Participatory communication: From broadcasting to co-creation

If you accept that traditional command-and-control styles of leadership are increasingly inadequate in facing up to requirements for change, that it is crucial to tap into as-yet-unrealized potential in the organization itself, then you will also accept that traditional forms of top-down communication are no longer adequate in supporting such change.

We often say that the difference between communication and information lies in the participation. Communication is a two-way process. Yet, much of what we in the profession pass off as communication is very much one-way. Even if “man with PowerPoint” is prepared to take questions and comments from the audience, that usually means questions of clarification about the message, not a questioning of, for example, the entire premise upon which the communication is built.

Alternatives to top-down messaging

In the early 1980s, at a couple of conferences on organization transformation, participants concluded that the coffee breaks were the most interesting part. So how do you turn an entire conference into a coffee break-like situation where people discuss what is really of interest to them, in the groups they find useful?

The organizer was inspired to set up the third conference in California with just a one-paragraph invitation, rather than spending a year negotiating keynotes, poster sessions, breakouts, plenaries and what have you. More than 100 people showed up and self-organized a 3-day agenda of conference sessions in an hour and a half; each session with a title, and hosted and scheduled by someone in the group.

Turning the communication process on its head: Goodbye to broadcasting

An Open Space event

An example of an Open Space event, a participatory communication model

Turning the communication process on its head—moving from broadcast to co-creation—makes it possible to move any organization toward more effective listening and more relevant action.

If you think about how we measure communication, it is ideally about impact and behavior change (not just who has ever even heard of your widget/candidate/policy proposal). This model shows up the fundamentally one-way nature of the process: We communicators (or our masters) have notions about how they—the audience—should think and feel after being communicated at, and then we check to see if they do.

But what if the most effective form of communication and engagement required not just that the audience got to listen to or perhaps even discuss the pre-packaged content of the communicator, but rather that the entire process was about exploring what is there, where we want to go and how to get there, in a conversational process? What if the only ethically defensible and operationally relevant form of communication is a bunch of people having a conversation and then doing something about what they find?

This is where World Café, Open Space and other participatory models on the theme truly shine. These techniques offer a view that goes beyond a method, no matter how skillfully used, to the recognition of conversation as a core meaning-making process.

The natural cross-pollination of relationships, ideas and meaning as people move from one conversation to others enables us to learn, explore possibilities and co-create together.

From this perspective, conversations are action—the very heartbeat and lifeblood of social systems like organizations, communities and cultures. There is no longer a need for leaders to communicate at followers to try to bring them along; everyone is already involved from the outset.

Conversational leadership takes root when leaders see their organizations as dynamic webs of conversation and consider conversation as a core process for effecting positive systemic change. This does not mean that power is completely relinquished by leaders or that self-management kicks in (even if both, of course, are possibilities if so desired).

Learn from the European Commission’s example

In my session, you will not only learn about how the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, is breaking down silos and connecting better to staff and stakeholders and making it possible for those directly concerned to provide input into resolution of their issues, but you will also be able to take part in a World Café yourself and experience the power of conversation to release creativity and generate engagement.

Please note that the session will start on time and no participants will be let in late, so please arrive promptly.

Author Ian Andersen is external communications adviser to the European Commission’s interpretation department.

Join Ian Andersen for his session “Participation creates leadership and engagement” at the IABC World Conference to learn more about creating truly participatory communication in your organization. Register now.