Is corporate communication in self-organized companies still needed?

  • Jennifer Bächtold

When we decided to move forward into self-organization, I often heard, that corporate communication and marketing no longer will be needed. Self-organized companies would work much more transparent and open, are purpose driven and therefore, fulfill real market needs. Cool! I love being transparent and never have been one of these marketers building castles in the air. But will my daily work really be obsolete? I decided to find it out.

Different approaches of self-organization

As a parallel to working at Liip, I was doing my master's degree, I used the question in the title to write my thesis[1] about. But where to start? I decided to go for Laloux' Reinventing Organizations as this was the book mostly talked about at Liip.

With further investigation, I found other approaches like Heyse & Erpenbeck of Malik. Keeping things short, here's an overview of these 4 approaches:

AuthorLaloux[2]Heyse & Erpenbeck[3]Malik[4]
DescriptionEvolutionary TealLearning companiesSystemic- evolutionary variation
CharacteristicsSelf-Management, Wholeness, Evolutionary PurposeBuilding company strategies as self-organized process of learningCompanies know, that they will never have enough information and knowledge about complex systems
Company policySystem of equals where collaboration is not built on consensusParticipatoryClassical hierarchy but the management acts self-organized
Why self-organization?Reduce overhead, more meaningful workplaceFaster adaption to economical-market driven or political changesMaximization of viability

But what does this say regarding corporate communication? First, the approaches have in common that self-organized companies need a transparent and fluent flow of information. The information shall no longer be connected with power, but every employee should have as much information as possible to have the best basis for decisions.

Second, does primarily Laloux' approach go for an evolutionary purpose. Others as well put the purpose to the center but are still much more profit oriented. That being said, corporate communications seems still to be needed. Question solved?

Corporate Communication and complexity

I didn't feel so and went on. From my own experience, there's a change. Even if corporate communication will still be needed, I wasn't able to align traditional concepts like Manfred Bruhn's integrated communication and the needs of self-organized companies. Especially as Bruhn defines the integrated communication as “strategic and operative process of analyzing, planning, organizing, implementing and controlling…” which contradicts the “no controlling” approach. And even if companies like Zappos always had something that seemed like a traditional marketing department, I felt like my question was not yet solved.

With nine qualitative interviews at Liip, I wanted to find out the needs and expectations of Liipers. My interview partners were people which had an implicit or explicit communication role but were not part of the Marketing & Communication Team. Although all these people communicated themselves with their external peers and mostly didn‘t used the support of a corporate communication role, they saw a need for that kind of roles. If self-organized or not, there need to be roles that communicate by example and ensure a continuity in communication. And even if the way of communication is changing in self-organized companies – from completely integrated and one-voice to transparent, authentic and on a more individual basis – guidelines will be needed. But what does this mean?

From Gatekeeper to Enabler

In traditional organizations, there is (or at least should be) a company strategy with clear goals. Deducing the company strategy, corporate communication is creating a communication strategy with goals, milestones, and actions; integrates it in a communication plan and makes decisions where to set focuses.

In contrary, there is nothing like a top-down decided company strategy in self-organized companies. But there is a purpose and a vision. That means much more flexibility and therefore no company-wide long-term goals that lead to a strict communication strategy. This also means regularly upcoming needs (in Holacracy called Tensions) which continue in actions and projects.

Corporate communication must stop protecting brands and start enabling employees

These actions and projects, in turn, generate needs for communication – internally and externally. Here, specific communication know-how will still be needed. But depending on the importance and the impact of a project, it might also be done by people without a dedicated communication role. That means, much more communication coaching and consulting will be needed instead of delegating the actual communication work to a corporate communication role.

On the other hand, similar to traditional organizations, corporate communication also will be needed for the general communication know-how like having an overview regarding trends. Furthermore, corporate communication should create and maintain communication channels that can be easily used. And, last but not least, corporate communication will be needed to explore stories within the company which are not brought up by the roles themselves.

Yes, Corporate Communication is still needed, but…

Corporate Communication must stop aiming to control all communication processes in a company. To create real added value in self-organized companies, corporate communication has to understand communication processes in that specific company. And by understanding, I especially mean the real communication processes, not the ones defined by the communication department in a communication strategy.

Although communication is important in self-organized companies, it's more the transparent and authentic communication; not the one created during a brainstorming with fancy words and complicated descriptions.

Therefore, the answer to my initial question was a yes, but…

Yes, Corporate Communication will still be needed and yes, lots of communication models are still relevant. But no, a central communication department which defines and operates communication processes will be obsolete. It won't work out having the daily business and put the importance of communication on top. Only if the aim for a transparent and authentic communication is in the DNA of the company, there will be transparent and authentic communication.

It's the job of corporate communication to push the company, its employees, and their roles forward. As people and their habits are always changing, also to ensure the aim stays in the DNA and the quality of communication improves.

[1] Bächtold, J. (2016). Kommunikation in selbstorganisierten Unternehmen: Organisation, Rollen, Nutzen und Anforderungen am Beispiel der Liip AG

[2] Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations. A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. Brussels: Nelson Parker.

[3] Heyse, V., & Erpenbeck, J. (1997). Der Sprung über die Kompetenzbarriere. Kommunikation, selbstorganisiertes lernen und Kompetenzentwicklung von und in Unternehmen. Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann Verlag GmbH & Co.

[4] Malik, F. (2009). Systemisches Management, Evolution, Selbstorganisation. Grundprobleme, Funktionsmechanismen und Lösungsansätze für komplexe Systeme (5. Ausg.). Bern: Haupt.

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