Cultivating a Culture of Open Communication: If Social Media Represent the First Big Communication Idea of This Century, the Larger Goal of Creating and Leading Open Communication Cultures Is Certainly the Next Big Idea

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Social media represent the first big communication idea of the 21st century. Yet as internal communication tools, they have not had easy sledding, with senior leaders nervously contemplating what it means to give voice to everyone in the organization.

The strategy of the social media evangelists has largely been focused on piecemeal advocacy and the creation of discrete initiatives. But social media's relatively modest success with senior leaders suggests that the strategy has been a bit of putting the cart before the horse.

Our profession has long advocated for more open communication cultures. Practitioners have seen social media as a virtual "communication crowbar" in furthering that openness. However, the existing degree of openness in any organization's culture is really what determines the acceptance of new tools like these. The more attuned the leadership's instincts are to openness, the more likely those leaders are to tolerate the expression of contrary opinion and diverse viewpoints, the twin hallmarks of social media activity.

Many of our colleagues argue that we should simply become "facilitators of a conversation" among the members of our audiences, and that leadership communication is passe at best and irrelevant at worst. Such arguments ignore the fact that organizational leaders are major influencers of the cultures they lead. The longstanding traditions of hierarchy and autocracy, which remain very much with us, are also powerful forces in opposition to openness. Still, some observers argue persuasively that there is no choice--that the variety and impact of social media in the world at large will inevitably force both their acceptance and greater openness in the corporate world.

Some of the most ardent social media advocates have been perceived as radicals fighting for freedom of expression and greater institutional democracy. But one can also argue that they have aimed too low, that their ambitions were not radical enough. That as they tried to sell every social media program in a sort of quasi-subversive campaign of attrition, they have been seeking the wrong endgame. Rather than seeking the approval of tactical solutions, the better strategy would have been to lobby for more open communication cultures in the first place and to support that goal with all of their resources and imagination. If social media represent the first big communication idea of this century, the larger goal of creating and leading open communication cultures (OCCs) is certainly the next big idea.

There are forces at work that make such cultures increasingly important and urgent. The virtual lack of organizational boundaries, which allows information to move seemingly at will, is one such force. The equally urgent need for collaboration and employee engagement to enhance innovation and competitiveness is another. And ever-changing technology is the wild card that forces greater openness irrespective of the desire for control.

A vision of openness

What does openness look like in practice? Here is a detailed definition inspired and endorsed by an informal group of Fortune 200 senior communication executives who meet periodically under the sponsorship of ROI Communication, a change communication consultancy:

"An open communication culture is one in which information flows freely and is easily accessible to both insiders and in the public at large. Consistent with the culture and values of the organization, its leadership enables, advocates and provides open access to information in which employees, customers, shareholders and the general public have a legitimate interest. Proactive communication initiatives and dialogue with and among the various stakeholders are the primary means for achieving open communication objectives. Among the obvious exceptions to the rule are proprietary, regulated financial and competitive information or confidential employee, customer or client information. …