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Rewiring corporate communication.

In response to these challenges, we are moving from hierarchical, authoritarian management styles to environments in which flexibility, flat structures, quality, participation and empowerment are the new imperatives and key words in the language of change. Throughout these radical changes, or attempts to change, the fundamental structure and culture of organizations, communication systems (and communicators) have not always kept pace. We need to literally and figuratively "rewire" the organization.

From gatekeeper to gateway

A communication system in an organization is like the nervous system in an organism. It's what detects and responds to the environment, and what coordinates the functions of the various specialized elements. Many enterprises want to grow and change, but don't realize the dramatic efforts -- especially in communication policies and tools -that this requires. Just making the existing nervous system bigger or giving it some fashionable new name won't do the job. We have to develop completely new, more sensitive, responsive and complex infrastructures. This takes time and expertise.

Unfortunately, corporate communication departments are generally considered the tool of the status quo in large bureaucratic organizations. They are often placed in the role of "gatekeeper" of the news, orchestrator of meetings and defender of management. Indeed, after interviewing many corporate communication professionals, I think the name of their departments should be changed to Communication Containment! To survive, however, we need to move from the role of gatekeeper to the role of gateway.

As jobs become more fluid and as the distinctions between communication technologies blur, there are many groups of people eating away at what could be and quite possibly should be the roles of professional communicators. Some examples:

* Corning Incorporated's education and training department (Corning, N.Y.) has moved from providing skills training to facilitating change through organizing largegroup interactive meetings.

* The Guthrie Healthcare System (Sayre, Penn.) has established a quality department headed by a new vicepresident which, among its activities, develops a common language among departments, sets up interdepartmental meetings, runs a suggestion-box system, and develops newsletter articles praising outstanding employees. The department is now in charge of proposing internal communication R&D projects.

* The training and performance improvement groups at Dow Chemical (Midland, Mich.) have built a hightech training center which is now being overwhelmed with requests by managers who want to hold meetings and planning sessions there because of the excellent brainstorming and collaboration environment they've created. Executives are going around the traditional corporate communication meeting support specialists, turning instead to the training group as resources for their strategic planning sessions, and creating and displaying their own support materials on Macintosh computers.

* Espar Products (Toronto, Ont.) fired its advertising agency and contracted with a performance improvement firm to develop and manage a comprehensive approach to its PR, advertising, internal communication, training and computer information systems.

The CEOs and executive management teams of organizations with whom I talk generally are quite satisfied with their external communication. However, they feel frustrated by their lack of ability to communicate effectively internally and many don't feel that their corporate communication departments have the expertise or inclination to do anything about it! One CEO told me that he does not see communicators, as a group, as innovators. Another vice-president for communication at a utility company says he's frustrated by the inability of his staff to do anything but write articles. Other departments, such as human resources and management information systems, are taking over crucial roles and are championing the introduction of new communication technologies such as teleconferencing and interactive multimedia. If the situation does not change, communication professionals will have painted themselves into the comer of "in-house writers" and will never become part of the strategic change process.

New rules and tools

For organizations to remain competitive and vital, their old top-down, linear, rigid, controlling, and slow channels of communication need to be rewired. This rewiring consists of:

* a new culture of communication -- re-thinking policies, practices and incentives

* new tools of communication or "pipelines," which support collaboration and participation rather than just indoctrination

* a new definition of communication that unifies communication functions, distribution technologies, and programs by encompassing computer information systems, telecommunications, training, employee communication, documentation, marketing, PR and advertising.

To do this, we need to become Renaissance Communicators who understand, develop, and manage direct (human) and mediated communication rules and tools. Merely attempting to impose new rules without changing the tools makes behavior change difficult; people will resort to their old ways because the old systems make it easy to do so -- in fact they may support nothing else. Merely introducing new technologies without changing the rules and incentive systems won't work either. For example, if participatory management is a goal, one-way, topdown communication systems like newsletters and slick audio-visual productions don't help the organization move in the desired direction; new collaborative systems like brainstorming software, computer conferencing, and desktop video systems are more appropriate tools. Technology alone won't induce change either; electronic mail systems or interactive multimedia training programs won't be used unless there are incentives and support for doing so.

Many professional communicators buy into the need for change, but don't know how to start. Here are some ways I've used to help organizations begin to physically and philosophically rewire themselves:

* Establish links and unified strategies with MIS (Management Information Systems ), telecommunications and human resources. For example, our firm produced an orientation system for Marine Midland Bank (Buffalo, N.Y.) which consisted of a videotape, an interactive information system on benefits packages, and a computer-based employee data form. The "intelligent" interactive data form only asked questions which were appropriate given prior input (for example, if a person said he had no children, it didn't ask for children's names), saving time and eliminating many mistakes. This data could automatically be shipped via modem to the bank's HR system, eliminating the need to re-key employee information.

* Budget for R&D projects. We're working with groups like Amway Corp.'s audio-visual department (Ada, Mich. ) and Guthrie Healthcare System's quality department in establishing communication research and development budgets and projects. We will match up organizational needs with new communication policies and technologies, leveraging our equipment and staff expertise until they can build their own internal resources using the demonstration projects.

* Use inexpensive and widely adopted communication tools. Consumer-oriented products such as electronic mail and small-format video can help achieve significant goals quickly and inexpensively. We set up one of our multinational clients, Espar Products, to use CompuServe electronic mail to communicate with us and each other; we estimate several thousand U.S. dollars of savings in phone and postage costs and a faster turnaround in training and advertising projects. Several years ago, we helped Consolidated Diesel (Whitakers, N.C.) set up a "video crash cart"for line technicians to use in documenting unusual conditions within the factory and as a tool to help them share their skills with each other.

* Plan for new electronic communication conduits. New technologies are combining the power of computers, phones and video; it's now possible to pump data, live motion video, sound and graphics over phone lines or local area networks, and companies such as American Express are putting in the systems to provide a wide array of information to employee desktops. We've developed systems for companies like Lederie Pharmaceuticals (Wayne, N.J.) that provide product documentation and training via computer tutorials and hypertext and that can be transmitted via modem or provided on diskettes. Furthermore, when we design new training and audio-visual facilities, we always keep in mind that the most common "classroom" and "auditorium" in the future will be the individual workstation.

* Help executives use new technologies. Often managers are open to the use of new technologies, but are hesitant to use them because nobody has bothered to explain what they are and how to use them. I'm in the middle of a project for Emerson Power Transmission ( Ithaca, N.Y. ) that will provide their management team with the technology and skills to present their yearly report at headquarters using high-tech computer graphics support. We're also looking at how the team effectively can communicate with the teleconferencing equipment that's being installed. Executives need patient and supportive communication professionals to help them make the transition to new communication paradigms.

* Create value-added and integral communication interventions. Communication programs and systems shouldn't be frills or afterthoughts; rather, they should increasingly become a basic component of management and production, readily accessible in each employee's everyday environment. New York State Electric and Gas, for instance, commissioned us to develop a hypertext supervisors' support system through which first-line managers can use their PCs to access company policies and forms for dealing with issues like union grievances. The system not only teaches them what to do, but also is used to actually complete the necessary paperwork. Unlike printed materials, it can be updated easily and inexpensively, and can be constantly and immediately available when loaded on the computer network or on an individual computer's hard disk. Other computer-based tutorials actually become part of software companies' products.

The education of aspiring communication professionals needs to be updated to include both new technologies and new organizational paradigms. Corporate communicators must also accept the challenge to analyze, adopt, manage, and advocate fundamental changes in our information systems. Once we can find ways to literally and figuratively rewire our organizations, document case studies of successful implementation of new rules and tools, make communication interventions integral to our organizations' products and procedures, and develop models for assessing the costs and benefits of new communication practices, all in our profession will take a giant step toward becoming managers of strategic change.

Diane M. Gayeski, Ph.D. is associate professor and chair of the graduate program in corporate communication at Ithaca College, N.Y., and partner in OmniCom Associates.
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.

Article Details
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Author:Gayeski, Diane M.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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