The future of communications is already here, but most corporate communications – specifically internal communications – are proof that William Gibson was correct. The way we communicate in society, from publishing to consuming information, has been reshaped dramatically over the past decade. But inside a corporate environment, you’d barely notice it.
The new communications covenant
In our personal lives we scroll through streams of updates and tweets at lightning speed, digesting news and information from the serious to the mundane. We gorge on videos in the hope that a one-minute video can communicate more to us in less time than reading. We slow down just long enough to interact with the content by liking, sharing, or adding a comment. These habits have become so ingrained that when we come across content that cannot be acted upon we almost feel betrayed, as if the covenant of the new media age has been broken.
Most of all, the content sources we view are customized to us – not by an entity that thinks it knows what we should receive, but by ourselves, either handpicked or based on our preferences, profile data, and personal network. While some may say this creates an echo chamber, the more one expands their network (e.g. Twitter, LinkedIn) the greater the chance for serendipitous encounters with news/information beyond one’s usual horizon — more so than via any editorial driven publication.
Most internal communication professionals know this of course. So why do most corporations communicate to their staff using “web 1.0” methods or worse? Sure, some companies have implemented internal social networks where employees can customize their activity feeds, but when it comes to publishing and accessing “the official” news they often have simply recreated the old publishing model on a social platform, rather than re-imagine how the news can be created, published, and consumed. There are cultural and leadership factors in play here, but I want to focus on the less obvious reason, the communications staff.
Fear of change vs. opportunity
In story after story of companies implementing ESNs (Enterprise Social Networks) I’ve heard similar refrains: “Our comms people don’t want to use it” or “The communications team is actively resisting adoption efforts.” So even though they are well aware of the communication trends around them, which they’ve probably adopted in their personal lives, and even though they likely know that the future is here and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches them, they are resistant to the change. They only see the threat to the status quo and not the opportunity that comes with it.
They fear losing the control that comes with being THE source for their area of news in the company. They fear what might happen if (gulp!) their news isn’t as visible as before in a new social model or if the decision to receive their news is (double gulp!) left up to the employee! They fear the change that will come as the role of a professional communicator evolves, as it certainly will. They also fear possibly losing their job, seeing a diminished role for communicators in this future. But what they should fear most is being left behind.
Communications is the new front for organizational change
The opening quote also pertains to the larger world of business too. Companies are changing – or will be forced to change in the near future, some radically. The very idea of “the company” as we know it and the nature of what it means “to work” is being called into question by futurists, thought leaders, and enterprise change agents (some of whom are communicators), many of whom exist at the fringes of mainstream business but whose influence is slowly bleeding into the center. Radical change always starts from the edges in.
There is an opportunity here for communicators. Author and futurist Clay Shirky said, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” Apply this to your organization. The influence that communications – as a group, process, and medium – wields is immense. The communications department should be on the vanguard of your organization’s evolution.
We know though that many won’t sign up for this path, even if the opportunities for the individual and the profession as a whole are spelled out in blinking lights. Such is the nature of change. This means however, more opportunities for those few communicators that do want to be change agents for their organization. It can be risky of course. The old command and control culture will fight back and if you ride too high in the saddle you will be picked off before you’ve had a chance to influence real change.
The insurgent advantage
That’s why a subtle approach will have a more lasting impact. Start by building a purposeful network in your company – you will need allies. If there is an ESN start “working out loud” to demonstrate the power of social communications, even on an individual level. Work with your internal stakeholders on new ways to publish their news – start small, but think big. If you can re-imagine the communications process for one small group, it could have implications companywide. Influence your allies to introduce the same changes in their groups.
Share your ideas with communications leadership, but don’t present them as some revolutionary way to change the face of communications at your company – that will expose you as an insurgent and the machine will fight back. Instead, find ways to couch them as enhancements to the current model, such as additional means to broaden the visibility of messages and increase readership. They will probably still reject them, but you’ll be planting the seeds of change, and as your network and influence grow through your underground efforts those ideas may resurface again from a different person in a different part of the organization, possibly from a place they can’t afford to ignore. Being a constant gardener for the future of the workplace is no less rebellious, but will pay off more than the efforts of someone whose overzealous passion for change can be misunderstood, thus marginalizing them.
It will take patience and drive but you’ll still be working against the system, from the inside, as a trusted colleague and employee looking to make your workplace better. Do you have what it takes to be an insurgent communicator?