We love labels. We love giving things a name. We love defining stuff. It makes us feel comfortable. It makes us feel that we know where we stand.
That’s right wing. That’s left wing.
That’s posh. That’s rough.
That’s typical of them. Etc. Etc.
We love labelling people even more. When we meet people for the first time we like to find out which school they went to, the jobs they have, where they live, what they drive, and so on to work out what social class people are from so we can label them. It often makes us feel more comfortable we are at the right party – or in worse cases (be honest) it can make us feel superior.
These labels may help us feel comfortable but do they actually help our understanding of the world? Are they relevant? Do they still stand true?
Two labels that are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful are those which group communications within your organisation or outside it. Internal and external communications. I would argue that – like wearing a tie in the workplace – these labels are dying and have passed away in most places. Why do I say that?
To answer that question we have to first ask why the labels existed in the first place. The wonderful San Fransico-born but New England-adopted poet, Robert Frost, once said; “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”
The labels were used when organisations wanted to be clear what stuff could be said, written, shared etc within their organisation; was confidential; for their eyes only; private. And what stuff was for wider consumption; was open; public. Maintaining this simple demarkation was, well, simple. People were told stuff and even if they wanted to it wasn’t easy to share. The way private stuff became public then was down the pub, in the street, or at home when chatting to friends or relatives. The means to share this information with the company across the street was hard enough, let alone the wider world. That has all changed.
Technology – and by that I mean email, the internet and social media – has not only provided us all with the means of sharing information but given us two other incredible things; the knowledge that others do want to to know about stuff we know and the feeling of empowerment to know how it feels to make the decision ourselves to share it. The power over information has shifted from organisations to individuals. Not all company Boards see this as a good thing but it has happened. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
How has that manifested itself? What has happened?
People share stuff now they shouldn’t or wouldn’t have done before. They send emails to colleagues and friends, they tweet about work (pay, conditions, the latest restriction on use of the internet, blocked websites, removal of free tea and coffee in the staff canteen etc), they comment on stuff on Facebook; use comparison sites and forums to talk about their job (not always positively!); share insights about their organisation on LinkdIn; or comment on articles on news websites and others. They now have extraordinary reach. In the past, their reach/their impact, was limited to the people they actually knew. Now they can reach the whole world with one click of a mouse or one press of their iPhone screen.
We share more now because we can. We have seen staff snap photos of backlogs of applications at the Passport Office and post them on social media creating a major news story; emails sent to a small group of people exposing some sexist or otherwise inappropriate comment or behaviour shared with the world and gone viral. There are many, many high profile cases where information – internal communications – is shared with a small group of people and within seconds it has hit the news. This sharing brings with it risks but I would argue the sort of openness which makes communicators lives easier and everyone else’s lives clearer. Say what you mean, how you mean it to everyone. You don’t need to create two versions of every message.
In discussion with any colleagues or clients, I always say, whatever you write, whatever your put in an email, letter or anything involving pen and paper (a increasing metaphor for typing stuff), expect people outside the organisation to see it or expect it on the front page of the Daily Mail. Nothing should be shared within your organisation now without expecting it to be shared outside.
The fence has come down. We now live in an era of openness – whether we all like it or not. We live in a world where people feel they can share whatever is shared with them. We used to hear lots of talk of us building a knowledge economy – we now truly live in a sharing economy where people share stuff thought out of bounds years ago- from personal details of their love life, selfies from their holidays, their views on everything from the Middle East to The Voice, or stuff they have seen at work.
I would suggest we think less about internal and external communications and think instead about communications and be prepared as an old colleague of mine used to say to show the world whatever we are writing. Even if we are not prepared, it will probably happen any way.