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.


Technorati Tags:

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...


Technorati Tags: ,

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...