Interview with Dr. Colin Harrison, Director
In the classic Rob Reiner film “The Princess Bride”, Peter Falk (of “Columbo” fame) when reading a book to his sceptical grandson, says “When I was a boy, television was called ‘books’!”, highlighting not only his advanced age, but also a technological shift: the advent of television. “The Princess Bride” was released in 1987, just a few years before the Internet was made open to commercial ventures and exploded onto the scene, forever changing the nature of information and information transmission. Now, I can see myself in Falk’s role, speaking one day to my own grandchildren and saying “When I was a boy, the information superhighway was called… well it wasn’t called anything really, because it just didn’t exist!”
The Internet caused a paradigm shift in the nature of information, and it is causing other paradigm shifts in its wake as generations brought up in the new world that it has engendered move into the workforce.
Here come the millennials!
The so-called “millennials” have grown up in a world where the internet was a fact of life: information at their fingertips, on their tablets and in their smartphones. Their world-view is one in which everyone has a voice, everyone can express themselves, everyone can find out about anything they want instantaneously: a world of information transparency and self-expression. This reality contrasts starkly to the pre-internet age (of which I am one of the last generation) in which information was something possessed by an elite – a “high priesthood” (a term often used ironically now although historically it was literally the case) – and was handed to a privileged few in special circumstances only.
Where once hierarchies reached right through human organisations in terms of power and decision making, as well as in terms of information flow and availability, now the hierarchical restricted information-flow model – the model of secrets and need-to-know in-groups – is being challenged by people who are accustomed to being informed, being involved, and having a voice.
These new attitudes are forcing a reassessment of human resource practices around the world. Successful and competitive companies are no longer those with established business models and old-school hierarchical structures. The dramatic collapse of Kodak is an often-cited example of just how maladapted once-successful business models can become, and the fatal consequences of complacency in the face of accelerating change. The radically rethought structures of organisations such as Google, and of recent startups like Uber and AirBnB demonstrate that new paradigms are not only possible, but can be powerful in an evolving marketplace that demands adaptability and responsiveness to a rapidly changing playing field.
Change management is a term that is heard more and more. Companies are aware that instituting new structures and approaches is essential if they wish to remain competitive, but are also aware of the difficulty that this represents. Generally speaking, people are resistant to change, and change imposed from within traditional hierarchies grows less and less effective as millennial attitudes start to assert themselves in the professional world. Companies seek dedicated change managers, and such people have a range of skills, central to which is their awareness of the growing importance of Human Communication.
Recently I used the term “Human Communication” to the CEO of an Australian company, and he replied, dubious, “As opposed to animal communication?” I have grown accustomed to the term, but its intended contrast is not to animal, but rather to electronic communication (or indeed to the term “communication” used to mean “publicity”…) Human Communication is about direct exchange of ideas between two people using language. This is an ancient skill – our most complex human behaviour – and one which, ironically given the tremendous pace of development of technological communicative tools, is becoming more and more critical as this wave of millennialism sweeps into the corporate world.
Why? (You may ask) The reason is simple: our technological communicative aids allow us to transmit only the bare bones of communication (words, essentially). But having a voice, feeling engaged and included is not about words, it is about affective identification (the expression and application of emotional intelligence or EQ), and affective identification can only be achieved through interpersonal – human – connection. As technology allows us to increasingly avoid the development of human communication skills, so these changing demands on work practices make such skills more important than ever!
The critical factor in long-term company productivity and success is employee engagement, which is built on trust and shared vision. Trust is neither created nor maintained via email; vision cannot be robustly shared via the monthly autocratic staff meeting. Millennials demand personal engagement, which depends upon human communication skills, both top-down and bottom-up: it is not just upper management who need these skills, it is everybody.
But surely (one might object) we’re taught this stuff at school! In fact no, we are not. Not at all. The only language skills we are systematically taught are reading and writing. But the core of our communicative ability is in speech, and that, we are never taught: we learn it on our own (we “acquire” it in fact, to use the linguistic distinction), before we get anywhere near school.
As we essentially work out how to speak on our own, we all have our very own model of how it works. The irony of human communication is that the model of language that most of us have extracted in our formative years from observation is sadly quite inaccurate to the demonstrable reality of human communication as established by linguistic research. The apparently innocent notion for instance that words contain meaning (named “The Injection Myth” by Hugh MacKay and the “Container Metaphor” by linguists) is sadly not true at all, and is responsible for much of the communication failure that plagues almost all human organisations.
The changes that the corporate and governmental sectors must now respond to in order to remain competitive and effective have at their core human communication skills. Such skills can only be taught by those who have been trained to avoid the prevailing but inaccurate models of language that cause communication breakdown the world over. Lucid8 Language Skills offers you the fruits of such training, honed by 20 years of international experience.
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