AB Thinks  →  15th May 2017

Having a clue about communication

Of all the books we read while researching From Cascade to Conversation – and there were hundreds – one stands out from the rest.

The Cluetrain Manifesto may not be repeatedly referenced by management consultants and business leaders like the work of Tom Peters, Jim Collins or Peter Drucker. Indeed, you could argue its heyday has been and gone. Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote the book in 1999 when the world was a very different place – before Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter were born and when Google was a just a toddler.

But if you work in communication – especially internal communication – I commend this book to you. Marvel in the fact it is nearly 20 years old and enjoy a bold, egalitarian view of how the internet could have (and still may) change the world.

In essence the authors believed the internet would enable a new and more powerful conversation to take root inside our organisations. “Through the internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed.” This new global communication system would restore the “banter of the bazaar”. It would tear down power structures and senseless bureaucracies and put everyone in touch with everyone.

For internal communicators the message of the book is clear – the ‘corporate voice’ will soon be dead. We need to be – and sound – human. “In just a few more years, the current homogenised ‘voice’ of business – the sound of mission statements and brochures – will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the eighteenth century French court.”

Indeed, they went further believing a more democratic, human and participative style of communication would affect every aspect of our working lives. The internet would result in the end of command-and-control and authority for the sake of it. Knowledge and expertise would triumph over job title and rank. “The internet is inherently seditious. It undermines unthinking respect for centralised authority.”

Critics of the book say the revolution never came. Corporate entities, hierarchies and communication ‘controllers’ are alive and well. Business simply learned to use the internet to its own advantage.

However, I believe the authors accurately foresaw the growing importance of intellectual capital and collaboration – and the cultural environment that’s necessary for both to flourish. “Conversations are where intellectual capital gets generated. But business environments based on command-and-control are usually characterised by intimidation, coercion, and threats of reprisal. In contrast, genuine conversation flourishes only in an atmosphere of free and open exchange.”

They accurately foresaw how external and internal communication would need to move from bland broadcast announcements to genuine conversation. “The best of the people in PR are not PR types at all. They understand that they aren’t censors, they’re the company’s best conversationalists”

The book includes one of my favourite quotes about internal communication: “Although there is no demand for messages, there is a tremendous demand for good conversation.”