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The future of school communications: 7 things I learned last week

Last week saw another edition of the European Communication Summit, with 600 communicators representing Europe’s financial, corporate and political spheres coming together in Brussels to reflect upon ‘The state of the art in communications and leadership.’

The opportunity to join such a distinguished and engaging group of people each year is both personally humbling and professionally provoking; reminding me that there is a world of ideas, stories and experience out there, well beyond the relative bubble of life in school.

With the event now past, a number of thoughts continue to linger and I’m left wondering to what extent they are helping us to decode the future of international school marketing and communications.

So here’s what I learned and what it subsequently (in no particular order) led me to think. 

1. We will never understand communications unless we understand how the brain works. 

 For centuries, philosophers have been wondering how it is possible that meaning is conveyed between the speaker of a message and those who are its recipients.  Put simply, how do I know, when I speak about a ‘tree’, that those around me will decipher the notion of a ‘tree’ from what would otherwise be meaningless, white noise.  Neuroscience, says Professor Gerhard Roth from the University of Bremen, Germany, is beginning to help us understand how the brain makes meaning, but it also throws the complexity of communication into sharp relief. 

Key question: Have we ever considered the meaning that is being made out there by our relentless production of web pages, print publications, flyers, and newsletters?  I’m guessing that, if we stopped to consider how much of it is simply interpreted as ‘white noise’, we’d be shocked into utter silence.

2. Augmented reality is a revolution that has already begun.  

According to Wikipedia, augmented reality is ‘a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.’  It is best understood, however, when you see it in action.  Here’s an example, shared by Sean MacNiven, Head of Communications Innovation at SAP, of a nearly-possible future:

Key question: As we think about how day-to-day marketing tasks such as the school tour for prospective families, how will this technology begin to shape and enhance the stories we are telling about our school?  Could we imagine a day when walking into a classroom is enhanced with layers of explanation about precisely what learning looks like in this space.

3. Collaborative networks are founded upon the principles of swarm intelligence. 

According to Dr Volker Witee, who specializes in the organization of complex behavior, when birds migrate, they only each have a vague sense of where they are going.  Together, however, they can pinpoint their destination with remarkable accuracy.  This really is the wisdom of crowds in action.  Looking across to collaborative networks, he explains, the same principle applies: knowledge is held by the self-organization and in a decentralized, rather than hierarchical, manner.  Moreover, consensus is the result of swarm intelligence, not its starting point. 

Key question: As international schools provide learning experiences to students from all corners of the globe, how do we understand the relationship between this ‘crowd’ of learners and the knowledge, skills and dispositions that we know they need to discover?  Is there a way of learning that places more value upon the group than the individual?  And if so, how on earth would we begin to communicate this vision of learning to parents arriving on our doorstep?

4. Communications never changed anything.

Dr Leandro Herrero, founder of the Chalfont Project and specialist in organizational structure, talks about ‘7 inconvenient truths about change’.  They hardly need explanation:

·         Communication is not change

·         It is not change unless it is behavioral change

·         Social change is pull not push

·         Social change is viral, or it isn’t change

·         There is an act in activism (Clicktivism is not activism)

·         Employee engagement is not employee bombardment

·         Social movement leadership is backstage leadership

Key question: We might have communications in our job description, but many of us are also focused on a number of change management issues that will determine the future of the learning communities we are connected to.  Do we understand that information bombardment is a cul-de-sac for change?  How long will we continue to believe that ‘clicks’ count for anything?

5. We may be communicators but can we even speak our own name?  Sitting listening to Marie Terese Letorney, founder of Ask Your Voice™, I am struck by two simple observations.  First, many of us spend far more time developing our written or visual communication skills than working on the art of public speech.  Second, we should not underestimate the extent to which the reputation of our organizations is linked to who we are and how we introduce ourselves.

Key question: Have we ever considered the importance of tone, pace, resonance and intonation when thinking about how we introduce the name of our school to people?  If not, it may be that prospective families are making false assumptions about our organization just by the sound of our voice.

6. 84% of communicators feel misunderstood.  The European Communication Monitor is currently the largest survey amongst communication professionals across 42 countries and the 2012 results perhaps only confirm what we already know: many people, particularly those in leadership positions, still don’t understand what it is that we actually do.  And this is across the board, not just in schools.

Key question: Are we yet clear on the role, function, and value of school communication, or even how and where we fit into the organizational chart of our institution?  It may be just a personal view, but in speaking to colleagues around the world I continue to believe that many outstanding communicators are struggling with a lack of articulation about the relationship between their role and that of other key storytellers in the organization: the Board Chair, the Director, and the Admissions Officer.  If this isn’t worked out, then we’ll always be part of the 84%.

7. Visual communication is a modern art rooted in our past.  Dr Herbert Heitmann, President of the European Association of Communication Directors and Executive Vice-President of External Communications for Royal Dutch Shell, believes that the future trajectory of our art may be leading us back toward the traditional art of visual communications; where art is a form of storytelling, based on various visual tools and techniques.  Today, Heitmann explains, there is the technology out there, such as the 3M Hotspot, that will analyze your visual communication and highlight those elements that are known to attract the eye.

Key question:  When we pull together our next ad campaigns, will be bother to think about what the reader will see, as opposed to what we want to communicate?   Just for fun, I tried out the technology on one of our more recent adverts (above).

 

And that, in a nutshell, is it: seven reasons why these events are worth their weight in gold, seven ideas that might just shape the future landscape of what some of us call work.