The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: collaboration

Millennia ago, huge lumps of rock with exotic names such as Gondwana, Vaalbara and Laurasia bumped around and the Himalayas, Alps and Andes popped up, changing the very nature and condition of life on planet Earth.  It took a while but the results are magnificent and you can’t exactly miss them – the results of monumental but subtle tectonic shifts.

Likewise, the societies and environments within which we live, breathe, work and sleep, are undergoing shifts of similar proportion, and although the visibility of these shifts is less clear, the results may well be as massive as the impact of mountain ranges and deep sea valleys of their tectonic forebears.

The convergence of the digital information technology and the continuing dominance of the market , have over the last decade or so provided a vehicle for decentralized organizational capacity, not only at a local level but on a global scale.  This phenomena has encouraged a new global economy: an  informational economy, in which, as Manuel Castells, guru of modern culture, states, “the capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale” becomes a reality.

This economy is reliant upon the capacity of organizations to create, analyse, process, navigate, disseminate, manage and apply information in accordance with the desires and drives of the market.  This is especially true of finance, where information is a critical resource, but increasingly the information economy and the ability to act collaboratively using information is making inroads into manufacturing, design and research.  The value of the potential of information economy processes is the degree of utter synergy which can be brought about through mass use of know-how and the management of that.  Such a fine example is Linux, whereby, simply put, one organization, using a collaborative informational process enabled through ICT, has achieved what no one single conventional company could ever hope to achieve, producing output which conventional human resources, financial and time constraints prevent.

Successful organizations in this economy are those capable of generating, managing and utilising information efficiently; and are flexible enough to respond to rapid changes in the economic environment, increasingly forced by institutional, cultural, societal  and technological change. Collaborative or networked enterprise increasingly play a part in securing organizations’ roles in the economy. Connectivity also contributes to overall performance, along with how well the objectives of its networked and collaborative components are aligned with the goals of the enterprise itself.  At heart, survival in the competitive informational economy demands constant information driven innovation.

Of the environment within which these organizations operate, or the society with whom they interact, several tectonic shifts are taking place, concerning labour, perception, space and time.

These things take time but before you know it ...

Labour is becoming a global resource and, as Castells discriminates, is breaking up into two spheres: generic labour, and informational producers. Labour markets, no longer restricted by powerful unions, have new kinds of workers (women, youth, immigrants), new work environments (offices, high-tech industry) and a new organizational structures (the network or collaborative enterprise). Flexitime and temporary employment have also changed the workplace.

Perception is also being altered as networks, providing increased access to data, and readily available technology allow the convergence of electronic data – text, audio and video – to provide a viruality of perception, a confluence of opinionated, and therefore biased, reality.  Further, technology allows the easy ‘mashup’ and altering of such data, changing narratives.  The result is that ‘reality’ is metamorphosed through network filters and electronic data forms the real data of experience, from mainstream media through to Second Life.

The nature of space and time is also evolving. Where once power resulted from presence at a location, movement or flow is becoming congruent with that power, Society is increasingly structured around flows of information influenced reactions, creating rapid real world reactions out of information derived ideas, opinions and decisions.  A logic and meaning is enveloped within networks.  Time is increasingly speeded up – product life-cycles shortened, news dissemination almost real-time – but also increasingly, perceived sequences and rhythms are being interrupted or shuffled in perception.

Of course networks and collaborative ventures are nothing new but in the 21st century these are beginning to pervade entire social structures, as networks, as well as their participants, take on the status of societal actors  Presence or absence in the network, and the activity of one network toward another, determine social domination, performance, and change.  The complete and utter effectiveness of networks may be questioned, especially given the ability of the human element to be empowered through collaborative or networked activity – the real world still places legitimate constraints – but that it is changing the way that nation states operate is clear.  Information is now a primary currency but is no longer the preserve of and controlled by the state, presenting challenges to the governance and democratic process, as the informed citizen, increasingly either globally networked – of the Net –  or locally entrenched – of the Self,  accesses masses  of time-shifted, altered, biased, framed and constantly flowing data, either over wide spectrums or selectively tunnel-visioned.

Through these complex prisms, “in a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.”  Like it or not, networks are causing tectonic shifts that the San Andreas fault would be proud of.

Within academic and especially scientific research there has been, for centuries, a reductionist drive – the desire to break down complex structures, entities, organisms or theories into their simplest form – to form all-encompassing explanations or unifying theories.  This, in political or social sciences, and equally in management or organisational studies, is hindered by what seems to be an inherent human capability to produce complex structures to manage, lead, empower, enact and organise, amidst what can be seen as equally complex environments.  Top-down hierarchies have remained at the heart of attempt to maintain a reductionist approach to multi-faceted, multi-layered and often multilateral entities. Whilst these environments are often indeed complex, technology has allowed, even encouraged, the management, using complex systems and practices, of more intricate and intertwined top-down structures.  But the networked society and networked organisation is inherently complex, with a multitude of actors, each with a multitude of opinions and means to communicate and enact them.  Whilst, on the one hand, technology has enabled, to a degree, some control over these actors, this technology has also made for an increasingly difficult environment within which to exercise control.  This is especially apparent in the case of warfare, in which command and control has been a mainstay of its organisational capacity.  Modern warfare, far from its industrial hay day, now encapsulates complex environmental factors, not least the communication and information factors, which challenge increasingly complex organisational structures and alliances, such as NATO.

Nick Davies has a Flat Earth obsession too (and opinions on strategic communication)

The information age has provided a clarion call for many who claim that top-down, reductionist approaches to communication, and thereby its, and wider, management, is incapable of dealing with the complexities of the 21st century.  Within political science and international studies, there are many adherents to this call – from a geostrategic viewpoint, expounded by Thomas Friedman in ‘The World is Flat[1]; from a public diplomacy perspective, raised by Nicholas Cull in calling for ‘the reorientation of public diplomacy away from the top-down communication patterns of the Cold War era’[2] and by Daryl Copeland with his ideas of the networked, grass-roots guerrilla diplomacy[3].

Albeit outside strict political science but possibly through a more focussed lens, there are those who claim to have seen the light and, much more importantly, translated its teachings into reality, from a communication technology position, in which Eric Raymond has broached the now widely accepted notion, having translated into wider communication wisdom, of the Cathedral and the Bazaar[4]; to advocates of 21st century economics based around mass innovation, not mass production, or wikinomics – those such as Charles Leadbetter[5], Don Tapscott, Anthony D Williams[6], Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom[7].

In communication terms, loose networks, as practiced by activists from Greenpeace to the Obama presidential campaign, at one end of the spectrum, and utilized to great physical effect by terrorist groups from Al Qaida to Hezbollah, regularly outperform top-down, mechanistic organisations, be they corporate conglomerates or inter-governmental organisations.  That the former tend to place communication at the centre of strategy explains, to a degree, their considerable capabilities.  But it is also their willingness, and ability, to embrace openness, accept risk, encourage member collaboration, eschew hierarchy and allow innovation within an environment in which a ‘bazaar’ mentality is pervasive, which allows them to synergistically punch above their weight.  Their organizational structures, culture, ethos and management are optimized, by design or otherwise, to operate in the information age – an age which Clay Shirky calls a “new information ecosystem” creating “new social strategies” in a world that privileges networks over hierarchies.

Working within the communication sections of large multilateral organisations, like NATO, many would agree that top-down, mechanistic management practices often stymie communication efforts.  Arguably, many would at least prefer a greater degree of autonomy, and a flatter, networked system.  Indeed, knowledge management or ‘network-centric’ practices have, in the last decade, been developed rapidly, seen as a major factor of information management in modern military doctrines as well as in the corporate world.  However, the management practices allowing that information to be utilized continue to present problems – operators may indeed know a lot more but still can’t use that knowledge effectively.  Networks only really become effective when those within them are allowed to use the value-added that being within a network affords them.

In areas driven by information and innovation, this is where the likes of Linux, Goldcorp, World of Warcraft, the Human Genome Project, Lego and increasingly the likes of Nokia, Proctor & Gamble and IBM, and many more, are going – empowering networks, with some remarkable success.  However, the transformation to an organisational, managerial and cultural space previously anathema to capitalist corporate ideals has required considerable leaps of faith.

But people even in the foreign policy world are taking tentative, if small, steps in this direction. One example is Diplopedia – “grass-roots technology in a top-down organization,” according to Eric M. Johnson of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.  Diplopedia, being a wiki, is open to the contributions of all who work in the State Department.[8] This has involved a culture shift from a “need to know culture” to a “need to share culture” evoking Pierre Levy’s idea of “we think, therefore we are”[9] suffused with Leadbeater’s “you are what you share”[10].

It’s a small step but it is indicative of a potential, seismic shift in thought about how we manage and then use information, in the same sense that communications professionals manage and use information.

Admittedly, this approach is not for all.  Strict security, defence, strategic policy, political machinations, negotiations and alliance concensus-building and decision-making may not be suitable for this collaborative, participative, self-organising, collectivist, horizontal networking style of management.  But, it has been remarkably successful in areas which thrive on information, ideas and innovation.  The question is: could it be useful in the management of communication within complex organisations operating in complex environments?

The technology is there but do we have the cerebral capacity, cultural flexibility and management ethos to use it effectively?  This sort of question has been raised before.  In the military context, the development of tank warfare strategy was slow to take shape despite the technology rapidly improving and a similar case can be made for air power.   Both required a culture shift to allow effective use of technology.

It can be argued that the widespread approach to strategic communication and public diplomacy, despite acknowledging the need for a change, is driven through adaptation of existing practices, denying the idea of a paradigm shift.  We are using new information technologies to merely create efficiencies and legitimize traditional tasks.  But, as Bruce Gregory points out “in today’s global information environment, we must do more than adapt – we must transform”[11].

Playing this ...

A senior NATO communications officer put it succinctly by claiming that even the widespread use of social media within NATO is being seen as a new club from the hierarchical golf bag.  However, the point is that the game has changed, and the world is no longer playing golf.  This, he claims, is like playing football with a golf club. Still operating as a hierarchy but in a networked world, he countenances throwing the rule book out and starting again – transforming not merely adapting.

At a higher level, governments and NATO, can be seen struggling with the Comprehensive Approach.  At its core the Comprehensive Approach tends toward the notion of collaboration, the very essence of the fully utilised networked environment, but can be seen to be faltering through the maintenance of hierarchical, top-down organisational culture inherent within its system.

Of course, it can be argued that a military alliance can never really adapt to such levels of self-organising and flat management culture.  The provision of organised violence through war demands a top-down command and control structure.  Indeed so.  But there are three aspects to this argument to be considered.  Firstly, modern warfare is increasingly fought in the information domain, a domain unlike any previous incarnation, rapidly evolving, less reliant upon outright violence and with innumerable actors. Secondly, modern warfare has adapted already to deal with the restrictions placed upon it through strict command and control protocols by encouraging the philosophy of mission command.  And thirdly, the ideals of flat, networked, collaborative structures and practice do not encourage pure self-organising without leadership.  In fact, all the success stories mentioned above have required a core, a guidance function – to all intents, a degree of leadership.

Furthermore, with regard to communications within military organisations, the thrust of this academic exercise, the function has always ‘enjoyed’ unique management practices because of its specialised nature – nowhere is the ‘thousand mile screwdriver’ as well utilised yet, equally, hardly any other functions have immediate management access to the hierarchy.  On most military HQ organigrams, just look for the dotted line between Public Affairs or Media Ops to the Command.  The notions of flat, collaborative, networked management primarily work for information driven activities and nowhere in a headquarters is information more of a direct force multiplier than when used by the communication function, be it information operations or public affairs.  The point here is that, while this new philosophy may have some limited utility within general management practice of military alliances, communications management within such is ripe for such transformation.

Yet, has this been examined seriously?  One could fill two thirds of the Royal Albert Hall with books on corporate management, including public relations or communications management.  The other third could accommodate the vast number of papers on military and foreign policy communications practices, especially propaganda, information operations and psyops.

However, of the latter, the vast majority of academic research, debate, discussion and dialogue connected with this area deal with externalities – i.e. concerned with how to strategically communicate, influence, coerce, persuade others – target audiences, be they citizens or consumers, foreign or domestic, friendly or hostile, population or insurgent – using various practices from TV spots to focus groups to social media and theories from social psychology to behavioural economics.  However, the approach encouraged focuses 180 degrees away, looking at the internalities – i.e how organisations manage communication, organise communicative practice, create a communicative culture in order to facilitate effective strategic communication via the externalities.  Specifically it suggests that the internalities – management, culture, structure, dynamics, ethos – of a highly political multilateral organization within an environment of multi-layered complexity play a massive role in achieving its goals.

As such, this area is indeed multi-disciplinary, existing at the nexus of international relations, security studies, organizational theory and communication management.

... when everyone else is playing this?

This approach is not necessarily focussed on how to persuade Afghan tribesmen to deny succour to Taliban raiders, nor does it examine how to convince the US population that the Afghan strategy is working and worth continuing.  These sorts of questions are wrestled with by many on a daily basis, from the newsrooms of the media to the military staff colleges of NATO nations.  There is no need to add to that cacophony.

However, it does appear that NATO and other militaries and governments, are reticent to seriously examine their own internal issues with regard to these communication needs.  Despite the common rhetoric, the discipline of corporate public relations is remarkably inward-looking, determined to fully understand the cultural web of an organization, in order to enable it to present itself to the world.  Only then can effective transformation, if needed, be enacted. The practice of strategic communication, and the endeavours within its rubric – public diplomacy, information operations and public affairs – have yet to achieve that maturity of discipline and management, and especially culture.  But, despite utilizing networking technologies, there is evidence that such immaturity, remaining shackled to a reductionist, hierarchical command and control framework, continuing to merely adapt existing practices, is negatively affecting the ability to use information and communicate it effectively.

The importance of culture to military communications practitioners applies to the culture of a target audience, with scant, if any, regard to the fact that there is a culture within, the understanding of which is just as important to a dialogical engagement as the protocols, routines, ritual, histories, narratives, codes and mores of  those being engaged.  Unfortunately culture is apparently something we need to know about others, as endless information operations workshops will attest.

Culture shift is always a controversial issue, fraught with philosophical difficulties and guarded against by powerful institutional inertia.  But culture shift is happening out there and some are successfully transforming themselves to deal with it.  This new culture of collaboration, flat management, open-source and interconnectivity will not provide the likes of NATO with the answers to all its communication issues but there are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt…

… Lesson 1: leave your golf clubs at home and start playing football.

And just to put our money where our mouth is (to coin an old English phrase) this is going to developed further via a wiki.  So feel free to have your say/comment/rant at

[1] ‘The World is Flat’ (2005)

[2] ‘Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World’ (2008), p.25

[3] ‘Guerilla Diplomacy’ (2009)

[4] ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ (1999)

[5] ‘We-Think’ (2008)

[6] ‘Wikinomics’ (2007)

[7] ‘The Starfish and the Spider’ (2006)

[8] New York Times 4 August 2008 ‘An Internal Wiki that’s not Classified’

[9] ‘Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace’ (1999)

[10] ‘We-Think’ (2008)