Communication Is The Key To M&As

Do we have problems of communication? 
There’s something I don’t know and you can’t explain it to me 
Let’s talk the secret language of birds    — The Secret Language of Birds, Jethro Tull

AS COMPANIES conduct cross-border courtships and inter-marry, the one glue needed to hold all the pieces together seems to be missing. Language and communication skills seem to be the one major casualty of the technical education pursued by most managers and coveted by most employers. However successful an organisation, the lack of proper language skills can derail the most audacious merger or turn the most breath-taking innovation into an ordinary process shift. 

That’s probably why Astra-Zeneca, Boeing and Citigroup have all hired well-known poet David Whyte to figure out how to conduct conversations within their organisations. A poet seems to be a strange choice for a corporate coach! The official website of Whyte – who is an associate fellow at Templeton College and Said Business School at University of Oxford – claims that he “.is one of the few poets to take his perspectives on creativity into the field of organisational development, where he works with many American and international companies.In organisational settings, using poetry and thoughtful commentary, he illustrates how we can foster qualities of courage and engagement; qualities needed if we are to respond to today’s call for increased creativity and adaptability in the workplace.” 

Even though judgements about the quality of Whyte’s poetry are best left to individual taste, corporates nevertheless see huge value in hiring him. Apart from the three names mentioned above, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Shell Oil, WPP Group, Merck, Lucent and Motorola are some of his regular clients. In a recent interview to Harvard Business Review (“A Larger Language for Business”, May 2007), poet Whyte is quoted as having said: “A real conversation.can tackle great universal questions, or it can be about your work group’s puzzling lack of respect for you or why a division of your company is refusing to go in a previously agreed-upon direction. At the executive and managerial levels, work is almost always conversation in one form or another, and yet we spend almost no time apprenticing ourselves to the disciplines necessary for holding real exchanges. That’s partly because they involve a great deal of selfknowledge and a willingness to study how human beings try to belong – skills we hope our strategic abilities will help us get by without.”
But why poetry? Says Whyte in the same interview: “Poetry is a way of getting at the phenomenology of conversation – that is, what happens along the way when you’re trying to have a real meeting with something other than yourself: a meeting with your customers, with your colleagues, or with a new field of endeavour.Good poets throughout history have looked at almost every stage of the process of creative confrontation.”

Many mergers in corporate history have come asunder because the partners, after exchanging their vows, did not know how to tackle “the process of creative confrontation”. Morgan Stanley chief, Philip Purcell’s dreams of building a financial supermarket after merging with Dean Witter came crashing down and forced him to leave. The Morgan Stanley board, which was initially backing Purcell to the hilt, finally showed him the door after the bank was convulsed by a series of high-profile exits. Take another example: Compaq buying out Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the world’s second largest mainframe/ mini-computer manufacturer at that time. This was clearly a marriage of unequals. DEC was a large and bureaucratic organisation while Compaq was exactly the opposite. In addition, the smaller company had acquired the larger company, leading to inevitable complications. In the end, indigestion from the DEC purchase pulled down Compaq as well. 

These, and many more such painful mergers, could have been turned around with proper communication. But even if we were to ignore mergers for a moment, the ability to use language has immense benefits for any company. For example, any organisation wanting to change its way of working has only one way of making sure that the message goes down the layers effectively: talk, talk and then some more talk! And, to ensure that the wires don’t get crossed and that employees get the right cues, language plays an important role. Many organisations have, therefore, started looking at creative writing workshops to help staff members acquire the correct language.

Interestingly, IIM (Ahmedabad) conducts a leadership course called “Leadership Vision, Meaning and Reality” with the help of classics, which is very popular. In fact, most B-schools do provide some stress on communication skills as part of their curriculum. But quite often it turns out to be limited in scope – either how to make powerpoint presentations or how to use words without meaning anything.

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