The big three of 21st century communications

The 20th century elites were surprised by President Trump's use of Twitter and the rise of #metoo and they'll be surprised at the next thing.

There are three 21st century trends radically disrupting communications. But many institutions respond by simply adding 21st century features to their 20th century approaches. This is like bolting a rear wing and racing tires onto a Model T and expecting it to be competitive in Formula 1.

Chief comms officers know this. In the Brunswick Group’s 2015 global survey of CCOs, 84% reported they would structure their departments very differently if they could start with a blank sheet of paper today.

Of course, 20th century institutions were built on 20th century industrial models with top down management, directive communication, and information control. They were birthed in the broadcast era when institutions were trusted, communication was pyramidal and vertical, and information was scarce.

But we now live in a world of information overload, trust decay, truth decay, social fragmentation and outrage, and individual empowerment.

The 20th century elites running our 21st century institutions were surprised by President Trump’s use of Twitter and by the rapid rise of the #metoo movement and they’ll be surprised at the next thing too, because their model doesn’t fit the new world. We need a wholly new communications structure for a wholly new era.

Here are three 21st century trends dramatically changing communications:

The Connected Age. One day soon, all humans will have internet access. And on that day we’ll enter a new phase of human history as important as the Bronze, Iron, or Industrial Ages.

Communication from the few to the few is conversation and dialogue. From the few to the many is authoritative publishing, broadcasting, propaganda or fiat. And communication from the many to the few is protest.

But what is communication from the many to the many? Or from the all to the all? We’re about to find out.

One could be optimistic and utopian, but knowledge of human nature suggests that the connected age may feel more like yelling in a crowded room, with social friction and rapid social change. It may even feel like a massively multiplayer online game such as World of Warcraft.

How will institutions navigate this new connected age?

Beyond peak text. Humanity is returning to its heritage of verbal and image based communication. For millennia humans communicated verbally and in pictures until the rise of the written word.

But now text is being displaced. Youtube and memes are just two examples that prove verbal and visual communications are making a comeback. This is not surprising. Humans process visual information much quicker than text, and research shows that posts with images produce engagement levels dramatically higher than text-only posts.

Machine communication will also eclipse text communication. Machines will increasingly talk to each other (and to us often by voice). Their communication will eventually dwarf our own.

Cisco estimates that by 2022 there will be 15 billion connected devices communicating 25 exabytes of data per month. This is a very big trend to watch as we move farther into voice enabled AI and personal digital assistants.

The problem is, most institutions are text first/text forward. Our research finds that CCOs are adjusting by bolting on digital media and content creation capabilities. But what would they build without the burden of legacy structures. Digital native, digital only publications, the video gaming industry and mobile phone app developers may offer clues.

The Limits of Attention. We create information faster than we can absorb, contextualize, evaluate and use it. We are limited by our hunter-gatherer attention level. IDC estimates that there will be 4.4 zettabytes of digital data by 2020. This is an astonishing 44 trillion GB.

The information pyramid builds from data, to information, to knowledge and finally wisdom. And humans generally transfer this information in stories. Humans are storytellers. There will be an acute need for people who can identify patterns and explain their meaning in stories; that is the essence of communication. This is why opinion research, data science and communications are a critical talent cluster in the 21st century.

Racing the telegraph or building it? In 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry finalized diplomatic relations with Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate, opening Japan to the West. At the conclusion of negotiations, Perry provided Japanese dignitaries with gifts, including the Victorian internet – the telegraph.

Japanese elites waited hours to see telegraph operators work and many would race the telegraph, sprinting along the wires in an attempt to outpace the news.

With the notable exceptions of military flag corps and African "talking drums," communications and travel had always been the same thing, until the telegraph. Because of this, these Japanese dignitaries had a mental model equating the two. That model worked until it didn’t.

We are all now just like those dignitaries and bystanders, struggling to fit a new world in to old models. Are we racing the telegraph, or building it?

Robert Moran is a partner at the Brunswick Group and the global head of Brunswick Insight.

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