Things I learned at a conference

I spent the last two days at the Melcrum Internal Comms Summit in London.   Now, I’m not a natural conference-goer, but having not attended a professional event of this kind for ten years (the last one I went to I actually presented at) I thought I should pop along to check up on some good practice, do a bit of networking and see what’s happening in my industry.   Overall, an interesting couple of days and whilst not all the presentations worked for me personally, it was good to sit at the back (as I always do) and soak it all up.   Here are some reflections of the two days:

The clear message for me was the fact that our industry needs to start letting go and stop trying to manage everything.   As I have said many times in this blog, I think internal comms is too over-managed.   We can’t – and shouldn’t – try to control all workplace communication.  We need to let it happen more.  The Gen Y workers won’t tolerate the restrictions of managed channels – they want and expect to be able to connect, collaborate and communicate ‘on the fly’, as they do out of work.    As futurist Anna-Lise Kjaer said in her opening keynote:  “We must move away from the channel centred approach to communicating and move to a more personal approach.”

Comms people need to wrestle strategic control of the technology that enables this to happen.   In my experience, most comms people don’t see ‘collaboration’ as part in their remit beyond using tools like Yammer as a comms channel.   But here’s where we need to drop the silo thinking and look more holistically at the workplace in general.   Collaboration is a form of communication and engagement, as is knowledge transfer, learning, formal training, idea sharing and community building.  We can’t (and shouldn’t try) to manage all these things, but we should recognise the part they play in building a communication culture.

Purpose is the new black.   Anne-Lise talked about the importance of work having a higher meaning.  Purpose is what drives people.   I love her line “If you can’t feel it, it’s not making a difference.”   It’s a point I keep making here on this blog.   Engagement is about emotion and if you want emotion you have to aim for that part of the brain that deals with feelings.     A brilliant engagement example from the insurer RSA (where I cut my comms teeth!) showed what happens when you give people a reason to express themselves and be proud.

Metaphors work.   David Harrington from Shell showed a video to demonstrate the conflicting priorities and unintended consequences of managed push communication.  The amateur staff-made video shows a customer in a restaurant being bombarded with cakes from a number of different waiters – each portion of cake representing a different corporate message.   As the waiters deliver well-intended individual servings we see the poor customer’s plate pile higher and higher with cake and her face drop lower and lower with confusion.    A perfect visual analogy to demonstrate a common problem.  For many delegates, the ‘cake video’ remained the one big takeaway.

We need to be more creative.   Of course, given the name of this blog, this is the area I’m most passionate about.   I really want comms people to realise that creativity is different from creative.   Creative is what we buy from creative agencies.   Here we’re buying production – an output.  And  jolly good these outputs are too, many of which were superbly demonstrated at the conference by the likes of Kingfisher, M&S, Syngenta and RSA.  BUT, creativity is not the same thing.    Creative agencies are great at production but they don’t have exclusivity on creativity.   Creativity is a skill, a behaviour and an attitude, and it’s an ability we all have.   We just need to know how to use it and have the confidence to do so.    The need for creativity came up time and time again at the conference.   I am now even more convinced that creativity is the BIG SKILL that communicators need for the future.   I’m not the only one.   A recent survey of global CEOs highlighted creativity as the “number one skill” organisations need to learn to face the complex challenges coming down the track.   We should be at the front of the queue.

Most comms are pointless.  OK, that’s my take on it but the Shell presentation highlighted what we all know … most people don’t engage with outgoing push comms.   David’s data showed that 85% of Shell videos had less than a hundred views and an even greater proportion of online articles had less than a hundred hits, out of an audience of many thousands.   The phrase “in a land without data, my opinion is king” resonated with many people.  Understandably.

Comms should be a disruptive force.   Benedikt Benenati from Kingfisher gave a great presentation about his belief that internal comms can and should drive change through forceful and sometimes disruptive interventions.   Getting people out of their comfort zones, making leaders ask their people for help, forcing issues like the elephant in the room (with a life-size model elephant!) and generally being a nuisance.   I like what he said about not wanting a big budget and deliberately keeping his team lean in order to drive up creativity.   I also like the fact that he doesn’t want his team to be ‘part of the system’ because that would make them too safe.   An argument perhaps for comms to not be at the top table, but outside throwing stones in through the window.

I don’t like conferences.   Nothing against this event, very well staged by Melcrum, but personally I just don’t connect with conferences.  Maybe if I was in-house I’d feel different but being on the agency side I just don’t like the predatory atmosphere.    It’s not my natural environment to hand out business cards and compete for attention.  It’s too false for me.   I’d rather take the name badges off and just have a nice chat.

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