“Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition.”
- Marshall McLuhan
In Marshall McLuhan’s heyday, television was the cause of profound cultural changes, which continue to reverberate. McLuhan’s insights on the impact of new media have become prophesy in today's world as the next-generation Internet drives another great technological and cultural transition.
Organizational communicators have been trying to come to grips with the “Web 2.0” revolution for years now – some by lamenting the current state of affairs and hungering for a return to apple-pie values, and others finding hope in the promise of new technology.
So, what is the role of employee communicators in this new world? Lately, a lively and engaging conversation about that is going on in the blogosphere, sparked by one of the true thought leaders in the field.
Roger D’Aprix, who put the "strategic" in strategic communications, recently initiated a discussion on the IABC Linkedin group with the provocative title, “Is Our Profession Intellectually Lazy?” In his initial post he puts a finer point on the question. “Do we continue to take the easy way out in our work and decline to take on the tough challenges of true organizational communication process and the real needs of our audience as the research reveals those needs? If so, why? What do you think??”
Roger’s shot across the bow was quickly returned by my old friend David Murray, another leader in the arcane world of employee communications theory. (I dare say it may be the only world in which there are more leaders than followers.) David’s lengthy and passionate response on ragan.com begins with the suggestion that Roger’s question had not gone far enough. “He forgot to mention morally bankrupt and emotionally dead,” writes David. “At least it often seems that way to me. I’m getting pretty bored with the subject I’ve studied for more than 20 years, the subject I’ve given more of my energy than any other.”
David goes on to despair of communicators’ addiction to trendy technologies, our preoccupation with transferring “the soulless jargon-laden PowerPoint deck that exists in the CEO’s head, into the heads of every employee” and our overambitious and vain attempts to understand and embrace the concept of “employee engagement.” His throat-clearing introductory complaints are followed by a thoughtful essay focused largely on the work of Alexander Heron. Heron’s 1942 handbook, “Sharing Information with Employees” laid out a groundbreaking philosophy of employee communication.
David argues that Heron’s ideas are just as relevant today as when the book was published, and I’m inclined to agree. Heron envisioned a workplace in which leaders communicate with employees to give them “an understanding of the basic economics of their business, who the customers are, who the competition is, what the expectation of quality is, and what kind of person the boss is.”
Heron also believed in the power of two-way communication. Although some questions from employees “will be annoying or embarrassing,” answering them will drive their bosses to challenge their own thinking. Spurred on by open dialogue, leaders would work harder to restore “the living, understanding relationship” between a business and its workers that existed before industrialization and mass production took it away.
According to David these ideas should guide the modern communicator’s work, compelling us to go beyond simply responding to what management wants. He challenges us to inject a higher sense of purpose into what we do.
David’s essay is worth reading in its entirety, but at the end of the piece he sums up his own philosophy this way: the communicator’s role is to help make work more meaningful to employees, and “the more meaning people find in their work, the happier people will be.” Nicely put.
This lofty discussion of the purpose of employee communications continued with a thoughtful blog post by another old friend, technology guru Shel Holtz. Shel chides David for his curmudgeonly, things-were-better-then worldview and shares his views on the discipline of employee communications – emphasizing the importance of an engaged workforce, the value of two-way communication, and the power of technology to help communicators practice our craft.
Shel ends his post with a vision informed by more than 30 years of experience.
“We need to bring a critical eye to the organization and be prepared to challenge leaders rather than simply succumb to their often misguided expectations. We should see the broader consequences of what we do. We should elevate the business literacy of employees. We should, collectively, have a profound effect on society at large.”
Meanwhile, back at the Linkedin discussion, now nearly 60 comments long, Roger D’Aprix sums up the discussion to date:
“Dave Murray in his Ragan piece expresses what I would call the humanistic and romantic view of our work. Not in some sappy sense but in real terms that stir my hope and imagination. Shel Holtz sees things slightly differently, believing that greater professionalism, training and certification of qualifications will go a long way toward making things better….I think that we need both--a romantic vision (that I share) and a vision of standards that frankly excites me less although the necessity is obvious. But I don't think that will give us standing unless the two visions co-exist and lead to improved organizational performance – especially a more engaged workforce.”
The conversation continues to have legs. Communication measurement icon Angela Sinickas wieghs in with positive note, pointing out that things can’t be all that bad if she and others have managed to build long and successful careers doing nothing but communication-related research. From her point of view, “the greatest focus on research, evaluation and measurement is right now, by far more than ever before.”
For me, all this is wonderful. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen such a thorough, thoughtful online conversation about employee communications. To read through it, you get a good sense of where the experts stand on all the big issues, a summary of best practices, and lots of fodder for further discussion.
Wrapping up, another leading thinker on organizational communication, Mike Klein, proclaimed he’s “excited to see a real debate about the nature of internal communication.” He ends his post entitled "The Debate Has Arrived...Let's Move it Forward" with a new challenge for us:
“In order to move from debating the nature of internal communication to shaping its future, the main task is to recognize its current context and assess what is driving its future development. Questioning the values, behavior, standards and savvy of practitioners and, indeed, the collective mind-set of the industry is no bad thing. The debate about the future will marry such an inquiry with a deep appreciation of the diversity of contexts in which we operate and the trends, be they demographic, cultural, financial or technological, which we will increasingly confront. Let that conversation begin."
Thanks for throwing down another gauntlet, Mike. It’s time to talk about shaping the future of internal communications, and I look forward to participating in that conversation.