Monday, 29 October 2007

Cultural adaptation

Over at IABC Café, Julie Freeman remarks on the amazing adaptations that cartoon characters undergo to compete in new cultural markets.

Fictional characters are of course more pliable than corporate identities, but at the same time, companies like Disney and Marvel have a very strong sense of the core values of their characters. Those values cannot be thrown away for commercial convenience in a particular market because of the potential damage to the worldwide brand (e.g. Spiderman or Mickey Mouse.)

The lesson for those of us involved in "cultural translation"?

Look carefully at what the core message is, very often we cling to particular forms of expression or outward formulas too strongly. The behaviours and attitudes that the message create in the audience are more important (day to day) than creating a monolithic "image identity."


Monday, 22 October 2007


It's a little while ago now, but Liam from Black Belt Dojo asked Who really is measuring? He particularly wonders if "whether there is a silent majority out there that is in denial about the need to measure at all."

I would suggest that there is of course, a (sometimes) silent minority who are in denial about the need to measure. After all, communications is classically one of the fields where you can be comfortable if you don't like numbers (as opposed to engineering or finance, for example). Thus, we've all been part of conversations in the field where someone's visceral dislike of numbers shows through into a disdain of measurement.

However, I don't see this as a majority per se. What forms the majority is a coalition of these people with those who are wary of measurement for some other reasons, which in my view often stem from the fact that (if you'll allow the mangling of von Clausewitz):

Measurement is often a continuation of politics by other means.

That is to say, in the corporate setting, measurement is often as much about legitimation as real feedback. Measurement of communication is an exercise of putting numbers on human behaviours. That's not impossible, but there are a number of pitfalls. How well do your numbers represent a good summary of the behaviours in question? How well does your model of interpretation turn those numbers into meaningful conclusions?

This is of course not unique to communications, similar questions apply in process engineering too. But, the margins of error are clearly greater in communications and the body of knowledge is just a bit less developed. A lot of survey based techniques have flaws that we're all aware of (particularly in conditions where "organisational silence" is playing a part) but we don't discuss a lot. That's not to send us down a postmodernist rabbit hole about "objective reality" but if people don't believe that the measurement really works, then they won't be comfortable with it. I think that's also a big point for development in the profession as it plays into unease with identity that's already present.

One rule of politics is that you don't ask questions that you don't already know the answer to. As such I see a lot of reluctance to take on measurement of communications because communicators don't have confidence in the measurement process. If you don't think it's going to help your case, it's sometimes felt to be wise not to generate the numbers. If you generate the numbers it can be particularly hard to discuss their accuracy. Especially when that then puts you on the turf of arguing about numbers with the Finance Director. I also wonder in the light of my previous post if there isn't an identity based reluctance to seeing oneself in that role for a lot of communicators.

Likewise, if you don't feel that the measurement system is provably reliable, how wise is it to use as a feedback tool for improving your actions? We've all seen multiple cases where using numbers as feedback improves the numbers month on month, but doesn't actually get the job done. My work around the NHS has reminded me of that to a great degree.

Does all this amount to being "in denial about the need to measure at all"? I'm not sure. I think these subtle problems are real ones that are yet to be fully solved across the field and that is both disappointing and an opportunity to make some real improvements.


Sunday, 21 October 2007

More on Identity

Over at Shades of Gray, David Murray has an post about a new film, Helvetica which has started an interesting discussion in the comments about the craft of communication and the relationship of various commenters to "management" and "strategy." It's a great conversation because you can see some of the tensions in identity that a move into management puts creative people through, right there in people's comments.

There's also an interesting tangent in the comments about "measurement" which I will talk about more in my next post.



Thursday, 18 October 2007

Corporate Communicators, Management and Identity

As part of my travels this week I was privileged to get a small insight into a recent (not yet published study) of corporate communications managers that examined their actions in unexpected crisis situations. I won't identify any people or situations too closely because it would be unfair to preempt the study too much, but it did include managers at the top of the corporate communications tree in a number of prominent businesses, many in the FTSE100.

The fascinating part for me was a pattern of "regression under fire" where people who are very definitely managers, whose position is far above "copywriter" or "PR representative" slipped away from strategic thinking into what might be termed "chasing the message cycle." Of course, the message cycle shouldn't be ignored in a crisis, but presumably these people have whole departments to help them with that. Surely, their role is to think in a strategic manner and help the board look for opportunities to address the underlying issues, rather than engage unduly with day by day press and communications tasks.

I don't say this as a criticism, I think we've all turned in bad performances in a crisis at some point. If you haven't, then you probably haven't been in that many crises or you're failing to admit that someone else saved your bacon at one point. Rather, I see is as saying something about the state of the corporate and internal communications field. There's a deep seated insecurity about the value of the discipline and it seems to me that combines with the relative newness of these professions to leave some uncertainty of identity. In a crisis, we have a tendency to fall back on "what we're good at" which is, reasonably enough for people from that background the basics of crafting and disseminating a message.

However, these people are at the top of a management tree, they have been managers for a long time. Is it really appropriate that they react as craftsmen and craftswomen? And what does it say about "management" in the field?

It's perhaps unfair to overgeneralise from an unpublished study, but I think there are some important issues here. One is the question of how well communicators are relating to strategic, rather than tactical concerns. There are narratives of "communications strategy" alive and well within the profession, but it seems that we don't really have full confidence in them as yet. Another issue is the question of management. Communications is very definitely "knowledge work" and as such doesn't fit easily into the industrial traditions that shape a lot of "managment." All the same, it sometimes feels that there isn't a clear sense of what it means to be a manager in a communications function and certainly I think there are opportunities to improve the training and development of people who ascend into these communications management positions.


Saturday, 13 October 2007

IABC "Speedexperiencing" Event - Tues 9th Oct

Just a few words about my first IABC event. Everyone was very friendly and the setup was interesting, with the opportunity to take part in three of five discussion groups.

I wanted to be in all five, but ended up choosing the group on engagement run by Kevin Keohane first. It was nice to meet someone in person that I've only had "blog contact" with in the past. He had some pointed questions to ask about the alignment of the "employee brand" with the aspirations of current and potential employees, but I won't attempt to reproduce his nifty diagram here. I felt this discussion was just getting going as the hooter went to move us on to the next one. I hope we at least laid some groundwork for the next group.

Nick Grant asked us "Can internal and external communication ever be aligned?" Again, time caught up with us, but (being the IABC) there was of course some consensus that they two perspectives have to be aligned overall, otherwise the mixed messages can cause serious problems.

Alas, I cannot recall the name of the final discussion leader, but the topic of "Can change be managed?" and the notion that it rather had to be "led," than "managed" made me think today once again about our approach to internal communications.

In particular, one idea in the "change leadership" discussion was that most people are most likely to change for a direct manager who they know and trust. It's largely only someone who they work with regularly, who understands their working life who has the credibility/trust to ask someone to undertake radical working change.

For me, there was a strong parallel with how internal communications "should" work. Statements from the top, or even just far flung regions of the company are unlikely to have as much credibility or trust as those from direct supervisors and colleagues. We instinctively know this, I think, but often give up on it because it's very hard to make practical use of. Rather, many people view "middle management" as the "big sponge" that soaks up all the information, but never passes it along.

As a result, we've invested in circumventing the traditional channels of communication. That has some exciting possibilities, especially in connection with new "social media," but at the same time (hobby horse alert!) I feel it has pushed "internal communications" into a "mass communications" or "marketing/advertising" mould, where the purpose and expertise of internal communicators is to create communications strategies and implement them.

What I see is that there is an important role for "internal communications" in helping people communicate, helping "the sponge" of middle management actually pass more information along. In effect, doing less communication and spending more time on helping people communicate, both by innovating technology/processes and the hard work of teaching people extra skills. Why? Because in the end, they will tend to have credibility that a distant communicator will struggle to have. Social media allows a narrowing of that kind of distance, but even there I think that "social business communication" is going to need a lot of experience and even training to get the best out of it and existing trust relationships will continue to dominate.


Sunday, 7 October 2007

Everything is Communication?

In my last post, I mentioned that in some ways, every act is an act of communication and as such, there is a real need for a communications viewpoint at the very top management table.

I also said I'm not sure how that should be implemented in reality, so I thought I'd begin by explaining the issue and justifying my statement a little.

Imagine a company which announces a renegotiated share options plan for the CEO at the same time as a pay and hiring freeze for ground-floor staff. There is a certain commercial logic to the action. The CEO is given greater incentive to improve the performance of the company and the pay and hiring freeze is part of a cost-cutting plan. Of course, anyone reading it laid out like this can immediately see what it says to ground-floor staff:

a) "Your contribution isn't valuable to the company."

b) "The CEO's contribution is."

c) "Despite this you will be expected to do increasing amounts of work for no extra reward."

d) "Any success this generates will help make the CEO rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

I'm not the first person to observe that this might explain why the many companies who have undertaken this kind of action have found employee performance reducing and problems getting worse, not better.

Still, it remains a popular course of action and whilst that is in part due to the powerful financial logic that drives it, it seems also to be in part because the fact of what the action is communicating is not recognised by decision makers.

Another example from an organisation I have worked with involved research scientists and managers who were payed roughly similar amounts. Seeing increasing competition for talented researchers, the company responded by increasing the pay of scientists. The predictable result was that over time, the best managers started leaving the company and without these managers the quality of research began to suffer.

Once again, this is not to suggest that financial and commercial logic should come below communication, just that a little more thought about what was communicated could have resulted in a different policy that didn't have as many side-effects.

My contention then is that while we assume that top managers have a grasp of the communications impact of their actions, the evidence is that in some organisations this is just not the case. As a result, all sorts of policies get handed down that communicate things which contradict the explicit communications statements made to employees.

It seems to me that within the typical hierarchy of many organisations, one way Internal Communications issues and the communications impact of various actions will be recognised is for IC to have a seat at the top table. But, that seems neither likely or even politically astute, so I'm definitely open to suggestions.


Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Internal Communications: The Big Ideas


2007 seems to be a year when people are asking questions about the direction of internal communications. My take on things first developed during 2005 in an MBA Marketing Communications class discussion of "current trends in corporate communications."

In the time it's taken me to get around to actually writing about it, a lot of other people have independently produced similar ideas, either directly about internal communications (e.g. Kevin Keohane) or more abstractly about organisation (e.g. James Surowiecki - Wisdom of Crowds) and marketing (e.g. Mark Earls - Herd.) At the same time, I've already linked recently to people like Sue Dewhurst at Black Belt Dojo and Ron Shewchuk who are posting interesting tidbits in this area on a regular basis.

Given that there are similar ideas around, it would be silly not to talk about them. To that end I'm going to quote quite a bit from  Kevin Keohane's blog postings not because he's the only one posting, but because he's condensed his thoughts into three convenient posts...


In "Internal Marketing is..." Kevin starts by saying:

"The concept of internal marketing is based on a false premise that one can treat employees like external customers.

“Internal marketing” is back as an employee communication approach. The concept is simple: use basic marketing approaches to communicate to employees in the same way that these methods can raise awareness, interest, intent and action with consumers."

To me, however, "internal marketing" isn't "back" it never really went away. There are pockets of good practice and experimentation where different approaches have been adopted, but my experience in contact with a range of typical organisations of various sizes is that "internal marketing" logic remained the dominant mode of action, even as IC professionals like Kevin moved on to new and better approaches with those clients who had the required imagination.

Kevin continues:

"The explanation for the revival of internal marketing is also simple. Marketing Directors are increasingly delivering a range of internal communication tasks. The logic is that if an organisation is trying to deliver a differentiating customer experience, then who better to get employees lined up than the people responsible for defining the customer experience? The fact that the Marketing function often has greater influence than does Internal Communications adds weight to the idea. With the importance and power of brand rising rapidly on the corporate agenda, the case is compelling on its face."

I would add that there is an underlying structural issue that has kept "marketing techniques" in pole position in a lot of IC departments. The discipline of marketing was founded (if you'll forgive the stereotype) around the needs of the Marketing Department at a company like Proctor and Gamble. You have 50 to 100 people who need to explain the value of a new product to millions of current and potential customers. It's a process of very few to very many communication, or in shorthand a "one to many" process. Likewise, in many IC departments, you have a very small staff, expected to produce results that affect a very much larger number of employees in the rest of the organisation. It's a very natural step to look to the techniques of "mass communication" from the marketing discipline to make that happen.

I think this is important, because while Kevin goes on to identify that:

"... there’s a basic problem with the whole idea. The nature of the employment relationship is essentially different from a consumer relationship."


"Most marketing practice is based on crafting a message, packaging it and delivering it to an audience — and then gauging what happens and modifying the next round of activity accordingly. Internal communication, at its best, goes beyond so-called “two-way” communication models, and creates an ongoing dialogue that both reflects and shapes the place where this conversation occurs.

there's a basic pressure (as in every part of life) to do more with less. And less staff and less resources pushes you back towards "one to many" communication, which in my opinion always tends to look more like "two-way communication" than genuine dialogue.

Perhaps most importantly, if I was to identify one reason why so many organisations still indulge in "internal marketing" it would be that most people involved in "internal communications" have a background in Marketing or PR. We need to consider carefully the skills we prioritise in IC if we want the field to progress.

Having said this, it's important to remember that it's not all a bad thing. Sue Dewhurst corrected me on this in reply to one of my earlier posts and Kevin puts it well:

This is not to say that some of the methods, practices and tools that prove valuable in marketing don’t have an important place in an effective internal communication effort. In fact, internal communication people can learn a lot from marketing approaches such as developing “the big idea,” defining the essence of a brand or value proposition, identifying, prioritising and segmenting stakeholders, and being more creative and inspirational in their overall approach.


Finally, Kevin says that:

While internal marketing may well be based on a false premise, the emerging truth is that no organisational silo – marketing, human resources, internal communications or IT — owns the whole solution. Best practice engagement is about making sure that these disciplines work together in a complementary manner to deliver the right result for the organisation.

For me, of course, this is where things get really interesting. If there is going to be more to IC than "internal marketing" then maybe we need to think carefully what "internal communications" can do for an organisation. Is it all about creating a dialogue between the top of a company and the rest? Or is there more?

My answer is that there is more. If you're going to talk about "internal communications" then you should be involved in every aspect of people communicating with each other. That means not only dialogue between "leaders and followers" but also between "followers" and not just discussions around values and community, but also the kind of communications people need to get things done, day to day.


So, onto Kevin's post "The end of internal communications."

This is getting long, so I'm going to "quote and paste" less of Kevin's work. Go and read it (or re-read it, if that's the case) as it's really worthwhile.

First, he sets the scene:

"There have been the rumblings of a seismic shift in the employee engagement and internal communications arena for several years now. Digital technologies are expanding our opportunities, consumer power and influence grows apace, and traditional organisational structures and hierarchies creak under the strain of 21st century business velocities. The contract among employers, employees, investors, stakeholders and customers is being re-written."

He moves on to point out that whilst in the past "internal communications" has bounced around the corporation, sometimes being sited as part of HR, sometimes part of "corporate communications," sometimes an adjunct to PR and marketing, it has been managing relatively well understood and stable needs and relationships. However, with the "seismic shifts" from changes in technology and society, this is no longer the case.

He goes on to list all the people involved in different aspects of the "customer experience" and note that everyone is responsible and if you don't get organised, your competitors will.

I'll let Kevin's words make the key point:

"What does all this have to do with internal communications? And why is it “dead”?

Many functional internal communication leaders today have come from a publishing, journalism, or PR background (and increasingly from Marketing disciplines). And in general, internal communication functions have been managed – and often managed very effectively – as information and knowledge publishers. Of course, most internal communication operations are very good at managing “two way communication,” ensuring that employee surveys track how things are going and what drives the right results to the bottom line; supporting senior leaders and line managers in their communication roles; providing opportunities for the employee to be heard. “Best Practice” is well and truly bedded in, and blogs, wikis, and ‘MySpace for the corporation’ are all adding new approaches to the mix.

But internal communication people need to stop thinking about ourselves as internal communicators. Because we’re simply not anymore. And we shouldn’t be. Internal communicators should see themselves as business people with a specific communication, involvement and engagement business process focus."

Kevin carries on with more detail and following his natural style ends up with what sounds like a call for Internal Communications to be at the center of everything:

"But if we are truly to thrive and face the challenges of 2007 and beyond, as internal communicators, we need to become part management consultant, part HR professional, part IT consultant, part brand manager, part organisational psychologist, part executive coach, part media relations expert … and part accountant.

We need to get outside our box, without apology, and stick our noses into other peoples’ business. Because everybody in the organisation, and many of our stakeholders who aren’t necessarily on our distribution lists, helps us deliver our customer experience and our “brand” — which is, after all, our reputation."

Finally, in his third post on this topic Kevin assesses what this drive to be at the centre of everything in the organisation means for the average IC professional. It's not a completely optimistic picture, but it reinforces the notion that it has to be more than just the traditional skillset.

So what does all this mean to me?

First, I see that if Internal Communications is going to develop in this way, it needs to change a lot. The skillset has to broaden and critically, the focus has to broaden, from being "publishers of information" to "facilitators of dialogue." In time, this really means that IC professionals shouldn't really be writing so much at all.

What then should they be doing?

1) To pursue Kevin's grand vision, IC has to work it's way into the very fabric of corporate management. If you don't have contact with and credibility with all the people who contribute to the "customer experience" you're in trouble. And since every act, be it the institution of a new bonus system, or new rules for cost control in production is an act of communication (which often speak louder than all the traditional forums and dialogues) communicators need to be at least involved in the discussions before these decisions are made.

(N.B. I still see a role for a split between "internal" (workers, partners) and "external" (customers, regulators, media) specialisms, however.)

I think this is a long term project and I'm unsure how to put it into action at this stage. Thus for now, I'm concentrating on the second part of the equation.

2) It's time for IC to start taking on a real process focus. In particular, it needs to develop skills in process, rather than content, as I mention above.

The way I've chosen for my consultancy is to focus on lateral communications.

In my opinion, a key issue is to improve the quality of communication between various groups within the organisation. If we take the notions of the "Wisdom of Crowds" to heart, then enabling the "crowd" to solve problems themselves, without unduly putting a burden on the rest of the organisation has to be a good way to improve the quality of action.

As such, my aim is to offer problem solving in urgent cases and diagnosis and assessment to avoid problems for organisations under less stress. My expertise is all about getting different cultures to talk to each other, so I'm focusing on international situations and national ones that involve distinctive groups (e.g. engineering, production and marketing.)

One of my challenges is to prove that this specialisation is worth investing in, alongside more generic exercises in improving the quality of dialogue and information flow in the organisation.

The other is to develop more services in that more generic area.

And that will be some of the topics for future posts.