Tuesday, 27 November 2007

IABC Event

Well I'm in London today, so I'll be off to the IABC event this evening. Liam from Black Belt Dojo will be lecturing us on their work on generic competencies for internal communicators.

You can download a PDF summary here. I'm blogging this in advance to force myself to read their summary in advance. Having done so I have to say it's a very thorough piece of work and very valuable to anyone having to define the competencies for IC roles in their organisation (and of course the training and dev. work that needs to be done too.)

You can also download a summary article about the work that appeared in Strategic Communication Management magazine. That's also interesting, but when it moves on to organisational roles I think that's where you have to really stop and think about how IC operates in your firm.

I'm looking forward to the talk and meeting up with some communicators to chat. My work being consulting I don't get to talk shop very often and the IABC events are great for me from that point of view.

Addition 03/12/07:

Been busy, but I wanted to update this post because we had a great discussion on the evening and it's very clear that Liam is fully aware of the diversity of roles in IC and when he talks it's clear that he's put a lot of thought into how the competency framework adjusts around the different situations out there.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Melcrum Blog: Is I.C merely a cog in the propaganda wheel?


As usual, I'm late on reading my RSS feeds, so I'm a few days behind the zeitgeist in noticing this post over at The Melcrum Blog:

Is I.C merely a cog in the propaganda wheel?


Key quote:

“People will always see the internal communication function as an internal propaganda machine”. This was a comment made at the recent CIPR Inside event held at Hill & Knowlton in London.


This point alone could no doubt have stimulated enough discussion for a whole other event. It certainly prompted me to think about the role of the internal comms function and the struggle that practitioners often face in getting employees to fully understand and appreciate the point of their existence beyond the cliché of arranging parties and writing newsletters. But is there any truth in what Katharina’s ex-colleague said? Is the struggle for authenticity ultimately futile? And is the internal comms department the place where truth can be sought or is it better to listen to news as it materializes on the company grapevine? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


My reaction:

Obviously, it depends. Generalising about the perception of the IC function in "a company" is like generalising about the culture of "a company" - there's so much variation there will always be counter-examples.

However, it does dovetail with some of the questions I've been asking on this blog and I think the quote points at a kernel of truth which needs thinking about.

The kernel of truth is that many IC professionals have made it their "business case" to "deliver employee engagement"; interpreted to be moving employees to a finer appreciation of the strategies, tactics and requirements of top management.

If you analyse such an undertaking from the point of view of an employee whose interests do not match perfectly with those of top management, it's hard not to see those aims as having some element of propaganda attached. Throw in the way that many corporate exercises seem to be much better at sending information out to employees than gathering it in and it should be easy to see how employees can feel harangued. Add the way that the legal department gets the last word over what may be revealed about an awful lot of important issues affecting people on the ground and you can see how IC starts to look like the "Ministry of Truth."

So, is authenticity doomed?

I'd say there is still hope on the horizon:

1) Talented communicators manage to bridge these and many other gaps, wherever they work. There may be contradictions inside corporate life, but personal integrity and honesty about the times when you're in a difficult position can help people's view of IC a lot.

2) In some organisations, company culture is better than this and where it isn't IC can be a hugely positive influence in working towards a better state of affairs. Trust might be in short supply at times in the transition period, but if communicators set out to be reliable, honest and committed to improving communication in both directions within the organisation, success will bring trust.

3) As I've been posting here, I do think that there are spaces for the IC function to position themselves in which do not rest so closely on "engagement" which to my mind is where the "propaganda feeling" starts to creep in. One possibility is to explore a focus on more process related communication questions, along with coaching people to communicate better, rather than being a "motivation unit." If your role in communication is to "do it better" rather than "do it with the aim of improving X Y Z" you've more chance of being trusted and are less likely to be asked to spin.

Of course, in all of these outlined situations, if company culture is not by nature transparent, then it has to be admitted that the grapevine will probably let employees know about "secrets" long before IC is allowed to do. If IC in turn bows to pressure from management to "massage" the news, then the battle is truly lost. However, where truthfulness is maintained, then accuracy at least will put you one step over the grapevine.

Is all this dilemma filled? Unfortunately yes, which is why I'm seeking to create a case for IC that doesn't make performance rest on the kind of metrics that propaganda was designed to address. It's the only sustainable way forward...


Friday, 9 November 2007

Social Media, Facebook and Privacy

This topic has been around a while and will doubtless rumble on for at least a generation. What brought it to mind recently was this post by David Murray over at Shades of Gray.

First of all, in the context of a "professional community webboard" then there's the obvious case for some kind of anonymity if you want to provide people an area for discussing ideas or difficulties related to potentially sensitive commercial matters. In the age of google, it's only a short step from a real name and a description of an episode from working life to full identification of the person and their employer.

Especially in an arena like communications, that kind of risk means that if you fully ID online postings, you won't get much discussion of real events from people who work in-house. It's the only safe approach for them. So it really is a practical issue of what kind of community discussion you hope to create.

The spammy, thread-jacking and obnoxious behaviour of some anonymous posters is of course a genuine problem in the same practical vein. One approach is to moderate anonymous comments, which can be onerous. Another is to have "anonymous registration" where you can only post if you register a pseudonym, but that discussion is also protected from anonymous readers and google. I've seen this second approach work in real online communities, but I don't know how well it stands up if everyone is working in the same field (which provides more clues to identity.) It does however allow people to be anonymous and yet have a "reputation" and thus a consistent community identity.

Moving on from the practical to the philosophical. I'm part of a generation who (thanks to my geeky past) grew up with online communications and has been typing to people across the other side of the world long before some excited communications consultant discovered AIM, let alone Facebook or Twitter.

One side effect of that is that I've accumulated a bunch of online identities almost by accident. Not all of them were kept intentionally separate, sometimes it was just an accident of technology. However, since it's been a natural development for me, I rather suspect lots of other people exist in that world too. Now that's not to say that you couldn't (with google and some hackery) connect up all my online identities and reveal all my secrets, of course you could. But, there are some clear divisions which I'd guess a random HR researcher would not cross. That's not because I have something particular to hide, as much as accidents of history of online technology, but I don't think it's all bad when it comes to letting me decide who I introduce from my personal network to my business one and vice versa.

It sometimes seems to me that the people who most breathlessly wish for absolute transparency and connection of business and personal networking online are those who've pretty much come to online activities through their business interests. As such, they've not really developed any personal connections online that didn't have them asking themselves "Am I happy for people at work to see this?"

That is of course, pretty farsighted of them, but:

1) It makes me a bit cynical about when they get on a high horse about "I've nothing to hide and neither should you have." [Not to mention that many of them, like myself are self-employed and thus a bit insulated from the whims of corporate bosses.]

2) I do wonder about the day they make an inevitable mistake in self-censorship. It's easy to talk about accepting consequences for your actions and views, but it gets more complicated as the memory and span of things like google allow a picture to be built up of you that goes far beyond what anyone outside spy land would have done in the past. I do think that it's true that newer generations will alter the boundaries of acceptability, but it's going to be slow and painful going. For now, corporate blackballing and retaliation is a reality and it is part of why privacy needs to be thought about seriously.

3) It's also observable that many of these commentators don't really use the internet in a private capacity or they do so in ways which have not yet easily leaked out for searching. I don't think there's anything to hide in my list of amazon.co.uk purchases, but it might not be fun discussing them all with a corporate client. For now, along with my google search history, these items are not easily available. But they will be one day and that's part of why privacy as a principle still has resonance.

3 a ) On that theme of private conversations, there are mediums like IM which might yet leak details out. Flirty conversations between single people have no moral or commercial relevance to a job opportunity. But once they leak out, how much fun is going to be to discuss them every time?

4) The critical implicit worry is that the more transparent your current online identities are, the easier it will be to connect them to information which should have remained private (due to contractual or personal obligations from the other party) but which technology and the increasing size of the surveillance society bring out into the open.

An extra example might be the question of private areas within a Facebook account. You might reserve an area for only friends to see photos, but if your Facebook account is connected to your boss, they may well end up seeing it one day. Now photos of you drunk at a Halloween party might not be the end of the world, but the possibility of your boss (and every future boss) seeing them is a quantum leap forward in accountability.

I suspect younger generations will wear this kind of embarrassment more easily and that's how they will deal with the problem. However, until that approach reaches critical mass, the rest of us are left with some difficulties. One can of course attempt to constrict the personal, by seeking blandness to avoid embarrassment, but that is a frighteningly anodyne life, especially when one considers just how disapproving some employers are. As such, perhaps our only option is to, like the young ones, be loud and proud and crusade, refusing to care about lost opportunities with those who hold unreasonable attitudes about various lifestyles.

I've been a pioneer a lot of my life, so I can't say I'm terrified to take that approach, but it's usually quite hard work. We're going to see a lot of opportunities fall into the laps of "bland suits" and it's not going to be fun to watch.

My personal advice on "personal" and "business" would be, put some effort into keeping them separate. Don't use your own name on myspace for recording fun times and weird bands. Sure it's a little extra effort to have a couple more email addresses and you have to stop and think sometimes about whether someone fits in the "personal" or "business" box, but the value is that you get to choose the pace of integration, rather than having google force it upon you. And isn't that choice a good thing?


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Saturday, 3 November 2007

Communication and Innovation - Small Business

Some notes from a recent presentation:

Innovation can be thought of on 4 levels (see Hamel – The Future of Management - a good book which I'll talk about more next week):

- Management innovation

- Strategic innovation

- Operational innovation

- Product/service innovation


These notes focus on product innovation, the principles all apply to the other kinds, you just have to juggle the category definitions around a bit.

From the point of view of communication, it makes sense (as will become clear) to break the process down into two parts:

1) Creativity – Finding the innovative idea.

2) Assessment/Implementation – turning the idea into a product.



Where do ideas come from? Some ideas come out of the head of a talented designer, but most innovations come from people who have a direct experience of the product:

a) Users of the product and those who interact with them – so directly from customers, but also from those who get some sight of the buyer’s experiences: sales people and maintenance engineers (for example.)

b) People connected to the production of the item – designers, production workers – esp. the tinkerers who may be the people you least expect.

These are all people who might have ideas, or germs of ideas for changes to an existing product, or a new product that fits into the things the company does now.

Aspects of communication in creativity:

Who needs to hear the idea?

  • e.g. Designer, Marketing Director, R&D Dept.
    • Does someone have a responsibility to collate ideas and then take action?
    • Are there open communication channels for people to bring these ideas to them?

How will they get to hear about it?

  • Direct survey, either mediated (paper/email/etc.) or face to face.
  • Chain of communication; e.g. Customer tells sales rep, who then tells...
    • What are the incentives in place for this to happen?
    • Do people know who is next in the chain to tell?

Of course, if someone has the germ of an idea it might need some developing or extra information from someone else in the chain. The key process here is the same as in the next stage, so let’s move on:



Once there’s a steady stream of ideas coming in, they need sorting and assessing.

There can be all sorts of formal criteria and prototyping stages involved, but the key aspect from a communication point of view is that it’s at this point you need to start getting multi-disciplinary co-operation.

At a minimum, any innovation will have to satisfy three constituencies:

1) Production – is it practical to make this new product, is it within the company’s capabilities?

2) Sales – will the product actually solve customer problems well enough to persuade them to buy it?

3) Finance – Can the above occur in a way that makes enough money to be worth investing in?

Of course, all of those questions are actually interlinked; e.g. you can make anything if the money is available, etc.

So, you have to get everyone together to discuss it, which typically occurs in a meeting.

Now there’s hundreds of resources about “how to run a better meeting” so I won’t bang on about that too much.

What I would draw attention to is that assessing an idea is a delicate thing. Just about anyone in the room can kill it off, by declaring that their part in it just isn’t practical. So it’s an area where misunderstandings can jinx the whole process.

People from different parts of the business tend to communicate in different ways. There’s lots of stereotypes about aggressive salesmen, detail-obsessed engineers and tight financiers. Added to that, the more complex a product is, the more information will have to flow outside (before and after) the meetings. Some people respond better to verbal communication, others like things on paper.

Points to consider:

- Is there a central point for information about the project?

- Can the information be provided in different formats for different constituents?

- Do some people dominate the process (esp. at meetings) by virtue of their communication skills/tactics?

- If projects are never getting approved, or the wrong projects keep getting the go ahead, are various parties around the room really understanding all the information provided to them? If not, can ways be found to improve that communication?