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.