I’m turning this “Leadership Report” issue over to Roger D’Aprix, a dear friend, former colleague, author of seven communication books and the preeminent leader in the organizational communication practice. Roger was interviewed in advance of the November 7th launch of his four-week course, “Delivering Meaning in a Digital World.” Khyla Flores is with the International Association of Business Communicators, which is hosting the course. Enjoy! Jim
Khyla Flores: As a longtime communication professional, what do you think of the state of the art today?
Roger D’Aprix: From where I sit, the profession is facing some serious challenges. Our history, at least on the organizational communication side, has been checkered as we evolved from newsletter publishers to pseudo-journalists to multimedia producers. Much of that has been a result of a lack of a clear mission coupled with lukewarm senior-leadership support. So we did the best we could in a conservative communication environment. The game-changer today is technology access that makes a mockery of any inclinations toward secrecy.
KF: What do you see as the primary challenges facing communication professionals?
RD: We’re still struggling with the issue of mission. The real problem is intense change. We’re in the midst of a revolution as profound as the change from agriculture to manufacturing. It’s now from manufacturing to an information-based economy. Given our profession, that should be a significant plus. But all staff functions are in some turmoil as they seek to contribute in a corporate world changing from autocracy to greater democracy, from rigid hierarchy to a focus on team-generated results. My belief is that our best course is to recognize that today’s worker is confused, somewhat alienated, skeptical and insecure about his or her future. That says to me that the proper mission is for us to deliver meaning in the face of confusion. I think that’s the No. 1 challenge.
KF: Isn’t delivering meaning what the profession has always been about? What’s different today?
RD: First off, I don’t believe that the profession has been as focused as it should be on explaining to the average worker the meaning of his or her life in a complex organization faced with all kinds of marketplace challenges. Some would refer to that colloquially as communicating the “big picture.” I think that it’s much more than that. The eternal question I’ve heard throughout my career in focus groups and in other listening exercises is: “What does it (the event, decision or latest strategy) mean for me? That question usually is a cry to explain the impact of events and decisions on the members of the organization. Otherwise, how can they function as the informed, engaged insiders they need to be in this competitive and challenging environment?
KF: How should today’s communicator approach a challenge that all-encompassing?
RD: I think the answer is by orchestrating a complete internal communication system consisting of a well-considered strategy, leadership participation from the senior to the team level and measurement and resulting accountability at all levels. Leadership is communication. That should be the guiding principle. The day when content and media production could be isolated from the leadership mission is long over. It all needs to be integrated with senior leadership’s full understanding and commitment to open communication. Leadership expert Gary Hamel has said it best: “The only way to build a company that’s fit for the future is to build one that’s fit for human beings as well.” He adds, “Do that, and you will have built an organization that is fully human and fully prepared for the extraordinary opportunities that lie ahead.” That will be a difficult task that requires vision, persistence and the defeat of the “silo behavior” that undermines progress at all levels. Above all, the delivery of meaning must be a collaborative effort.
KF: In recent years, communicators have invested immense energy and time in mastering today’s technology to meet the demands of a digital age. What is the role of technology in delivering meaning?
RD: Technology is and will be a critical tool, but technology alone can’t do the job. For one thing, its focus is the mass delivery of raw information that requires the individual to connect the dots. Today’s world is far too complex to make that a reasonable demand. We must couple human presence and attention to the power of technology so that people also have a human relationship in which they can secure answers and comfort. That means at long last paying attention to the vital communication role of team leaders. My criticism of our profession is that we have lost sight that technology is a means, not an end in itself. It’s far too easy to be seduced by its novelty and flash. Leave that to our IT partners and concentrate on the mission of delivering meaning and using technology as appropriate to the intent of our overall strategy.
KF: In your upcoming workshop, you’ll talk about the process of delivering messages with meaning. How can having these skills help the attendees in their professional roles?
RD: The ultimate value of the content will vary according to the needs and interests of the participants. But in general, my goal is a stimulating and practical discussion of the above issues in a forum where we can question and challenge one another about the tough issues we face. We will also explore the how-to strategy and tactics of delivering meaning. I think the workshop discussion will motivate the attendees to take a close look at their mission in today’s organization and match it to the realities of a changing workplace.