Monday, June 14, 2010

Back in the saddle

Back to work properly this morning after a week and a half on a research trip in the US. Just 112 emails to respond too...and I thought I'd kept on top of stuff while I was overseas!

It was good to spend time absorbed in my research, though the trip threw up a number of points of comparison with the work I'm currently involved in.

While researching in the NASA HQ archive, I spent my first few days in Gallaudet University - the US' premier education facility for the deaf and hearing impaired. Everyone working in the conference hotel signed and many were themselves hearing impaired. Apart from being a very quiet place to stay, it also threw me a little to find myself as the minority communicator. I don't sign (and even if I did, I imagine I'd have learned BSL not ASL) and not everyone I was dealing with read lips. I was out of the swing of mainstream communication and had to work harder to be 'heard'. It made me reassess the way I communicate, and certainly will shape my thoughts on employee communication - and getting through to those hard-to-reach audiences, moving forward.

Last week I was right in the US heartland working at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. Some 160 miles west of Kansas City, the archive is in a small farming town, home to 6,700 people, 33 churches and, weirdly, about half a dozen petrol stations. I was immensely struck by the genuine warmth and friendliness of the people - a fellow researcher actually made the point that 'the beauty of Kansas is in its people'. Abilene is at the border of the flat lands: this is plains country; home to cattle and crops. It was a massive contrast to Washington DC and the issues that affected people were significantly different from the coastal fringe. Sure, the BP oil disaster was the lead national story, but what people were talking about was much more oriented to family and farming. There was also quite a lack of curiosity about other countries, other continents. People, in general, were fiercely proud and protective of Kansas first and the US second. Not too many had ventured over seas and their view of the world was very much coloured by their every-day experience - though a number worked for big organisations: the likes of AT&T and the US Government. Sometimes when we communicate out from the centre, we forget about what really matters and drives the mindset of our far-flung receivers. Sometimes culturally, we're more different than we let on.

Finally, a week looking at Presidential communications from 1957-1960 has reminded me that what goes around comes around. The fledgling NASA had all sorts of problems managing stakeholder communications. The Head of Comms felt his function was under-resourced while his boss felt the team was underskilled for the role they had to play. Not a lot changes, eh?

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