Yes, You Can Get Out of The Twilight Zone

Back in the early 1980s, I had a telex machine. Remember those? Noisy great typewriter-like devices that you used to communicate with people down the road and in far-flung corners of the world. No screens, just paper and everything in capital letters.

I had an IBM Selectric typewriter, too, the one with the golf ball that you could swap around with others to get different typefaces. Noisy as well. But at least I could type in lower case.

Then I got one of the first IBM PCs when they came out. As I quickly discovered, this changed everything in how I did my job, how I wrote and how I communicated with others.

Twenty-five years on, how people communicate with each other has changed beyond all recognition compared to those days. Technology today makes access to information, and the sharing of it, global, immediate, pervasive and persistent. The tools we have at our disposal now – from wireless laptops and pocket PCs you can take anywhere to the latest camera phones that work everywhere – mean anyone can communicate and share information with anyone else, literally from and to anywhere on the planet.

You’d think that with all this technology going on, communicators would be at the forefront in embracing more of it as a catalyzer to make communication within organizations even more effective and transparent as a means to better engage the employees of those organizations.

Unfortunately, it often seems to me that the practice of organizational communication today is stuck in a 1980s time warp, a sort of Twilight Zone where a ‘telex-Selectric’ mentality still reigns supreme.

I had a conversation recently with the CEO of a medium-size publicly-held company. He was complaining that the communicators in his organization don’t seem to get it in terms of how things have changed. The employees in this company are geographically spread across 16 countries. And they’re relatively young.

In particular, he wanted to see how weblogs (blogs) could help people talk about and share ideas. He believes such tools will also help him better understand where knowledge lies in the organization. Yet he encountered resistance when he discussed his ideas with his communication people. He couldn’t understand why.

While not every CEO has such vision when it comes to willingness to embrace new thinking about engaging with the workforce (it’s more likely to be one of the educational tasks that communicators have to do), when you encounter one who does, listen carefully!

It gets worse for the communicators, though. This CEO believes that he and others in the company seem to be the ones coming up with the new ideas and thinking all the time, and faster. Not the communicators.

This is all to do with the new rules. You’ll soon see what I mean.

Why is it that so many people in the communication profession don’t get it? Still operate in message control mode? Still don’t take the little time they have in a fast-changing business world to get up to speed? They blithely press on with their traditional planning models with no apparent clue that they are now working in a non-traditional business world with new rules and new goals, and with people who do understand it.

This is at the heart of the dilemma for communicators. They don’t understand because they are afraid. Afraid of change. Afraid of transparency. Afraid that the new methods will disenfranchise them. No longer are they guardians of the company’s communication, with the outside world as well as within. They are being threatened with a new, open, way which turns their traditional, command-and-control methods upside down.

So here’s what could happen in that CEO’s company. By the time the communicators come up with their traditional plans, there will be no one to listen to them. Pretty soon, it should be clear to them that their relevance is, well, irrelevant. That will certainly be clear to the CEO.

If you’ve read this far, I hope I haven’t depressed you. It’s now time to wake up. I have three practical tips that may help you get up to speed in short order:

1. Keep an open mind. Always.

If there’s one thing destined to cause you more professional, even career-limiting, grief than anything else, it’s an unwillingness to consider different or new ideas. This is especially so where you’ve decided those ideas don’t fit within narrow perspectives you or others in your organization may have.

Such narrow perspectives are often the “we’ve always done it like this and it always works” way of thinking. And sometimes, you don’t realize it.

Employ some “what if?” thinking – the type of modelling your colleagues in finance do all the time with their spreadsheets. Challenge yourself and question your thinking. Every time you hear the “we’ve always…” sentence, ask “but what if…?”

Surely you don’t want the accountants to have all the fun, do you?

Experiment: Take a hard look at your intranet. I don’t mean the structure, content, etc – I mean what every employee sees. Get the home page on your screen now. Just look at it. Ask yourself “what if we changed X?” where ‘X’ is one element of what your eyes see. It could be the log-in process. Or that link to the employee benefits page. Perhaps the employee discussion forum. Or maybe the way you connect to an external website.

Click on it or type something. Then imagine how it could be different, improved, in how people use it and make use of it.

You’re seeing this from the communication perspective, not an IT one. Let your thinking run. Keep asking yourself “but what if…?” See what happens.

2. Get out more.

You’re busy, like everyone else. Focused, trying to get that communication plan finished, the CEO’s employee briefing organized, or your budget completed. You don’t have time for anything else, right?

Wrong. Find a moment to expand your horizons. Take a look beyond your desktop and your routine. See what’s going on in your profession outside your organization.

Experiment: Stop reading your usual websites, and/or the newsletters you subscribe to by email, for a week. Ditch those bookmarks or favourites (not literally, just hide them). Instead, go here:

http://groups.blogdigger.com/groups.jsp?id=85

That’s where you will find a list of blogs written by over 110 (and counting) communicators, mostly PR professionals but also people involved in employee communication, investor relations, marketing and other facets of organizational communication. They’re all over the world. In the USA, European countries, Asia Pacific and Latin America. Spend a little time visiting each. That could be just 2 or 3 minutes as you start. Scan their content. Follow the links. See what others are talking about – having conversations that you will not find anywhere else.

Then, pick 10 you like. Spend more time with these. Leave a comment or two. Send an email to the blog authors. Reach out and make connections. Get hold of a free RSS reader and subscribe to their RSS feeds. These give you new blog postings soon after they are made. (RSS is on everyone’s lips these days, by the way. If you need to know more, just Google it.)

If you’ve never visited a blog before, this little experiment will open your eyes to a wider world. Spend an hour a day on your experiment. Do it at lunchtime, or early in the morning before the day gets going and before the phone starts ringing. Do it in bite-sized chunks, if that’s easier for you. It will either excite you (glass half full) or scare you (glass half empty). Either way, don’t waver. See what happens.

3. Now do it.

If my earlier case study resonates with you, here’s how you will prepare yourself to show your CEO a thing or two.

Before you start, be very sure of one thing – your CEO reads the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Business Week, Fortune… (you can add your own favourites here). For quite some time, he’s been reading about communication technology. It’s not called that, of course – it’s camouflaged.

What your CEO’s been reading about is new ways to engage with employees, and better connect them with the new marketplace – a place where nimble people do business, people who get things done, fast and effectively.

He’s read about how XYZ Company created a high-performing sales team and how they became stimulated and motivated to excel. He’s been reading about how one of your major competitors enabled their employees everywhere to better exchange and talk about their knowledge, their insights and their information in dynamic ways that make things happen faster. He’s seen how the new rules have meant another competitor was able to launch their upgraded product ahead of schedule and report a higher net in the latest quarter.

You will need to demonstrate your relevance, your value, to your employer. Don’t even think about pulling out those old textbooks, or case studies, or whatever. You need to show you know what’s happening under the new rules. More importantly, you need to show that you know how to play the game under the new rules.

Here’s how you can do it.

Experiment: Get together (virtually if necessary) with 3 of your trusted colleagues. Pick each one from a different function in your company – sales, marketing, manufacturing/R&D (as appropriate) and finance.

You’re going to be a group of 4 people who will have a conversation about a business-related topic that you’ll all decide on. Not to do with work. Maybe it’s about an industry outside your own. Or a new development in science. Perhaps a cool new consumer gadget that’s all the rage. Whatever it is, it’s a topic each of you agrees to discuss, one that each of you has opinions about and each of you is willing to argue and discuss your points of view.

Then, each of you starts a blog. The easiest, and free, way is to use Blogger (www.blogger.com). Sign up, follow the simple instructions, and you’ll have your blog ready to go in less than 10 minutes.

Write and post some articles. As short or as long as you like. One or two a week – more if you want – each week for 3 weeks. Sign up for each other’s RSS feed. Visit each other’s blogs, read and comment. And don’t be surprised if other people, people you don’t know, join in your conversation and leave comments. Reach out to them if so.

At the end of the experiment time, discuss. Share your impressions about it. Talk about what it did for how you share information and opinions. Talk about what it didn’t do. See what commonality of views you all have. And where the divergences are.

What’s the conclusion to all this? you may be asking. What’s the relevance to my job? What’s the point?

The point is that you are pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. You will be playing the game under the new rules where it’s hard to find a rulebook. Yet you will see how easy it is in a way that you can discover yourself, informally and using your own initiative. You will learn how you can demonstrate your relevance, your value, to your employer. It will require your perseverance. It will demand your total commitment. And it will be fun. Probably.

The conclusion? It will show you that you can still get out of the Twilight Zone and into a new way of working. You will see the roadmap that shows you how.

Study your map. But don’t take too long, as you don’t have a lot of time.

[This article was written upon request in January 2005 for a US business publication. They decided not to publish it, saying the scenarios presented were “too far fetched.” It was published in Blogging Planet on 11 March 2005:
http://www.bloggingplanet.com/eng/index.php/2005/03/11/14-how-you-can-get-out-of-the-twilight-zone]