over time these internal communicators started to talk to each other and band together and work to define their role more carefully. There has been reams written about the "professionalisation projects" of various groups so I won't go into the mechanics here, except to observe that people who write in a journalistic style, but not for newspapers are often members of the Public Relations function. It's worth noting that in the UK, the "Chartered Institute" that encompasses most internal communicators is the CIPR.

PR and Marketing

Internal communications did have vague goals, as mentioned above, but the influence of PR practitioners was to begin to sharpen the notion that communications could alter the character of the community, reinforce the establishment of a particular identity. This isn't to say no one was doing this before, but it is from the field of Public Relations and the related discipline of Marketing that the philosophical impetus came. Whereas before the goals of internal communicators were loosely tied to the organisation, they were now becoming actively more engaged in "selling the values of the organisation" to the employees. The critical issue here is that this model of "few to many" and "selling" sits very comfortably in a world where the values of a the organisation are set by central/top management and the "ordinary worker" is persuaded (or as Lee put it, coerced) into compliance with that vision.

Strategy and Change Managment

The final strand in this short tour brings us to the present day. Despite the rush of conceptual ideas from PR and Marketing, the "internal communication department" remained a prisoner of it's roots, with a limited budget and often seen to be a "feel-good" item on the budget, ripe for cuts when recession hit. Now we all know that internal communication is vital to the health of the company, but it has taken time to construct a case for it and the tools for that case form the third strand of the history. It's from the field of change management that the "business case" for internal communication really took off. It has been observed that full communication and "selling the case" are vital for successful change. This established a business critical role for internal communicators in times of change. The Strategic Management types took this concept and ran further with it. They reasoned that a new strategy (or in some companies, the explication of an existing one) was also a matter that required full communication and case selling for success. Thus we reached a position where there was a continuing business case for internal communications, communicating the vision of the organisation to its members and persuading them to adopt it.

So what's the problem?

Internal communications is important, we all know and it's found a business case. What could cloud this sunny picture?

I will post in more detail on this when I talk about Mark Earls book, Herd, but in a nutshell, traditional marketing is not going to keep working. Internal communication has built a business case for itself, but it cannot deliver everything promised. The old notion of a vision and set of values, handed down from on high for the internal communicator to insert into the minds of masses sets those communicators up for a fall.


What can an internal communications consultancy provide, if old style communication plans and "vision selling" aren't effective. What is the role for internal communications interventions?

I would say that developing corporate strategy requires the flow of communication up as well as down in the organisation and that one aspect is the development and nurturing of those upward flows. Of course, that is something that plenty of people already do. I have been remiss in not acknowledging that conscientious practitioners have sought to feed information back up the chain, especially with regard to changes and strategy.

What is perhaps newer is the understanding that implementing any strategy depends on the quality of cooperation inside the organisation and crucially the quality of lateral communication. One area I particularly concentrate on visible problems between different groups in the organisation, especially those who form different subcultures. However, there is serious work on the human side of lateral communication to be done in every organisation. We have many technological solutions in place, but we still need people to talk and sometimes they need help for that.

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Friday, 17 August 2007

Engagement and Culture

Over at Talking IC, back in June, Lee Smith commented on Sue Dewhurst's post about engagement.

Sue says:

OK, I admit it, I hate the 'e' word. It's joined 'strategic' and 'culture' as one of those wibbly terms that gets bandied about constantly whilst half the time people don't really know what it means... but they manage to have an earnest-sounding conversation about it anyway.

Lee agrees that engagement is most often used as a buzzword and too often people mean different things by it anyway. I suspect we'd all say the same about "culture" too, but as he recommends a new book (CEO - the Chief Engagement Officer by John Smythe) that is a useful application of the "engagement" concept he also highlights an important facet of what "culture" is:

If you, like me, are getting irritated by the 'e' word, then I recommend John's book as an antidote. It'll convince you that engagement - as a management philosophy - is a no-brainer and that many of our current approaches to internal communication remain essentially about coercion, command and control.

Culture is, in part, those assumptions that are so deep rooted we do not usually notice them. And possible the part of "internal communication" culture I most want to help change is the cancer of "coercion, command and control."

Why do I want to change it? Not just because I don't believe that the centre of the organisation "always knows best" but because the evidence is that internal communication that relies on coercion, command and control just doesn't work.

It is worth saying that it's a few steps of logic from that statement to the philosophy I'm building Enoptron around, but I'll talk about that more in my next post.

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Tuesday, 14 August 2007

On Jargon

As I was clearing out some old piles of paper I came across an article in the Autumn 2005 edition of the now defunct MBA Business magazine. The title is "Start Making Sense" and it's about the jargon we all tend to use:

Read the packaging on any of Ronseal's products, be it Quick Drying Patio Paint or 5-Minute Fence Finish, and you'll find a very reassuring company motto: "Does exactly what it says on the tin".

If only all business communication was so straightforward.

I suppose the obvious thing to say is just: "Amen!"
Still, that's not a particularly new thought, so why I am writing about it in my new blog?

In part, to remind myself that I'm not writing academic papers any more. A certain kind of jargon is a useful shorthand when communicating with people who "know what you mean" but that isn't always appropriate on a blog.

And yet, in part, I have to say that the world will never be so simple. In the magazine article they note how often jargon is a substitute for real thought and knowledge and how many people and companies use it to avoid making tangible commitments. Still, even if we magically made everyone honest and diligent, I cannot see jargon disappearing completely.

I want to blog about communications, particularly internal communications and culture, so there's bound to be some fancy words used now and then. If you want to be precise about things that everyone has a bit of an idea about, then you need to use less common words sometimes, just to pinpoint what you really mean. And to state another obvious point, jargon is in part a cultural badge. Using the right words lets people know you are "one of them." Every subculture tends to create a shared language and that's part of how jargon comes about.

To aid communication we should try to follow these simple rules:

1) Avoid jargon where possible.

2) If you have to use it, be aware that you are excluding some audiences as well as including some. Ask yourself who those people are and if you mean to treat them in that way.

3) If you are going to use it, be sure you're willing and able to translate into plain English if required.

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