Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Learning lessons

I was in Washington DC a few weeks ago, just before the successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery, and was back home when it successfully touched down after an excellent mission. I know it touched down successfully because I read about it on page 23 of my morning paper, in a little box with a tiny black and white picture.

Space travel simply doesn't have the cache it did nearly 40 years ago when the US v Russian space race was at its height.

Key to my trip to Washington was time spent at NASA's HQ researching the events that led to - and came out of - the Apollo 1 fire which took the lives of three American astronauts back in January 1967. I spent a morning in the basement of NASA's faceless and unprepossessing 1960s office building working through some of the records relating the the investigation that happened after the crash, musty papers that had hardly been touched for 30 years or more; details of the findings that put man on the moon just two and a half years after the accident.

A day later, I was in the National Air and Space Museum's bookshop browsing for something to read on the flight home. Gripped by my new space exploration awareness, I picked up a new Smithsonian publication by a Shuttle astronaut - Tom Jones. Skywalking is a very good read and gave me far more insight into the Shuttle and more so, the International Space Station. I was reading the book in parallel to James Hansen's biography of Neil Armstrong - First Man and the contrast could not have been more vivid. Armstrong's a private man; a man of few words who took an engineer's approach to space flight. The book is high on technical detail, but low on unlocking Armstrong's personality - he simply isn't the subject for that kind of approach and the book is far more successful as a comprehensive historical record, than an insight into Armstrong's soul.

Skywalking on the other hand is very personal, very friendly in tone and very approachable. Despite his background flying B52s and working for the CIA, Jones comes across as likeable, an enthusiast and someone who wants to explain space to the masses. He perhaps isn't critical enough of the powers at NASA - saving his barbs for the Russians - and he never seems to have worked with a crewmate who's anything less than perfect - which perhaps stretches credulity a bit.

But, having bought Tom Jones' book in the museum's upstairs bookshop, I walked downstairs to find him setting up for a book signing. My first astronaut......and he turned out to be a really nice bloke. He signed his book for my son, posed for a picture - and, as the signing hadn't quite started, took some time to chat.

I explained I was researching a piece on Apollo 1, and Tom turned out to be something of a historian of the event and had the huge jump on me in that he's seen the remains of the command module which is still kept at Langley.

The premise of my piece is that Armstrong wouldn't have got to the moon when he did but for the fact of the launchpad fire - which led to over 1,000 improvements to the module in the 21 months that Apollo was grounded. Tom added to that stating that museums like the National Air and Space should do more to recognise NASA's failures as well as celebrating their triumphs, since those triumphs are built on the lessons learned from Apollo 1, from the rockets that blew up before man was launched into space, and from the terrible accidents that befell the Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. He'd like to see at least a piece of the Apollo 1 capsule displayed in Washington - perhaps something that could be done to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the accident.

It was no surprise when, back in the UK, I turned on Fox's coverage of the Shuttle launch to find Tom Jones providing the expert analysis. He has the gift for making complex stuff simple - a rarew gift among space folk.

Anyway, Discovery's safe landing seems to show that NASA is prepared to learn from its mistakes. It's still prepared to push frontiers, but will do things differently.

Somehow that's at odds with too many of our political leaders around the world who keep doing the same old same old - and expecting to get a different result.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

We speak the same language....don't we

I'm looking at the thermometer in my office at the moment and it's reading 93 degrees - it's 98 degrees in our kitchen, and probably a little hotter outside.....not the best environment to try and get anything done, but the heat is on in more ways than one.

The business pipeline is good at the moment with a couple of projects each on with two major clients, a smaller piece with another and several pieces of new business heading in too - in fact I had to turn away work this week for the first time in months.

Of course, the upturn always happens at tricky times - it's the nature of running a small business. Next week we're off to France for a holiday, so it's all hands to the pump to cram about three weeks work into a week and a half so that I don't have to take my laptop with me.

One of the interesting pieces is working on client relationships with a professional services organisation. We're looking at what really makes a difference and enables the corporate and the professional services provider to work in harmony. So far, it seems to come down to three factors: transparency of price; effective communication and business understanding.

The key is communication. Looking at both sides of the relationship, I've met erudite and articulate people who are passionate about their businesses and the expertise they bring to the office every day. I'm working with English speakers, but they don't necessarily speak the same language.

Each industry and each function within them has its own code; its own jargon and its own shorthand. What's fundamental for any business service provider coming into an organisation is to get under its skin; to absorb the lingua franca and mirror the style, behaviours and language of the people who work there every day - without losing the professional expertise.....and a small degree of detachment necessary to avoid 'going native'.

My client recognises this and has pretty sophisticated sustems in place not just to collect client feedback, but to act on it, using it as the means to drive the business towards much more mutually beneficial relationships. Language is still a bit of a sticking point - but they're getting there.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What does it take?

....not to fall in love, but to get an 1,100 strong business communications group to the minimum 10,000 required members to reach charter status?

That's the challenge facing Communicators in Business at the moment, and a challenge I can affect since I've taken on the role of chairing CiB's membership committee.

Not sure why I did that - a moment of weakness fuelled by wine was enough to flatter me into the post. Anyway, I'm here now, and have gathered an interesting team around me ranging across corporates, agency and freelance members.

The first challenge we face is CiB's image problem. Though there are pockets of leading-edge thought within it, the organisation is still thought of as agency-led and somewhat self-serving in that all those agencies enter and win awards every year for their publications. Clearly, it has been in he agencies' interest to feed and water CiB over the years, and many really good people have taken on roles within CiB's management - most necessary as it's largely a voluntary organisation.

However, that makes it harder to break free of the media and craft focus of the organisation. The result is that it largely recruits and meets the needs of people whose living comes from writing, designing and editing media for internal audiences.

CiB now has a development group in place working on how to attract more senior people and provide an ofering that will make CiB the organisaton to belong to if your prime business stake is in internal communications. The aim is to have a body that still caters for the needs of those on the early rungs of the internal comms ladder, but that also puts all the building blocks in place to support people as they rise through what's becoming a more recognised profession. I see those building blocks as access to best practice and leading edge thought; communities of interest; excellent networking opportunities; recognised professional qualifications and links to he best in academia. Equally we must build links and alliances that bring IC professionals into regular and beneficial contact with peers in related fields such as HR, legal and change as well as the obvious PR/marketing organisations.

The development group is researching now and will report in the Autumn. In the meantime, my group needs to get the transactional processes right to enable us to reach both into CiB to meet the needs of existing members, and reach out to potential members and those who've never even thought of CiB in the past tohelp get the organisation out of the 'craft' bracket and into space where it's truly representative of hat's happening in IC today.

The only potential problem then is that organisational communication is consolidating, so that there's now less of a distinction between external and internal comms and more of a grouping around issue communication. I think there is, and will remain, a distinct skill set for internal comms and thus there's a distinct and necessary niche for CiB. However, CiB needs to play this one cleverly so as not to exclude those of us wh's skillset and audiences span both internal and external stakeholders.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Preaching to the converted

It's hot in here today - probably legally too hot to be working - but that's the up and downside of running my own business. I'm setting up an employee report for a City firm today, so have to make a longish round of calls, but I can do it with the door and windows open, sitting barefoot in a pair of shorts and an open shirt. Probably not the most edifying word picture, but at least I can get the job done without expiring.

Anyway, after hitting three voicemails in a row, I'm having a little break, while I remember to get down a thought that has struck me more and more over the past few weeks.

When we, as comms consultants, talk to internal communicators, we're talking to the wrong people. we're preaching to the converted - to the ones who 'get it'.

There are still the old-schoolers out there for whom internal communication is all about producing magazines and intranets, but in my last few weeks, in London, Baltimore, Washington and in deepest rural England, I've met half a dozen communicators who really understand what we're about. They not only grasp the concepts of issue over output; business enablement and change enablement, but are driving these areas within their business. Interestingly, all came from backgrounds outside journalism - HR, general management, local government management and change. Interestingly too, they all face the same challenge - moving their bosses from old school to new.

More and more, I'm convinced that we should be working with these internal communicators to target business leaders. At present, very few internal communicators have sufficient influence at the top table. Too many CEOs treat their internal comms teams as production houses and give insufficient time and ear-space to the opinions of their internal communicators. Yet they're quite prepared to listen to voices from outside their organisation - especially if we don't call ourselves communication consultants.

When I talk to an organisation as part of a change or business consultancy team, I seem to get far better results - even though I'm doing the same as I ever do with my 'comms' hat on.

It's clear internal comms is being seen as having more business value now - but it's still well down the ladder. I think the tipping point will come when the clever, bright and articulate new wave of internal comms managers finally get into conversations with CEOs about change, leadership and business direction rather than profile pieces for the next newsletter.....

Anyway, I must get back to that next City profile piece.......gotta pay the bills, eh?