Saturday, 23 August 2008

Prague and preparation.

Last week I spent some time in Prague for the first time. Before I travel somewhere new, it's usually my habit to invest some time and energy in preparing to understand the place I'm going to and the people there. To get a sense of the language forms and a feel for the culture.

However, the week running up to the trip was just so busy (and the main purpose of the trip was to deal with a very international set of people) that I did not undertake my usual level of local preparation.

If this was a marketing pitch, I should have a list of the disasters that thus ensued. However, in fact, everything passed off very smoothly overall. Everyone was very friendly and the setting, whilst subtly different, was similar enough to other parts of Central Europe to enable me to extrapolate from other visits to the region.

All the same, I definitely noticed a difference in the levels of stress (higher) and confidence (lower) that various parts of the trip presented me with. Cultural preparation is as much about arriving at the critical moment in the right frame of mind as anything. It is not just about avoiding disaster, but creating a platform for success. Most people have the ability to perform under stressful circumstances, but orientation can help both remove distractions (by providing a framework for understanding differences in behaviour and situations) and allowing you to spot opportunities (through understanding the ritual element of what is going on.)

I'm resolved to make the time for more of my own preparation in future. Next stop: India. Bangalore and Mumbai in the first week of September. My family roots are in West Bengal, so it's clear that there are plenty of differences to think about.


Sunday, 10 August 2008

Culture and new products

I recently came across this open letter from Osamu Higuchi to Google, about the arrival of "Streetview" into Japan. [Translation by Chris Salzberg.]

It's a great reminder that despite convergence between countries, there remain significant differences and if your new product hasn't been developed from an international mindset, it may not be as popular as you thought.

Japanese life is full of advanced technology and Osamu Higuchi is no ageing luddite:

Now, let me start by saying that I actually really like Google (everybody likes them, no?). While I was involved in the creation of the Japanese Infoseek, I always felt envious of Google, a company that presented, as their vision, a dream that we were never able to attain. This was the dream that “if all the information and knowledge scattered all over the world on the Web could be organized in an orderly way, so that anybody could access it whenever they needed to, then the world would undergo a major change”. This was a dream that Google managed to realize.

His basic objection to the "Streetview" system on Google Maps is:

The residential roads of Japan's urban areas are a part of people's living space, and it is impolite to photograph a stranger's other people's living spaces.

And he notes to back this up that:

In the United States, and particularly in the case of people living on the west coast, the boundary line between private space and public space, both in terms of actual ownership and in terms of the way people think, is in the boundary line between the public road and privately-held land.


For people living in urban areas in Japan, though, the situation is quite the opposite. The residential street in front of a house, the so-called “alleyway” (roji/路地), feels more like a part of one's own living space, like a part of the yard.

His request to Google:

Could you please remove the residential roads of Japan's urban areas from Street View?


Should Google do so? Am I contending that you cannot at all release a product that challenges the boundaries in a culture?

Clearly not. However, "Streetview" has been released in Japan, as in many parts of the world, silently. This is quite normal for Google products, which slip quietly out of the labs, with little fanfare. And if it is not a success, or has to be modified after attracting a lot of bad publicity, Google are rich enough not to care.

However, if your reserves and cashflow aren't Google sized, it's worth remembering that just because your new product is accepted in your home market, does not mean it will be so everywhere.

What can you do?

1) Consider carefully how the product might not fit with the culture of the people who will be buying it, before you try to sell it to them.

2) Think carefully about possible modifications. Do not try to change the soul of the product, but if a small adjustment can make it more acceptable, you'll reap the rewards in acceptance.

3) If no change is possible without disturbing the core proposition of the product, ask yourself whether any resulting bad publicity will outweigh sales revenue through damage to your brand (possibly affecting sales of other products.)

4) If you are going ahead with no changes, then you should prepare a communications campaign alongside your product introduction, aimed at easing the cultural objections. Perhaps you can persuade people to view your product as an exception to the unspoken rules, or at least deflect the debate from your product to the cultural values that are in play.


Saturday, 2 August 2008

Sometimes translation is the problem?

When I describe my work to a new set of people I often have to spend some time encouraging them to think beyond language and translation as the problems in international business co-operation. The things that words don't say, about expectations, about different ways of approaching work and different assumption are often the real root of the problem.

However, recently I was introduced to an area where translation issues really are part of the problem. The setting is a small UK company that has been bought by a larger foreign organisation. Local management have mostly remained in place, although there are some ex-pats from the main organisation now present. [Details are obscured to protect confidentiality.]

Senior management from the larger corporation journey out from their home country twice a year or so to ask questions about performance and set new directions for the UK subsidiary.

Analysing a fundamental breakdown in performance it seems to be the case that communication between the foreign leaders and local managers is a particular part of the problem. Certainly, the foreign leaders show signs of misunderstanding the local business context and the local managers do not seem to grasp the strategic import of certain decisions.

As a  simplification, they are not managing to question each other properly and as a result, not obtaining important information from each other.

So why do I say, this time, language might be the problem? After all, we know that different cultures have different reactions to how various levels of the hierarchy should interact. Might that not be the root of this problem?

I won't deny that there were some of those issues in play. However, the key analysis point was that the situation had got noticeably worse with a change in translation services. So, for once translation is the problem!

This being a language I am certainly no expert in, I had to consult with others. They did an assessment and report back that the translator is of technically a very high standard and well suited to the nuances involved. The next step was "live" observation of the interaction between local managers, foreign leaders and the translator. At last, things start to become more clear. The culture of this particular foreign nation has a traditional tendency to place women in a subordinate position, putting less weight on their words, particularly when they disagree with someone of higher status. The previous translator had been male and the new one was female. The technical quality of translation had not changed, but the reception by the audience definitely had. So translation was the problem, but the problem had cultural roots.


Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Engaging the English?

Four years after publication I've finally found the time to read Kate Fox's "Watching the English." It's a bit embarrassing that it's taken me that long, since it is all about "English culture" but I'm glad I finally did so. If you haven't read it, it is rich with insights into the "English character" and how these manifest in daily life. Kate Fox is a serious anthropologist and doesn't over-generalise too much, but at the same time has managed to write a witty and insightful book that is easy to read.

It's been widely reviewed, so I won't dwell much on the content, except to say that if you ever find yourself watching an English ritual (ordering at the pub, for instance) and wondering "what on earth is going on?" then this is a good book to read. The rules of "pub life" have also been put on the web at the SIRC site. (SIRC is the research centre where Fox works.)

However, the essential characteristics she laid out really got me thinking about the culture clash within a lot of "employee engagement" programs, especially within multinational firms.

A stereotypical example (to avoid identifying anyone!): a large US firm has an engagement program, with pieces implemented by HR and Internal Comms. Within the UK office, this is put in place by local workers.

Picking out three characteristics from Kate Fox's list, moderation/balance, humour, and finally a taboo against earnestness we can begin to see some problems. The program may well be sold locally with a good dose of humour by the local workers, despite the earnestness present in the original descriptions written in Michigan. However, the underlying aims of "employee engagement" as defined at the US HQ might well conflict with local cultural norms about "not being too earnest" or "moderation/balance in work and play."

Now in the case of a small division, this isn't fatal, because culture is a broad assessment and every country contains a range of personalities. You can fill out a single department with people who fit well with the originating culture (in this case the USA) but as your employment requirements grow it will become ever harder to find candidates who aren't typical of the culture.

In time then, we will need to develop different sets of philosophical ideas of employee engagement that can fit with the cultures of different employees. That requires not only an assessment of the culture but also a real sense of "engagement" beyond the stereotypical notion of a hypermotivated, hyperactive, workaholic team.


Wednesday, 9 July 2008

More Social Networking examples...

Shiv Singh at TheAppGap tell us a bit about his panel talk with representatives from Best Buy, Serena Software and Oracle on their use of Web 2.0 social software.

The BestBuy experience is very interesting as an example of how certain kinds of business knowledge aggregation come out of social networking, but the one I am going to have to research more is Serena Software:

Serena Software is another interesting company and I blogged about them a few years ago (on another blog) when they first rolled out their Facebook Fridays initiative. Rather than trying to build a behind the firewall social networking enabled intranet, Serena chose to build their intranet on the Facebook platform. But not just that, they also built tools to allow the Facebook pages to connect with company data sources in a safe and secure manner. So rather than bringing the employees to the intranet, they went to where their employees were spending most of their time - on Facebook.

This is exactly what most companies are scared of doing on security/productivity grounds, so I think it's a fascinating development.

[N.B. After lunch with Steve Ward today, I realise I've been blogging far too much about various technologies and not enough about culture and communication as it features in my general work. Expect a shift of emphasis over the coming months.]


Thursday, 3 July 2008

Momentum of Social Networking in the Enterprise.


It's growing. I posted recently about IBM, I was at a recent event where Michael Ambjorn described the tools they are putting in place at Motorola and Lee Smith notes that social networking has landed at BT.

I'm not surprised by this, I've argued for a while that the large corporation is exactly the kind of large, geographically disparate body that could benefit from social networking.

Questions that remain:

a) If it's obvious for large corporations, how do we persuade the remaining "big boys" to take it up? Senior management resistance is still a big issue.

b) How big does the organisation have to be for social networking to be a no-brainer? What's the needed "critical mass" of a network to make this kind of software useful?


Sunday, 29 June 2008

Is this Facebook's answer to LinkedIn?

So the new app on the Facebook block is the Visa Business Network. It's interesting because it isn't in fact a direct analogue of LinkedIn. Rather than being a tool for presenting our "business personas" it appears more geared to being an organisational persona for smaller businesses.

It's only in Beta, so the networking features are rather rudimentary and until the number of participants increases it's not clear how useful they will be. And personally, I'm not sure that this will be enough for Facebook to take on LinkedIn. I think they are going to have to take on board the fact that we all have more than one persona (the usual example is business vs personal) and if they want to be a site that contains both, they have to give people a way to present both sides. This seems to do so, a little bit, for those of us who own smaller organisations, but I'm not sure quite what it does for those who work, say, for IBM. By contrast, LinkedIn at least has some potential there (along with a growing userbase.)

Of course, this could be an example of one of those "enabling technologies" that helps smaller businesses create "virtual organisations" or "network businesses" to cover market requirements that are normally served by much larger organisations. However, there doesn't seem to be enough interactivity to really be better than a phone directory so far. Also, the address form assumes you are in the USA.

This is a pet peeve of mine, but so many "Web 2.0" sites hobble their functionality by not considering non-US users when they first start up. If you're looking for early adopters, it's best to cast the net wider. Ignoring the world outside the US might save 10 minutes coding up the HTML for location, phone and address handling, but you lose half the advantage (geo-location neutrality) of a Web App in the first place.


Sunday, 22 June 2008

On new channels

Over at Black Belt Dojo, guest poster Jeffery McMillan posts some musings about podcasts and their place in his new assignment in Russia. He makes some interesting points about how the different medium elicits different responses from interviewees and how it can build a more intimate connection with the audience.

However, what got me thinking was this:

Let's return to the paradox with which I began this blog post. It seems the better I get at producing podcasts the lower the number of listeners tuning in.


It could be a cultural thing. Perhaps podcasting is as of yet a western phenomenon. PwC Russia is a solid 93% Russian in its staff composition and, let's face it, maybe you can't blame my Russian colleagues for having an instinctive skepticism toward the media—corporate media included. I wonder what the experiences of my colleagues around the world have been. Do podcasts resonate further in some necks of the woods than in others?

Now I'm no techno-slouch, per se. I have 2 iPods (car and general use) and I'm rarely without my laptop. And yet... I barely listen to podcasts. It's true that I don't work for an organisation that puts out vital information in this format, but plenty of high quality blogs in the IC space and others produce a podcast. But the only podcast I generally make an effort to listen to each year is the Guardian's Tour de France daily report. And I usually end up listening to that in the evening on my laptop.

Now there are a variety of reasons for this, from the fact that I don't drive on a regular basis, to the miserable quality of bandwidth on the train and in various hotels for streaming.

I must also admit that once I get the new iPhone, I might be more likely to find it easy to organise such that podcasts are with me all the time.

I think that these sort of infrastructure issues are a big part of Jeffrey's situation. It's often not that convenient/appropriate to sit in an open plan office listening to a podcast. But elsewhere, bandwidth can be a bit scanty. And (guessing) perhaps the Russia office has a lower iPod ownership.

And this is a problem which a lot of new media channels face. The main reason every "social networking" conversation eventually turns to Facebook (and occasionally LinkedIn) is that they are the main ones with any kind of serious user density.

For myself, I can see lots of interesting possibilities for mixing my virtual life with my physical one. Examples include things as diverse as Facebook's status update, Twitter and Dopplr. The problem is, candidly, very few of the people in my physical world are on any of these services.

Interestingly, email was easy, because everyone got it with internet access. I wonder which other channels will turn out to be "basic" in the same way.


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Wednesday, 11 June 2008

How much knowledge work do you actually do?

Or perhaps, more importantly, how much knowledge work does your organisation actually do? There's a whole host of recent posts that touch on the collision of innovation, knowledge work and systematisation in business. (e.g. Victoria Axelrod, Dave Snowden.)

One thing I am still struggling to understand and (roughly) quantify is how much "knowledge work" is actually going on. Over the years, many commentators have taken the "Gold Collar Worker" as a starting point and believed that the future of work for many (if not most) will be more flexible, more satisfying and more knowledge-based than before. This leads of course both to a view of education as a tool for income improvement (not to mention as the source of increased value-added for businesses.)

However, my own observation of various "knowledge industries" is that many firms may be large, but many of the people inside are doing rather routine work (which might be termed "mental labour") which is not particularly creative or flexible, but for various reasons is not cheap to automate at this time. So, I'll put the question to knowledge workers reading this, how much of what you do is really "creative knowledge work" and how much will be outsourced to lower-skilled subordinates using a computerised system in the next few years?


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Thursday, 5 June 2008

Social Media case study

It seems that the first real case study of social media in a corporate setting is leaking out of IBM. Those who remember earlier incarnations of the company can't help but be a little surprised at that fact, but it's a fascinating test case.

Business Week has a short article on developments. Key points include:

Social networks in the corporate world involve very different dynamics, and scientists at IBM (IBM) Research's Collaborative User Div. in Cambridge, Mass., are learning all about them. Over the past two years, IBM has been busily launching in-house versions of Web 2.0 hits.


So far, IBM has Dogear, a community-tagging system based on, Blue Twit, and a rendition of the microblogging sensation, Twitter. It also has a Web page called Many Eyes that permits anyone (including outsiders, at to upload any kind of data, visualize it, and then launch discussions about it on blogs and social networks. The biggest success is the nine-month-old social network, Beehive, which is based on the premise of Facebook. It has already attracted 30,000 users, including top executives.

Of course, IBM is so large (400,000 employees) that it's easy to build something and get the user density to replicate internet applications quite directly (; Facebook). And equally, the benefits are of  more value in a larger, more disparate organisation:

Already, social scientists are studying the benefits IBMers are getting from the network. They see that it strengthens what are called "weak ties." These are the people employees might know only casually, some in a different division or down a distant corridor. Getting to know these people, even if it starts out with a Top Five list, widens employees' range of contacts and knowledge within the company.

Employees also use Beehive for self-branding. It's a way to strut their stuff for colleagues and managers at the company—whether it's for a promotion or funding for a pet project.

However, it's a case study of the kind we've all been waiting for. I'm going to have to watch the IBM Research pages for more detailed information.


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Two-Way Communication is not enough

Mike Klein has an interesting post up about how "tw0-way" communication just isn't enough to be "progressive" any more. He says it's better than the old "one-way" directive style of pure order-giving, but:

organisational decisions have wider impacts than on managers and staff.  They impact customers, perhaps alter supply chains, and reflect on the organisation's credibility with a wide range of stakeholders.  And, in many respects, finding out what a staff member's opinion is could be much more valuable when it becomes known how and with whom he or she shares it.

He goes on to suggest that we're still only just developing the tools to understand "intensity of opinion" and what I might quickly summarise as the social path and impact of opinion.

[As always, go read the full article, it's not long and it's worth it.]

Naturally, I agree with Mike, but it also reminded me of something I have on my company pages, but don't blog about that much. I really believe that lateral communications is a much ignored topic, both in internal communications practice as it stands (which is Mike's focus) and in the understanding of how the totality of communication works in companies.

The totality is a viewpoint that tries to think about "functional communication" (the passing of information to get "work" done), "corporate communication" (the passing of information to support the objectives of those who hold power in an organisation) and "social communication" (the passing of information for the purposes of the people doing the communication) in a more holistic manner.

[I accept that "passing of information" is an incomplete definition of "communication" but you perhaps get the gist of the idea.]

The purpose of the holistic view is to suggest that real advances in corporate performance can accrue from working to analyse, improve and facilitate communication. Right now this responsibility is split over numerous parts of the business (IT, IC, Marketing, Procurement, etc.)  and thus, despite local "wins" few companies really advance in this aspect.

Once this holistic view is taken up, it becomes clear that the vast majority of communications in the organisation are "lateral," between people who (at least for that communication) are largely operating as peers. Thus we need to put much more effort into facilitating and improving this lateral communication.

A quick note: Mike's newest project EMELI is scheduled for 18-19 July in Amsterdam. I'm certainly trying to fit it into my schedule, if you're interested in internal comms, you should investigate whether it would suit you too.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Culture and Web 2.0

Over at The AppGap, Matthew Hodgson has made a post uniting some of the themes I've been blogging about recently: the effect of different cultures on the take up of Web 2.0 tools.

Of course, I have to add the industry standard disclaimer that I too have philosophical and technical doubts about Hofstede's categories like "Power Distance" but overall it's not a bad starting point in this case (and definitely a post worth reading) Hodgson points to some recent research:


The book The Emergence of the Relationship Economy looks at a wide range of factors in the adoption of social computing tools, including culture. In bringing together a number of studies, chapter nine [1] deals specifically with the issue of culture.

graphc of Power-Distance

The book reports that cultures who have very high Power-Distance scores also have low adoption of social computing tools. What organisations are likely to be high Power-Distance cultures? Many government agencies, defence and security organisations, and manufacturing companies could be described in this way.

He goes on to muse on how to address the problem. I agree overall with his contention that you can build an organisational culture that accepts social web tools even where the national culture seems to mitigate against it. However, what I've seen so far is that many companies still fail to take the time to consider that there may be cultural differences across different branch offices before they roll out these tools. So I make that the most important take home point of this post: Find out what cultures are operating across your organisation before you roll out a one size fits all change program.


Monday, 19 May 2008

Willingness to work together?

Shiv Singh recently posted some Reflections on the Nature of Collaboration over at the app gap. He says:

An often forgotten fact about collaboration is that the people who typically want to collaborate are also the ones who trust each other the most. They are also the people who recognize that they can benefit in some manner by collaborating. Those benefits usually extend beyond just learning from one another to also recognizing that their reputations get enhanced as more peers observe their ongoing collaborations. But these people aren’t always in the majority.

Shiv concentrates on the implications of this for "Enterprise 2.0 software" but it reminded me of the often unspoken political problems when "intercultural communication problems" are identified in a business. Every now and then, two offices are not co-operating well on a project, but the problem is not at the level of the cultural differences in ways of working and communicating, or generating trust across two groups who perceive strong differences between them.

Instead, the problem comes out of a company's structure, which may place parts of those two offices in competition for certain customers, or particular bits of work. Or the director of one of the offices doesn't want the project to succeed because the director of the other office would get all the credit (and the coming promotion!)

Business problems can have many roots and it may not be the one you expect. This is why it is so important to begin with an analysis of the business and the context of the perceived problem. When you're holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. That's why I feel my experience in other fields has helped in cross-cultural consulting. It helps me be open about what the root causes may be and allows me to step back and say "This problem is really about the way you force these offices to compete against each other over business. If you don't address that, co-operation between them will not improve, no matter how many "cultural awareness" workshops are put on.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Virtual Communications

Over at IABC Cafe, Julie Freeman asks about people's experiences with teleconferencing, which reminds me of a recent conversation with a lawyer. He asked me my general opinion of video conferencing and other technologies. I was moved to enthuse about a recent demonstration I'd seen of Cisco's TelePresence. I think that the approach of representing people in high definition at life size is the way of the future for virtual business communication. For now the cost, both for equipment and bandwidth, is beyond most organisations but (other than holography) it's the first setup I have seen that begins to offer an experience that offers some of the affordances* of face-to-face meetings.

However, I ended the conversation by touching on my reservations. The lawyer heads up a branch office and was wondering about the use of technology to reduce travelling to meetings at the central office. That sounds very promising, it could save time, money and help save the planet. Unfortunately, I was of the opinion that for him, it was a bad idea. Why?

The firm is run as a partnership and these meetings at the central office are where the partners gather to decide how the business will be run. My experience is that every such partnership has it's share of low-level politics. And if you move to "virtual meetings" you will amplify any communications gap between the people at central office and those from various branches. That gap no doubt already exists, politically, with those who work in each location tending to discuss matter with each other before the overall gathering takes place. Low-tech teleconferencing however raises the danger that those in central office can have a "back conversation" throughout a virtual meeting, which puts those on the other end of a video link in a position where they have much less awareness of what is going on and thus less ability to influence proceedings.

Is there then no hope for a greener teleconferencing future? I think there is hope, but it relies in understanding that meetings are often not the best forum for discussion or decision-making. If other methods are taken up, they can proceed using "virtualisation technologies" and a smaller number of meetings be made face to face.


*Affordances is a word which means "action possibilities" and I first encountered it in the book "The Myth of the Paperless Office" which I highly recommend if you like thinking about the way various media delimit the way we work and communicate.


Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Interacting with the world

David Ferrabee has a nice post on the way globalisation is affecting every business, not just those with branches out in "foreign places." He asks some important questions about the ethical basis of our interactions with other countries, for us all to consider:

  1. Do our buying policies help serve countries that need the trade?
  2. How can we support sustainable development (like drought resistant crops) is developing parts of the world?
  3. Do we have any way of influencing fertility rates in countries where children are still being born at a rate of 5/6 per woman?
  4. How can we help keep children in school...? Children who could be contributing more effectively to the economy is a matter of years...
  5. What kind of investment brings people and communities along with us, rather than sitting in opposition?

I'd emphasise that these questions apply all the more strongly to those businesses who are already, or are in the planning stages of doing business abroad. If you do (or are going to do) business in far off places you should be looking at every avenue to develop engagement and understanding of the culture there.

Think carefully about acting on some of David's questions and you will not only improve your understanding of the local market and employees, but you can improve your CSR ratings and get some goodwill, good PR both at home and abroad.


Thursday, 1 May 2008

Communications are leaky, so what?

I blogged recently about the new reality that any communications will leak beyond the intended recipients to all sorts of other stakeholders, particularly departments of the business in different countries.

So how should you construct your communications? Shel Holtz has a nice summary of the implications:

The core message absolutely must be consistent.


However, I don’t agree with the notion that you can craft a single communication for each audience. Whether or not you share your external communications with employees, they’ll see it—or, at least, have access to it. The message to analysts ends in analyst reports which find their way into investment blogs, the media message is published on news sites and from there into the blogosphere.

But employees still need the internal spin, and I’m using that word in the constructive sense. In a merger, analysts care about the impact on value and share price. Employees may also care about that—particularly if they own stock—but they have more immediate concerns that aren’t on the minds of other publics (including local communities, NGOs, activist groups, the government, and so on). They want to know about the security of their jobs, the status of existing projects, where they’ll wind up in the revamped structure of the new company and whether their benefits will change.

Spinning stories (in the good way) to accommodate the unique interests of each constituency is at the heart of effective communication. It’s why we research the audiences before we craft the communications.

Of course, defining the boundary line between the "core message" which must be preserved and the "details of specific interest" which can vary from audience to audience isn't easy. But that's why they pay us...


Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Wars for talent?

This post is part inspired by Kevin Keohane's recent post on restructuring comms departments, which I commented on yesterday. However, the thought process was also stimulated by Charles Gancel's presentation at IABC Eurocomm 2008 and the recent post at Cognitive Edge; "Whither the MBA?"

Audrey Scarff highlighted one of Charles Gancel's major points over at the Eurocomm blog:

Charles Gancel says there’s more head hunting going on today because of retiring baby boomers and consequently a senior management shortage. This brings up the need for even better knowledge management, and retention of talent.

Kevin noted:

1.  Take the existing functions and force them to work together holistically, probably by making them report to a single person who gets the “holistic” nature of communications.  The problem is, I think these people are pretty rare; most “Heads of Corporate Communications” tend to stick to their functional (or even sometimes channel management) heritage.

Charles Gancel was talking in the context of managers who run departments outside (or spanning beyond) their home country. That kind of internationalism requires a greater flexibility of perspective than a typical management position. He contends that such candidates have never been thick on the ground, but demographics are making them much more difficult to find.

Likewise, Kevin feels that an ideal "Head of Corporate Comms" has a holistic view which is not common amongst candidates who rise through one communication track (e.g. Investor Relations.)

I expressed the view on the day at Eurocomm that this situation is not at all an accident. It seems clear to me that the hiring, training and development of staff concentrates very much on identifying and creating functional experts and ignores the need for flexibility of perspective.

I was reminded to blog about this by the post at Cognitive Edge about the MBA:

Further than an MBA is this day and age seems to be taught content, rather than a masters programme involving a degree of independent thinking.  Mind you PhD's also seem these days to be more taught, with a narrow focus using various survey and other type instruments whose validity I and others have challenged.  The Mediaeval model why which you engaged in discourse, attended lectures and then presented your ideas to examination by your peers seems to have got lost somewhere along the way in the journey to commoditisation of learning in general.  Originality is punished in favour of conformity.

Having done an MBA myself, I have a whole host of observations on them, but that's for another post. However, I think the point "originality is punished in favour of conformity" is the key to understanding why we find ourselves lacking appropriate candidates across a number of sectors. It starts in the hiring processes, where all too often candidates with a true diversity of interests are screened out. Training and development is often focused on a narrow range of technical skills and an interest in wider issues is not encouraged.

How to rectify this? I'll be posting some thoughts about that soon...



Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Audiences and the structure of comms depts

In a similar vein to my post on The Law of Leaky Communications (but focusing on corporate functions, rather than international culture) Kevin Keohane notes that the distinctions between different audiences in corporate communications are breaking down. He moves on to ask what this means for the organisational structure of the communications function:

I think most organisations still aren’t structured to deal with this - I suspect most still structure their communications functions around internal, marketing, corporate, human resources, etc. 

So what’s the solution? 

1.  Take the existing functions and force them to work together holistically, probably by making them report to a single person who gets the “holistic” nature of communications.  The problem is, I think these people are pretty rare; most “Heads of Corporate Communications” tend to stick to their functional (or even sometimes channel management) heritage.

2.  Get functions to cooperate and share accountability for delivering a core agenda across the piece.  Probably works better in some situations than others based on politics and the strength of senior management to make it work.

3.  Restructure the function.  But how? seems to be the burning question.  Is the answer to restructure by audience?  Probably something along those lines.  But then, these conversations can come full circle, since while internal-external lines and indeed audiences are overlapping and blurring, there is still a perceived need to control marketing communications, brand communications, HR etc. etc.



1) They may be rare, but I'm not sure you can work it out without them. I think any restructuring is going to bring at least some of the communication functions together and they will need a leader. Perhaps we should all be asking "Does this organisation actually train/develop people to be more than just another product of their functional silo?" If not why not? (I'll be coming back to this issue in my next post, too.)

2) "I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony..." Yes, it sounds Utopian, but it can work, in the right organisation, at the right time. Sometimes there are just a good bunch of people around and they make special things happen.

3) I don't think you can easily restructure by audience. The post-modern trend is towards overlapping, shifting audiences. You might need to restructure every week. Functions are also not completely defunct. [sic] Whilst we undertake "task-based communications" then they will still fit quite well into the functional structure, at least in terms of expertise needed.

What's my solution? Long term, there has to be more effort put into developing individuals who can manage communications holistically.

In the short term, I'd be looking at a variant of the techniques Enoptron uses for building greater co-operation between branches on different sides of the world.:

- Establish formal awareness (lists, etc.) of the remit of each group and the concerns they have about the actions of the others.

- Get the groups talking, informally where possible.

- Establish formal channels for them to get help/consult each other when they have an "overlap situation" on hand.

- Organise to remove barriers to teamwork in the performance management and other structures.

Obviously, this still hinges on building some notion that "co-operation is a good thing" which will need backing up from senior management along with careful fostering on the ground. That's why in the long term I don't think you can get away from the need for a leader with a holistic view.


Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The Law of Leaky Communications

Today's formulation: "What plays in Mexico doesn't stay in Mexico."

Or, more formally, since this is the first time I've posted this:

"Any communication designed for a particular audience will find it's way to other audiences that have an interest in you."


"Targeting might let you speak to a specific group of people, but don't forget to consider how other people might react if they heard what you are saying."


Today's example comes from the blog "Strange Maps" which I highly recommend as regular reading if you like graphics and maps. It seems that Absolut Vodka tried to propel sales in Mexico with a clever ad about how an alternate history regarding the USA. Unfortunately of course, what "plays in Mexico doesn't stay in Mexico" and the ad moved from paid circulation to viral circulation in the USA, prompting some backlash there.

This is particularly germane to cross-cultural contexts in organisations. We've all seen the simple strangeness where HQ tells the Indian division "India is our most important market" whilst telling the Chinese division "China is our most important market." Or the notion that in some regions it's perfectly acceptable to tell the stock market about job cuts before you tell your employees, but not so acceptable elsewhere.

People used to get away with a lot of these risky behaviours because communications did not "leak" far beyond their intended audiences. This is no longer the case and it imposes new problems for communicators.

One reaction is simply to be better prepared for blowback, but I would urge everyone to think more clearly about the different cultures in their organisation and how different messages will affect them.


[The title is a homage to Joel Spolsky's excellent phrase "The Law of Leaky Abstractions", which I've loved since I read it and if you're in software or any kind of systems design and haven't heard of, I urge you to go and read about.]


Sunday, 6 April 2008

Business Texting?

Over at IABC Cafe, Todd Hattori made a sort of odd post about an interesting subject: the use of text messages in business in Asia.

He starts off quite normally describing how he came across the phenomenon at an IABC event in the Philippines, his amazement at the fact of it and the explanations given to him about it by local colleagues.

His "amazement" rather rubbed me up the wrong way, along with his final two paragraphs:

So, I’m curious … I’m a fairly vocal critic of e-mail because very few people use it correctly … shouldn’t we be defining proper use rules for texting before it, like e-mail, gets out of control?

I fear the day when I have to manage the hundreds of e-mails that I receive each day AND endless, intrusive text messages. To add to my fear, my company is getting ready to implement instant messaging. Short of turning off my phone and computer, have any best practices emerged?

Fortunately, I didn't have time to comment or blog about it until now and Kristen Sukalac (who blogs at PR Conversations) weighed in with a great comment, covering some of the reasons why the text message is a useful medium (even if it hasn't caught on in the US thanks to the behaviour of the phone companies there) and I would urge you to go and read the comment in full.

What I would add is three things:

1)  All the downsides that Todd seems to see with texting are already in force for a lot of people outside Asia through the medium of the "Crackberry." Push email is largely just text messages with a few extra bells and whistles. This isn't a new problem and we're not at some 'tipping point' where we can stem the tide of rudeness and time wasting from this medium before it gets started. We're already living in the middle of it.

2) The "disbelief" that a particular technology can be used for business communication was prompted in this case by travelling to another continent. However, one can see similar reactions to new technologies used by younger generations right at home. Social networking springs to mind. Not to pick on Todd, but it worries me quite often how few "professional communicators" are open-minded about different ways to get a message across.

3) Most importantly, Kristen makes a key cultural point at the end of her comment:

Text messaging has another appeal: its simplified, pidgeon version of English is much easier to master and to use across diverse groups of non-native English speakers.

This is to my mind, a key point. There's a clear level of discomfort in "professional communicators" with "text speak" and the varied informal ways people type out emails and IMs. This preference for clarity, formality and well, beauty in language is certainly admirable and just about justifiable amongst a homogenous set of native speakers.

However, as soon as you're communicating in English with a set of people for whom it is their second language, you're not talking to people who have any investment in the ways you have been taught to make things clear, to be formal or even well expressed. It should not surprise then if they find a simplified, constrained version of the language more useful. And it's worth remembering that not only when you read (as Todd was doing) some of their communications between themselves, but also when you sit down to communicate with them too.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Corporate Communicators, BA and BAA


It feels like a long time now (is a week a long time in blogging?) that I wrote about how some high-level Corporate Communicators have slipped into chasing the message cycle under pressure. [In fact it is only about 7 months.] I thought that was a bit worrying.

The customer service and PR mess at Terminal 5 however, seems to have been characterised by another reaction. Everyone in top management (including any communicators) spent the first few hours in hiding!

Eventually BA wheeled out the top man, Chief Executive, Willie Walsh to take a considerable amount of flak. That is, in PR terms at least, a positive communication step. BAA? Still nowhere to be seen overall. Of course, given the service we've been putting up with from them for years at airports around the country perhaps they felt they had no reputation to defend. Still, it seems that thanks to the fact that BA is the sole occupant at T5 it seems BAA has ducked the media storm and for them at least, lying low is working out.


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Organisation of communication functions

In a comment to this post about Mike Klein's ideas about how Internal Communications and Knowledge Management overlap, Kevin Keohane notes:

Indy, I posted on Mike's blog as well. I've almost taken it for granted that there are connections between IC, engagement and KM. I keep coming back to the way organisations manage and structure themselves... a world where the head of KM "owns" knowledge management, the head of IC "owns" internal communication, the head of HR "owns" the people development agenda, and the head of marketing "owns" the brand.
How stupid is that, yet how many organisations do it that way?

Which cuts to the heart of the issue in a lot of ways. It's not that the future will bring totally new things, but that the way we arrange things at the moment will look rather backward.


Shel Holtz broaches similar terrain recently, while questioning the specifics of having a "social media manager" in a company:

I have heard calls for companies to create a C-suite position called “Chief Conversation Officer,” someone to manage the various online social channels that produce conversation. Again, that misses the point. What companies need is a Chief Reputation Officer to ensure all communication with core publics is coordinated in the company’s best interests.


A social media manager is a fine idea, but if he says, “Our product is shipping late because of manufacturing issues” while a media relations manager tells a Wall Street Journal reporter, “Our product is shipping late because we’ve had to redesign a part,” that inconsistency will spread through the cycle-less media space—online and off—like wildfire. Whether it’s conversation or a traditional press release, the communication channel must be used to communicate honest, transparent, accurate information.

Few organizations have anybody in a position like this. [My emphasis - Indy]. Even if there’s a senior-level public affairs person, Human Resources and employee communications often don’t report to him, and both communicate to vital publics (employees and prospective employees). Community relations often reports elsewhere, as does investor relations and government relations. And all those employees with their individual blogs? Who’s providing them with the resources they need to represent the company accurately and fairly?


Technology is pushing a number of communication domains together and one important result will be a rearrangement of working practices to create an integrated response to those domains. Since actions speak as loud as words, this will doubtless take in some functions that involve more than communication (notably HR) and in my opinion, likely the technical side of communication as currently embodied by IT.


Friday, 21 March 2008

Merlin Mann on Social Networks...

So this embedded video is possibly the most important contribution to understanding what drives the creation of social networking sites at the moment.

What worries me is that I say that not only because it made me laugh but because of how much it reminded me of a recent event I attended, a gathering of new startups, VC types and some luminaries from various corners of the Web 2.0 world...


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Strategy and the coalface in IC

So over at BBD, Liam asks "How very dare you?" leading specifically to a questioning of the concentration on all things strategy in a lot of the IC world these days.

Casey then says:

This is really just a place holder. It’s to remind me to carry on thinking about Liam’s question.

"Should you throw your hands up in horror and stalk out of the building crying “I can’t help you - you’re all doomed!”?

The answer to this, as Liam quite rightly points out, is very rarely going to be yes. But - what are the circumstances in which it might be yes?

All of which got me thinking...

In answer to Casey, the time when you walk out is where you can get a job at an equivalent salary in an organisation that actually has a strategy (preferably one that looks sound.)

Of course, that in itself tends to be fairly rare, all the more so as we appear to be hitting economically uncertain times.

I was going to suggest that if you really believe the organisation is doomed then you should walk out as well, but realistically in our society there's rarely any value to "walking out" unless you have a new job offer in hand. If you are going to move out of your job into unemployment because the company is going down, you may as well hold out for redundancy money.

The only other rationale for "walking out" is if you are genuinely a "high-flyer" with a "performance record" to maintain. Then it might be worth walking out to avoid having the stain of failure on your CV. However, as Liam is talking about "humble IC irchins" then this is not a factor.

So far, so good, I largely agree with Liam's premise.

I'd go even further in that the obsession with strategy in the glossy magazines and in the work and writing of various consultants is part of a wider trend to "worship the leaders of the organisation." This trend is driven by the commercial reality for consultants is that the people who sign the cheques to buy services are mostly those at the top. And we live in times where their role has been heavily mythologised and they have been surrounded by people and media telling them how important they are. As such, there's a lot of pressure to invest in the training, development and interests of top managers. And what is special about the managers at the top of the business? They set the strategy...

I suspect Liam, at heart, like me, wonders sometimes if this approach sets organisations up for failure, because it stunts investments in the skills and needs of the rest of the people in the organisation, who are, after all, vital to the execution of any strategy.

And when I step back to think about my time as an "umble IT manager" I have to agree all the more. Not only did some of the organisations I worked for not communicate their strategy down to my level, some didn't seem to have much strategy at all. And yes, what you do is roll up your sleeves and get on with the nuts and bolts of the job. There are things that need doing to keep things going smoothly. And when you have to take a decision that really should be guided by that nonexistent company strategy, you just make a guess as to what would be sensible and do it.

But of course, 4 months down the line, when the company elucidates a completely different strategy, it can be pretty hard to defend the spending decisions you took...

And to some degree I wonder if it's even harder for IC types. As an IT manager I could always say "well, I kept the email running and the internet access working and the accounts database online," nothing dramatic, but easily understood measures of competence.

For IC types Liam notes:

There's still a pretty good job to be done making sure people stick around, are happy to hand in great work or say nice things about you externally.

Which sounds a bit harder, because as good as you are in IC, if they are working to different priorities in HR or Operations (and remember, we're talking about a situation with a lack of overall strategy) then it might be pretty hard to do that "good job" as Liam defines it.

So, I'd like to ask Liam, if it's not commercially sensitive to blog about the parts of the Dojo where they teach people to deal with not having a strategy. That's not the skills to do "the pretty good job" that needs doing, but the skills to stay sane and cope with the ambiguity, uncertainty and negotiation of the situation.



Saturday, 8 March 2008

Ask and ye shall receive...

I wondered out aloud if Mike Klein might explain his insights a bit more and now, over at CommsOffensive325, he has done so...

I urge you to go and read it all, I largely agree with it all and I suppose should be kicking myself that I didn't blog about it first. But then, I don't think blogging has the same definitive status as publishing in a journal.

I came to similar conclusions using different language, Mike casts his argument using the language of knowledge management. For me, I simply observed in my work that "traditional internal communicators" largely have no view on what I called "information communication."

i.e. To do your job, you require information (which forms part of Mike's "knowledge" category) from others around you. It might be data on previous sales if you're building a marketing model, or the latest data on current product performance if you're on a project to design the next generation of your company's offering.

Up to now, the theory and practice of how this information is communicated has been left to the IT department and business process consultants. And yet, this is the most critical element of "internal communication" in any business. Yes, engagement matters and yes, communication of strategy matters, but a business whose communication of "business information" isn't working rarely survives.

Anyway, as I understand it, this is covered as part of the "knowledge" category in Mike's exposition. So he's got me behind him there, I think that integrating the "management" of various portions of communication in the business is definitely the way forward. And whoever wants to be in charge of "internal communication" needs to address all the categories in play, the old days of being a specialist department in just one are coming to an end.

On to some details of what Mike talked about (you probably need to read his piece for this to make sense):

He outlines three categories:

News/Direction: The information that tells people what to do and when. This flows mainly through formal internal communication and line management channels, and incorporates official definitions of the impacts of external news.
Opinion: This information is designed to influence the recipient and how he or she acts. It mainly comes informally from peers and colleagues but may also come from external stakeholders, or as embedded justification in official news and direction.

Knowledge: Knowledge is the information that tells an individual how to act effectively on the news and direction he/she receives. It is again generally found from peers and colleagues, though it can come as embedded instructions or can be harvested from databases and case studies.

First, it seems to me that "News" and "Direction" really deserve to be separate categories in a taxonomy. This resolves this issue about what employees like, because it's largely clear that "Direction" is the contentious category for employees and "News" is fairly welcome. (I must admit even this is not perfectly true, there are different personality types, some prefer to work independently, others prefer a greater degree of direction.)

Mike asserts that his three categories of "News/Direction, Opinion, and Knowledge" often flow together, through the same channels and as part of the same acts of communication. And again, I have to say, he's dead on. As soon as you get down into the nitty-gritty of how communication occurs (as I do in my work looking at "cultural blockages" on communication) it's very clear that any communication pipelines that exist or are set up are used for all three purposes. Those that are not frequently find themselves neglected in employees day to day priorities.

This becomes all the more important as new technologies arise which have more "bandwidth" and allow more room for informal communication to exist. Social media is the "example du jour" of this, but I'd suggest that we can learn a lot from the way email has developed in organisation too.

I like Mike's approach a lot and I'd urge everyone to give it some thought.


Sunday, 2 March 2008

Social networking in the enterprise (again...)

So over at Talking IC, Lee Smith links (via Jim Berkowitz) to Jake Swearingen of CNet, who pours cold water on Kris Dunn's idea of experimenting with a social network for his company.

Jake isn't overly polite, so my first instinct is to note how interesting it is that some "technology experts" are very keen to draw distinctions within "Web 2.0" between wikis, blogs, social networks, etc. and yet at the same time think of social networks as this "stuff like Facebook" blob, rather than realising that Facebook et al. are bundles of technologies, which don't all have to come together and could be bundled up with other parts of "Web 2.0" (or even Web 1.0!) and that might well turn out to be the future.

However, I have to echo Lee, (and Kevin Keohane) when he makes the point that it'd be really nice to see some of the people who are always promoting "social networking in the business" actually involved in implementing some, rather than just talking about it.

And yet, that's another reason I find the reaction towards Kris Dunn a bit excessive. At least he's trying to do some empirical work. Maybe it will turn out just as Jake predicts, but at the same time where did we get so sniffy about people trying to "walk the talk"? I at least want to applaud Kris Dunn for trying to make his ideas real.

And as much as I share the general fatigue of Lee and Kevin about the fact that there are more people making money out of talking about social networking in IC than actually doing it, I think there are a number of barriers to current adoption:

Shel Holtz recently posted about JotSpot and in there discusses one of the barriers:

A typical IT response to the notion of introducing social media tools to the intranet focuses on the time and expense involved in testing new applications to ensure compatibility with existing software. If you suggest that the social media tools can be hosted offsite, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be told the information those sites would contain is too sensitive to risk maintaining it outside the firewall.

(This excuse is pretty lame, given that every single one of the US-based companies that has raised this concern in my experience also maintains its employee 401(k) data on a hosted server.)

Now, Shel points up with this last remark that the IT dept's fear of "hosted social networking" might not be wholly rational, but that doesn't mean to say it isn't real. Also, there's a world of difference between putting company data on a pension transaction company's hosted server and putting it on Facebook or even on Ning. There's nothing in the Facebook/Ning terms of service which give the IT Director any kind of job security in the event of a security breach.

So, Lee links to Ning, but fun as it is to experiment there (as Kris Dunn is doing) it's not really an enabler for experimentation in larger corporations. The "where is the data, is it safe?" remains a significant barrier.

To overcome this, you need a internally hosted solution. I don't know how many people have one of these for sale/use. Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't seen one in an operational state. Without that, we're not going to see much happen. If anyone knows of a good one, let me know.

Other barriers include that fact that everyone thinks "Facebook" when someone says "social network" so there is a lack of other models for what it might look like in circulation. Hence people can't see some of the possibilities. I'll try to repair that in a post later this week, as this is already getting too long.

Reacting to the 3 specific problems Jake mentions:

1) Email is more efficient:

Well, it is now, but it didn't use to be, before Notes, Exchange, Outlook, etc. I remember a day when I did business over email but sent all the docs using a fax machine. Email didn't look that useful then, but it's day has since arrived.

It's easy to see that the messaging systems on social network sites can be improved a lot. Part of why they haven't yet is because social networks have been, up to now, universes-to-themselves for their teenage/college student main customers. Developing the user interface for multi-media communications (blog, email, IM, twitter, SMS) is the hardest part perhaps here. But it will happen.

2) Social networks lose engagement over time.

Complex one this. Studies I've seen suggest that youth communities who establish around social networking stick with it, but being youth communities, the communities lose engagement over time. The older people who rushed into things like Facebook rarely integrated it into their community and so naturally their interest waned. The tool cannot create links that are not really there. If you're married with kids, you have commitments to social networks that are stronger than your Facebook friends list, unless they happen to include the same people. But that's not a common condition.

Corporate social networks do need to be integrated with the rest of the intranet functions, in particular the corporate directory and communication technologies. If it's set up as just another optional site, it won't get much interest. If it's actually a proper part of people's work eco-system, it will, like email, get a lot more use. Especially once you integrate the internal VOIP system (and potentially videoconferencing too.)

3) Social networks are, well, social.

Jake claims that the workplace is not about selective connection. Interesting working life he must have led, connecting with everyone in his organisation equally, every day.

It's true that part of the power of social networks is to cement existing relations, but they also serve to create links, particularly about factual matters (here's where the workplace can really benefit) between people who would normally find it too much effort to stay in touch.

No corporation really wants people to spend all day socialising on the internal network. The value is in creating loose connections between people who would otherwise not have a way to find each other. Yes, everyone can blog about their projects, but how will you find interesting blogs, especially when people have less time to comment and trackbacks still don't work properly? RSS still requires you to know about the blog in question...

Social networking has the potential to answer that. It creates visible topologies which can be followed and human reasons to do so. (And yes, that adds a bunch of human, emotional pitfalls too, but that's always the case in human organisations.)

This of course raises the point that social networks only make sense inside larger communities. If your office is small enough that the "global listserv" email list isn't totally clogged all the time, you probably don't need social networking to help navigate the infospace of your organisation. This is another barrier to adoption.

The laugh is, I type all this and I'm not really a social networking zealot. I just see that blogs, wikis, podcasts etc. are mostly just extra content channels and to me, it's the various kinds of "social" technology that can help us navigate all this content and make it useful, in the end.

Finally, this isn't my area of business, so as interested as I am in it, I'm unlikely to make it happen any time soon. I guess another question for the readers, who do you know who is really working on this? After all, they are the ones I should be inflicting this discourse on...


Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Earthquakes and information travel

So here in the north of England we felt some small earth tremors last night at about 1am. One man down the road from here actually had his chimney land on him. Fortunately, we seem to have escaped any real damage. It was an exciting few moments feeling the whole building shake around me, but after a quick check around the house (5 mins or so) I hit the net to see what I could find out. The British Geological Society website and the earthquake page at Edinburgh were both so overloaded that I couldn't even view the page. Any thoughts that this was a purely local event disappeared at that moment.

It reminded me of a couple of things:

1) If you weren't sure it was an earthquake (and I wasn't because we have a history of subsidence problems here) then the actions of the crowd alone, hammering these geological websites could tell you, well before the BBC reported it on their news pages. Score one for trend watching/wisdom of crowds approaches I suppose.

2) This is the speed that information spreads at in a modern, computer-filled organisation. So if you're in corporate/internal comms and there's an earthquake on the way - a statement to investors about job losses, perhaps - then you better have some quick response plans, because word will travel around your organisation quicker than you ever expect.


Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Making Internal Comms a Profession?

I wrote a long post on this topic, but I realised that it still wasn't anywhere near complete. There's essays to be written on the discussions going on. What I'll do instead is just link a few observations/concepts and maybe it'll trigger some interesting thoughts out there.

- Over on CommsOffensive325, Mike Klein notes that Ragan has some commentary on Mike's discussion with Liam Fitzpatrick about the future of IC.

- Reading the Ragan piece, they naturally come down in the middle, after all "more competence" (Liam) is like "more motherhood and apple pie" and "more transformational thinking" (Mike) is like, well, "more motherhood and apple pie" too.

They quote Liam explicitly talking about "the credibility of the profession," but this comes through even more clearly in further comments from Mike, Liam and others underneath the article. They are arguing about the form of "the profession." What, if you like, would a future "CIIC" (Chartered Institute of Internal Communications) be defined as being about?

Throw in  the recent post by Ron Shewchuk about the lack of Masters level education programs in "employee comms", which reminds me that the majority of the things we all count as "IC competence" are skills that come out of PR, journalism, etc. I think there are few educational opportunities in IC because we've yet to create a truly distinctive notion of what it takes to be in IC and the truly distinctive skills that you won't learn in journalism or PR courses.

The Ragan writer (David Murray) notes that employee comms are more determined (in their opinion) by organisational structures than IC ideals.

However, it's at this point that it seems to me, Mike is maybe on to something.

Referencing my last post, I can see an argument that says in the long term, the technologies and practice of modern internal communications, as currently typified by social media, come into unavoidable conflict with the "structure of organisations." And, I don't think that "the structure" wins that battle. Structure is strongly static, but human nature is the irresistible force. And everyone knows I'm a structuralist at heart, so I don't say that lightly.

How does all this amount to a hill of beans for everyday practice? I can't deny the force of Liam's argument. Companies will want to communicate things with internal groups, that process is fairly well understood and will not disappear. Right now, if you want credibility in your organisation, your best bet is to invest in fulfilling this role with greater competence and success.

However, I think the number of people involved in a bunch of "traditional IC roles" is going to shrink and we are going to have to understand new roles that apply in more "community" situations. It also seems to me that this is the ground where you can plant seeds of a "distinctive profession" of IC.

Of course, whether IC should be a distinctive profession, or part of HR is a question to be considered.

Seth Godin's suggestion for rebranding HR as "Department of Talent" would appear to overlap with a lot of IC work. To be clear, I'm not advocating that IC should be part of HR, but I would be surprised to see it happen. There is a logic there. Likewise, there's a craft logic to the CIPR being the dominant association for IC people in the UK.

For myself, I think that there is room for IC as a strong, independent business function, but I think it will need to change if that is to happen. And that's a post for another day.


Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Flare ups, power, frustration, social media and transparency

Over at Black Belt Dojo, Sue has an interesting post about a big flare up in the comments to a blog on The Guardian travel site. She asks "Is this what we're afraid of?" with respect to unleashing social media in organisations. Mark Mazza made an insightful comment in reply about what the psychology of the "troublemakers" in this case might be.

That got me thinking...

What are the collective frustrations about "big media bloggers" that might lead to the kind of swarming, vitriolic responses that we occasionally see unleashed by the commenting public?

It strikes me that in part, blogging is about self-expression, not just in the sense of "here I am, this is me" but also "this is what I think about important issues in and around my life." When I was younger, there were no blogs and many thoughts I might have had about politics, economics etc. really had nowhere much to go. Newspaper letter pages were a tiny and well guarded resource. Yes, there are always deep conversations with good friends, but in a busy life, there's never enough of those.

Enter the blog, all of a sudden, insights can be pushed out. So many people prognosticated about important issues like Iraq and the toxic lending typified by the sub-prime debacle. And yet, as time passes, it becomes ever more apparent that however insightful these people were, very few of them gain much "blogging stardom" from it. And the same goes across all sorts of fields, from celebrity gossip to rugby commentary. The vast majority of ability to shape opinion and make a living writing accrue to those within big media institutions.

Now, that's not exactly news to anyone as such. All the same, the act of blogging and commenting rather lays the power relations out for everyone to see. Thus, I think part of the vitriol is not just "jealousy" in the sense of "they have a fun, easy life and I don't" but an acute awareness that for all the hype about the democratising power of blogs, the keys to the castle remain pretty much where they always have been.

Why might this matter for corporate blogging? I just wonder if in some organisations at least, the surfacing of this distinction between the powerful and the less so might need some extra thought to manage.

It can be said that Internal Communications has always existed in part to manage this kind of tension and it's not really a new problem. IC departments often walk a tightrope between encouraging greater communication from the bottom to the top and dealing with the reality that very often the top isn't listening that hard. However, the veneer of democracy that social media tend to present might heighten the disillusionment when the "democratic deficit" is made raw in a blog exchange.

Is this insurmountable? I don't think so, but it needs some thinking about. It also connects to my next post, on the professionalisation project for Internal Communications.