Out in Africa: going where no communicator has gone before.
After the test period, the need for support, guidelines and training from an outside source became crystal clear.
No need for communication
CBG is an international consortium composed of eight aluminum companies and the Guinean government. CBG mines 10 million tons of bauxite a year. Close to 4,000 employees work for CBG, which started its operations 18 years ago in kamsar, a city created in the middle of the bush.
Most of the employees were hired from the villages around Kamsar. Shifts, production schedules, maintenance, weekly salaries and other common notions in North America, Europe and Asia were totally new concepts for these workers.
Even though a large majority of these workers barely speak French, the national language of Guinea, communication was never seen as an issue at CBG, as long as the company remained profitable and produced the required quantity of bauxite.
Over the year, though, employees became more familiar with the North American/European way of life. Their expectations and needs evolved as well. Problems created by a lack of communication began to surface.
A new department is born
If the new public relations department had a clear mandate -- improve communication -- the "how to" was pretty foggy for everyone.
People with no expertise in public relations and internal communication were selected from among the CBG employees to create the new department. A former computer engineer became the public relations superintendent; a transportation coordinator was given the role of internal communication coordinator; and two technicians, a safety expert and a clerk, were selected as communication advisors.
"Uh, where do we start?" The new recruits didn't know, especially in the internal communication department. The public relations superintendent had it easier, thanks to extensive computer training in North America and clearly defined tasks involving logistics and negotiations with Guinean government representatives.
Without clear goals, except publishing an employee newspaper once a month, the new internal communication team strove to make its way in the system against all odds: No communication training, no car to move around the different locations of the company, one Macintosh computer for the whole group, a noisy office located close to a swimming pool, and no reliable reproduction equipment.
Over the last 18 months, they've had to rely on standard photocopying machines -- there is no such thing as a printer in Kamsar -- to print their newspaper. The communication group had never been able to print more than 250 copies for an audience of 4,000 employees. Welcome to Guinea.
You complain about not having access to management? The CBG internal communication department reports to an administrative manager, who reports to an assistant general manager, who reports to the general manager, who reports to the president located in Brussels, Belgium. Get the picture?
Need for professional support
When the decision was made to bring in some professional support, it made sense for CBG to call upon one of the CBG partners for help. I was asked to go as a senior consultant in organizational communication for the Alcan Public Relations Group, based in the French-speaking city of Montreal, Quebec.
This unique chance to live an international experience also gave me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of communication by teaching it. Going back to the basics proved to be very valuable. In addition to training the new communicators, I was asked to advise the company on how to organize its communication efforts, almost from scratch.
I landed in a sunshine country -- which is something a northerner always welcomes -- and was treated by everyone as the expert in communication they'd been waiting for.
After an assessment of the organization's structure, priorities, culture and communication activities. I put together -- on the spot -- a tailor-made, 10-day communication training program. It was a demanding but exhilarating process: In the evening, I would write my course notes, drawing mainly on my experience, and share them the following day with the group.
The Guinean communication advisors were like sponges. They took everything I could give them. We tackled the fundamentals of communication and their working method (they had no objectives, no action plans, no agenda, no to-do list, no production schedule, no shared responsibilities.
In the meantime, I also worked with managment to give them an evaluation of the internal communication group and the communication climate in the company. I completed the mandate with a series of recommendations, including a new structure for the group and job descriptions.
How much different?
Is communicating in a company in Guinea a different challenge than we face in North America? Yes and no.
I found the same needs from management to have employees understand and support company objectives. Employees and middle management want to know and understand what's happening in the company and complain that they're not informed about anything. Typically, the information cascade doesn't work.
It's the cultural dynamic and the complexity of the CBG organization that create a whole new set of rules and problems for communicating. Communication has to find its way in a real maze where communicators are still looking for some kind of directions.
There are from nine to 11 levels of hierarchy between the president and the employees. Two totally separate organizational entities manage different aspects of the operations. The management staff is a mix of Guineans and expatriates who comes from all over the world and from companies with radically different organizational cultures.
More than 70 percent of the workers don't know how to read, and among these a large number don't even speak French. These workers mainly belong to three different tribes, each one with its own culture, values and language. And they don't necessarily like each other.
The Guinean government, which owns 49 percent of CBG, has a major say in the running of the company and in many key nominations.
In the Guinean culture, as is typically the case in Africa, family is a very extended and important notion. Parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws -- a man often has many wives -- and cousins are all part of the family.
This deep sense of family and friendship intertwines in subtle and complex ways with the working life. It's typical in Kamsar to see employees leaving work to settle family matters and to be absent for a couple of days to mourn relatives in remote villages. As a result, absenteeism runs as high as 20 percent.
In Kamsar, there are no newspapers, no national or local TV stations. A large majority of the population lives in ghetto-like neighborhoods with no electricity.
A communication challenge
One way, for instance, the communication group has identified to communicate with all employees, despite such a complex situation and the high level of illiteracy, is to launch a local radio station. In 1992, company news and issues will be aired on an FM station in the four local languages: French, Susu, Malinke and Polar.
To my surprise, I found in Guinea a group of people open to new and North American-style ideas, even though their notion of efficiency and their high respect for hierarchy are quite different from our views on this side of the ocean.
When I left Kamsar, the "newborn" communicators repeated many times that they would change the content and layout of their newspaper according to what they had learned; that they would play a more active role in supporting communication efforts from management; and that they would work at implementing the action plan they elaborated during my stay.
What will happen as a result of this new communication knowledge and set of intentions? Honestly, I don't know. It depends a lot -- like in any organization -- on the concrete support management will give to the internal communication group and communication in general.
But Guinea will remain Guinea, a country still recovering from the totalitarian regime of Sekou Toure -- which ended in 1984. Patience, a key virtue in this country, should serve the new communicators well.
Marcel Auclair is senior consultant, organizational communication, Alcan Public Relations Group, Montreal, Que.
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|Title Annotation:||Section 4: Communicate Globally by Communicating Locally; public relations in Guinea|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1992|
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