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Step up – and unleash the power of communication

Communicating in times of digitalization and social change can be seen as a challenge: No doubt, it is putting corporate communications in a field of tension between its rational, fact-based heritage and the new mindset required to strive in today’s business world. Yet, isn’t digitalization, with a new communication approach that it inspires, at the same time, a big opportunity for communicators to finally step up from a mere support function to a constitutive driver in shaping the future of business?

“Digitalization transforms business – and inspires a new concept of communication.”

While a ‘container’ metaphor, instilling the desire to control information flows, has dominated corporate communication for decades, it is time to challenge the status quo and reflect on the new opportunities. Actually, the request to re-define communication was made long before digitalization even started to happen: It was Peter Drucker in 1974, who pointed out that communication is not the means of conducting business, but the mode. Rather than simply describing the world, communication ‘does things’ – by making people pay attention to certain aspects, by giving guidance and facilitating complex situations, or by opening forums for discussion. Today, the digital age of social media, data analytics and customer-centric business models teaches us that this view is actually becoming a reality for communicators. Engagement in jointly created meanings – rather than a cascade of messages – is necessary to gain shared understanding and collective ownership.

Consequently, expectations of businesses to change corporate communications are high. ‘You have to enforce digital communication to move in the area of digitalization’, said Juergen Maier a few weeks ago at the Siemens Communications Conference, the global gathering of the company’s communicators that also triggered this article.

Why not having a look at three concrete examples how we can unleash the power of communication in the digital age?

(1) Get engaged in new, digital business models

Considering the building blocks of developing a successful digitalization strategy: From building a digital aspiration, to data-driven business models, to new technology platforms and culture change – all require ongoing communication with multiple stakeholders.

“A digital business requires communication to exist and grow.”

Even more, digital leaders leverage specific aspects of communication in their business models: To ‘enhance interactions among customers, suppliers, stakeholders, and employees’, leading companies provide tailored content, increase transparency of information and allow communities to raise their voice. They gain insights from data analytics to improve decision making and performance across business functions. Even more, leaders foster direct communication with customers in areas such as peer-to-peer product innovation.

Do get engaged in this kind of business modelling in 2017 to put digital strategy into action and to make communication part of the core business processes in the digital age!

(2) Let people communicate, start with your CEO

With globally over 2.3 billion active users, social media is the way we communicate today – direct and without intermediation. Engaging in social media has become a business necessity for top executives. While the trend to get more digital seems driven by Silicon Valley CEOs, this raises expectations for all executives to demonstrate thought leadership. Advancing the digital agenda requires from CEOs to communicate the value of digital technologies to the company’s future.

“Customers expect to work with thought leaders who move the industry.”

The system can trickle from the top into the company. Digital fluency of executives will encourage employees to get active on social media, too. Companies like Siemens and Munich Re have started social media ambassador programs to encourage experts to post from their personal accounts. There is a huge lever for companies in tapping the potential of employees posting brand stories by reaching out to hundreds or thousands additional contacts. Even more, there is evidence that content shared by employees reportedly gets eight times more engagement than content shared by brand channels – and is re-shared 25 times more frequent.

We should not forget, though, that turning away from ‘controlled’ communication is based on earned trust and requires sincerity from executives and employees alike. Employees need to be enabled to tell the story in their own compelling ways: bold, specific, locally relevant – and with the company’s backing when things go wrong. The understanding is that plurality and diversity of opinions and expressions in the long run will help manifest change and grow success by balancing interests. As communicators, we need to develop the skills to coach and consult individuals to act as good citizens in their communities.

(3) Owning the digital agenda by creating a digital mindset

Long-term studies show that organizational cultures of digital businesses vary much less than their strategies: Digital mindsets, in general, ‘value experimentation and speed, embrace risk, and create distributed leadership structures.’ Nearly 80% of digital companies have initiatives running to support risk taking, agility and collaboration – while only 23% of traditional businesses focus on these aspects.

“Communicating to drive a culture of agility, collaboration and risk taking.”

The opportunity for communication is to foster a digital mindset: We can facilitate cultural change by enabling employees and customers to find their way through disruption. Design thinking methods are core to our work. Digital channels help us to create transparency, and to keep up the speed of communication. In opening our teams to cross-functional collaboration with strategy, IT and HR lies the potential to increase impact throughout the organization.

Changing the mindset is one of the main forces behind building empathy – the emotional ties between a company and its stakeholders – and, as such, today more important to a successful business than it has ever been. The Global Empathy Index identifies a close correlation between empathy and company growth success – with the top 10 companies increasing in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10. Value creation, ultimately, is in high demand of corporate leaders as one of the building blocks for shaping the future of business.

Why not focusing communication exactly on value creation that has its origin in increased empathy? The value of communication will be in moving people, advancing to digitalize business in an engaging way. Let’s challenge the status quo of communication and make it work in 2017!

The article was also published on LinkedIn: