Monday, July 11, 2011

Be a partner, not a packager: know when it's right to say 'no'

My working world has been organisational communication for more than 20 years now. Throughout that time, IC professionals in particular have been fighting to establish their role: first in delivering comms, then in gaining employee buy-in and communicating through change and most recently, establishing the position of IC in engagement. The constant has been that IC has never been confident in its role  - and the upshot is that communicators and the rest of the business see the IC role as two different things.

Wherever I go, I tend to find well-qualified, talented and ambitious IC people working as packagers: responding to the needs of the business by picking up decisions made elsewhere and processing them for publication - be that on a portal, through a tweet, in a team meeting or even in a glossy magazine. Most are doing a great job, but I'd question whether they're doing the right job in building a culture that will truly drive their organisation forward.

Far less frequently, I find IC people in on the decision making process before the key business decisions are finalised. This is where IC should be and should earn its spurs.

With the democratisation of communication, through the near-ubiquitous SharePoint world of team sites, yammer and the rest, overlaid with the bloom of external social media, comms pros can no longer sit their with a finger in the dyke expecting to control the media flow throughout their organisations. Give people the tools to get on with communication, but then get out of the way. The real value that IC can bring is in expert advice - not in trying to craft every message and manage every mechanism.

If IC wants to be taken seriously, it should be looking at the models being set in other functions - Finance, HR and IT for instance.  More and more, those other functions are outsourcing and automating transactional business. Of course, in the last few years, much of this has been driven by the economic climate. Teams have got smaller and in order to make their workload manageable, it has been essential to find new ways of doing the time-consuming but less high-value areas of the job. What has emerged in these functions are a two-speed operation: a few people still looking after the bread and butter process work, but more senior, more able or just more business-focused team members taking on a business partner/expert adviser role further up the business chain. Where such advice works best is before decisions are made. It's a model IC should be fighting for.

I'm ambivalent to the term 'business partner': when a service department is helping a business unit director, it's no more a partnership than when I'm supplying my expertise to an internal client. We'll meet at a point of mutual interest, but I'll always know who's boss. I prefer the concept of expert adviser - and that expertise will become valued and trusted the first time you say 'no' to something.....and are proved right.

We've all had the situation when the CEO or someone equally influential comes along and says: "I need to get this message out now." Sometimes it's a no-brainer: it has to go and everything else gets shoved to the side to make it happen. But on other occasions, your expertise tells you it's the wrong thing to do. Is the message that important? Is the timing right? How does it fit in the context of other communication happening at the same time? What will be the reaction of the organisation? If you have a good case for saying no - and have the evidence to back that case, you prove your worth by challenging the authority figure. But how often does IC do that in reality? How much more likely is it that we stop being an expert and revert to the comfort zone of packaging again?

If IC wants to finally nail a valued role in the organisation, it has to stop being the packager, get into the decision making loop and be far more prepared to challenge far more often.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Are we getting hung up in the Emperor's new clothes?

The wealth of words spilt in pursuit of organisational engagement is staggering. From ning groups of thousands to a plethora of LinkedIn communities, engagement is the buzz of the decade that's supposed to be delivering organisational success.

But what is it? Can we ascribe measurable benefits to it and can we turn those metrics into something that conclusively delivers results?

Working for a couple of large corporates this year, together with my involvement in Adecco's fascinating research project: Unlocking Britain's Potential and even my own research on organisational communicators' role within engagement, what strikes me is that what's being talked about now isn't a million miles away from the emotional intelligence of a decade and more ago or even the corporate dialogues I was involved while working at Nationwide Building Society 20 years ago.

Back then, before the Internet; when communication was face to face and backed by print, we were taking faltering steps from top-down communication into a world where employees were 'empowered'; they had a voice in decision making and all our focus was on breaking down silos and getting cross-functional teams to collaborate within a culture of success to deliver on a range of defined and beneficial corporate goals. We worked with the eager young tyros who wanted to rule the world by e-mail, and with their elders brought up on paper-based systems to find common ground and a way forward that made the most of their blended skills.

It felt good but didn't seem particularly revolutionary then. Now it seems to be happening all over again - this time with social media advancing the collaboration quicker than email and the first clunky iterations of Lotus Notes ever could.

20 years ago, I learned two allied lessons that seem to have been lost, forgotten and rediscovered. First, no organisation was ever going to prosper without great leadership; and second, business organisations are not democracies.

And that's where the Emperor's New Clothes come in. In the consultancy world, there are any number of people out there telling me that social media is engineering a revolution in engagement, bring people together as never before to create cultures that will reshape business as we know it. They've been telling me this for the last three or four years. Yet the reality is, aside from one or two organisations where the leadership already comes from Gen Y and the structures have been built from the ground up, most organisations are operating as they have since the 80s (in some cases, the 1880s).

The pyramid hasn't been inverted and even those organisations exploring the benefits of of wider, more social engagement are doing so through traditional HR/Marketing/Comms structures. The vision of a joined-up organisation with organic engagement remains largely a vision while good businesses built on meritocracy bolt on teams and departments tasked with delivering an engaged organisation. Somehow engagement becomes a process and the essence of it is lost.

Indeed, other than changing the toolkit, is what our engagement experts are doing actually any different from my days at Nationwide in the early 90s?

While organisations are undoubtedly leaner; have flatter structures and are slightly less driven by command and control, the nature of capitalist practice means that the need to drive the bottom line remains the default setting in the Board Room. Some are seeing that this demands a culture very different from traditional business - look at google for instance. But most aren't. And until a very different generation of leaders break into that Board Room, engagement will remain elusive in meaning, benefit and measurement - and those of us pursuing it from a number of different business avenues may well simply be evolving business practice further, as generations have done before us, under another fancy name.

I'm genuinely interested in what's really different this time round?

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Freelance Rules #10 - Manage Expectations

Every client assumes you are sitting at your PC (or Mac!) poised, just waiting for their job to come along. They assume you can do it in half the time quoted, and miraculously, it will be completed at a fraction of the cost you originally agreed. Every client knows they're far more important than every other, and every client is convinced you want nothing more than to dump what you're currently doing to meet their needs.

They are, of course, all completely.....right.

One of the first things you'll find out running a microbusiness is that work never arrives to fit in with your circumstances. When you need a new project, no-one will have anything for you. When you're full to the gunnels with projects, another will come along....and then another.....and then, probably, another.

There's no science to managing the workload (as the great Senator John Glenn, he of the Mercury 7 and the Space Shuttle once told me: "just pray for 48 hour days and 10 day weeks" (how's that for a name-drop)), but there is an art. It's all about managing expectations to ensure all your clients are aware of the art of the possible. To repeat an earlier tip: never over-promise. Let your clients know when you're busy but never put them off. Find out what their real priorities are - it'll enable you to prioritise your workload. And don't be afraid to push back on unreasonable deadlines or pressures to do more for less.

Think about what would happen internally: would a manager going to an internal contact expect an immediate response? Probably not. So why should they expect the world to be different dealing with an external supplier? Let them know what you can do - and then do it better than they could have expected. Then get on with juggling heaven and earth.