MiBiz January 2009 Knowledge Roundtable

I recently participated in a MiBiz‘s January 2009 Knowledge Roundtable (along with what looks like most of the other members of the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America board). Overall the piece was good, but the demands of concision meant that most of my responses had to be cut down (which I completely understand) but unfortunately they were cut in such a way as to look incomplete (so I look somewhat scattered and inarticulate; or at least MORE scattered and inarticulate than I usually am).

Here’s the piece. Below are my comments in their entirety.

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1. What skills do communications students need to learn to land good jobs? Are schools doing a good enough job of preparing them?

There are a number of skills; paramount among them is writing. Interpersonal communication skills may become more important than writing in the future as technology moves us away from text-based communication toward a more visual culture (some say Flickr is in the process of replacing blogging).

The skill of being able to learn (and it is a skill) is critical as well; often as communicators we are speaking on someone else’s behalf to an audience we must understand well to effectively reach – so the ability to learn on-the-fly about both sides (and the mediums through which you will be communicating) dramatically improves the effectiveness of the communication process. This is especially important given how diverse our world is and how rapidly change happens. Students will also need to know how to think critically, how to problem-solve, and how to be creative (which is also a skill that can be taught).

Students will need to know how to use technology and how to think about using technology, though noting this almost goes without saying because of how tech-saturated youth culture already is (it’s basically second nature to “digital natives”).

Unfortunately I don’t think most schools do as well as they could at formally preparing students with some of these skills (especially the non-traditional ones), however they do informally provide the forums and opportunities for students to acquire and develop them.

This reality is symptomatic of the fact that our entire education system (K-12 included) is somewhat outmoded; it’s designed to respond to the needs of an industrial economy and as a result does not focus on the skills and disciplines that will define the emerging global economy (which will require skills like learning, ideation, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.). As a result of the Internet and the ubiquitous technology available to us, it is a waste of time to have students memorize the exact year the Magna Carta was issued (1215, incidentally; I just looked it up on Wikipedia). Rather, we should be teaching them how to locate that information, and how to think critically about it when they do find it.

Moreover, we’re too exclusivist about how we provide higher education. Our pedagogy too often responds to only a handful of learning styles well because it’s been acceptable if a large percentage of the population avoids or washes out of higher education. But if you look at educational attainment rates over the past 50-60 years, we’ve gone from 10 percent of the population having a bachelor’s degree to nearly 30 percent (a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma). In the knowledge-based global economy, a life-long pursuit of education is imperative to every worker. To remain competitive, the U.S. must have a highly-educated population – and higher education needs to provide more support services and new ways to teach those outside the top ten percent.

Humans learn surprisingly well through a hands-on approach of trial and error, which is why I see video games as one of the most promising avenues for education in the future (but that’s another essay for another time).

2. How can communications practitioners help guide the educators to create the most effective educational programs?

The best way for communications practitioners to help guide educators to create the most effective educational programs is to participate in the process. They can do this by becoming faculty (even part-time) or by involving themselves with the programs at their local higher education institutions (through offering internship and professional development opportunities for students or just through engaging in dialog with the program heads). Additionally, professional organizations frequently have commitments to help build educational programs in higher ed., which is one of the reasons why I’m on the board of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

3. With the maturation of the Internet age and the era of constant access to publics, how is the profession changing? What non-traditional skills will become commonplace in the next decade?

If it were possible, the profession has become even more of a “24/7” job due to the immediacy of the Internet. Transparency has gone from a lofty ideal to a practical imperative because of how difficult it is to conceal anything in an era when everyone has a blog and a web-accessible videophone in their pocket. Communications is more profoundly affected by globalization than other disciplines (but, conversely, has become more valuable to organizations – creating new opportunities).

More significantly, though, there has been a paradigm shift away from anonymous, mass communication and toward very targeted, intimate communication that many communicators haven’t quite grasped yet (which shows up in the clumsy attempts large organizations are making at trying to use social networking platforms).

It is difficult to say with accuracy which non-traditional skills will become commonplace in the next three years, let alone the next decade. Based on what we’ve seen so far from the decline of the traditional mass media and the rise of social networking platforms (like Facebook and MySpace), interpersonal communication skills (relating well to others on a one-to-one basis) will be invaluable. It’s also likely that fields like library sciences will be highly important given how critical it will be to sort and sift through the petabytes of data we’ll all have to wade through on a daily basis.

4. How would young professionals outside of the communication field benefit from more training in or exposure to communication skills?

Given how intrinsic communication is to everything that we do, they would benefit in every conceivable way. It’s virtually impossible to have any job that does not regularly involve some form of communication (even someone in a cubicle who writes code all day would find communications philosophy helpful in making their code more parsimonious and effective).

5. Given the current economic turbulence, how can professional communicators make their value known in the workplace and, more importantly, make the case for the importance of their jobs?

Ironically, communications professionals tend to be very lax at managing their own reputations and their department’s reputations (likely because they’re so focused on managing the reputations of others).

Nothing conveys value like doing quality work and being gracious and responsive to the requests of co-workers and stakeholders (good, old-fashioned customer service) – so one must start there. Related to that, communicators should get out of the office and physically circulate around their organizations (especially if they’re large) and talk to departments about their communication-related needs. In addition to learning about new opportunities (and threats) – you can raise your profile and be of service by “cross-pollinating” and connecting one department to another (I’m continually surprised by how many overlapping interests I find).

Another regular practice for communicators is continually benchmarking against competitors and other organizations similar to one’s own. Being able to demonstrate that a practice, policy or organization structure is utilized by another successful organization can be very compelling.

In addition, communications pros must make sure to “close the loop” on their projects by cataloging and analyzing what worked (and more importantly, what didn’t work) and making available that information and formulating plans to improve the next time around.

Another easy way to demonstrate your value is to repurpose/repackage the work you regularly do as a communications professional and syndicate it throughout your organization when it might be valuable to others outside the profession. So, by way of a really simplistic example, if you’re in PR, you’re regularly scanning the media – so put together a report of articles relevant to the industry your organization is in and publish/circulate it.

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