With the rise of new digital media platforms and social networks, people are absorbing information at a greater velocity and from a wider set of channels than ever before; they are also using that information in new ways. Anyone with an Internet connection or cell phone can share their ideas, influence public opinion, or even spark a movement for change. Yet while technology and the Internet have evolved rapidly over the last decade, our understanding of what it means to be a leader in this new, networked society has not kept pace.
Leadership has become distributed and collaborative. The new reality is that leaders don’t lead alone. We are all part of a much broader problem-solving network, with many high-performing organizations and individuals—public and private—working on different parts of the same problem or even the same part of the same problem. The most influential members of the collaborative are increasingly harnessing new technology to share ideas, get real-time feedback, and build knowledge for the field. Leaders are no longer just steering their own ship; they are helping a network solve problems with the best and most current thinking available. Collaboration is the new competition and the more valuable your contributions are, the greater your influence will be.
Living Cities, a 20-year-old consortium of foundations and financial institutions, has long understood that multidisciplinary problems demand multidisciplinary solutions and that collaboration is key to innovation at any scale. But only recently did we realize the true value of communications in accelerating innovation, adaptation, and, ultimately, change. We have started to radically rethink how we communicate about our work, and the ways that communications can help us lead and drive social change. Here are three recommendations for other organizations interested in undergoing the same process.
Mine all stages of the “knowledge life cycle”
There has long been a bias in philanthropy and social change circles that the only knowledge worth reporting comes after organizations complete their work—when they can share a best practice or success story as a finished product. While that is still important, leaders in today’s problem-solving network can benefit from information shared during all stages of development—from an early-stage hunch or idea to an emerging approach that requires more testing. Have you ever gone to a conference and noticed how people tend to congregate out in the hallways, talking long after the panel presentations begin? Why is that? Because leaders today are more eager to hear what their peers are grappling with in real-time than what panelists convey in formal exchanges on topics established months in advance. Leaders want to apply the latest thinking from people they respect to their own work. At Living Cities, we are working to perfect this “rapid knowledge prototyping” by sharing our tacit and implicit knowledge.
Engage continuously, don’t transact
Many organizations, including Living Cities, have often approached communications from a transactional point of view—that is, they periodically push out expert information or conclusions through press releases or scheduled events. Today, leaders should base communication strategy on constant engagement—two-way information sharing with people and organizations in their problem-solving network. Digital media in particular allows organizations to share what they are doing and learning as their work progresses, and to receive real-time feedback from new and sometimes unlikely sources that can enhance their work. We recently shared a blog post about a framework we are developing to understand new ways of increasing the use of loans in cities; now, feedback from our network is helping us refine and improve this model.
Let go, decentralize
Late, laborious, and ineffective communication efforts have always frustrated me. While a centralized communications department is sufficient when you need to promote your organization (think transactional), it cannot support rapid and ongoing knowledge transfer. By delegating all communications functions to a single department, we make it harder for the people who know the information best to share it. At Living Cities, we are distributing communication responsibilities across the organization and making it a fundamental part of everyone’s job to both think about the emerging knowledge in their own work and the best ways to engage with their network. Another impetus to make this shift came after we created an internal portal to encourage staff to share ideas, ask questions, report out after meetings, and update others on their work. We realized that everyone was already producing a great deal of incredibly valuable content, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. By decentralizing our communication efforts, we are creating a culture in which all staff are continually thinking of their role in this broader way, and mining their work for new ideas and insights to share.
Mine, engage, and let go. These three tactics can help adapt yesterday’s communications function to today’s hyperconnected world, where knowledge is king and collaborative leadership the new normal. Our adoption of this new approach to communication is still in its infant stage, but it has already fundamentally changed the way Living Cities thinks and operates.
Coming soon: an SSIR webinar on rethinking your organization's communications.