Archive for June, 2016

The lesson learned in the UK this week is that great numbers of people feel that globalization left them behind. The digital technology revolution, free trade agreements, easy immigration, and the creation of a global economy benefited only the educated elite, not the middle or working class.

For the UK there are direct concerns for universities. There are 150,00 European students in UK institutions, and millions of pounds flow from Europe supporting research. But there are also lessons here for the U.S. and other countries, as well as for all of global higher education.

For the U.S. and other countries the growing tendency to move toward greater nationalism may slow globalization a bit, but it will not end it.  Interconnections enabled by technology and an already established global economy will continue. So every nation will have to demonstrate that national pride and shared benefits are possible in a global economy.

There is a parallel reality for universities. International fund-raising, partnerships, curricula, and student and faculty migration patterns, are already underway. Maintaining a strong institutional brand identity is not only possible, but it is essential. Just as with nations, differentiation establishes institutional pride and competitive advantage, and is completely compatible with globalization.

Universities must pay attention to these Brexit lessons, but must also stay the course. Educating global leaders, increasing cross-cultural understanding, and focusing resources on world problem-solving are far too important.

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The decision of the people of the UK to exit the European Union seemed to surprise and shock the world. But it becomes more understandable when one takes into account the communication dynamics involved in reclaiming national identities.

Uncertainty on several fronts at the same time often leads to a kind of “circling of the wagons” response in many kinds of situations.  This is true for organizations when competition threatens, for families when overall wellbeing is suffering, for cities in economic decline, and for nations with similar kinds of worries about individual and national security.

Many people in the United States are experiencing a similar return to a “nation first” mentality evidenced by the support Donald Trump has  received in the recent presidential campaign. Extreme political polarization, threats of terrorism, and the decline of the middle class are combining to produce a strong “America first” response.

Joining the European Union for Britain meant a free flow of immigrants  flooding into the country taking jobs at a time when middle class struggles were intensifying. Now the idea of even more immigrants is frightening. And melding into a European identity also meant losing some of that strong sense of pride in being British. The overriding problem in Britain is that current political leaders have failed to demonstrate to the public that they can be a good partner in Europe in order to avoid military conflicts and enhance trade, and still maintain a strong British nationality.

Similar forces have been felt in Russia. Building off of the economic struggles all around him, Putin has been able to create a resurgence of nationalism by tapping into traditional Russian pride, much of which is based on a history of superior literature, music, art, ballet, sports and military strength.

It seems ironic that just at a time when globalization is creating new positive opportunities on every front, the fear of losing important national identities is producing a serious and potentially destructive backlash in many parts of the world.

So the basic strategic communication question for the future is this: Is it possible to go forward with the benefits of globalization and also retain national identity and pride? I think so. But we need to make sure globalization benefits are real for everyone, and that those benefits are communicated effectively.

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I often ask the same question about universities. I have compared them to cities, and their presidents to city managers. Their presidents have an executive team just as do city managers. And each executive has a staff. But true managerial influence pretty much stops there. Beyond the top team, it’s mostly a matter of personal and political influence, and possessing the appropriate communication skills.

It’s popular today to suggest that what we need is a corporate CEO as president, and that government and political experience are not necessary.  Some would even argue that Washington experience is a liability.

But those who think that successful corporate CEO’s can make successful presidents should consider the reality of the total landscape, and exactly what kinds of skills and experiences are actually needed.

Presidents have little reliable control of what happens beyond their immediate team. Through their team they communicate policy directives to long-serving career people who must be relied on to fit these directives into the realities of their daily work… around the country and the world. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t. So presidents must repeat and persist. They must also persuade congress to act. But to do so requires adequately accommodating different levels and amounts of opposition. Otherwise nothing gets done.

Some would therefore argue that governments already have become too much like businesses to function effectively. These people say that big political donors today behave too much like corporate investors and board members, with their own profits more their concern than the public welfare.

My view is that the essential communication skills needed to lead governments from cities to nations are situation specific and strategic in nature. Listening, finesse, savvy, persistence, coalition building, an appreciation for strategic  compromise, and a tolerance for ambiguity, are skills fundamental to the job.

The thought of electing a president with no political or government experience is indeed troubling. Certainly leading governments can and should employ more “business-like” practices. But governments are completely different work environments, and the experience and skills necessary for effectiveness must be suited to those realities.

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The horrible mass killing in Orlando underscores the gridlock we find ourselves in today. Everyone deplores these situations, but the incredible implosion of information and opinions always results in paralyze leadership. The ability to empower an elected leader at moments like this to come up with a plan and move ahead with it has been lost in a paralyzing information overload.

Somehow we have lost the realization that every organization only moves forward when leadership is allowed to begin implementing some possible solutions with the full understanding that every new initiative will have to be modified or replaced based on experience.

Years of communication study has led me to believe that the key to moving organizations of all kinds ahead is in understanding the power of tools such as “organizational process” and “collaborative integration.”  Using process in strategic communication means being able to use actions team of experienced and talented people to find and try possible solutions. “Integration” means that ongoing  task forces or “idea incubators” are used to continue looking for better ideas and to fine-tune current ones.

The same approach certainly can apply to governments. But only if the political system is wise enough to restrict extreme partisanship to primary campaigns and embrace the wisdom of collective problem-solving when events require collective action informed by a bit of pragmatism.

Some progress could also be made on international “terrorism” if the principle of “integration” could be used to bring experts from many countries together to find and act collectively on possible solutions. This too would have to happen outside the influence of political divisions.

I suggested in previous blog posts that many cities around the world have experts experienced in looking for solutions in the neighborhoods where hate and extremism begins. This collective wisdom must be tapped.

Can we in the US be wise enough to take the lead on putting together task forces and action of teams of those with the most experience? Will our current candidates please stop inflaming the situation with polarizing rhetoric and talk more reasonably about what unites us… what “process” and “integration” ideas can bring our country and the world closer together?

And we must not lose sight of the fact that the ongoing globalization of  higher education can play a significant role in addressing these difficult issues… but only if we are willing to build “process” and “integration” principles into how our institutions proceed.

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We are entering an unprecedented stage in a bewildering presidential primary campaign. The shouting is degenerating into violence. It’s obvious that the candidates are the shouters. But does the news media have some additional responsibility at this new stage in the campaign?

After all it’s difficult to deny the insatiable appetite of 24/7 cable news for constant new and dramatic statements to report, and the tendency of well-crafted television reporting to turn demonstrations into emotion-filled drama.

It seems to me that there are only two ways to describe the news media’s responsibility when it comes to escalating violent situations: Either they should only describe what is said, show what is happening at demonstrations, and bear no responsibility; or they should assume the additional responsibility to express disapproval of untrue hate statements, and work hard to minimize dramatic camera work and commentary during violent demonstrations.

Freedom of speech might guarantee the right to shout. But it also guarantees the news media the right to challenge lies aggressively and to communicate only what they know to be true. What we have here now is an interesting tension between what has become “the business of the news” and “the public’s interest and need to know.”

After years of study and professional practice it seems to me that the dynamics of aggressive debates evolve this way:

Outrageous remarks shock and get our attention. But when repeated incessantly people quickly get used to hearing them. So then remarks get even more outrageous to keep attention. Now opponents need to match those statements or risk being ignored. In today’s digital technology world dramatic attacks will “trump” thoughtful policy messages every time, especially when it comes to news coverage the next day! Eventually rage mounts and violence results.

So it seems to me that as outrageous shouting escalates the news media must assume an escalating responsibility to report only the facts, refrain from giving overexposure to outrage, and minimize the use of dramatic language and production techniques.

We might feel that whoever started the attacks is the most responsible for the violence. But another reality of today’s digital media world is that people tend to forget what happened yesterday and their anger grows in intensity with each day’s news.

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