June 21, 2018

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Ants are Bigger than Elephants

Johnston's Observation

In Joni Johnston's excellent article, 'Put Your Money Where Their Mouth Is', she points out that most internal communication programs are not much listened to.This is odd given that employees are crying out for more communication. The problem lies in the type of communication, people want regular face-to-face communication from people they trust, not occasional PR blasts from HQ.

How Companies Solve Problems

The sharp observer will notice that I've already made a mistake in stating the problem. I've said people want "regular face-to-face communication." How often is "regular"? Once a month? Once a week? Daily? The answer is "none of the above", they want communication on an "as appropriate" basis. That may mean several face-to-face talks in one day followed by nothing for a quarter. As soon as you try to solve the problem by offering communication on a regular instead of on an "as appropriate" basis you have failed.

Of course, the other half of the communication equation is content, people want appropriate content and what is appropriate is different for every individual.

When companies have a problem, whether it be communication or something else, their response is to mass produce something on a regular basis. Companies respond this way, even when it doesn't work very well, simply because that is what companies are designed to do. The corporate communication department can't very well run around and have face-to- face meetings with every individual as appropriate.

Ants and Elephants

Corporations like elephants; something big, highly visible and relatively easy to manage. However, what corporations need is something more akin to ants; small, apparently disorganized, hard to see and almost impossible to manage. The world of ants is the world of tens of thousands of loosely coordinated initiatives, all as appropriate to a particular time and place.

In communication this means getting each manager to provide the appropriate communication at the appropriate time to the appropriate individuals. How do you achieve that? Well, you could send on all managers on a regular mass produced training program-oops, see what I mean when I say corporations only have one response?

What to Do?

The path to appropriate communication is not a linear one. A host of different practices, beliefs and initiatives are required to get there. Having the right vision, the vision of ants over elephants, is a good place to start.

The ants versus elephants image is not strictly metaphoric. Both species exist on the earth trying to do the same thing, eke out a living and reproduce. In this game, ants have been vastly more successful, as measured by biomass, than elephants. The more corporations can learn to harness ant-like behavior, the more successful they will be.

-David Creelman