In the mid-nineties, a University of Michigan professor named David Ulrich made a bold statement: “HR must give value or give notice.”
Back then, many top companies were reinventing their human resources departments —shifting work from traditional personnel administration toward workforce capability building and dramatically increasing the value that HR contributed to their organizations.
Fifteen years later, communication departments need to take notice.
Last week, I addressed a regional conference of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). They heard a similar wakeup call from my former colleague and past IABC chairman, Mark Schumann, whose keynote presentation bluntly asked: “Can business communication reinvent itself or is the ride over? And he pointed out that: “Our profession is disappearing before our eyes.”
I spoke the day before on a related subject: “Reinventing the Role of the Communication Function: From Tactical Implementers to Value-Adding Change Leaders.” While Mark’s comments centered around the what and why of the need to change, mine addressed how that change needs to take place, based on work we’ve been doing with clients for a long time. From the audience’s reaction, it hit it the spot.
Here’s the short version of what’s going on.
Communication departments are doing the same things today that they were doing 30 years ago—distributing news and information. Only the media have evolved.
Amid the flurry of communication activity is Adam, who sits in his sales office in Dallas losing customers and revenues because he can’t get pricing information quickly enough to pass on to his prospects before his competitors do. Then there’s Jennifer, who struggles to meet her claims processing accuracy and speed goals because she hasn’t received proper instructions on how to do her job. And in the company across the street, they’re having trouble getting new products to market because their matrix structure all but stifles the cross-functional information sharing that’s needed to innovate.
Lack of information, inaccurate information, mixed messages and slow moving information represent organizational friction that gets in the way of people who otherwise could get passionate about eating the competitors’ lunch, if only they could get the information they need to do so. Essentially, many communication people are very busy doing the wrong things—things that add little to no value, if you define value as those things for which customers are willing to pay.
However, as with HR departments of the mid-nineties, today there are enlightened communication pros who are hard at work reinventing themselves. They report to leaders who understand that one of the most virulent forces working against organizational super performance are communication breakdowns that almost dare people to try to be their best at what they do.
Reinvented communication departments are focused less on output and more on outcomes that matter. Results such as improving quality, service, delivery, safety, costs and productivity. Their priorities are based on the size of the gains they can create and the amount of returns they can generate, not who screams the loudest. This business concept is being adopted by departments that heretofore have been stuck playing a role that was relatively detached from the business of making money.
As I told my crowd in Pittsburgh, you’re going to have to step back and ask yourselves Philip Kotler-like questions such as what businessare you in, how are you going to add value, what do you really need to be good at it? Assess what’s working and what’s not while putting a price tag on both. Then you need to shift your work to that which adds measurable value to your organization and scrap that which doesn’t . Skill-up now so you can be amazingly good at what you need to do to succeed.
This is a big job. But those who’ve made the transformation are happy people. They know they’re valued for the value they add. They go home at night knowing they made a difference in peoples’ lives.
The bonus is they’re also viewed as equal partners by their peers in other departments, including HR.