a conversation with salvatore rasa
CG: How should companies be telling their stories differently today?
SR: It’s more a question of understanding that their stories are being told differently by others, by other groups of people.
And it’s not as much about using new business language, as about understanding, beyond the intellectual meaning, the change that’s meant by language like ‘communities of interest.’ I think the better term here, that isn't used enough, is ‘communities of need.’ Forget the rhetoric of ‘dynamic market space’ etcetera. The reality is we're in a state of emergency, of urgency, where financial institutions and other underpinnings are disintegrating and disappearing. We are all part of this reality, all members of one or more communities of need; sharing in both the opportunities and the stresses.
CG: You're saying that these stories take on lives of their own, by other 'carriers,' outside of companies’ control. What’s important to think about here?
SR: Companies’ stories are being carried around in all kinds of places. The view of the future of Twitter’s CEO is a perfect example of this fact. http://news.zdnet.com/2422-13568_22-256410.html. Many companies would be surprised if they investigated Twitter and saw all the things being said about them.
I worked on recent projects with Isocurve www.isocurve.com, where several clients said they wanted to enter the social networking area for their advertising and brand awareness. We told them they were already in it, and gave them each a set of things said about their company in the prior 24 hours alone.
And look at www.glassdoor.com, a community where people tell candid stories about the places they work; that give potential employees on the outside a free and detailed inside-look at those companies, pros and cons; including actual salaries. So they can make better choices about what business to work for.
But this network is just as useful to potential investors who go there, to help them evaluate if a company is worth investing in. For both groups these workplace stories provide ratings, and concrete ways to measure otherwise intangible or hard-to-gauge value.
CG: How, in this increasingly socially-networked world, does a business get a clear – and more complete -- picture of its issues and opportunities?
SR: Significant measurement tools are out there, proven ones like Organization Network Analysis (ONA) and Value Network Analysis (VNA). They map out actual patterns of information and task-sharing in organizations. There’s also a new one called ORA (Organization Risk Analysis).
There are other ways as well to create, encourage and collaborate. Like Base Camp that allows for shared on-line workspaces. These frameworks cross boundaries and include people in the conversation who were previously left out of it; which is the best way to leverage formal and informal networks.
From where I sit, though, I still don't see enough significant change occurring at major organizations – despite the availability of all these valuable forms of information-gathering and sharing.
Even when compelling evidence, that’s scientifically-supported and visually mapped, reveals a company’s serious misunderstanding about knowledge-sharing and communication, they still resist acting; understanding. Why? Maybe these new methods that push you to ask challenging questions are too difficult for companies to accept, or too threatening for them to confront. I'd be interested to hear your readers’ thoughts on this.
Attitude is also an issue: many companies still have a paternalistic one about social networking, and this is not productive.
CG: You believe formal and informal social networks are not just useful but vital to companies. And not just to their communications, but to their ROI. Why?
SR: One of the most under-realized influences on return on investment (ROI) is self-expression. It’s an under-appreciated influence and an under-leveraged asset.
We tend to think of a business as having a brand identity and guidelines. And while these are good and expected things, they're like buoys in the ocean now: they no longer control the way the social ocean currents move, they just serve as demarcation points.
A corporation has two kinds of self-expression. One is its ‘collective expression,’ which includes people inside its walls with interesting knowledge; who can share ideas on innovation. Tapping directly into this expression is invaluable, versus getting information and insight from outside consultants or market research. The other is individual expression; but large organizational structures tend to inhibit instead of encouraging this.
Many companies pride themselves on hiring creative people who bring rich and different points of view to the table. But when you examine things rigorously, does their human resource process really do this? Or, do they really only single out people who are a fit. What’s the real story?
CG: This ties into your view that there’s ‘dangerous language’ out there.
SR: Among the dangerous terms in business is someone is ‘not a fit.’ Much the way radio host Don Imus was fired from his job. It was immensely hypocritical; an extreme reaction to seemingly prejudicial statements, made by a station that like many news agencies didn't have enough deep diversity to respond or work it out honestly.
The issue here is companies’ inability to react or respond the way any normal person would. Which brings us to another dangerous word, to me the most treacherous one in our society: the word they. Because using it reveals people’s bias.
When you hear ‘they’ under too many circumstances in business and social networks and social conversations then it’s already minimizing someone else. It’s a form of prejudice. In the recent Presidential election, it was employed by radio and t.v. pundits as both a positive and a negative reference. They, for example, was used to refer to ‘voters we were told had no interest in voting previously.’
CG: In other conversations we've had, you talk about the need to allow a story to evolve. Why does this matter, and evolve to where?
SR: Every large organization in the world feels it needs to live in a state of continuous improvement. Yet this process often becomes management-consultantized and misses the deeper dynamic that needs to happen. Real continuous improvement is high risk. But it’s risk with relevance, and high reward. Because you learn to work differently and with different business models that meet, serve and support the changing demands of the [business and social] marketplace.
Sometimes, as you evolve a business model in order to continuously improve it, you have to move away from what you do well. And that’s where the risk and the resistance to change lies.
CG: Therefore, to evolve, a company has to be willing to stop resisting and take these risks? Risks that are somewhat counter-intuitive.
SR: When a company is fixated on one way of thinking and working, or wedded to one belief system, it’s less open and able to innovate.
The automobile industry is a good example. Toyota realized they had to look to other dimensions; they saw building a hybrid as a way of doing something they didn't do well then, but needed to learn to do. It worked for them.
This is all related to your original question. Because a story may not always be true at heart or root. It has to be evaluated for its truth. A company’s collective expression is the best way of evaluating that truth.
At the time, all the American car makers were saying the hybrid was nonsense, that no one was going to buy it, that it was a waste of their time; we'll sell more SUVs. They were locked into one way of thinking. Well, we all know what happened.
Toyota swam upstream against these stories, against these prevailing currents of perceived wisdom, none of which were true. They went ahead and tried something they had never done before; they put their innovation out in the world, and a new story began; then that story began to tell itself.
This is widely known now. And, like other breakthrough stories, it became part of ‘best practices.’ But what’s missing from the discussion is a far more critical change management issue, that lies underneath the surface product innovation issue.
A familiar reference like Toyota’s, that becomes so constant, puts all the emphasis on others, on what others did or are doing. However, this can be detrimental, counterproductive. Why? Because it removes our own accountability: to take action within our own organizations; to provoke real change, seismic change and innovation in the places we work.
CG: What’s fundamental in all this? To achieving a transformation.
SR: All business transformations, small or large, involve a transformation in understanding and language. If you only speak from your place of current expertise, you can't move from where you are…to where you need to be.
Only when you begin to allow your story to have ‘disruptive’ elements; when you challenge accepted behavior and question [institutional] assumptions, will you move into dimensions that enable you to grow -- healthily grow -- your business.
CG: And I would add, grow your business consciousness.
CG: Innovation in your view is not well understood or engaged.
SR: Innovation isn't about an event or a clever premise. Those are just ways of trying to understand it. In business, we understand a subject, but often fail to understand its deeper significance.
What’s needed for true innovation is a cultural catalyst, that affects, enlightens and alters the fundamental ways we think and work – alters them for the better.
Let’s be clear: a real culture of innovation is very different than an organization that prides itself on a small group of innovators. An innovative business culture is highly responsive and proactive across the board, not one that may glimpse innovation and get lucky.
Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, said I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game – it is the game.
CG: Given the nature of the corporate beast, its structure and bureaucracy, is achieving an innovative culture unrealistic?
SR: No, in fact it’s the most natural form in the world of people working together. Everything we do tends to support this premise. Every person working with another person innately understands it. But it’s very hard for it to happen, let alone thrive inside organizations as they exist and operate today.
A deep belief of my mentor Cicely Berry, O.B.E., Voice Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company – who I produced a PBS documentary about www.wherewordsprevail.com – a belief I share profoundly, is that everything we do we do out of a need to survive. ‘Survival’ is a loaded word for most people. But it isn't negative, or desperate. Survival is a natural state of growth and development. It’s the way we're constructed, and motivated.
CG: What’s antithetical to companies’ survival, in the natural – and positive – way you define survival? And can you give us an example?
SR: When companies understand survival, at a root level, as a positive force, it can transform the landscape. It allows good, even great things to happen, and less-than-good things to stop happening. The fact is some companies have a business model or tradition(s) built on a doubtful premise or promise; and this puts them in peril whether they realize it or not.
You don't destroy these models or traditions, that’s not the goal. You change them, evolve them to ensure the right kind of survival and growth.
CG: What one or two startling questions should companies be asking themselves right now?
SR: One question is: what’s one unhealthy tradition in your company that you avoid talking about, or tell the public you've left behind (but haven't). Now is the time to look at it again, in this society; with a clear and honest eye. Because that’s the first step to improving things.
I could make a case that there were troubled traditions that led to the collapse of certain companies, and even entire industries like our banking sector, in part because those traditions excluded human beings or de-valued their well being. Or as Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz talked about in a post-TED 2009 interview, http://www.dailygood.org/more.php?n=3613 …People who work in financial services don't have one shred of concern about the well-being of the people they serve. They're only interested in themselves. And why are they that way? Part of our argument is that when you incentivize everything, you de-moralize it, you take the moral dimensions out of it.
The other question a company should ask itself, on the other side, is: what’s an outstanding tradition you have from your recent or distant past? And, if you contemporized it for today, if you progressed it, what would it look like?
Robert Wood Johnson wrote the first Johnson & Johnson credo in 1943. J&S still lives by that credo today. What people don't know is that during the Great Depression he also wrote he wrote a manifesto to industrialists, brilliantly called ‘Try Reality.’ Basically what he was saying to businesspeople was the world is changing. We’re in a modern industrial age; and how do we find the language for that and the right way to be and the best way to treat our workers safely and ethically?
He wrote in his 1930s ‘reality check’ industry only has the right to succeed where it performs a real economic service and is a true social asset.
Well, what if he was sending that manifesto out today? What would your response as a company be to it? How would it impact your story? And how would others tell your story differently among themselves?
In my view and experience, paramount to everything is the need to include not exclude people from being part of the critical conversations that drive business and society ethically and economically.
Paramount, too, is following and encouraging the natural instinct we have to survive, which is the ultimate pathway to personal and professional growth; and to both business and society’s growth.
In this Information-with-Understanding Age, companies have to shift gears from unnecessary competition to collaboration. Collaboration that involves all the other important conversations going on -- and all the other ‘conversationalists.’
I invite those businesses that have made the paradigm shift to this place to share their stories; to share their experiences and enlightenments with all their communities of interest and need. And I encourage other companies out there to take the opportunities they have in front of and around them to evolve.
CG: Sal, provoking as always -- in ways our thoughts and actions need to be provoked. Thank you.
Colin Goedecke is a senior marketing writer and messaging strategist, with a 23-year history helping leading and emerging companies worldwide platform and tell their stories. Are You Evolving? is the 11th in a series of thought pieces, to help creative groups and their clients communicate more wisely. Others can be found at www.tenowls.blogspot.com
Salvatore Rasa is a provocative social & organizational change enthusiast & specialist, and a senior partner of im21 www.im21stcentury.com His blog is www.worksurvival.blogspot.com.