Thursday, 2 December 2010

WANTED: Communication educators for management revolution

Being able to collaborate better than the competition is gold in today’s globally competitive market: the most valuable differentiator; the greatest competitive advantage a firm can have; hard to copy or replicate. But such collaboration is pretty well impossible for conventional firms to achieve because the essential behaviours and attitudes are culturally alien; beyond the experience of people in most modern workplaces; contrary to the assumptions and practices of management. To achieve collaboration requires the end of Management and the key to that is in transforming the way that people communicate at work.

As Garry Hamel says:
“Management was originally invented to solve two problems: the first—getting semiskilled employees to perform repetitive activities competently, diligently, and efficiently; the second—coordinating those efforts in ways that enabled complex goods and services to be produced in large quantities.

In a nutshell, the problems were efficiency and scale, and the solution was bureaucracy, with its hierarchical structure, cascading goals, precise role definitions, and elaborate rules and procedures. Equipping organizations to tackle the future would require a management revolution no less momentous than the one that spawned modern industry.”

If we accept that Garry Hamel is right, and I most certainly do, then the problem is how do we achieve that revolution; that transformation? The firm conclusion I’ve come to over a couple of decades of leading learning in Business Schools and coaching business owners for change and growth, is that a large part of the solution lies in transforming the way we manage and do education; transforming it from what it has determinedly become over the last couple of decades. That’s the opportunity for Communication educators: their mission, should they accept it.

As change leader for university business students and SME owners and managers I realised that deep learning and change was continually derailed by deep seated tacit assumptions about knowledge and how to behave in organisations; how to behave at work; how to organise work.

I realised that I and my students, colleagues and clients are deeply imbued with a picture or organisation that is imprinted, learned and reinforced through industrial-age, synchronised education where experts have authority over “children”, requiring compliance in prescribed, synchronised, trivial ‘work’.

What we learn most powerfully from that education: what remains after we’ve forgotten everything we were taught, is how to organise and behave at work.

That unconscious imprinting, which begins at around year 7 at school when children leave the ‘learning nest’ environment of pre-school and primer years, is reinforced and ingrained right through University. It’s a major reason why we unthinkingly perpetuate the mechanistic bureaucratic, hierarchical systems in which people are cooperating, synchronised machine parts; organisations are structures; and processes are engineered sequences. This is absurd when we increasingly need people to be highly engaged collaborative agents for change and innovation, dynamically linked through rich, diverse interrelationships in pursuit of shared aspirations and goals.

To be a successful entrepreneur it apparently pays to leave the industrial education process early. Many successful entrepreneurs did: before the imprinting process was complete; likely because they didn’t fit that process.

In the academic world, Business Schools have long been criticised for perpetuating outmoded, ineffective organisational behaviours, assumptions and practices. It’s only recently however, most noticeably post 2008 crash, that the more popular literature, The Wall Street Journal for example, has pronounced the “End of Management” and begun to seriously criticise and question the underpinning assumptions and the revered Harvard MBA model of business education has come in for public scrutiny and even some scorn.

Steve Denning, an author whom I stumbled across a couple of years ago and have since  become a big fan of, even participating in the editorial process of his latest book The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management (Oct 2010), puts it well in his draft article on The Death and Reinvention of Management. Here I summarise some of the main points with excerpts from that draft:

What are we to make of a rash of recent books suggesting that management as we know it today is seriously problematic? According to Matthew Stewart, management is “a myth”. Professor Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School tells us that management has “failed”. According to Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal, we are looking at “the end of management”, while CEO Jo Owen has written about “the death of management”.

“[In the USA] ROA is 25% of what it was in 1965; life expectancy of firms in the Fortune 500 is down to 15 years, only one in five workers are passionate about their work. Moreover established firms are not creating new jobs: Friedman, T. “Start-Ups, Not Bailouts” New York Times, April 3, 2010”

“This is why business leaders and writers are increasingly exploring a fundamental rethinking of the basic tenets of management. Among the most important changes proposed are five basic shifts, in terms of the firm’s goal (a shift from inside-out to outside-in), the role of managers (a shift from control to enablement), the mode of coordination (from bureaucracy to dynamic linking),  the values being practiced (a shift from value to values) and communications (a shift from command to conversation).”

“Individually, none of these shifts is new. Each shift has been pursued individually in some organizations for some years. However what we have learned is that when one of these shifts is pursued on its own, without the others, it tends to be unsustainable because it runs into conflicts with the attitudes and practices of traditional management.”

“When the five shifts are undertaken simultaneously, the result is sustainable change that is radically more productive for the organization, more congenial to innovation, and more satisfying both for those doing the work and those for whom the work is done.”

“The challenge for managers today is that in trying to elicit the energies, imagination, and creativity of their workers, they need to communicate predominantly through the language of social norms, against a history in organizations of relationships dominated by hierarchy and to a lesser extent by market pricing.”

“. . . . . management in the 21st Century requires a shift in the mode of communication from command to conversation, with adult-to-adult interactions, human being to human being, using stories, metaphors and open-ended questions. Authentic leadership storytelling has an important role to play, particularly in dealing with social media.”

So, on the one hand we have a dawning realisation that high collaboration is crucial to competitive advantage, but on the other a generally weak experience and scarce knowledge of what it is, could be, and how to get it; and organisational settings that militate against that learning. Ironically, education institutions are among the organisations where this problem is most chronic.

But here’s the thing: Communication educators, researchers and practitioners as a profession are potentially among the best equipped to lead this transformation because they presumably know of what collaboration is, can be, and how to get it. That’s because, by my understanding at least, Communication is about what happens between individuals: the shared meaning that they create.

That’s the key to the transformation. Communication educators, this is your opportunity. Your mission, should you accept it, is to focus on enabling people to experience collaboration through changing the detail of their communication behaviour; changing the way they communicate with each other; the way that they generate shared meaning; the way they produce and implement organisational knowledge.

So that’s the opportunity. That’s the challenge. Now let’s consider the organisational and pedagogical detail of how you might go about that: how you can be and produce organisational Recovery Support Workers in the recovery of organisations, currently so dysfunctional that they are effectively insane, to competitive advantage (see previous blog: "How to Fix a Mental Organisation" ).

I’m not talking about a Communication course or even a Communication programme. I’m talking about the pedagogical foundations of all courses and programmes including Communication programmes. I’m talking course process, not content. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to Communication professionals.

The aim is to radically change the learning context, which is the organisational experience, from individualistic to collaborative. Remember that student’s individualistic and content-based assumptions about achievement and learning will be deeply engrained and largely unconscious. They will find the transformation process deeply disturbing, at least initially. Expect them to project their anxiety, confusion, anger, and blame on to you. This anxiety and confusion is a necessary precursor to the transformation you aim to achieve.

Expect to feel and behave similarly yourself as you learn to collaborate deeply with your colleagues. You aren’t just going to do this to your students. You’re doing it to yourself too. Denning’s five shifts have to occur simultaneously at both levels.

So if you’re highly averse to conflict and have a history of conflict avoidance, maybe don’t try this approach. Whatever, you need a well informed process plan and supporting supervision; you need to collaborate. That will be a learning experience for you too.

Because students (and employees) typically adopt a highly instrumental approach to their work (that’s the way they’ve been trained) you must radically redesign the tasks and measures to specifically reward collaborative behaviour (as mutually assessed by team members). The effect of this is to motivate teams to move beyond the usual fake-team division of tasks.


Because students (and employees) will tend to revert to accustomed child, instead of adult behaviour, wanting to be spoon fed processed information, remove yourself from the direct teaching (management) process and ban trivialised information.


I predict that you will find, as I did, that students (and employees, and you) will be amazed at the quality they (and you) can achieve together and that they become natural collaborators without realising how different they are from conventional graduates. Issues such as racial bigotry, dependence of trivialised information (PowerPoint), passive/aggressive behaviour, withdrawal, boredom, laziness and shallow instrumentality, melt away and behaviour actually changes (real, deep learning). Students achieve real insight.

You will find that when your graduates enter employment their employers credit them with exceptional “intuition”, marvel at how rapidly they become project leaders and how engaged their project teams are. They seem to adapt to and flourish in their workplaces three times faster that A grade honours graduates in their fields: in 6-8 months they are achieving what conventionally taught graduates take two years to achieve. When they enter a new situation they don’t look to the boss for a clear set of instructions. They assume that they’re to figure that out through collaboration.

It’s those radically different fundamental assumptions about communication that make these people so valuable. Yes they need subject specific knowledge, but it’s organisationally useless unless it can be productively, collaboratively shared.

As Noshir Contractor posited in The New Handbook of Organisational Communication (2001), knowledge doesn’t exist in the nodes; it exists in the web. In other words, organisational knowledge exists only between individuals as shared understanding. The most crucial skills are in generating a rich and productive shared understanding in the messy dynamics of interpersonal communication relationships.

That’s your opportunity and your challenge. You can do it.



  1. A commendable piece of writing. I can't wait to start implementing your proposals in my teaching.

  2. I have long asserted that businesses in New Zealand are over-managed and under-led. Consequently, it is time we shifted the emphasis from an outdated concept that attempts to treat widely variable individuals as though they were all identical (bureaucracy) to a system that enables individuals to make maximum use of their talents and abilities. This approach will lead to a far greater contribution to overall wealth and well-being.

    Dictated to Peter MELLALIEU by Alastair EMERSON

  3. Congratulations on a great piece, but I believe you are missing a fundamental part of the equation. Potential employers must also embrace this approach and trust the educators.

    In 2005 at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, we completely redesigned the communications degree, creating a Values Based degree, we believe the first values based communications degree in the world.

    However despite an excellent record in producing first class graduates and one of the highest employment direct from graduation rates in Australia for any degree, the department was soon under immense pressure to focus the degree back on employment skills. As a result, some of the elements of the degree we created have now been lost, though much that was good still remains.

    Students continually hear from employers that they have to be able to write. They are forced through employment practices and approaches to focus on sharpening their practical, mechanical skills. Universities need considerable support from the private sector and potential employers. Staff turnover and the desire to employ staff with extensive practitioner experience results in bringing back the former approaches.

    It all results in this being the classic chicken and egg scenario. Change needs to come through education, but needs to be accepted and reflected in industry.

    Our experience is that once employed, the employers do marvel at how good the graduates are. But first comes the tricky bit of getting the graduates employed and with so much tertiary competition, this becomes a major concern for students in selecting which University they will choose.

    RMIT University was only able to do as it did because of a long history of achievement and close ties to industry. It is much harder to achieve that on a broad scale.

    All the best,
    Geoff Barbaro

  4. II totally agree Geoff. That’s been my experience too, and that of education innovators most everywhere judging by conversations I had over the years.

    The market is intensely conventional on both the supplier and buyer sides and inside the institution too. To successfully develop and market an innovative programme we have to attend to all three aspects, and to manage that process we need to attend simultaneously to all five of Steve Denning’s basic shifts.

    Clearly that will require a collaboration of diverse perspective, knowledge, and personality. The University can’t do that on its own because it contains a limited range of perspective, knowledge and personality.

    Lifting the expectations of the buyer market - the employers - is part of the marketing problem. Their expectations, based on their own education experience, tend unsurprisingly to be limited. One way to lift their expectations is to engage them in the transformation project. That way they become the project’s avid advocates and they bring their strengths to the collaboration.

    Lifting the expectations of the “supplier” market means engaging parents and school teachers as well as children in experiencing transformed education process.

    Shifting the internal institutional market means engaging with colleagues to experience, rather than argue or debate transformed education process.

    This looks and feels like a huge job. It is. It requires radically different management and crucially, opportunity. If, in the wake of the GFC we have that opportunity then we must seize it, together.

    Yes it’s a chicken-and-egg situation, having to do everything at once: learning to collaborate, when we have scant experience of collaborating, to solve a problem that we haven’t encountered before to reach an emergent conclusion.

    But hey, that’s the way little kids learn; the way all new learning happens. Our barrier is the way we manage the process. I reckon we can change that.

  5. That's very good, and I welcome this challenge.

    I've been thinking along parallel lines - but at a much lower level than you.

  6. Good to know you've been thinking in parallel Richard. Parables are a powerful communication tool. I encourage you to widen the conversation.