What would Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th Century inventor who ushered in the mass print revolution, think of the digital communication age we find ourselves in? For more than 500 years, print ruled communication, including our employee publications. But since the early 1990s, internal communication has been transforming from a “one-to-many” communication model to a “many-to-many” communication model. This change mirrors the larger transformation of organizations themselves from command-and-control structures to influence-and-include platforms.
The company newsletter was the centerpiece of one-to-many communication. The carefully crafted print pieces we produced had weight and carried a sense of authority with them. Their words could not easily be undone. And after an arduous approval process, the articles we wrote emerged as the official company word. Most newsletters adopted a tone modeled after the writing style of a newspaper, but objectivity was a pretense. We knew who bought the ink. There was little opportunity for meaningful feedback, save for a few letters to the editor. And while many editors fought valiantly to bring meaning and context to their readers, print also turned out to be a perfect fit for a command-and-control management style that aimed to tell employees what to think.
As intranets and then enterprise wide social media platforms emerged, organizations had an unprecedented opportunity to facilitate meaningful conversations with and between their employees. Peer-to-peer, many-to-many communications became possible on a grand scale for the first time. A far-sighted intranet developer at Eli Lilly told me in 1993 “If Eli Lilly only knew what Eli Lilly knew.” With great passion he told me how ELVIS (the Eli Lilly Virtual Information System) would untap a vast reservoir of employee knowledge.
For Eli Lilly and many organizations, digital technologies are allowing knowledge to flow and collaboration to grow. Intranet platforms such as Igloo are facilitating peer-to-peer conversations and engaging employee audiences. But for many others, it’s a different story. The communication model that is preferred by far too many organizational leaders is still largely a one-to-many, command-and-control system. Organizational leaders pat themselves on the back for deploying the latest technology but take steps via the CIO to ensure extended capabilities such as SharePoint My Sites, Yammer and Salesforce Chatter are not deployed. The fear of what bad things might happen with communication channels open to the employee masses outweighs their dreams of what could happen if information is allowed to flow freely.
As the son of a weekly newspaper editor, I grew up in a print world. I had a front row seat to the transition from hot type to offset printing to digital. Like many, I began as a newspaper editor and then made a transition to internal communications. Over the next 20 years, I was fortunate be a part of the digital revolution. I helped launch first-ever intranets for two different corporations, and led the charge to bring an enterprise social network to another. It has been an exciting and often challenging time to be in internal communications.
So here we are 566 years after Gutenberg brought us mass printing but it is now clear that his contribution is much larger than a new communication channel. Gutenberg brought communication out of the hands of a select few and gave that power instead to the masses. Ironically, it is the move from print to digital that is once again bringing communication to the masses. Our employees are thirsting. Surely Gutenberg would advise us to allow the information to flow — in inexhaustible digital streams.
10 Ways to Know You’re an Old Newsletter Editor (a humorous nostalgic look back)
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