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.


caversham43 said...

Hi Mark

Your article makes a lot of sense and presents a great rallying cry. One consideration is that IC remains a cost to the business - it's right to say 'no' at the right time but when the 'JFDI' moment arrives things get interesting....

Mark Shanahan said...

Yup - JFDI can be the defining moment. The key is knowing when to pick your battles and who to pick them with. Sometimes you'll have no choice and just have to flippin' do it. It's interesting then to track the progress of 'it' to understand whether it was the right thing to do.

On other occasions, when you're really firm in your ground, say 'no'. I've done it, backed it with logic (and an alternative solution), and never yet had my head chopped off.