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.

1 comment:

John Dautzenberg said...

Hi Mark, Thanks for your valuable blog. I really like it. Now the communication is the key of successful business so most of the organizations are trying to give more focus on corporate communication. Thanks again for sharing it.