Evolution vs. disruption – corporate communications in the postmodern world

Each phase of industrialization was accompanied by a new central communications medium that enabled or encouraged a new approach to providing and disseminating information needed for the new economy. In the first industrial revolution, which was shaped by the steam engine and the railway, that central medium was billboards and newspapers printed on rotary presses. In the second industrial revolution, driven mostly by the chemical, electrical engineering and automobile industries, radio and television became the mass media communication channels of the day.

For some two decades now, we have witnessed a third industrial revolution and the ever-accelerating development of the latest defining medium in economic history: the Internet. Although it began primarily with the digitalization of physical business models and processes in the service sector, we are currently seeing the reverse trend, i.e, an increasingly physical manifestation of digital interconnectedness – human-to-machine and machine-to-machine. Innovation is bringing the digital world into our physical world: Smart glasses that enhance human sensory input, self-maintaining machinery and self-driving cars are just a few examples.

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The limits, potential and impact of the different media in each industrial age and the characteristics  of the economic and social relationships have also influenced the development of corporate communications. Each industrial revolution has shaped its own communications paradigm to mediate between business and society – including the required modus operandi and management methods. The arc stretches from controlling or manipulating public opinion in an age of few media communications channels (propaganda) to exercising influence on the public in the age of electronic media (public relations) to building trust or reputation in the age of digital media (communications management) as is seen in today’s state-of-the-art corporate communications.

In terms of human resources and management, corporate communications naturally followed the methods prevelant at the time. The days of propaganda and PR were initially shaped by Taylorism, in which a heirarchical horizontal and vertical division of labor was essential. That approach culminated in Fordism, which was ultimately succeeded by modern management methods inspired primarily by Peter Drucker and his concept known as “management by objectives”. The communications paradigm we find ourselves in today stems from this, which has led to the widely used term communications management.

Considering the fact that our methods are substantialy more professional today, corporate communications has quite obviously advanced over the course of more than a century. Nevertheless, our field remains to this day mired in a modus operandi that is rooted in pre-digital media and a focus on communications that flow from the inside out. That rationale dates back to the “fathers” of public relations, Edward Bernays and Arthur Page. Whereas Bernays saw the task of internal and external communications to be the engineering of consent in the interests of the company, Page focused on building good will for the company. They saw the need for business to influence society, meaning to persuade or convince.

We stand at the threshold of an economic postmodern age, one that challenges our understanding of communication

The conventional one-sided view of our job as corporate communicators no longer meets the actual challenges of the first half of the 21st century – regardless of how professionally or practically we do it. We are entering an economic postmodern age, one that is fundamentally altering the social environment of economic value creation and thus fundamentally challenging our traditional understanding of communications management.

Corporate communications stands at a crossroads due to social changes that include but far exceed the consequences of digitalization in the third industrial revolution. First, the global economy has entered the third phase of globalization, in which once developing countries are now exporting goods with increasing success to western markets, turning local and regional businesses into global players. Although the world is not yet really “flat”, world-wide interconnectedness continues to increase – a trend that persists contrary to the skeptical prognoses of past years. At the same time, in recent decades the public is developing a new notion of corporate responsibility that far exceeds environmental protection, brought on by such excesses as casino capitalism in parts of the investment banking world or crises like Dieselgate, the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Empathy and spontaneous creativity are becoming keys to success

The challenge of postmodern communications management is to break with the out-dated conventions of Bernays and Page. We have to understand that the relationship between companies and society is no longer a one-sided effort to influence or persuade. In fact, our companies must develop the ability to recognize social interests among our employees and external stakeholders, understand those interests and make them our own. Corporate empathy becomes a key to successful communications and interactions with critical stakeholders.

Meanwhile, Millennials (Generation Y) are gradually entering the workforce and demanding precisely the things corporate communications must learn in order to remain competent in an increasingly volatile social environment: culture of dialog, feedback and flexibility. Over the last 20 years, communications departments have been organized based on the communications management paradigm, i.e. divided by task and type of communication. The focus was on managing resources and effective communication. In the future, communicators will be responsible more for specific subject matter or projects, while responding to actual demand. This means that creativity and empathetic dialog in particular will be added to the list of necessary skills.

It’s about evolution not the creative destruction of corporate communications

The transition to a postmodern corporate communications paradigm that also reflects the realities of the digital media world is not happening in a vacuum – neither as regards subject matter nor management methods. So, traditional media is here to stay for the forseeable future. Not eveyone’s communications and information needs are changing, and wherever management is focused on added value, you will always find hierarchies and a division of labor consistent with Taylor. And although Millennials have begun joining the ranks of corporate communicators, management is still in the hands of younger Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. But turn-of-the-century Generation Z is not too far behind – and these Post-Millennials will bring yet another set of needs.

It would be inappropriate to project the ideas of technological disruption on the future of corporate communications. We are not seeing the creative destruction of a discipline but rather its evolution in the face of an altered – albeit markedly – environment.

There is no doubt that corporate communications must adjust its self-image, strategic orientation and methods to new conditions. The fourth industrial revolution also requires the further evolution of our discipline. Each individual company must apply the fundamental principles and success factors of postmodern communications management on a case-by-case basis and after a detailed needs analysis. The blind adoption of goals like project-based organization, so-called lighthouse projects like the now nearly proverbial digital newsroom or corporate cultural gestures like business casual attire harbor the danger of focusing on the wrong thing or making only superficial changes. It’s not about the next big thing, but about the next right thing.

That includes the understanding that we will continue to have tasks that require a sequential approach with rather divided responsibilities. It is therefore too early to say farewell to traditional structures and assignments of responsibility. Not every problem can (and must) be solved in a “design thinking” laboratory and not all everyday communications tasks need to become a Scrum project. The paradigm shift in communications management will be complementary not disruptive. That applies both to the strategic alignment between awareness and materiality and/or big data and small data as well as to management methods. Vertical hierarchies (like those in a workshop), horizontal cooperation (like on an assembly line) and vertical self-organization (like in a network) will stand side-by-side on equal footing, producing an organizational model for communications management that functions like a natural organism – both consciously and unconsciously. Along the way it is vital that corporate communications remains what it always has been when the creative and empathetic potential of the communicators is fully utilized: a service that is by people for people.

A more comprehensive article on the topic will be published in a reader by Egbert Deekeling and Dirk Barghop on “Kommunikation in der digitalen Transformation” which will appear soon. Springer Gabler Publishing House kindly approved this blog entry.

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