Models of organisational communication: why do our businesses speak the way they do? (A chicken-or-egg discussion)

In the first post of this ‘conversation evolution’ series, speckled birds eggs in a nestI discussed my observations about the types of conversations undertaken in organisations and how, if they are to be
constructive, they should fit, (at least partially), within the existing conversational paradigm – even if the discussion seeks to effect change to a new one. In this post, I’d like to explore why these paradigms came to exist in the first place.

This is where the chicken-or-egg comes into the discussion. I want to know why it is that my business is speaking a certain ‘language’ – why it communicates in a particular style. Obviously there are historical factors that influence this, but I’m also wondering whether businesses communicate in the ways that they do due to the model or style of business they are based upon, or whether the business model was established due to the types of conversations that were taking place as the business was being built. Does the business grow out of the communication style or does the dialogue reflect the nature of the business?

The advent of real conversation – but are we all talking?

Let’s put a bit of context around this. The advent of the internet and the accelerated development of social media platforms over the last ten years have opened pathways for real life, real time, two-way conversations between stakeholder groups. Actually no, forget ‘stakeholder groups’. We’re talking about conversations between people– be they employees and managers, or publics and various entities (such as retailers, service providers, media, or prominent individuals), we’re talking about markets and business places made up of real people (yep, I know about the Cluetrain Manifesto – no prizes there).

The opportunity to converse in this way – directly, with real people – has turned the communications world on its head. But now, more than ten years since the Cluetrain Manifesto first challenged the way we think about communication – despite the existence of some early adopters – I believe that as a business community we are still struggling to step away from our communication roots of uni-directional information transmission, based on sanitised talking points and key messages.

The fact of the matter is that the discussions I have with other communicators are not generally about the progressive organisations that we all work for, that have embraced ParkYoung’s networked market conversation model referenced in the first post of this series. My discussions are more often about the challenges we are all grappling with regarding how to lead our businesses through an evolution of communication, away from the sermon-on-the-mount toward a truly engaged and empowered business having conversations from the bottom up, as well as the top down.

So, why do businesses not seem to be evolving the conversations they are having? Why are they still speaking the language of old-school Public Relations and polished brochures? Surely evolution is a natural process – survival of the fittest and all that? How can businesses that are successful still be having old-school uni-directional conversations?

Lets do the time warp again

I believe the answer is – in part, at least – historical. The internet simply wasn’t around, or was at least only in its infancy when many of today’s established and successful organisations were being built. The business I mainly work with was established in Europe in the mid-1800’s – long before the concepts of marketing or corporate communications existed, let alone the internet. The way its business model and conversations have evolved over time is worlds apart from a start-up of today. There is a lot of pre-internet history and a lot of established practices, systems and learning that reinforce a tendency toward a particular conversation model. History is a daunting entity to contend with to effect change.

There is no questioning the new benchmark for stakeholder communications. Social media and the opportunities it brings for actual conversation (as opposed to carefully crafted ‘messages’) is not a fad and is in our lives to stay. The early adopters already can’t imagine life without it. But just because we love it, and this is currently the highest level of communications evolution, I propose that it doesn’t necessarily make it the desired benchmark for everyone.

History rules

I think the relationship between business style or model and the conversations within many businesses are steeped in organisational history. I’m not sure that there really is any way of determining whether the conversations came first or the business model – I think it’s a little of both. And for this reason, I believe they are firmly ingrained in each other – they are inextricably linked. Furthermore I think that in most cases of organisations with such rich history, there is little chance of them ever evolving to the fully fledged conversation model.

But I’d love to be proved wrong – and clearly none of this is based on any depth of research – it’s just my musings.

So tell me – what businesses do you know about, or have you been involved with that have fundamentally shifted the conversations they are having while maintaining what would be  considered a traditional or conservative business model or style that would typically be assumed most suited to supporting uni-directional monologic dialogue? Or maybe you have a theory on what came first – the business or the conversation.

Third and final post in the conversation evolution series – what does all this mean for communications professionals?


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