IC: Your future is the ability to generate ideas

MADRID – My trusty researcher and I have completed the majority of background work ahead of my putting finger to key and Sharpie™ to A3 paper in crafting my second book, Brand & Talent, out in 2014 through Kogan Page.

Having been around the block in the worlds of internal communication and employee engagement, the whole thing makes for quite depressing reading.  There has been virtually no innovation in the field of internal communication and employee engagement in nearly 20 years.  And using social media isn’t innovative, by the way. Nor is calling it “gamification” (today’s latest old rope).

I think the insight lies somewhere in the region of Dan Pink’s Drive – specifically his observation, which I don’t think he made nearly enough of, that there is a difference between algorithmic and heuristic approaches.  It similarly lies in the territory of increasing scrutiny and debate about the irrelevant that seems to be the stock in trade of the professional associations.

It certainly brings clarity to a point I made to my good friend Mike Klein several weeks ago when we explored LTUAE over some wonderful curry in Brick Lane, London.  I had half-jokingly asserted that internal communication is an organizational capability that no longer required an associated function.  That unlocked some of Mike’s thinking about an IABC-related article he subsequently published on Ragan.com about competence vs advocacy.  My reaction to the draft article he asked me to look at was that distinguishing between whether advocacy or competency were the “right” strategies for an association was missing the whole point.  He begged to disagree.

But having been pondering this and reviewing the research in front of me, Pink has nailed it without intending to.  The association view of the world is one of competence and capturing best practices. Those who know me know my view about so-called best practices.  The profession’s obsession with discovering, rewarding and sharing ‘best practices’ is probably the single best way to institutionalize an inability to innovate.  In other words, in the various associations’ quests to codify and file what the best approaches are, it has rendered the vast majority of practitioners unwilling or unable to think and behave heuristically.  To solve the problem in front of them using a blank sheet of paper.  Which leaves scant few of us to get on with innovating.

I told Mike the real prize was if communication professionals could prove that they could generate ideas that solve problems and overcome challenges – pigeon-holed definitions and competences aside.   He begged to disagree.

So, coincidentally, Pink’s separation of algorithmic and heuristic approaches brings me into agreement with Mike: That a competency-driven approach is about as wrong as you can possibly get, but for very different reasons than those Mike puts forward in his usual eloquent (if not in my case persuasive) way.

Where has this led me? Without spoiling the thesis of the upcoming book, it’s pretty simple.  The role of professional communicators needs to shift from tactical competence to value-building integration to heuristics. Ideas.  Again, I have a passion for organisations and their stakeholder ecosystems as a complex adaptive system where mastery of only a single discipline is worse than useless; it destroys value by overly focusing on narrow competence.  Dan Gray and I call it the down stroke of the T; the value now and in the future will be predominantly in the cross stroke.

This has been proven at the coalface, at least in my personal experience, where my role has been more focused on shaping senior leadership thinking around integration, alignment, and cross-functional collaboration relative to Purpose, Ambition, Proposition and corporate strategy than “how” we communicate and engage.

This, to me, is really where we all ought to be operating.

And yes, of course, competence is needed. But it’s just a foundation, and one that in my opinion has been grossly overcomplicated and made harder than it really is.  I always equate associations attempting to codify this stuff as the equivalent of the church’s use of Latin in Medieval times … trying to blind ‘em with science is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

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888 words from Eurocomm 2008

WARNING – LONG POST

BARCELONA — After a lovely walk around the marina and Barceloneta area, some Sauvignon Blanc accompanying a remarkable black lobster paella, I drifted back to the Catalonia Suites Hotel for a hot bath to reflect on the past two days.

A 1960s Dean Martin movie, one of the Matt Helm series I adored as a child, plays on the tv of the Catalonia Suites Hotel. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s been somehow strangely improved as an overall experience with the Spanish overdubbing. On screen, a group of waiters standing in the parking lot salute Dino/Helm, who has acquired the Hotel’s bell captain’s uniform, as he rides by on his newly acquired motorcycle.

The waiters’ trousers are around their ankles as Dean slaloms through them with a twinkle in his eye and that trademark smirk. I’m not sure what led to this, but for some reason it’s the only possible image for this particular moment of my life.

A good conference. My personal highlights were Suzanne Salvo’s (Salvo Photography) session on the ethics of photo manipulation and Ramon Olle Jr.’s presentation on the new face of consumer branding. And, of course, the ample and various networking opportunities that the conference schedule so insightfully provided – plenty of time between sessions rather than a quick cuppa and off to the next session. It’s the space in-between that glues these things together so well.

Personally, I enjoyed presenting my session, chillingly entitled “Are you communicating with a fictitious construct?”

Although it was a late addition to the conference’s lineup as I was asked to cover a speaker who had to drop out, I had had some time to think through the issue of audience segmentation and the accompanying pitfalls and opportunities it entails. Having some 20 people show up, when I was expecting to present to the translator, the audio technician and a tumbleweed (given Michael Spencer’s presentation was next door), was a nice surprise.

I was gratified that most of the participants got into the spirit of the thing and didn’t take me too literally. It was really about presenting one or two case studies that I felt explored some interesting audience-related communication challenges facing two of the world’s leading organisations. An opportune question at the end of the session allowed me to steer it right back to where we started off: the rhetorical premise that an audience is a construct of the communicator suiting their communication objective. This holds some intriguing possibilities.

Perhaps not your typical conference presentation, then.

I was really gratified by the feedback – some of which is paraphrased below. (If I have got anything too far wrong, please let me know and I can make amends). I was pleasantly caught quite off guard when the work SAS did for KPMG resulted in spontaneous applause. Some paraphrased examples of the nice comments passed on to me:

  • Russell Grossman (Director of Communications, Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform) – “We are all different people from moment to moment. The whole concept that your communication can be designed to ‘create’ an audience and engage it in a given context that you create has some intriguing implications and possibilities.”
  • Yang-May at ZenGuide – “Great case study and presentation — it made me want to go work for KPMG.”
  • Mike Klein (commsoffensive) – “Brilliant presentation. Actually made me (almost) want to work in an agency again.”
  • Gloria Walker, ABC (consultant and former chair of the IABC Research Foundation) – “The ideas were so relevant to a specific client situation I’m dealing with that I couldn’t write fast enough. Helped me think through some new ways of engaging communication communities.”
  • Indranath ‘Indy’ Neogy (enoptron) – “Completely applicable in a world of vanishing internal-external boundaries and the media fragmentation; audiences are not static and definable, but are constantly moving and shifting.” 
  • Kristian Ruby, Danish Ministry for the Environment – “Excellent, inspiring and interesting presentation.”
  • Sira Coll i Capella, Press Office Manager, Parc LaSalle Innovation (LaSalle) — “Can I use your presentation to add to our curriculum? Very innovative, useful, inspiring modern practice.”
  • Marc Wright (Simply Communicate) – “I would have expected nothing less from one of the new generation of 2.0 presenters and their diffident style.”
  • Julie Freeman, President, IABC – “It didn’t work for me at all. You said audiences didn’t exist, then showed some pictures of audiences, then showed some case studies demonstrating how you went on to segment audiences. And you shouldn’t have been so honest, telling the audience you put the presentation together that morning. You were too glib about the whole thing.”

(Irony can, alas, sometimes be lost on Americans, particularly when they rest in the arms of the gentle slumber of a Barcelona afternoon, peacefully jet lagged, through the lion’s share of one’s presentation. Clearly, not signed up to one of SAS‘s core values: Respectfully irreverent.)

Nonetheless, one must appreciate the sentiment, and if one were a betting man, he’d lay odds of 5-1 against seeing me presenting anything at an IABC International conference anytime soon.

So anyway … a very big thank you to La Salle University and its staff and students who were most gracious and accommodating hosts, to Silvia Cambie and her team for making the whole thing happen, and of course to the conference attendees who were the heart and soul of the whole endeavour. It was refreshing and inspiring to engage with such a fine group of people.

Well, Matt Helm is about to storm the villain’s hideout to capture the nefarious anti-gravity ray pistol, which the criminal mastermind has just used to unzip a young lady’s miniskirt.

A telling reminder to me that some things deserve far more attention than blogging.