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Breaking out of the frame?

So do many other communicators. But we have to earn that role by gaining much broader experience and knowledge. And we also have to begin thinking of ourselves less as "communicators" and more as facilitators and managers. Here are some of the insights from a day-long Executive Forum wherein top communication managers analyzed the role of the profession and its professionals against the business climate of the '90s.

An experiment in interaction

What do you get when 40 experienced communication managers spend a day talking in small groups about their profession, the challenges and opportunities, possible new directions and solutions? You get walls full of flip charts, for a start. You also get a wealth of ideas about the way we're handling a transformation of our role as communicators, and some of the keys to making this transition a successful and rewarding one. The conclusions offer some intriguing ideas for drastic change in the way we do business.

Not all members of the profession are looking for this kind of role transformation. Many want to continue to pursue their current activities, or to grow and develop in other ways. But for those seeking to change or expand their role, here's a summary of the major findings. It's offered as a kind of checklist for communication professionals seeking to contribute more to the strategic development of their organizations.

The conclusions hold some implications for IABC's own programming. Based on the success of the 1991 experiment, May's San Francisco international conference, IABC CONNECTIONS 1992, will include a similar interactive problem-solving session.

Facilitating the day-long Executive Forum at last year's international conference were: Susie Allen, ABC, a Houston, Texas consultant; Steve Biederman, corporate director, employee communication, Motorola, Schramburg, Ill.; Anne Forrest, Warren Williams International Ltd., Hong Kong; Dave Jensen, ABC, PR manager, Asia/Pacific, Boeing Commercial Airlines Group, Seattle; Brad Whitworth, ABC, public affairs manager, international operations, Hewlett Packard, Palo Alto, Calif.; and D. Tudor Williams, ABC, consultant, Towers Perrin, Calgary, Alta.

How can communicators make a difference?

The sessions produced a long list of ideas (some tried and tested, others yet to be launched). They fell into four distinct groups:

* Strategic positioning of communication professionals.

* Overhauling the way the profession supports and develops senior communicators.

* Turning line managers into communicators.

* Doing more with less.

Strategic positioning

As so often happens in our profession (as in others) the discussion turned to the need to strengthen the strategic positioning of communication as an essential management function. Several ideas were offered in response.

* Put yourself in your customers' place (CEO, line manager, team member, external customer or client, colleague). Find out what they want and need: ask them, and compare those needs against what you can offer. Then work to close the gap.

Build strategic alliances inside and outside of the organization (for example, with HR) and act as a facilitator of dialogues among these groups.

* Develop a bias to research-based communication. Effective strategies are data-based. You have to know what the issues are, what your audience knows and expects and what will persuade or shift attitude and opinion.

* In your planning, focus more on business objectives and less on specific media.

* Practice what you preach: Be direct, open and candid. Listen actively and incessantly; involve broadly; test your ideas; be a model of effective communication and strategic support to the organization.

* Develop an issues newsletter or forum for senior managers. Learn what's on their minds, and gain the credibility and knowledge to work with them to create challenges they're facing.

* Participate actively in cross-functional task forces and work teams, and involve key individuals from other functions in your own initiatives.

Professional support

Participants recognized the importance of self-development, and the role of associations such as IABC in supporting their professional and personal growth. They offered a variety of strategies.

* Broaden the way you see yourself; rethink your self-image; see the communication professional as an integrator, moving from technician (editorial function) to strategist (public affairs).

* Work with IABC to develop more appropriate (interactive, advisory, strategic) programming for senior communicators.

* Tie Gold Quill awards to nontangible communication processes, as well as to media and other products.

* Re-educate management to look for results rather than deliverables (attitude changes rather than publications).

* Develop new career paths with different exit and entry points and more movement between functions.

* Seek guidance from the groups and individuals with whom we want to be partners.

* Develop new skills and knowledge; seek opportunities to take on non-communicator roles and responsibilities; exchange jobs and/or roles with a counterpart in HR.

Turning managers into communicators

There's a need to make communication a management function at every level of the organization. This communication must be two-way, responsive to individuals and supportive of business goals and needs.

* Make managers accountable for effective communication; provide guidance, training and support.

* Collaborate with HR to develop training materials and other guides to strengthen management communication, especially face-to-face.

* Help managers to engage employees by tailoring messages from them that respond to the needs of diverse internal audiences.

* Treat managers as leaders: Communicate with them early, openly and completely; emphasize their role as part of the management team.

* Make communication skills and potential a primary selection and advancement requirement.

Doing more with less

A pressing need exists to counteract the impact of resource losses and shortages in the communication organization.

* Be more creative in seeking and using resources (interns, retirees, task forces with people from other functions).

* Be a facilitator as well as an implementer.

* Build and maintain a network of external resources of all kinds.

* Share resources through short-term assignments and cross-functional teams.

* Prioritize: Eliminate activities that are adding minimal value in relation to cost. Seek customer input in evaluating existing programs.

The communication process

Strategic positioning doesn't lessen the continuing need for excellent communication programs and processes. At the core of every effort to strengthen the role of the communication professional there should be a commitment to continuous improvement in meeting ongoing organizational needs.

Here are three ideas from participants:

* Place more emphasis on upward and lateral communication; find ways to introduce these dimensions to existing programs.

* Emphasize results (attitudes, actions, beliefs, support) over processes.

* Challenge traditional approaches (often, they're the ones we're using); innovate; support other efforts to "break out of the frame."

So, what do we do now?

It's one thing to draw up a checklist, quite another to adopt the actions and approaches it suggests.

And you might find it helpful to assess your own position on a one through five scale ranging from "craftsperson" to "strategic adviser." Remember that no position on the scale has any intrinsically greater value. What matters is that you have the right skills and experience (and self-image) for the role you want to play. For example, if you do indeed want to contribute to the strategic management of your organization, you probably need to develop knowledge and skills that will position you at the four or five mark.

If you position yourself further toward the "craftsperson" end than you would like, seek opportunities to put into practice at least one action item from each of the four groups discussed above.

By making this kind of assessment, and a related commitment to self-development, we'll be contributing to the growth of the profession as well as furthering our own career goals.

Do these issues sound familiar?

The profession's most challenging issues reflect concerns that are confronting organizations at every level. -- Changing the organizational culture: Many of our organizations are seeking to change their operating style in fundamental ways. Do we really understand and support management efforts to transform the organization, or are we merely helping with packaging and marketing? -- The uneasy alliance with human resource professionals: Do we lack a deep enough understanding of HR issues? And do our HR counterparts have a reciprocal lack of awareness of the communication process and the value it can add? -- The flattening corporate structure: We're struggling to develop new ways of communicating in organizations that are less hierarchical, more flexible, and better able to respond to change. -- Cultural diversity: There's a growing awareness of the need to be responsive to, and to value, a wide variety of audience and employee groups. -- The credibility gap: Management doesn't always value communication beyond the primary (and traditional) tasks of developing and implementing programs. Maybe that's because we lack some of the awareness, knowledge, experience and focus that they seek and expect. -- The impact of downsizing: The continuing erosion of our resources has cut the capability of communication departments to develop and implement programs. Perhaps one result will be a shift toward a role emphasizing leadership and facilitation rather than program implementation.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; communications practitioners as facilitators and managers
Author:Bevan, Richard
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Managing corporate communication in turbulent times: partnering with human resources.
Next Article:The changing role of today's communicator.

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