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Communication: time to raise our game?

Cross-cultural communication.

Communicating.  Is it time to raise our game?

Can culture kill? One very dark night, a jumbo jet full of holidaymakers crashes into a remote jungle-covered mountainside.  Two national teams leap into action — one from the country where the accident has just happened, the other from the country of the enterprise that built the plane.  As the search begins, the two nationalities argue, trampling over sensitivities and shouting words like ‘jurisdiction’.  Two hours after the crash, a helicopter spots the wreckage and prepares to drop two men onto the mountain.  But it’s ordered back.   Next day, after many meetings and phone calls from more powerful people, rescuers arrive just in time to save the last four survivors.  Recovering in hospital, one reports the excruciating cries from scores of badly injured passengers that morning.  The failure of everyone to work together may have caused the death of as many people as the tragic accident itself.  Just pause for a moment to reflect on that…


… It strikes me that, for many organisations today, ‘communications’ is considered a back-office function, entirely lacking strategic thinking.  I frequently come across teams merely reacting to events, ‘writing up’ and ‘publishing’ as an afterthought.  “Hey, we should blog about that.” “Let’s have a meeting”. How much more effective might our communications be if, for example, we gave some thought beforehand to our objectives and audiences?  Through my work with clients over the past 25 years, I have come to understand communications differently – as an integral part of a theory of change.  On my own professional journey, I’m exploring how communications can be part and parcel of knowledge and learning — both my own, and of the organisations with which I work.

Social media often leaves me cold: so many people telling-off or showing-off.  I keep wondering “aren’t we missing a huge opportunity to learn?”  But to do this, surely, we need to be comfortable talking about what went wrong, and why.  It means speaking from a place of vulnerability and humility.  That’s hard enough to do in a private space with friends, let alone under the glare of a public spotlight with a less-than appreciative audience ready to bay for blood.  I can understand that people leap to protect their own reputation and the people in their organisations.  Such is the fear of losing face.

Working as a news correspondent, then TV, digital and events producer and facilitator, I began exploring communications in a wider sense:  it was a turning point dramatising that true-life tragedy, where an air disaster was worsened through the impact of cultural misunderstandings, and I was bowled over by the ideas of Geert Hofstede; working with educational institutions, the work of Fritjof Capra opened my mind to ethnic diversity as a valuable asset whose potential might be underestimated; investors and entrepreneurs gave me new perspectives on power and purpose.  Having trained for years to remove any subjectivity from my own work — redacting the “me” — I realised that I could benefit immensely by directing my interviewing skills at myself, not to tell-off or show-off, but to apply an appreciative criticism to my own life, including my work.

So how might we marshal communications to create the conditions for change and innovation? This was central to the enquiry of my masters dissertation at the start of the new millennium when I desperately struggled to synthesise, express and harness those ideas.  I was trying to use action research to explore leadership and connections and began to experiment clumsily with designing and creating the conditions for change and innovation: building trust, identifying common enquiry, and creating multiple feedback loops to amplify and ultimately flip the system.  I began to recognize the huge potential, if learning and communications functions work together within an organization.  Putting these ideas into practice, however, proved to be quite another task.

In 2010, I was invited to work with the audiovisual industry across Europe where I attempted to organise cross-cultural study tours to research the value of creativity and emerging approaches to audience engagement.  We prototyped a process, based on participative video, to capture and promote our own insights.  It was a struggle to juggle the simultaneous jobs of media and event producer, facilitator and teacher, travel manager and EU administrator.  But we did manage to develop a simple process to support, in a small way, individual and group learning and transformation, one that anyone could easily recognize and learn.  Since then, I’ve been trying to use it with supply chains for low carbon innovation in urban development, energy and transport.  I’m particularly curious about how we might help people to understand the wider narratives, so they invest wisely financial and planetary resources and work more effectively across public, private and third sector systems.

So how can we bring an approach that integrates communications into knowledge and learning?  I’ve become convinced that an important step is to build a shared reflective practice across a team, so we can draw out, capture and share insights of the individuals and the group. We can then generate internal content around our collective thought-leadership.  With mindful editing, we can balance the desire to protect our reputations with the need to share learning so that we can address complex challenges together.


Both as a facilitator and participant, I often notice how it’s the little things said or done that make a difference — often unplanned, but with clear purpose and firm intentions.  Perhaps a book or poster placed prominently in view, a pregnant pause, a word carefully chosen, or the way and tone with which a question is framed and posed.  As observant and reflective teams and groups, could we practice paying attention to those micro-interventions, and learn what creates the best impact?

How can we talk better about complex, long term concepts that are hard to grasp?  What if we were able to talk more openly about the practical challenges — not just organisational ones, common to the team, but personal ones too.  After all, aren’t all organisations made up of people, whose lives continue to impact on their work?  How can we create meeting spaces with a culture that emphasises and welcomes other viewpoints as aids to solving problems.

When we read reports, how can we distinguish between a great and an average piece of work?   What made the difference doesn’t necessarily show up in the official report, with its litany of outputs and outcomes.  For example, where is the personal charism and leadership?  The  delegate introductions framed in an unusual way?  The phrasing of a question that generated a surprising insight?  Or the real change when two people went for a walk after a disagreement and find a connection. Could we create quality stories of our learning journeys? For example, creating little video diaries at the end of a day…

How can we begin to bring some discipline and practice to these soft skills, then communicate them in a way that people can begin to influence the field of practice? What does the practice of thought-leadership look like?

I want to work with people to explore, capture and disseminate the richer levels of learning — not just describing processes as they appear on paper.  The more we become better at the process of reflection and learning, and at talking about it, the more we will come to realise that the things that we see as embarrassing failures and obstacles are precisely the things we need to shine a spotlight on.  Anyone interested in collaborating?

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