The culture of communication and the communication of culture in the modern corporate environment
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KEYWORDS: message, corporate culture (official and unofficial), right to be informed, delivery mechanisms, culture of communication
The following paper proposes a methodology for helping organisations steer through the flood of information generated by contemporary information technology. Opening with a discussion of patterns of inefficient communication behaviour in the workplace, it goes on to address changing notions of the right to receive and evaluate information, and how these ideas affect employee attitudes. After a debate on the ownership of any individual corporate culture and the means by which messages can most effectively be transmitted within a given organisation, the article concludes with an outline of a methodology designed to create a culture of corporate communication that will support the company’s business objectives even as those business objectives change.
A SEA OF MESSAGES
If The average office worker is thought to have to deal with some 80 messages in the course of a working day. That translates into 19,200 messages per year or 768,000 messages in the course of a working life.
A manager with 50 staff will have ultimate responsibility for 4,000 messages per day. This gives a figure of 960,000 for a year, which represents 38,400,000 for the duration of his or her career.
The figures are easy enough to construe: 20 e-mails, 5 letters, 5 mailshots, 20 phone calls, 5 faxes, 5 memos and 20 verbal messages from colleagues and customers amass quickly during a day in the office. For many people, these figures are probably too low. What they point to is a business culture in which the mechanisms of communication are numerous and the expectation on employees to communicate is high. They do not, however, represent a culture of excellent communication. On the contrary, they represent a culture in which the means of communication are driving the ends.
We all know the experience of multi-mode communication. This involves sending someone an e-mail, following the e-mail with a fax to alert the recipient to the impending arrival of the e-mail, and putting a hard copy in the post just for safe measure. The experienced practitioner then telephones the recipient to report on the procedure just completed (‘Just thought you might like to know it’s on its way ...’).
The opposite extreme is communication myopia. This involves the inability to recognise objects commonly associated with the mechanics of communication. The first thing that disappears from view is the fax machine. Stacks of letters waiting to be answered and lists of e-mails waiting to be read are similarly expunged from view. Urgent notes left on one’s computer screen are ignored in the firm belief that if someone has something important to tell you, they’ll come and tell you personally. And the real masters of this strategy are completely unable to decipher their own handwriting (‘I’ve got his number jotted down somewhere, but you know what my scrawl’s like. Do you think you could just look it up for me ...?).
The two extremes - of excessive and inadequate communication behaviour - are in fact both defence mechanisms. The multi-mode communicator wants above all not to be accused of failing to get the message across. The communication myopic wishes to be able to concentrate on what is really important without distractions. Both behavioural patterns are encouraged by the welter of communications technologies and methods available in the modern workplace. The object of this article is to point to ways of fostering effective communication in a world which is drowning in a sea of messages - to sketch a course towards the genuinely communicative company.
A MACHINE THAT COMMUNICATES
‘You don’t have to switch it on,’ Bill Gates once remarked of the personal computer which he was instrumental in placing on virtually every white-collar worker’s desk from the 1980s onwards. He might just as well have said - and with equal verity - ‘You don’t have to go to work.’ For the irony is that the personal computer, which was never originally conceived with the corporate environment in mind, has become the quintessential office tool of the late 20th century. It is hard to imagine a transformational accident of equal significance in previous ages: one would have to think in terms of the law of limited liability, the postal system or the railway engine being launched on an unsuspecting world by mistake. Eward Luttwak articulates the consequences with incisive clarity:
Then, in the 1980s, it finally happened. Perhaps it was simply a matter of generational change. By then even senior managers had learned to use personal computers and the rest of the electronic machinery, allowing them to recognise their uses, abuses and non-uses. That opened the way for cost cutting by dismissals. One of the first moves in many corporations was to compel junior managers to rely entirely on machines instead of secretarial help, and secretarial companionship. Next, local-area computer networks were used to allow managers at the next level up literally to oversee, right on their own screens, the work that their underlings were doing or not doing. That introduced to office work, even of administrative level, the same transparency as industrial assembly-line work, with the same immediate visibility of inefficient procedures, inefficient habits and inefficient employees. The result was to raise the productivity of office employees - and expose them to the workplace dislocations and mass dismissals that have long been the lot of blue-collar industrial workers in advanced countries. (1)
The supreme difference between factory workers in fear of their jobs and office workers in fear of theirs is that the fundamental tool provided for the office worker - the networked personal computer - is a means not only of production but also of communication. More than that, it is a tool which facilitates communication on a greater scale than ever previously possible. The mundane irritations of the modern workplace - the missing e-mail file attachment, the letter that is sent to print three times by accident - would have been futuristic visions even in the 1970s, when the office environment was still organised in terms of box-files and typing pools.
The modern white-collar worker is expected not only to produce a certain quantity of a commodity which can be sold to the company’s customers in order to generate a profit for that company, but to communicate the fact that this is occurring, too. And that communication is expected to occur in both an external and an internal direction: the customer should know precisely who is working for him, and the office superior should know for which customer any individual employee is working at any particular time.
To return to the analogy of the shop-floor, the clerical worker of the late 20th century is operating not only a machine that produces but also a machine that communicates. Imagine a 19th century steel press with its own telegraph line or a machine tool with its own set of semaphore flags. That is essentially what the modern office worker is equipped with, and that worker’s employability depends on his or her capacity not only to operate the factory equipment that produces the goods but also to send out the right signals to the right people at the right time. It is no wonder that we are drowning in a flood of communication.
THE RIGHT TO BE INFORMED
At the same time, our notions of what constitutes appropriate levels of communication are changing more rapidly than at any time in history. The advent of digital printing technology, the deregulation of television and radio broadcasting, and the spread of the Internet have given rise to radically new assumptions concerning the availability and accessibility of information. This trend has been reinforced by the deployment of increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques on the one hand and the collapse of virtually all non-capitalist social models on the other. We thus have a situation whereby, in the western world at least, people groan under the burden of information overload while at the same time expecting to be provided with ever higher levels of information. Investigative journalism and confessional broadcasting have pushed the trend to a point at which significant numbers of people feel that they have a de facto right to be informed about the private conduct of all individuals holding public office. The private doings of British royals or American presidents are regarded as matter for public debate because the monarchy and the presidency are perceived as existing by public permission. In a constitutional sense, of course, they do.
Companies are not democratic institutions, however. Here lies the rub. Companies in the western democracies are populated by people who in their private lives expect to pick and choose the information they consume, formulating their own conclusions as to its validity and its applicability to their own lives. This communication model does not obtain in the workplace, where management is under no such constitutional obligation to provide information to employees. The result is that the empowering communications technology of the contemporary workplace is situated within a socio-economic institution which is essentially autocratic.
Viewed in this light, it is no surprise that so many companies equipped with excellent communications technology lament the poor levels of communication they experience. The e-mail system might be up and running and the team briefings occurring to plan, but the level of information provided is still perceived as inadequate. Of course it is inadequate. It must by definition be inadequate. It is against this background that attempts at the creation of a ‘culture of communication’ in the corporate world should be seen.
Writing in the 1980s, Allan Bloom defined culture as ‘seeming’ to mean:
'… something high, profound, respectable - a thing before which we bow. It joins nature as a standard for the judgement of men and their deeds but has even greater dignity. It is almost never used pejoratively, as are “society“, “state“, “nation“ or even “civilisation“, terms for which culture is gradually substituted, or whose legitimacy is underwritten by culture. Culture is the unity of man’s brutish nature and all the arts and sciences he acquired in his movement from the state of nature to civil society. Culture restores the lost wholeness of first man on a higher level, where his faculties can be fully developed without contradiction between the desires of nature and the moral imperatives of his social life.' (2)
While Bloom’s definition may exist unchallenged in the context of a Mozart symphony or a Shakespeare play, few would find this definition applicable in the context of the corporate world. And yet it is in the corporate world that the term is being most commonly used at present. We speak of corporate culture, clashing and complementary cultures, and cultural change. The phrases are indeed becoming clichés. And increasingly we mean the way in which people are actively encouraged to behave at work. It is thus assumed that culture is an interim phenomenon, something which is extremely powerful but which may be transformed by means of judicious intervention. The paradox about creating a culture of effective communication within an organisation is that communication is both the tool required to bring about the desired objective and the objective itself. Imagine a hand inventing a hand. That is one challenge facing managers and communication professionals charged with creating a culture of communication in the modern business environment.
Another challenge is the fact that a corporate culture is by definition in a state of constant evolution. If it were not, it would cease to exist. The drivers for that development are not entirely under the control of the management, however. As John W. Hunt comments:
'Many chief executives are convinced that real change occurs only when based on what they call structural change, whether redesigning the hierarchy or privatisation or a merger or an acquisition.
‘In fact, it would be hard to find a chief executive who did not try to change the structure of the company within their first six months. It is almost an essential statement of chief executive virility. But it reflects a limited view of how behaviour can be changed.' (3)
It reflects a limited view because, as Professor Hunt goes on to observe, 'effective behavioural change occurs only when those involved want to change.' And while the management is bringing the full battery of process analysis tools, reporting mechanisms and communications conduits to bear on the organisation whose culture it is striving to transform, older, simpler and far more powerful weapons will come into play against it. It is like a highly trained and disciplined army coming up against a band of guerrillas inured to hardship and fully conversant with the fighting terrain. Rumour and speculation, unofficial pacts and private vendettas will always counteract the grand strategy unleashed by management: the guerrillas may be disorganised among themselves, but this does not necessarily make them easier to defeat.
The same phenomenon can be observed at any major conference. Regardless of the topic, and irrespective of the excellence of the planning and presentation of the subject matter, it is not in the conference hall but around the coffee tables during the breaks that the real communication takes place. Here it is that people seek out their prime communication partners, sketch out their agendas, and do their deals. A well organised conference has to take this into account, respecting the official and unofficial elements of the programme as being fundamentally different but absolutely interdependent.
So it is with change programmes. A well conceived change communications programme must take into account not only the formal delivery mechanisms and evaluation tools to be employed but also the informal patterns of behaviour which exist within the organisation in question. Programmes for change come and go. So do consultants, and so do chief executives. This is no surprise, for the former are mercenaries easily dismissed after either success or failure and the latter actually enter the organisation with their exit strategies already formulated. But unofficial patterns of behaviour, inherited value systems and implicit assumptions develop over the course of years and decades. They are passed on unconsciously, and they are nowhere documented in the way that company procedures or corporate visions are. But they are all the more powerful for this.
In the case of companies with a history extending back over decades, these inherited value systems can in fact assume the power of myth. This is why the management of major corporations is so often bewildered by the inability of its employees to understand the new corporate strategy. The management, which uses rational arguments ostensibly derived from objective analysis of economic and technological developments, employs a form of discourse which excludes its employees' deepest level of corporate experience. Vision statements look forwards, attempting to give shape and direction to an invisible future. People in companies look backwards, remembering respected colleagues and detested bosses, unforgettable office parties and unrepeatable triumphs of the departmental football or darts team. And that office party remembered ten years later or penalty shoot-out after 30 minutes of extra time are as much a part of a company’s culture as are the uniforms, ID cards and vision statements handed out by the management.
STEERING THE COMMUNICATION PROCESS
We have seen that the modern corporate environment places an unprecedented expectation upon employees to communicate. We have observed that the range of communications mechanisms available in modern working life tends to generate a wealth of communication activity without necessarily producing quality communication. And we have noted that any attempt to change an organisation, and to communicate that change, has to take into account the mechanisms of the organisation’s unofficial as well as official culture. It is time now to discuss how communication can be used within the contemporary organisation to generate unity, direction, and purpose.
It is a well known fact that most change programmes fail. They generally do so for one of two reasons. Either they lack the support of senior management, in which case their credibility is undermined, or they are inadequately planned, in which case they will degenerate into a series of ineffectual activities. The communication of any new vision, direction or approach within a modern corporate environment requires top-level support and careful orchestration. It must take into account the big picture as well as the fine detail, the helicopter view as well as the reality of life on the ground in the corporate jungle.
Fig. 1: THE CHANGE PROCESS
Figure 1 shows in abstract form the process involved in delivering a set of messages which will drive an organsational transformation. Regardless of the specifics of the individual process - a corporate restructuring or relocation, a merger or an acquisition, for instance - it can be seen as involving seven steps. These in turn separate into three planning steps and four implementational steps.
The implementational phase involves analysing the organisation’s needs (which may not be contiguous with its wishes), appraising its resources, and selecting the methodology appropriate to address those needs. There follows the implementational phase, which consists of formulating key messages, establishing the communications infrastructure for the dissemination of those messages, transmitting them to the target audiences, and finally evaluating their effectiveness. This process can be repeated as circumstances change, generating altered requirements.
Significant about the diagram is the fact that no change (indicated by the arrow on the vertical axis) will occur until the implementational phase commences. It is thus important to make sure that the preparatory phase, whilst providing sufficiently detailed analysis of the initial situation and the goals to be achieved, is not protracted excessively. Many change programmes do not succeed because they fail to deliver significant early successes.
Regardless of the specifics of the individual case, any such enterprise must take the following four requirements into account:
- The formulation of a clearly communicable rationale
- The definition of clear objectives, milestones, and evaluation criteria
- The obtaining and retention of the senior management’s support for the project’s aims, methodology, budget and timeframe throughout the duration of the project
- The precise planning of the process to be implemented
Let us take the example of a corporate merger. Two companies, each with their own (official and unofficial) corporate culture are to be integrated. The communications infrastructures of both companies will probably be extremely different, and the attitudes to communication within the various sections of those companies even more diverse. It is thus vital to conceive and implement a message delivery plan which uses simple and effective methods in a highly consistent manner. Figure 2 provides a diagrammatic depiction of the process.
FIGURE 2: OVERVIEW OF MESSAGE DELIVERY PLAN
The requirements of individual companies and individual situations will vary, of course, but the procedural steps to be considered may be divided into five main sections. They are as follows:
- Defining objectives
- Planning timeframe
- Defining target audiences
- Identifying available resources, structures and budget
- Pinpointing areas requiring additional resources
- Selecting – and, where necessary, modifying - appropriate communication channels for reaching target audiences
- Formulating key terms for general use
- Formulating key messages to be transmitted
- Formulating a message delivery strategy
- Selecting change agents (from inside and outside the company) to champion the message delivery process
- Forging the selected change agents into an effective team
- Implementing the message delivery strategy via central and local events designed to communicate the aims and methods of the change process (conferences, roadshows, seminars, meetings, videoconferences, telephone conferences)
- Designing and creating supporting literature and visual aids
- Documenting the change process (for evaluation and publicity purposes)
- Communicating to internal and external audiences the aims, progress and achievements of the change process
- Evaluating the success of the project
- Planning ahead, even during the change process, for the effects of that process (e.g. altered media relations strategy, revised recruitment policy)
As already indicated, the foregoing description is highly generic in nature: a company with two hundred employees based at one office will not consider roadshows a suitable way of communicating with its employees, while a departmental head wishing to weld his or her staff of twenty into an effective team will consider the creation of supporting literature an excessive expense. Much depends on the scale of the company and the scope of the specific project.
The key point, however, is that communication within a company can and must be planned. If management does not run communication, then communication will run management, and it will not be the kind of communication which the management might wish. Clear definition of objectives, timeframe, budget, messages, delivery mechanisms, champions and evaluation procedures is vital for any such enterprise, whether conducted within the context of a sub-department or a global corporation. And this definition implies a high degree of selectivity regarding the range and combination of communication mechanisms employed: in the context of corporate communication in the late twentieth century, less can very definitely be more.
If Bismarck defined politics as 'the art of the possible' (4), one might in the same spirit define corporate communication as the art of the practicable. Neither money nor technology will of themselves produce an environment in which best communication practice informs the pursuit of business objectives. Nor will individual communicators have a powerful effect on their corporate environment unless operating in a context in which their messages can be effectively transmitted. Judicious combination of specific resources and selection of appropriate champions can, however, allow the management of the modern company to align its corporate culture with its business goals, even as the latter change under the pressure of external developments.
- Edward Luttwak, Turbo Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1998, p.45.
- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987, p.185.
- John W. Hunt, 'A case of guru fatigue', Financial Times, Wednesday March 24, 1999
- Otto von Bismarck in conversation with Meyer von Waldeck, 11 August 1867
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