The following is a Global Trend Watch Report from the IABC Trend Watch Committee.
All professions change over time. Evolution is the antidote to extinction. How can communication professionals avoid “jobsolescence” — remaining relevant and valuable to their organizations long into the future?
To understand how communication professionals must adapt to embrace future challenges, we must first explore how organizations are set to change. There can be little doubt, the institutions of tomorrow — both public and private — are unlikely to resemble the organizations we see today.
When the coronavirus pandemic erupted, companies had to adjust. Business-as-usual approaches to serving customers, working with suppliers and collaborating with colleagues would have failed.
But even before the pandemic, the pace of corporate change had been profound. Peter Diamandis, author of The Future Is Faster Than You Think, writes: “In the next ten years, we’re going to reinvent every industry on this planet.” We are witnessing this today. “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate,” writes Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable.
Organizations will need to become ingenious to survive what comes next. As communication professionals, our value will depend on an ability to adapt and innovate at speed. Cross-functional collaboration will be key. Like all knowledge workers, we will need to rethink how we capture, scale and use knowledge so that, as David Weinberger writes, “the smartest person in the room is the room”.
Below are five core competencies that will help comms professionals seize the future wherever they sit today on the IABC Career Roadmap. Focusing on these areas will help you remain relevant and valuable in an ever-changing world.
1. Become T-shaped
2. Learning how to learn fast
3. From a Business Masters to business mastery
4. Creativity and tactical empathy
5. Moral reasoning
1. Become T-shaped
Once occupations had so much durability they spanned multiple generations and served as the basis of our surnames. Many are obvious, such as Cooper and Taylor. A few are more esoteric, such as Frobisher (a polisher of armor) and Kellogg (a pork butcher). But according to research by the Foundation For Young Australians, today’s young people may have upwards of 17 jobs across five different careers during their lifetime.
The ability to reinvent ourselves over time will require more than deep expertise in one area. We will also need to be broad, adaptive thinkers. This is often expressed as being ‘T-shaped’. While not new, the concept has been revisited and refined in recent years.
The vertical stroke of the ‘T’ symbolizes depth in a specific field: quantitative research or coding, for example. The horizontal stroke of the ‘T’ represents breadth — the person’s ability to collaborate and innovate across disciplines. What makes T-shaped individuals so effective is their ability to be empathetic, think laterally, and create solutions that build on others’ ideas and knowledge.
Heather McGowen, author of The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work predicts the “end of occupation identity”. Rather than the basis of our identity being a role or qualification – having a degree, a certain job title or company affiliation – our identity will be rooted in our purpose, passion and a desire to solve problems and create value.
What does this mean for you?
In the future, your work will require more than job-specific know-how. To build a future-proof set of competencies, you would be wise to develop solid cognitive, analytical, and technical skills in your chosen field, plus an expansive, multidisciplinary mindset.
2. Learn How to Learn Fast
Cultivating a growth mindset will be vital. This concept, developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, describes the belief that our talents are not innate and fixed, but can be developed over time. Indeed, we need to become lifelong learners or what McKinsey calls “intentional learners”. Ideally, this becomes an “almost unconscious, reflexive form of behavior”. Intentional learners are experiencing the same daily moments as everyone else. However, they see every experience, conversation or deliverable as a chance to develop and grow.
Podcaster Tim Ferriss is a modern master of accelerated learning. He has developed a structural and attitudinal approach to acquiring new skills quickly that is rooted in learning the foundational principles of your subject first. Unlike tactics, fundamental principles, frameworks and theories have the advantage of being endlessly relevant and adaptable over time.
Great thinkers have been developing communication models since 300 BC, so as comms professionals, we have plenty to choose from! Understanding the three basic communication models — linear, interactive and transactional, is good starting point. Prarthna Thakcore, Engagement Lead at the agency STRAAD, told me she applies Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion — logos (logic), ethos (credibility) and pathos (emotion) — to communication roles and challenges throughout her career.
What does this mean for you?
Early in my career, a CEO advised me to “learn Latin” if I wanted to progress in my career. This was not a literal instruction. Latin is the root of at least five European languages. My CEO was extolling the virtues of having foundational knowledge of my subject.
This aligns with the first competency of IABC’s Proficiency Metric — Strategy. This includes knowing the “fundamentals of communication planning and basic project management” and the “principles of strategic communication planning, processes and techniques for outcome-focused communication.”
3. From a Business Masters to Business Mastery
If your role as a comms professional is to help your organization achieve its goals, you need business acumen — a solid understanding of how your business operates. In my masterclasses, I encourage comms professionals to understand the seven dimensions of their organizations: sector, history, culture, proposition, ambition, environment and performance.
Future comms professionals will need to do more than read MBA case studies; we need the ability to turn this insight into action. “Intrapreneurs” are described as professionals who think like entrepreneurs but work inside corporations. They are always on the lookout for ways to create new opportunities and value.
As the gig economy grows, we will see a decisive shift from traditional, full-time employment to freelancing, working part-time and independent contracting. As a result, more communication professionals will be working for themselves and, as a result, will have an acute, personal appreciation of cashflow, profitability and the vagaries of the marketplace.
What does this mean for you?
“You need to think and act like you’re running a start-up: your career,” writes Reid Hoffman in The Start-Up of You. His advice is to “start a personal blog and begin developing a public reputation and public portfolio of work that’s not tied to your employer”.
Over time, successful organizations will become less hierarchical and more networked, collaborative, and agile. Seek out opportunities to acquire, test and develop business knowledge in a real-world setting. Volunteering for an association like IABC is a great place to start.
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4. Creativity and Tactical Empathy
Our work has always demanded creativity and storytelling. It is impossible to inform, inspire and influence without it. Lose the invention, and our work is obvious, pedestrian and ultimately, unseen.
In the future, the world will become noisier, our audiences more demanding, and societal challenges more pressing. Therefore, our creativity will become even more indispensable. If we are tuned in to the business strategies and the trends in our market landscape, we will offer fresh, conceptual solutions borne from insight and intelligence.
Fortunately, we have learned more about how and why people behave as they do in the last 50 years than in the previous 5,000. William Leach, a leading expert in the behavioral sciences, told me: “We are living in the golden age of behavioral understanding. When you integrate the robust and underutilized science behind consumer behavior with the art and design of marketing, you can emotionally connect with consumers like never before.”
The ability to connect with our audiences on a deeper, more profound level is described as ‘tactical empathy’ by Chris Voss, one of the world’s most renowned hostage negotiators. In a recent podcast with me, he discussed the power of someone saying to you, “that’s right”. This simple phrase means someone feels they have been understood completely. Chris explained: “That’s right puts you on the path to trust-based influence — the most powerful and durable form of influence.”
In the future, communication professionals will be valued for their ability to develop a profound understanding of the needs, preferences and mindset of their target audiences. They will be prized for their ability to be creative by connecting two previously unconnected ideas or by seeing patterns in behavior others do not.
What does this mean for you?
Communication professionals are often natural empaths. We are people-people. The future will demand a rational, strategic, and data-driven approach to these so-called “soft” skills. IABC’s Proficiency Metric includes an Analysis competency — the ability to “conduct valid and reliable research and measurement” and “determine the impact of communication interventions.”
Along with the ability to conduct formal research and gather insight, practice tactical empathy. This does not mean feeling the pain of others, liking, or agreeing with them. Instead, make your organization’s stakeholders feel known, heard and understood.
5. Moral Reasoning
Deciding the rights and wrongs of corporate behavior cannot be left to our colleagues in audit, risk or compliance. No single department can own this responsibility. Today, comms professionals play their part by helping to build the right culture. In the future, we will be grappling with an array of ever more complex and consequential ethical dilemmas.
Advances in technology alone are enough to set moral compasses spinning. Ethical challenges are most pronounced at the intersection between humans and technology. Businesses can become smarter, more agile, responsive and personal. But the impact of technology on individuals and society also raises thorny issues of privacy, surveillance, transparency, and freedom of expression.
Human sensing technology, for example, enables organizations to collect the next level of data on employee performance but raises legitimate privacy concerns. Automation will continue to change the nature of work, raising fears about job sustainability and a digital underclass. Tech giants will need to ensure they do not undermine the democratic processes or bring about what has been called the “death of truth.”
The IABC Code of Ethics acknowledges the power we have as professional communicators to influence people and events. In addition, the Ethics section of IABC’s Proficiency Metric acknowledges how comms professionals “serve as the organization's conscience, keeping abreast of the communication profession's standards and practices to appraise and advocate for ethical communication by the organization effectively”.
As comms professionals, we often have a privileged position at the heart of businesses. Many of us are primed to see when values are being compromised. Our ability to understand current and emerging ethical issues will become increasingly important. We will need to help our organizations facilitate respectful and productive dialogue internally and with the world at large, and to see and hear beyond its own “echo chamber” or filter bubble.
What does this mean for you?
To play our part effectively, we need to pre-empt ethical and moral issues, contribute to making the right decisions, shape and communicate the appropriate policies, and build a trusted dialogue across our stakeholder community. A good primer is Organizational Ethics: A Practical Approach. The fifth edition, published in 2021, examines ethics at an individual, group and organizational level. It includes self-assessments and over 25 case studies.
A Final Word on Professionalism
The final piece of the puzzle is the nature of professionalism itself. There are already many differences between amateur and professional communicators. Professionals see failure as an opportunity to learn, whereas amateurs see it as an opportunity to blame. Amateurs have goals; professionals have processes. Amateurs feel threatened by a contrary viewpoint. Professionals welcome the debate.
The key difference between amateurs and professionals, says this Farnham Street blog, boils down to fear and reality. Amateurs believe the world should work a certain way. Professionals realize they must work with the world as they find it. “Amateurs are scared – scared to be vulnerable and honest with themselves. Professionals feel like they are capable of handling almost anything”.
The comms professional of the future will not work from a mindset of fear but instead, will seek and seize opportunities to drive human connection and to tackle the challenges that will define our age.
Where Do I Start?
Use the IABC Career AssessmentSM to evaluate where you are today on your professional development journey. The self-assessment tool is based on the Global Standard for the Communication Profession and the career milestones as defined within the IABC Career Roadmap. It will help you position yourself today and identify what resources, development opportunities and events will help take your learning and career to the next level.
Katie Macaulay, member of the IABC Trend Watch Committee and the IABC International Executive Board, is a leading voice in internal communication. She is the author of “From Cascade to Conversation – Unlocking the Collective Wisdom of Your Workforce,” host of The Internal Comms Podcast and managing director of the comms agency, AB.