Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Time for Considered Communication

I am rapidly assuming the status of a dinosaur - with a bit of King Canute wrapped in. I go to communication meetings and challenge the wisdom that all that is new must be good (and the implied, but rarely expressed, view that everything conceived before 2008 is bad). When the agencies I meet talk social, I talk business impact. When they press the benefits of Infographics, I question the outcome they're trying to achieve. When they press for digital solutions, I fight for the quality of content.

Unlike the dinosaur, I've seen at least two revolutions in my IC career and have survived. Almost 20 years ago we were told email would take over the communication world - it did - and we've fought against it ever since. A decade later came the rise of the intranet and the supposed thrust for collaborative working. Until very recently, most intranets became hungry beasts demanding huge time commitment to keep them fresh, but offering questionable organisational benefit. The move towards social communication is bringing new life into these beasts - but young, equally fresh, innovative communicators appear set to dump the PC-planned platform and drag their organisations (sometimes kicking and screaming) into a mobile age where all we need to grow our businesses and collaborate with the world is the latest social communication app and a smart device to run it on.

It's great in that Millennial world and I'm absolutely all for innovation in the platforms, the speed and the connectivity that bring people together in business. But I'm also more than aware that just 35% of the workforce is Gen Y (that's born after 1980) and only around half of those are true Millennials (that's digital natives who have joined the workforce since 2008). Today's workforce is still dominated in numerical terms by Baby Boomers and Generation X, while around 80% of the UK's workforce work in small and mediums sized enterprises where great communication matters greatly - but where enterprise social networks are not at the top of the business agenda. Should they be?

Perhaps social needs to be more important to many more organisations, but the reality is that unless you happen to work in a start-up technology or marketing business, Boardrooms will continue to be dominated by the Boomers and Gen X until at least 2025. Consequently, in order to inspire these business leaders to adopt social communication to drive effective stakeholder engagement, communicators need to work with them and appreciate their needs and behaviours rather than merely impose solutions that appeal to only that part of any workforce that has grown up with a smart device grafted to their arm.

I am frankly getting fed up with being told that social answers every comms issue I have. It doesn't. I get more than a little bile in my throat when some bright spark tells me 'a picture's worth a thousand words and here's out latest infographic tool - it's cutting edge.' Infographics new? So what was Leonardo da Vinci doing more than 500 years ago? I get thoroughly pee'd off when I'm told we're all too time poor to read anything, or listen to anything or watch anything or, God forbid, actually meet anyone. All we have time to do is tweet or yammer away or contribute to the latest chatter. Surely the purpose of all these digital channels is to save us time - so why aren't we using it effectively?
We are not time-poor, but attention-poor. It would seem our Millennials have all the time in the world to indulge in the latest learn-your-business-though-an-online-game (which, having not been brought up with fat thumb syndrome, I find tedious and a waste of my time), but have no appetite for a face-to-face event.

Yet in running head-long into applying social/digital to every communication issue, are we not in danger of imposing solutions that actually run counter to many stakeholders' desires and appeal only to the comms innovators in the same way that the first wave of intranets met only the needs of IT developers a decade ago?

Fast v Slow Food

For me, today's digital comms are the fast food of the comms menu - exciting to look at, sold with a lot of razzmatazz, but ultimately not very fulfilling. There's absolutely a place for them in communication and as the business demographic change and social comms gains a degree of maturity, they will develop into the staples of our future menu.

But I have a huge amount of respect for the slow food movement. The principle behind slow food is to reconnect people with where their food comes from and how it is produced so they can understand the implications of the choices they make about the food they put on their plates. We encourage people to choose nutritious food, from sustainable, local sources which tastes great.
What on earth does that have to do with communication? The Slow Food movement started in Italy in 1989 when people began to realise that all that was good in the history, tradition and indeed culinary genius of their food was being lost to the relentless rise of homogenous, cheap, internationalised, soul-less invaders - from pizza to burgers industrialised tacos and the rest that had no connection with the locality in which it was sold.

I commend something similar for IC. For the past 20 years, we've built great skills in face-to-face communication; in authentic leadership communication; in developing the roles of managers and supervisors and in putting great effort into creating content that's timely, relevant, audience-tailored and where its impact on business performance can be measured and acted on. We've developed process that has enabled IC to move from being remote and top-down to being embedded in business and recognised as a crucial business function. We've become exemplars for high quality work - enabling others to learn from our expertise.

But there's a push to change that role. To move from being creators to curators - no longer setting the standard for quality, but merely providing the frames in which anyone can use any social tool to 'communicate' any kind of content - regardless of its quality, worth to the organisation or impact on stakeholders is wrong. To me, that's an abdication of all that has been good in IC since the 90s. Some IC pros 'get' that to curate effectively, they still need to manage content - but with true socialisation, is that actually possible?

Despite the extreme fascination with the technology of social media, I'm still told that content is king. Yet there's a paradox here, since socialisation seems to be letting anyone share any old tat. The emphasis on good quality communication that actually connects with its intended audiences seems to have been lost. We're rather stuck in that myth that 'anyone can write; anyone can take a picture'. So, by the same token, I can count, so will Finance let me loose on the accounts?

I am old school when it comes to effective writing; to good storytelling and to ensuring the imagery I use actually is fit for purpose with a particular audience group - that's where I add expertise. I'm equally old school in fitting the right medium to the need - and still believe that face to face communication - and the in-person connection of teams, leaders and the rest is what we should aim for. That's real social communication.

Of course, in the globalised world of major organisations that's often an ideal we aspire to - but digital comms should be used to enhance and support the need for face to face - not replace it.
Equally, while I have no intention to clamp down on social as a great means of collaboration, I'm still keen to push IC's role as exemplar of all that's good in comms. We cannot abdicate our responsibility for producing great content. While we have a role in bringing up the standards of the rest of our organisation, we're not just the coach. IC teams need to include inspiring creative talent too (or at least access to talent who really understand the organisation). The IC-pro as manager and curator appears to me to be a backwards step.

So am I advocating a 'Slow Communication' movement? Far from it. What I am advocating is Considered Communication: a blend of all we've learned that's good from the past 20 years with what's new and emerging, managed and delivered by a team of all the talents.

I may be a movement of one. I hope not. I may just be the last dinosaur caught in the death throws of a dying style of internal comms. If that's so, it saddens me.

I've already been called King Canute. But that doesn't worry me. Canute did not believe he could hold back the sea, but sat at the water's edge to prove to his followers that he was not all powerful. I am all for progress and all for the evolution of IC. What I don't believe is that everything social and everything digital actually equates to progress.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Summertime - and your living could be easier if you had an experienced comms pro to cover for you...

It looks like I'm well set up from September. Nice stuff in the pipeline to look forward to. But, as sometimes happens around these hot summer months, the pipeline’s more a dribble than a deluge at the moment.

So, if anyone’s looking for some IC or B2B comms cover over the summer – please do get in touch. You’ll be guaranteed speedy service, experienced, effective communication and the odd thrust of witty banter.

All projects and proposals considered – while the jam tomorrow will be nice, a bit of bread and butter today wouldn’t go amiss.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Great facilitation doesn't mean being nice to everyone

I keep saying I'm going to stop cross-posting from - and then I do it again...

I’ve been talking facilitation over the weekend and realise that the advice I gave to my contact might have a wider appeal. He’s organising an away day to bring together the management, workers, trustees and volunteers of an organisation going through some painful times, with a view of building a collective vision for the future, and an action plan to turn them all around towards the right direction.

It’s a tough challenge for one day! But here’s what I told him:

“To make your away day effective, you need your facilitator to be challenging – to be independent of the issues and ask the idiotic or awkward questions that need to be answered but that no-one tied to the organisation would think or dare to raise. There is absolutely no point in everyone turning up and taking on their usual roles and delivering the responses they perceive are expected of them. From long experience of doing this kind of thing, the definition of madness is to do the same things over and over, yet expect to achieve a different result.

“I’m sure your facilitator will be perfectly aware of that and won’t fall into the trap of letting everyone get a little too comfortable. From what you told me it sounds as though your organisation faces some significant issues. Your away day looks like a fantastic opportunity to face up to those issues, shake out people’s worries, gripes and prejudices and start moving forward with a common vision. The best way to reach that common vision will be to enable everyone attending to leave their ‘role’ within the organisational structure at the door and to work together as equals with an equal stake in XXX’s future success. You need to get your facilitator to enable that right up front, otherwise the danger is that you’ll all end up being terribly nice to each other…. and actually achieve nothing.”

Often, facilitators see their role as jollying people along and keeping the peace, remaining ‘outside’ the discussion. My perception is that the best facilitators are far more active: agreeing objectives and desired outcomes up front, and managing the conversations so that the right questions are asked; the right debates entered and the right issues aired to enable the participants to act rather than just talk.

I’m looking forward to the feedback from my contact’s upcoming event.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Jam tomorrow, but a bit of bread and butter today would be handy

Yesterday was the first working day in almost three years that I've not been on a retainer or working to an open PO. In once sense it felt good. One client's work had moved from 'project' to 'business-as-usual', while with the other, I'd fulfilled the brief of training up someone on the inside of the organisation to take up the reins for IC. In most other senses it felt bad as I'd communicated myself out of two jobs.

In the great scheme of things I'd be slipping seamlessly into other work without even breaking stride. I wish I could say that was the case. I had the opportunity to take up a contract role this summer, but passed on it. As I found out more about it, I realised I was less and less suited to it - after 13 years of doing my own thing, I've found I'm exceedingly reluctant to work in-house for someone else.

I passed up the chance in part because a couple of other opportunities were out there for interesting projects that played to my consultancy/tactical strengths - both give me the chance to get in to a business, work with their IC people to set clear objectives, build a plan and work on some of the tactical stuff (and then hand the work back in house once my part's delivered). Both opportunities are still there, both will happen...but not quite yet.

I'm doing some summer school teaching for the next five weeks, and also bits and pieces of tactical IC stuff - plus starting to work on a b2b White Paper. But I've got time on my hands now and that makes me uneasy. While there's plenty of jam tomorrow, I need a bit more bread and butter today.

So, if anyone's in need of an additional pair of hands on IC projects over the next seven weeks, please do get in touch at I'm good at what I do; bad at marketing myself; and completely rubbish at thumb twiddling.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The answer's social media - now what's the question?

Another cross-post from

Last week I read a request for help on LinkedIn that so vexed me that I’m still thinking about it a week on.

A member of an IC interest group wrote: “I’m struggling to engage a specific group of employees who are reluctant to embrace social media any suggestions on some new innovative ways?”

My response was: “Do they have to embrace social media? It would seem that whatever the question is for IC pros at the moment, the answer is ‘social media’. Sometimes, in its many and various forms, it is the answer – but not always. 

"We seem to be losing the art of face to face communication and the appetite for traditional comms. In the rush to embrace the electronically-driven social world, that could be a very costly error. Have you talked to this group? What’s their take on comms? Are there channels and media that they appreciate and respect? What’s worked for them in the past – do you know the reasons why they’re not embracing social media?”

“Without knowing that side of the story, it’s tricky to suggest a way forward. But, the newest, sexiest, shiniest forms of comms aren’t always the best for any particular group, and the worst mistake we can make is to impose what we like onto a group with a different (and perhaps just as valuable) perspective.”

The debate has gathered almost two dozen comments, with a group suggesting various options to draw this non-specified audience into social media, while others have either supported me, or in the case of Jim Shaffer, moved the debate on a little. Jim’s point is that we shouldn’t be arguing about traditional v social, but, as he said: “The question and a lot of the responses here are about process versus results or outcomes. What results are you trying to change? What outcomes do you want from “embracing social media?” It would seem that if people 1) had access to a solution that would improve a business outcome, 2) if it was in their best interests to make the improvement and 3) it was their idea to adopt that solution, they would.  Or that’s what usually happens. Asking people to embrace social media is like asking them to embrace posters.”

For me, Jim’s hit on an issue that’s worrying me more and more as I engage with comms pros here in the UK. There’s a distinct band-waggoning on social with the result that any discussion of strategy or tactics that doesn’t involve the latest application of digital wizardry is kicked out the door in double-quick fashion. There’s an assumption that social is some kind of magic bullet – and that the likes of Jim or me advocating an approach that looks at audience needs, business outcomes and the best way for comms to enable such an outcome must be something akin to walking with dinosaurs.

It’s worrying to me in that we seem to be knocking back a good decade of internal comms evolution – the decade that took us from output to outcome and brought leaders across organisations out from behind their emails. To me, there’s a real danger that too much emphasis on social will push our leaders back behind their electronic walls – while too much emphasis on social media will over-dignify the technology, while underplaying the need for solid comms that brings people together in the right way to achieve the right outcomes. Too many people are getting a little too excited about the outputs again – without considering if they’re achieving the right results.

There’s so much talk of social media democratising business – but do you know what? Businesses aren’t democracies. And unless the principles of capitalism are about to fail, they’re not about to become democracies. I am immensely in favour of social’s ability to enable collaboration; to break down the barriers of geography and time zones. But it’s not a panacea. Surely it will enhance our communication offering, not replace all that has gone before?

Not according to Gartner, apparently. Last Thursday I headed up to Milton Keynes to listen to the very excellent Rachel Miller talking about ‘putting the social into communications’. In a really informative and entertaining presentation, she raised many points I agree with – and a few I’d take issue with.

Of course, the first slide above is Gartner’s interpretation. But really? 80% in two-and-a-half years? That may well be true in the largest organisations or ones that are staffed largely by Millennials. But it most certainly won’t apply to the pick and pack barns I work with, or the leave-your-own-device-in-your-locker call centres; or even among the care workers who regard their phones as something to use voice to voice.  We’re getting a little too carried away by the social wave – and I’m not sure enough people are holding it up to scrutiny.
To be fair to Rachel, she absolutely is – and was at pains in her talk to balance social media with other tools in our comms toolkit.  She emphasised strongly that social is a state of mind – it’s fit for purpose for some, but not all, and should be dialled up and down depending on need.
She raised another point though that I don’t want to agree with. It’s about the changing role of comms professionals.
Okay. I’m still with those dinosaurs. I’ve gone through the stage where IC ‘owned’ comms. We were the creators, shapers, packagers, and postmen; measurers, reporters and crank-the-wheel-againers. Rachel suggests that time has passed. The role of IC pros now should be to manage the display to ensure it’s as effective as it can be. The new tools and channels are placing comms in the hands of everyone in the organisation, and our role is to ensure everyone has a voice.
I’m not so sure for two reasons. First, that rapid evolution hasn’t reached most businesses yet. Even the largest organisations I work with are still operating in an old paradigm. Take up of the new-comms mantle is patchy, and the demand for good creative content from the comms team remains strong. Second, the curatorial model could invoke anarchy. Could you apply it to other functions?  Should we all do a bit of accountancy or a bit of IT. Shall we just use HR for a bit of window dressing while we do all our hiring and firing and people management team by team?  I like the idea in principle, but IC must do more than curate. We still need to take the lead. As much as the accountants are the experts (and not to be messed with) in Finance, we have to be seen to be the experts in comms. Yes, it’s more about facilitating, enabling and coaching than packaging – but this is not the time to abdicate responsibility.
I’m wondering if some IC pros are leaping towards that abdication because they don’t actually have the solid grounding in content creation?
As Rachel said last Thursday night: “Content is king, Queen and Jack.” Sure, we can’t own it all and nor can any IC Pro be an expert across all content fields. But actually, some of the old-paradigm dinosaurs have that expertise in bucket loads.
Perhaps the holy grail is about breaking the false divide. Social should not be separate from traditional. Everyone in IC should be focused on enabling the right business outcome – the process of how you get there is important – but what matters most is asking the right questions in the first place.