In Emotional Capital, written in 1997/8 when Kevin Thomson and Ian Buckingham were business rivals at WPP’s MCA and Omnicom’s SDL, Kevin talks about the need to “look back so that we can move forward”. Given the understandable noise about engagement stemming from attritional times, it’s worth doing just that and reflecting on the evolution of the employee engagement phenomenon.
In his book, Kevin gives his interpretation of the evolution of employee engagement & prevailing business communication norms through the ages. These range from pushing volume in the command and control people management structures of the 50s and 60s through to process management, internal marketing, improvement feedback post cascade and “value-add” in the 70s and 80s culminating in the obsession with vision, talent , two-way communication and brand in the 90s/early 2000s. Kevin also heralds the coming age of integrated marketing based on relationship building with multiple stakeholders.
When Ian, who was a partner at SDL at the time but went on to form Interbrand Inside, wrote Brand Engagement back in 2007, having shared most of Kevin’s journey, the explosion in social media had happened but had yet to achieve revolutionary status. Using cross-sector case studies, he explores the steady evolution of the internal communication function, the development of the largely behaviour-based engagement agenda by tracking it back for a decade at least, and the emergence of a multi-community approach to business management. In this world, cascades are inverted, internal marketing is treated with suspicion at best and employee engagement is given as much importance as customer and shareholder relations in the brand/reputation and business development battleground. He also points to the need to form engagement partnerships between Marketing/HR and Comms and the compulsion to focus on community engagement as a necessary route to delivering on promises consistently and sustainably.
In both of their books, they stress the need for leaders to embrace organisational legacy while looking forward; to practice what they preach and give equal weighting to shareholder and customer relations while placing a similar value on the employee and community. As with all their work, they illustrate this with case studies exploring the engagement journey taken by leading global brands.
It’s somewhat encouraging to see the volume of communication about engagement which is growing daily, but worrying that, on the face of it, so many leadership teams appear to be repeating the volume-based patterns of the 50s/60s (albeit using email rather than memo). As a result it’s perhaps not surprising that the global media is dominated by threats of wars between stakeholder groups (industrial action, Twitter campaigns, civil unrest).
Regardless of the economic conditions (this won’t be the last “bust” phase in the economic timeline and the next “boom” is inevitable), it is useful and reassuring sometimes to look back and learn lessons in order to move forward, especially if you care about future proofing your brand from within?
It’s well worth picking up a copy of these two important books. They’re written by two of the key names in the engagement field past and current and are packed full of useful cross-sector learnings, best practices and provocative and inspiring thoughts which are very relevant to the current conditions faced by change agents passionate about brand development from within.
If you have the time, why not have a listen to Ian’s Brand Engagement interview on the iconoclastic Cranky Middle Manager Show where he talks about many of these developments in context including the disastrously mis-connected marketing cascades; Zeppelins over the White Cliffs of Dover; behavioural brand creep, the importance of the middle manager as ceo and the engaging power of the Hero’s Journey as a storytelling tool.