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Communicating in the 1990s - are we ready? The simple answer is no - we are not.

What I see is a fundamental shift in the way North America conducts business in the coming decade. Because whether we work for a large corporation, a small company, a government office, not-for-profit organization or an agency-we will all be affected by what I see as a massive restructuring.

Or as consultant Donald Thain describes the current business environment in Canada-"We're in a war without bullets."

Some of you will say "That doesn't affect me: I just write the newsletter; I work for a successful, stable company that won't be affected by what's going on in Europe or Asia; I work for the government and I know that the bureaucracy isn't about to change."

I believe that view is wrong. I believe that there is not one of us who will not be affected by the political, social and financial upheaval that is just now gathering momentum.

During my year as IABC chairman, I had the opportunity and the privilege to listen to communicators and business leaders in many companies and in many countries. And I've changed some of the views I previously held.

We all know that the '80s were a decade of change-one that shook complacent America-and I include Canada-and changed the face of business. We learned new words: golden parachute, poison pill, green-mail, white knight.

We used euphemisms for wrenching change: downsizing, rationalization, synergy.

And we hunkered down-particularly in the early part of the decade-in order that we could survive until things got back to "normal."

Now, we're beginning to realize that there is no more "normal."

The changes will be the greatest in the manufacturing and industrial sectors as we move into what is popularly called the "post-industrial" age. But all business will be affected.

That's not to say that companies will necessarily suffer. Many will achieve successes that can hardly be envisioned today. But only after gut-wrenching soul searching and fundamental rethinking about what-and who-the company is.

What's causing these changes?

First, of course, are the massive changes caused by global competition. That global competition has also resulted in a rise in trading blocs such as the European Community, which will create the world's largest market when it is formally established in 1992-little more than two years away.

Peter Drucker underscored the importance of this trend when he said that in his view the world will consist of two kinds of CEOS: those who think globally, and those who are unemployed.

I would add that the word "communicators" could be substituted for CEOs" and the statement would be equally correct.

But thinking globally is not simply grappling with unfamiliar currencies and markets. Our work force demographics are changing dramatically, bringing new cultures and values to the organizations we work for-sometimes necessitating wholesale changes in traditional systems and practices within these organizations.

I'm not just talking about immigration-although in a country like Canada that will have a remarkable effect on the way we do things. I'm also talking about changes in workers' values-changes that will significantly affect our work place systems and structures-from communication systems, to compensation practices, to worker scheduling and supervision.

Helping organizations come to grips with these changes, helping develop new systems to deal successfully with them, is an area where qualified communication professionals can really make a difference.

As I traveled around the world on behalf of IABC last year, I increasingly heard this area mentioned as one of the most important new areas that communicators are identifying as priority issues.

But the global marketplace and the changing work force are not the only issues we're grappling with.

Tom Peters, in an article titled "A Reality Check for 1990," outlines what he calls 18 emerging realities for business. As the fates of business and those of business communicators are inextricably linked, let me share some of those realities with you:

* In Peters' view, markets are not just fragmenting. "Every market," he says, "is splintering, and then splintering again. There are no non-niche markets anymore."

* Intangibles such as individual design, user-friendliness and service are increasingly the main areas of competitive battle.

* He says It's customer time. Every firm can and must cater to individuals."

* Peters goes on to say "Bye-bye to manufacturing as we've understood it. All companies are service companies." He cites the example that more than 90 percent of IBM's employees perform service activities.

* All sizable firms increasingly will be "hollowed"-another one of those euphemisms-as smaller firms take on more and more marketplace opportunities.

* Related to that is his conviction that flat firms are clobbering steep firms everywhere.

* Organization as we have known it, says Peters, is a thing of the past. Clear boundaries, in his view, will disappear entirely as companies of all shapes and sizes begin to combine in networks to attack various markets.

* Supervisors' days are numbered. Everyone, everywhere will work in self-managing groups or teams, with no formal boss. Many of these groups will even include outsiders such as suppliers, distributors and customers.

* Staff specialists served us well in the big, mass market days of specialization, but will no longer be needed. Everyone had better master at least a dozen jobs. He goes on to say that the quality department, by way of example, will become obsolete, as everyone must make quality control his or her job. It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out where he stands on the future of staff communicators.

* "That's confidential," he says, will work its way out of our vocabulary. Everyone in every job needs instant access to all the firm's and associated firms' data in order to work together quickly and across functional borders.

* It's too late for mere training. Lifelong learning, by everyone, is vital for constant improvement, which in turn is vital for survival.

* Another of Peters' forecasts is that "That's not my job" is a cry of yore. Everybody's job, he predicts, must be everything, more or less: Everybody must cross all functional boundaries and routinely pass beyond the firm's formal borders.

* Good enough isn't good enough. Better is all that matters in a violently competitive environment. Better had better be everyone's business.

* "Doing my time" won't do it. All employees must be treated as volunteers. Only people who feel like volunteers commit to lifelong learning and constant improvement.

* The new boss, he suggests, will hardly be a boss at all. She (or maybe he) will cast a lighter shadow: orchestrating ever-changing relationships among ever-changing members of the ever-changing networks.

* "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" was good advice in an era when tomorrow's competitors were the same as yesterday's. "Change everything, starting right now" had best become the new rallying cry for one and all.

As he concludes: "Learn to love to change, or you might as well make an appointment with the bankruptcy judge right now."

Lawrence Miller, in his recent book From Barbarians to Bureaucrats, sees similar changes coming. He documents the failures of executives who have been unable to create and live with new realities in their organizations-as well as the stunning successes of those who have been able to capitalize on these changes and make them work for them.

That's not just a possibility for CEOs, in my view, but for communicators as well.

And my favorite guru: Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Her new Book "When Giants Learn to Dance" focuses more sharply on the mammoth-and often complacent-companies which have been whipsawed by the changing business climate. Here's her description about what large companies, and their executives, are facing today.

"Corporations face escalating and seemingly incompatible demands:

* Get lean and mean through restructuring-while being a great company to work for and offering employee-centred policies such as job security.

* Encourage creativity and innovation to take you in new directions-and stick to your knitting.

* Communicate a sense of urgency and push for faster execution, faster results-but take more time to deliberately plan for the future.

* Decentralize to delegate profit and planning responsibilities to small, autonomous business units-but centralize to capture efficiencies and company resources in innovative ways.

What are the new demands on executives and managers? We are expected to:

* Think strategically and invest in the future-but keep the numbers up today.

* Be entrepreneurial and take risks-but don't cost the business anything by failing.

* Continue to do everything we're currently doing even better-and spend more time communicating with employees, serving on teams, and launching new projects.

* Know every detail of our business-but delegate more responsibility to others.

* Become passionately dedicated to 'visions' and fanatically committed to carrying them out-but be flexible, responsible, and able to change direction quickly.

* Speak up, be a leader, set the direction-but be participative, listen well, cooperate."

I believe that whether the world that Peters, Miller and Kanter envision unfolds exactly as they predict, much of what they say is not only on the horizon-it's happening right now.

However, I believe that for those who are willing to understand and accept these changes and to take on the challenge of helping their organizations deal with this new environment, there is an exciting future. But it's not the future that you might have envisioned only a few years ago.

Or as Yogi Berra put it, "The future just ain't what it used to be."

We'll need to learn new skills and hone some of our traditional ones. We'll need to become-as Peters suggested-masters of several areas, not simply specialists in one.

What are these new skills? I believe the most fundamental are those of negotiator, facilitator, consensus-builder.

Let's go back for a moment to Peters' vision of business in the future. In a world without a hierarchy-without an organizational structure-communication is even more critical than it is in a traditional company today. In fact, the kinds of ever-changing networks that he sees as being intrinsic to business are dependent on flexible, rapid communication. Not the kind of structured, formal communication we may have been used to, with carefully crafted articles in formal newsletters and magazines-articles which have been edited and re-edited, massaged and reworked and sent through approval systems and finally produced and distributed to an audience who has long since forgotten about the subject.

Those new networks are dependent not on communication products but on process. On each individual being part of the communication system. And that takes negotiation, facilitation and consensus. It means we have to be adept at coaching line managers to communicate effectively with all of their audiences in those complex and ever-changing new networks of suppliers, customers and employees.

Everyone needs information, says Peters. Right. But it must be good communication-the right information at the right time to the right audiences, in a format that's easily understood and accepted.

But that's where we excel. The challenge is to become experts at adapting effective communication process to a more complex environment. To me, that opens up whole new avenues for business communication and communicators.

Not simply doing the communication, but designing the systems and the structures that will be so fundamental to the survival and success of the organization. It's not only acquiring and honing new skills but a whole new perspective on how to apply those skills.

But the interesting thing is that many of our existing skills will be even more valuable in this new environment. Look at customer service. We are-or should be-experts at that.

Nowhere do you get better training in customer service than you do in a public relations agency or in a staff job within a line-driven organization.

I talked also about the changing values and beliefs that employees are bringing to the workplace. Who best to help an organization work through the challenges? The lawyers? The accountants?

I think not. Communication is not only an art but a behavioral science, whether or not we studied those topics in college. If we've been paying attention, we're already attuned to the cultural and behavioral differences of all the audiences we serve.

Whether consciously or not, we've been listening to what our audiences are saying, and adjusting our strategies accordingly.

We need to transform the critical skills that form the foundation of our successes in these traditional roles-listening, analyzing, researching, evaluating-into those which will be required in the new organization. Our mission here is really to do ourselves out of a job by making everyone in the organization so good at communicating that the customer really is well served.

But let me reinforce that when we look at organizations of the future, there's no question that those which are going to make it are the ones which have successfully developed-and communicated-a clear, articulate vision-or mission-for the organization.

Who better to help craft a powerful vision which will really "live" for an organization and help it achieve its goals?

So, some of the skills that will be needed in this brave new world will be negotiating skills, consensus-building skills, facilitation skills-all with a solid foundation of the traditional expertise of the professional communicator.

What will be some of the areas of opportunity to put those into practice? Well first, of course, is in the area of international communication. And opportunities here are remarkably broad, from helping organizations to come to grips with the complexities of trade in new areas, to facilitating the communication process in unfamiliar environments. My experience has been that Canadian communicators have a special sensitivity for this-perhaps because of our history as a nation dependent on trade as well as our bilingual nature.

We're still very much behind those in the Pacific Rim and even Europe-but we're quick studies! We also gained some valuable insight over the past few years as a result of the Canada/US bilateral trade agreement and the latest round of trade talks. I think that we've developed a new awareness that we can no longer simply manufacture in the US or Canada and market abroad.

We need to source, manufacture, and service in our targeted markets if we're going to avoid the jarring effects of currency exchange rates and inequalities of productivity that currently exist in many areas. And all of that requires well developed, well coordinated communication.

There are some exciting new opportunities in the area of the environment as well. As most of you know, the environment has been identified as the issue Canadians consider to be the single most important issue facing the nation today. There are few organizations which won't be affected by this issue in one way or another.

But when you come right down to it, the issue is one of communication-communication between and among special interest groups, governments at all levels, and the private sector. For those of us who really care about making a difference, it can be very satisfying to get parties together on the process of moving forward and avoiding or precluding the confrontational behaviors which are so frustratingly unproductive for all concerned.

Another opportunity which is opening up is the area of government relations. The reality is that government is going to be ever more intrusive into all our lives, and the ability to communicate effectively between the public and private sector-or even between various governments-is crucial.

Consider, for example, the fundamental changes to the public policy process in Canada or the US.

There isn't a road built, or a plant expanded, or a tree cut without a very concerted effort by governments to involve affected and interested parties in a dialogue. The way the parties communicate can determine whether or not the process is effective. And that's where professional communicators can make a real difference.

I talked about the changing work force. In my view, that means a whole new area of opportunity in employee communication. Not just the newsletter, but extending the process of understanding throughout the organization. Breaking down the turf barriers that often erode morale, and getting the players together to solve problems productively. I believe that effective employee communication is fundamental to the success of any company-again, a chance to make a real difference.

Finally, investor relations. There have been some real changes in securities regulations regarding disclosure that open new doors for communicators. Also, many Canadian companies are now listing on foreign exchanges as they become more international in scope. We can leave the job to the finance people and the lawyers, or we can take on the challenge ourselves.

Each of these opportunities for communicators of the 1990s relies heavily on the skills of negotiation, facilitation and consensus building.

Fine, you say. But where am I going to acquire those skills? Well, there are many seminars offered by [ABC and other groups which assist in this process. And there are courses offered by universities which are directly applicable-although I find that university curricula, by and large, are still scrambling to serve traditional needs, so you may have to do some digging.

In my experience-admittedly biased-the very best way to gain these skills-and many others besides-is through carefully selected volunteer work.

I see voluntarism as a remarkably effective and efficient method of learning any new skills at a relatively low risk. If you need to learn more about the world of finance, accounting, media relations, event organization, fundraising or almost anything else, there's probably an organization where you can accomplish your objectives and make a real difference to them as well.

But the real difference is in the development of the skills of negotiation, consensus building and facilitation I've been talking about.

Remember Tom Peters saying that in the future, employees will have to be managed like volunteers? Well, managing volunteers is a sure way of getting a head start on that future.

Because managing volunteers is even more stretching, even more challenging, than managing staff.

Volunteers don't really need to listen to you. You can't fire them-at least not easily. They often have very different backgrounds and may have few similarities. They're likely to bring independent points of view and a need for some degree of recognition, control and contribution. And while many of those characteristics apply to employees, there are very real differences when it comes to managing. But if you learn to manage-and better yet, to lead-volunteers really well-to develop strategies and achieve goals in a volunteer environment, there's little that you can't accomplish in any organization.

I say this with conviction-because that's how I developed my skills of facilitation, negotiation and consensus building. Through my volunteer roles with IABC and other organizations over the past 20 years, I have acquired skills I didn't even know I'd need-but skills which have been invaluable to me in my career.

I'd like to say it was all prescience: that I set out with a carefully planned strategy. Truth is, I didn't realize how very valuable my voluntarism would be. I simply enjoy participating and getting involved. So I usually find myself on one committee or board after another, having a terrific time learning and growing and sharing experiences with some of the finest folks around.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators: 1970 - 1990: Section 3: An Era Ended; includes related articles on PR
Author:Paul Sharon
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:PR bloopers.
Next Article:Communicators came to Canada and saw the future.

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