Friday, November 27, 2009

Today, I am the Master....

Yesterday I got my MA result - I got a Distinction, the highest award possible. I was absolutely delighted - I still am - a mite surprised, and very proud that the last two years of hard work have produced a personal achievement way ahead of anything I've done academically before.

We celebrated last night with a bottle of champagne - not the greatest idea on top of my incipient cold. Today I'm trying to write, with gaps in the information, a quiet hammering in my head and regular sniffs holding me back a bit.

Now my challenge is to work my new Master of Arts in International Relations into my day job. The two years to date at Brunel have opened up my horizons - I hope the formal qualification will open up some new opportunities too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

There are a thousand meanings for 'yes': a lesson in cultural awareness

I've had a meeting blown out through what amounts to a classic cultural disconnect.

At the moment I'm doing a small piece of work for a company with an AsiaPac office. We had a meeting and a follow-up telecon last week at which I specified a few actions that needed to happen on the client side to move the project along. At the meeting, everyone agreed with the proposed actions, we divvied them up and set a touch point for today to check in on progress.

The AsiaPac guys seemed enthusiastic, made all the right noises and nodded their heads vigorously when actions came their way. Their English was excellent......and I assumed they understood what was needed of them.

Lesson 1: never assume

The alarm bells rang just a little on Friday when the follow-up telecon became a repeat of the previous meeting. instead of moving the conversation on, we seemed to be covering the same ground. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to this week's meeting where we'd be able to share the results of everyone's actions. Except the meeting has been postponed - and no actions have actually taken place.

Apparently, the AsiaPac guys hadn't really understood what I and their EMEA colleagues were asking them to do. But to have said so in the meeting would have been a huge loss of face. So every time they were asked to support an action or to let us know whether they understood or agreed with what we were asking them to do, they just smiled and said yes. Clearly, we hadn't made our case well - but our colleagues were too polite to point this out.

My EMEA contact who cancelled the meeting today told me that after the meeting and on the flight back, his AsiaPac colleagues had got into an argument over what was required of them: there were two distinct camps with opposing views and neither was prepared to back down. The result was, that when they were back at base, they did nothing. It's culturally not in their make-up to ask for help - especially from another office, and actually more acceptable to put their collective heads in the sand and wait for resolution.

Lesson 2: patience pays off

Picking up on what had most probably been happening, my EMEA colleague has spent several long telephone calls over the weekend taking his colleagues through the plan again, checking their understanding at every point; getting them to play back exactly what their role is and setting a revised deadline for action. Without being rude, he hasn't accepted the 'yes' responses at face value, but has continued to question, check understanding and build confidence. I've learned a lot from him in a short space of time.

Just because it's a western company, we can't impose a western outlook on employees with very different cultural values and working practices.

Our next call is for a few days' time: I'm going to be much more tuned-in to the nuances behind every 'yes' this time round.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Will the market change forever?

Apparently the first green shoots are appearing in the UK: house prices are inching up, unemployment has peaked and the demand for talent is beginning to increase. But I have to say I haven't felt the uplift yet in organisational communications. I'm sure it will happen, but I suspect what will emerge is a leaner, more professional model where more of the key work is handled in-house. The impact on the food chain that feeds off the big organisations will be marked. I suspect many businesses will be fighting for survival. Strangely, I don't think that's a bad thing.

In the boom years, I noticed a new breed emerging in my specialism: internal communication. Many great managers moved into senior in-house IC roles. But what they were great at doing was managing. What it meant for me and people of my ilk was that we had a say in developing these organisations' communications strategies, and once the comms strategy was in place, these managers were content to outsource much of the delivery of that strategy to external partners. The demand on in-house folk grew which meant the function grew too - as did the amount of work pushed out into the food chain.

An awful lot of 'communication' happened in a lot of organisations - some great, some pretty dire....and a lot that really was 'nice to have' rather than necessary. Every new project had a team and a campaign around it; every little initiative fought for share of mind......and those of us on the delivery side did very well thank you very much.

The last 15 months has been very different. First the hatches were battened down and nothing happened. Then organisations realised they needed to communicate their way through the financial crisis and called on their in-house teams to up their game...but cut the cost.

The result has been a fundamental shake-out in internal communication. For the first time in a decade or more, in-house teams have been asked to 'do the do' rather than relying on external expertise to deliver the goods. The poor performers have been found out and moved out of key roles, while those we always knew were good have shone - taking on the end-to-end process from helping to shape the business strategy to feeding the media channels directly. Sure, external people have been involved, but fewer; and doing only the things that really can't be done by the in-house team. Frankly it's something I'm also seeing in IT, in HR, in fact across all the centralised functions.

Those teams who do have the skills have really proved their worth - and there's a direct correlation with the organisations who are riding out the recession best. Look at an organisation where employees are engaged; where the brand is secure; where the direction is well planned and where leadership is clear and you'll undoubtedly find some great internal communication. Meanwhile managers who've been content only to manage have found IC a very tough place, and many have left their organisations.

The interesting part is that some have joined the ranks of agencies, consultants, micro-businesses and freelancers battling for an overall smaller pot of good IC work. As a pool of talent we're currently swollen. The high quality performers are there, but there are a lot of 'me too' practitioners around as well. And with a squeeze on budgets from within our client organisations, coupled with many new entrants prepared to work for less, there's a growing tendency for clients to commission solely on price rather than insisting on the right fit/best quality/optimal solution that we were getting to back in 06/07.

In some ways (he says through gritted teeth), this isn't a bad thing. Some consultancies and agencies were certainly charging ridiculous rates a couple of years ago - there were similarities to the worst excesses of management consultancy days when consultancies were happy to sell us our own watches so we could tell the time. So a euphemistic 'price correction' is probably overdue. However, the squeeze is rippling through the food chain to a point where there's a real danger that 'low bidding' wars will pull down the standards across IC and lead to some very good practitioners moving out of organisational communication, and some very poor work being delivered. This threatens to damage the already fragile reputation IC has built up in recent years.

Actually, I'm already seeing some move back in-house when the opportunities arise. There is a demand for highly skilled senior practitioners who can talk to the top team in their language and deliver the goods in a way that's truly engaging to their stakeholders. But I'm also seeing long-standing independents moving on completely - I now know a teacher, a trainee lawyer and a property developer who were all very solid IC pros less than two years ago.

So what kind of market will we see in 2010 and 2011? Increasingly, in-house teams will be more senior, better skilled but also leaner. They'll have to get to grips with Web 2.0 and release their tight grip on 'owning' communication since the emerging tools will democratise communication across organisations more than ever before. There will be a greater need for compliance driven from the centre, but also a greater need to really upskill line management to be communication leaders. We've all talked about it for a long time. Now it must happen.

Where in-house teams are staffed by skilled practitioners, they simply won't be allowed to grow big budgets any more. So there will be a greater focus on identifying what will drive the organisation forward and building communication into those drivers . A lot of the unnecessary stuff has disappeared already. It won't be back for a while.

There will still be a demand for external services, but it will be more focused on specific skills (social media; line management coaching; the comms end of cloud computing are just three areas where externals should be sharpening their skills) with less general demand for the extra pairs of hands. As external suppliers, we'll also have to deal increasingly with Procurement teams rather than the direct client. Initially this may drive down cost further, but longer-term should actually up the game for supplier who will have to justify costs through the value we create much more comprehensively.

A world-wide financial crisis has placed IC centre stage: a key resource for helping to ride out the storm. As a function, IC has been battered too, though the harshest effects have probably been on suppliers who've become too dependent on the bigger organisations for too long.

We'll never return to pre-2008 days, and if externals want to thrive in the upturn, we need to be as lean, as focused and as able to identify and deliver value as any of the upskilled internal teams we'll be supporting. It's going to be positively Darwinian out there.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Calling experts in procurement, net reps and the world of paralegals

I'm getting caught up in researching the next issue of Badenoch & Clark's Connections at the moment, with a slew of articles to be written.

Today (and tomorrow) I'm looking into the future of paralegals in the UK; a piece exploring the role of the Procurement function in business today, and a piece on how seriously employers take net reps both when it comes to hiring new staff, and also performance managing their existing staff. A nice varied bunch then, and I'd love some good input.

So if you have a view, post a comment or contact me at

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Germany calling...or calling Germany

I'm researching two Continental-Europe focused magazine features at the moment - one a business profile of the German city of Frankfurt, and the second a focus on the prospects for financial services as an employment sector across Europe.

Of course the nature of the beast now, both with recession still biting and so much information electronically 'on tap', is to research and write the pieces from wet and windy Buckinghamshire. But what will really bring them to life is talking to some credible figures on the inside to get some primary source information, opinion and comment. I'll be googling and doing an information trawl over the next day or two - but if anyone has any good ideas or wants to participate, please do get in touch.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Will the last one out please switch off the lights?

I got my first expression of interest in the O/O Assessment this morning which is great. But what was far more salutary was the fact that out of all the people I emailed with an outline of the service, a shade under half bounced back - or elicited a response that the person I'd mailed no longer worked for the organisation I'd sent the information to.

None of my 'targets' was a totally cold call: these were organisations I'd worked with before or people I at least knew through the CiB/IABC/Melcrum networks. While I'm sure some people have simply moved on from one organisation to another, it seems that IC has contracted pretty drastically in 2009.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Stop, think and focus

Over the past year I've sen most organisations batten down the hatches on organisational communication, pulling what work they are doing back in-house and focusing only on getting through the day to day challenges. It has been tough all round: many teams have dealt with significant redundancy programmes in their organisation while themselves being cut to the bone. Other challenges I've seen have included managing the communication agenda of leadership teams that have become more directive and less inclusive - and the consequent difficulties in maintaining employee engagement. And every organisation I've worked with has faced the daily challenge of having to do more with less to reach targets that are ever more difficult to attain.

In some notable cases - and to their great credit - the in-house teams have thrived, taking on work they would normally have outsourced, and rediscovering the skills and passions that initially drew them into organisational communication. But, a year and more down the line, everyone's tired and many communicators are running close to empty.

In any recession - and I've been through the last three (arguably four) - employee communication is an easy cost-cutting target. Leaders make the right noises about communication and engagement being a massive priority, but then cut back on budget and resourcing anyway. It's tough for the team stuck in the middle of the maelstrom to keep on delivering, and doubly tough to remain focused and objective on whether what they're producing is delivering the outcome the business actually needs. The issue is not just to deal with today's challenges, but to ensure that the organisation is in the right shape to met the different challenges it will face when the upturn kicks in.

And here's the dilemma many organisations are facing: at the moment, calling on external consultancy support simply isn't an option - it's seen as too costly and wasteful - and against the spirit of the organisation in managing costs and preserving internal roles. However, now is exactly the time when organisational communication teams could benefit most from a fresh, experienced pair of eyes to assess how their communications are performing and how well aligned they are with the needs of the business.

Over the summer, I worked for two organisations on quick diagnostic projects - the aim was to stop, think and focus. It was about making small course corrections rather than reinventing the communication wheel. The object in both cases was to look at the business strategy; do a deep dive into what was being done in terms of communication (through desk research and 1:1 interviews with key communication influencers) and to feedback through a highly interactive senior workshop. The feedback session became the basis for an action plan where senior leaders took responsibility for the necessary aspects of course correction.

The sessions were really effective. As an outsider, I could give objective feedback, pulling no punches, and detail where communication was and wasn't working - and why. Once issues were out in the open, the internal teams worked at developing solutions that could be delivered inside the organisation - not by pricey external consultants.

I refined the process over the course of the two projects and now am confident that it's works and is replicable and scalable. One project was for a sizable business and the other for a division of an organisation. In both cases, the key was identifying actions that could be acted on by the existing in-house team within their budget using existing resources. In both cases, I worked on the available budget my clients had - it was well below what I would have charged in the good times, but I knew i could still make the figures work for me - and deliver something very beneficial for the client.

Talking to a couple of Leapfrog Associates last week, we began calling the proto-service 'Austerity Consultancy' - somehow it fits the times.....but isn't the most saleable name. Now I'm driven in my communication makeup by a focus on outcomes over outputs, and realised that this is what this service is all about. So, austerity consultancy has become O/O Assessment - a process to ensure your communication outputs and planned business outcomes are aligned.

My mantra on business communication is only to invest time in those things that will actually drive the business forward - it's about understanding the impact of what you do and being able to measure that impact. And in this economic downturn, it's about doing a few things well.

If you're interested in finding out whether O/O Assessment could work for you, give me a call or drop me an email. It's low-cost, low risk and could really re energise your team to focus on what really matters to your might even save you a few ££ along the way.