The evolution of conversation in business

I’d like to have a conversation about conversations. Two business men talkingIt may take a while. To ease your burden – and keep your attention – I’ve broken it up into a series of three posts. I’m calling it the ‘evolution of conversation’ series. In it I ask a bunch of questions about what is considered best practice for corporate communications and how it is delivered within and by an organisation.

These posts are the result of trying to articulate my own thoughts about the execution of corporate communications excellence. I really don’t have any of the answers – and I’m not entirely sure that anyone does. But I reckon if I’m wondering about this stuff, then others might be as well.

So here it is, the first in a series of three posts about the development of the mode, means and nature of conversations that organisations are having.

Now you’re speaking my language

I’ve been reading a bit about the types of conversations that organisations should be having – with their employees; with their publics; with their stakeholders. There is an enormous body of work around information flow, authenticity, relinquishing control, empowerment; and collaboration. One of the fundamental premises of all of it is that the days of controlling key messages delivered to stakeholder groups are numbered.

Trevor Young has mapped the journey of evolution beyond the scripted message with a stunningly simple four model hierarchy. I love this representation of a communications continuum along which all our organisations sit. It’s a distillation of a great deal of the content that I have been wading through, expressed clearly and simply.

The goal, of course, is to move through each model to the highest level. Much of the dialogue I’ve been reading has an implicit sub-text which signifies that the ‘new way’ of conversing, (i.e. Trevor’s Networked Market model), is the best and perhaps only, viable communication model to aspire to. The premise goes something like: for an organisation to go forward successfully, conversations held within traditional paradigms should not only be considered invalid, but indicative of an organisation that will die. “Communicate or perish!” We all aspire to make our businesses the best they can be, which surely entails reaching the highest evolutionary level in all matters, (not just communications) – right?

Actually – I’m not so sure …

I’d like to suggest that this is overly simplistic. I’m not convinced that the latest and greatest – or most highly evolved – is necessarily the best fit for all.

It’s all Greek to me

What if an organisation simply doesn’t speak the language of the more highly evolved? What if the Networked Market model is a completely foreign paradigm and what if a move to this model constitutes, not just a change in mindset but a fundamental re-alignment of the corporate fabric of an organisation? We’re talking tectonic plates here.

I’ve been hitting my head up against a wall for a little while now, trying to figure out how to shift the collective thinking of a highly conservative, risk averse organisation that operates somewhere along the ‘fortress’ spectrum within Trevor’s continuum. I’ve been banging on to them about transparency, authenticity, honesty and genuine openness, involvement and empowerment – all to little or no avail. I’ve been wondering what I’m not articulating – why they can’t see the potential that I do; why the little light bulb hasn’t gone on in their heads; why they just don’t ‘get it’.

In reality, my issue is beyond needing to clarify my meaning:  we’re not even having a conversation. To evolve through the levels of communication models and conversations styles – to be able to get them to see where we’re at, let alone that there is another level – something better – we have to be actually having a conversation to begin with. And I’m not even speaking their language.

The clouds parted (a little bit)

I had some light shed on this experience through one of Jennifer Frahm’s posts, “It’s not you, it’s me.” In this post, Jennifer refers to her own research which examines the impact of different communication models on how employees felt and thought about change. One of the findings was that it didn’t matter what communication model you used, if there was not a fit between the employees’ communicative expectations and the communicator’s competences, effective change communication was unlikely.

Now, whilst I’m not necessarily talking about change communication specifically, the premise still holds true:  you have to meet the expectations of your audience and speak their language. If my organisation is operating under a particular model, and I’m using the language of another, I may as well be speaking to them in Russian. If I’m engaging in the model which I’d optimally like the organisation to adopt with its stakeholders – i.e. inclusive and collaborative – while everyone else is still firmly entrenched in a monologic, unidirectional model, people will understand neither the concepts nor the language I bring to the table.

As Jennifer says in her post, the change in communication needs to come from the communicator –  me – at this point. The re-framing challenge is to present new concepts of alternative communications models outside the existing paradigm utilising only the current model and the language that exists within it.

Next post in the ‘Conversation evolution’ series:  The derivation of the communication paradigm – does the business model determine the communication model or vice versa?


  1. Good post. Glad you like our four columns. We are in the process of amending the fourth and current after a chat with good Doctor Frahm. The bottom-up comms is more accurately two-way comms/dialogue in ‘organisation characterised by:’ So we are in the process of changing that diagram after this valuable input. The four models do help (especially those in PR/comms) to understand how organisational comms has evolved since the 40s. Interestingly many organisations are still doing a bit from each column. We look forward to tracking your “conversation.” Cheers Parky

    1. David – thanks so much for stopping by for a visit. Apologies for crediting only Trevor and not the full Park Young team for the model. looking forward to seeing the updated version. Cheers — Susan

  2. Susan, thanks for the inclusion – I love it when somebody resonates with what I have said, but then goes on to express what I was trying to say much better. Thank you.

    I’m going to challenge you on your last sentence. I’m not sure that the reframe need ‘utilise only the current model and the language that exists within it’.

    What if the reframe involves 90% of the current model and language, and 10% of the ideal/aspirational communication model. And then over time the ratio shifts…. 80/20… 70/30…. 60/40… I think I need the good folk from Park Young to pull this into a continuum diagram!

    1. Ah Jen – this is why you have the PhD and I don’t. Seems so obvious when I read it – of course the reframe need not stay in the same model, nor should it. Otherwise, how could it possibly change!? Thanks for the reframe on my view. Good to have someone check the logic. And thanks for the original inspiration.

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