On the little black book syndrome, personal influence, organizational influence and knowledge management

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A public relators’ personal relationship network has always been considered an essential (when not the most essential) part of her/his professional assets. And this by clients/employers, colleagues/competitors and other relevant stakeholders such as business and other opinion leaders.
This ‘untold truth’ has always embarrassed scholars and educators, as well as practitioners, because its most immediate implication is that the ‘people I know’ (and here I refer to the Al Pacino film many of you will have seen) syndrome bears more relevance in one’s professional career than (any?) other professional competency.

At the same time, the ‘personal influence’ model (sofar studied, as far as I know, only by scholar and excellent friend Sriramesh Krishnamurthy), which obviously finds its base on the personal relationship network, although the least studied and rationalised, is by far the most universally adopted model of professional practice.

Sriramesh, quite correctly, rejects the etnocentric notion that the personal influence model derives from, and is mostly based in Asia (quangshi in China, bandobast in India) or is so highly pervasive in Africa (where the concept of ubuntu, which implies much more than that, is so paradigmatic), as if Europe and America where professional continents in which the perceived contents of a professional’s ‘little black book’ is not considered by most organizations and professionals as the true and possibly principal added value the latter brings to the former.
JP Morgan’s very recent consultancy agreement with Tony Blair explicitely cites this feature

I would like here to explore this apparent ‘disturbance’ to the creation of a generally accepted and realistic body of knowledge, and describe the elements of a possible way ahead.

The embarrassment by scholars and educators is two fold:

On one side, it is always difficult to convince students that if they wish to succeed in their chosen profession they need to nurture (at least perceivably) powerful personal connections;

On the other side, academic peers from more established and rooted disciplines already frown on the scientific nature of the existing public relations body of knowledge and, were one to publicly accept and actually study the principle that personal networking is so important, a likely consequence would be to increase that frown and further question the overall validity of public relations as a profession, rather than only a ‘trade’ learned and developed by going to the right schools, mingling with the right individuals, joining the right clubs, having both direct or indirect access to the right introductions…

But the ‘disturbance’ has also always been embarrassing to practitioners… who are well aware of the relevance of their personal networks but:

a) realizing that their success depends so much on this ability, they are unhappy when, as usually occurs, their other professional skills are undermined or appreciated;
and
b) they are not generally willing to share their personal networks, let alone with employers or clients, for the psychological fear that if and when these networks were to be passed on, they might risk depauperating their own added value and therefore perceived competitive advantage.

Also the ‘little black book’ syndrome is frustrating to professionals because they often rationalize that, when an organization chooses to work with one rather than the other, the reason for this is frequently that the former’s relationship network was perceived to be of a higher quality.

Thus, the personal influence model and the role of personal networks are largely understudied and underestimated in our professional body of knowledge.

Over the last fifteen-twenty years, the application of information and communication technologies has greatly expanded in organizations the practice of ‘knowledge management’:
a business process by which one may assemble and rationalise, on a specific issue, much knowledge existing within an organization (in our case communication managers) or its boundary publics (in our case public relations consultants and agencies) and make it available to members of the organization so that it may transit from being only a personal asset of the individual, to becoming an asset of the organization and therefore adding to its overall value (immaterial, in this case).

One might well argue that an internal professional or, even more so, an external consultant or agency will always want to protect its assets from becoming a permanent asset of the client organization.
This is psychologically understandable. but not based on the simple fact that organizations pay selected individuals in exchange for their professional competencies, and that, if the selection of a specific professional is also (if not only) based on the perceived quality of his/her relationship network, the organization pays for this network and, in principle, has full legitimacy in wishing to add it on to its overall immaterial capital..

More so, there is an accelerating mobility inside organizations, inside and between agencies/consultants. Therefore it is only wise that organizations bear the right to collect, rationalize and consider as part of the value they pay for those relationship networks.

It is evident that these elements should form explicit part of contractual agreements before recruitment or consultancy based assignments.

The question, of course, is ‘how do you go about doing this?’.

The hypothesis I wish to explore is that, by applying appropriately adapted knowledge management criteria, methods and instruments, an organization is capable of absorbing as an organizational asset personal influence and networking relationships of its public relations employees and consultants..

Will this, as some might be inclined to believe, reduce or even eliminate, by a process of disintermediation, the need for consultants or internal public relations professionals?
Of course not.
It will only enhance the real value of their other professional and managerial competencies.

But, one might also add, if any professional competency is detectable, decomposable and transitable from a personal to an organizational asset, will there then come a time in which communication managers or agencies will no longer be necessary for an organization’s public relations activities?
As much as this sounds paradoxical, the answer is, again, a clear no, simply because public relations, unlike advertising (which is capital intensive), is a labour intensive activity and professionals will always be more needed by organizations as their influential publics progressively increase their expectancies.
More so, although itc-mediated virtual relations will certainly increase in relevance, not only will personal relationships (i.e. personal influence) be more important, but one must also consider that even a virtual relationship always needs someone, somewhere behind the computer screen, to interact.

I will stop here for now, very eager to open a discussion on the premise of what could, at least theoretically, become a highly valuable driver to the acceleration of the institutionalization process of the public relations function in any organization: which as you know is the subject of Euprera’s October 2008 congress to be held in Milano, organized by Fepri and IULM University

If you think the premise has valid points and wish for me to proceed, I will do so, explain what knowledge management is about, its paradigms, its processes and then, with your help, will continue and explore its potential operational relationship with public relations.

8 COMMENTS

  1. There are several dimensions that should be considered here – firstly issues surrounding data protection and ownership of the relationship. This is not only relevant in respect of whether the individual PR practitioner or their employee can be said to “own” the network of contacts, but what about the people outside whose information is being shared within the organisation. In most countries there will rightly be legislation in place to protect data and privacy.

    A second concern I have is that this can be seen as part of the “direct marketing” approach to PR which has seen the curse of spamming releases. As our marketing colleagues have already come to realise, having information does not form a relationship.

    When we are talking about personal relationships, it is appropriate to focus on how PR practitioners can enhance their skills in this area.

    Of course, there will be “assets” that have been nutured through employment like a lot of PR knowledge that we all possess. To try to contract this to the organisation seems to me to be a mistake.

    Relationships are much more subtle than this – especially when talking about networks which are socially complex. They are an aspect of PR which we should all learn and nuture – but respect as personal as well as professional aspects of any practitioner in my view.

  2. Interesting article. The subject matter is of interest since my company offers an underlying knowledge management (km) application for client side PR professionals, their subject matter experts, executives and agency side service providers. Interestingly enough, we don’t overtly position it as a KM offering.

    I fully concur with your conclusions as to why KM will not replace the PR professional. I for one continue to seek out PR pros that can take in complex or abstract problems and come up with creative ideas and plans. Creatively and execution is what sets any professional apart, by they in PR, Sales or brand management.

    I am interested in learning more about your views on knowledge management in the context of PR. Over the past five years, we have seen several global brands embrace our PR software because of the speed and reach of communications. Our clients are seeing the inherent value in centralizing their data and business processes into a centralize, knowledge driven application. I would more than happy to join you in the dialogue.

    Andy

  3. Heather,
    I agree with many of your ‘caveats’ and certainly both intellectual property and respect of privacy need to be core indicators for any such process to function. I am not sure about the ‘direct marketing’ syndrome. Could you please elaborate? Relationships are certainly subtle (as many other features which knowledge management applications attempt to capture in their drive to raise the immaterial capital of the organization) but this does not seem to me a sufficient reason to withold a rational analysis.
    Andy,
    thank you for joining us. I am travelling this week, but will come back with more elaboration before end of week end.

  4. part 2 of the post:
    an important disclosure:
    I am happy to acknowledge that much of the following text is inspired, and in some paragraphs entirely taken from a doctoral thesis, still in draft form, written by Antonio Lorenzon based on crm and knowledge management which I have the privilege of tutoring at Milano’s IULM University.

    Clearly this second part of the post does not even begin to give a full response to the issue raised…. as what still needs to be explored has to do with how -on one side- an organization may proceed (?) to adapt its knowledge management system to implement the formulated hypothesis and -on the other side- how and why public relations professionals and consultancies/agencies should (?) endorse and actually incentivate this to happen.
    Which will be the third and final part of this paper.
    tmf

    Knowledge Management is a process by which organizations create and use their knowledge:
    a “fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information” [Davenport/Harris/Kohli 2001],
    and is based both on the development of knowledge assets but also on managing the processes which act upon those assets (which is what we are specifically investigating).

    Badaracco and Hamel [Badaracco/ Hamel 1991] and Edward T. Hall [Hall 1996] distinguish two types of knowledge:
    explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

    – Explicit Knowledge: words and numbers shared in the form of data, scientific formula, specification and manuals;

    – Tacit Knowledge: rooted in an individual’s actions, experiences, ideas, values or emotions, and expressed in two dimensions: technical (know how) and cognitive (ideals, beliefs, values).

    In principle, we could say that in our specific case we are more interested in exploring the tacit knowledge model because personal relationship and influence networks are usually highly ‘personal’ and therefore tacit.
    However, as we will see later, this is not necessarily so in every case, and we should proceed to explore both dimensions of the concept.

    Nonaka and Takeuchi [Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995] indicate a dynamic model to help explain the process of knowledge creation:
    the “knowledge conversion” model where Tacit and Explicit Knowledge interact amongst each other in human beings.

    In this model there are four steps:
    – Socialization (tacit to tacit knowledge),
    – Externalization (tacit to explicit knowledge),
    – Combination (explicit to explicit knowledge),
    – Internalization (explicit to tacit knowledge).

    In our hypothesis, we are clearly referring to tacit knowledge (both technical and cognitive) and we are attempting to turn this into explicit knowledge (therefore we are talking about the externalization step of the conversion process):
    i.e. knowledge usable by others, regardless of how exclusive access may be, within the organization.

    Looking at Nonaka and Takeuchi’s work [Nonaka/Takeuchi 1995] and that of other authors, to better understand the idea of knowledge management, owe may identify four main concepts:

    – Knowledge Acquisition,
    – Knowledge Storing,
    – Knowledge Sharing,
    – Knowledge Using.

    These four processes are the four main pillars upon which all knowledge based applications are built.

    • Knowledge Sharing

    Knowledge Sharing is the process of sharing data and information with the specific purpose of creating a common and diffused knowledge.
    In 1999 Hansen and Nohria [Hansen/Nohria/Tierney 1999] identified two knowledge sharing strategies:
    °the personalization strategy (based on a “people with people” approach)
    and
    °the codification strategy (based on a “people to documents” approach).

    In the first, knowledge remains stored in people, and the role of technology is to create people-finder-tools which help the organization to contact the individuals who created the initial knowledge. Such strategy implies that the information is shared directly between individuals.
    In our specific case, this would mean creating in the organization an intelligent and dynamic database a single individual’s relationships network is stored so that, by digitizing a potential relationship, the list of individuals who entertain that relationship would appear.

    In the codification strategy, knowledge is instead stored in databases and the individuals who actually create the knowledge transfer specific data and information into documents and store them in memory devices.
    This strategy is based on a “people to documents” approach and implies that information is transferred from people to documents so that, when the organization needs to acquire such information, it will use document-finder-tools in order to identify those documents which contain that information, and not necessarily the people who actually created it.
    In our case this strategy would imply that each person’s relationship network is fully captured in as many details as possible so that the new user may make the best use of the stored information without necessarily relying on the original contributor.

    It seems clear that both strategies may be applied in our case, possibly going through a two-phase approach, as long as a net distinction, according to its specific nature, is made on the sensitivity of the acquired information.

    When dealing with sensitive relationship networks and/or when the original owner of that network is and will presumably remain available to the organization for an adequate period of time, the personalization strategy is preferable, because it is evident that many aspects of information related to a personal relationship cannot, and in many cases should not, be captured by sophisticated data bases.

    However the codification strategy may effectively be used:
    a) when the relationship network is not particularly sensitive;
    and/or
    b) when the original owner of that network is no longer going to be available to the organization.

    As already mentioned, the organization must be very clear in its contractual dealings with the original owner of the relationship network, so that at a predefined time an ongoing process is adopted to capture the desired knowledge before it dissolves.

    And this, of course, raises signicant issues both of privacy as well as intellectual property which obviously need further attention.

    • Knowledge Acquisition

    This process is related with an organization’s capability to acquire data, information and knowledge.

    As illustrated by Edward T. Hall [Hall 1996] in his “Beyond the culture”, a knowledge value chain is composed by three main elements:
    – Data: each single informative contact with the reality that surrounds the individuals;
    – Information: the interpretation of the data inside its context of reference;
    – Knowledge: the elaboration of the information following an individual’s personal experience and capability.

    To gain Knowledge it is therefore necessary to gather all the necessary information. And to create all the necessary information, it is necessary to acquire as much data as possible.

    In our specific case this implies that an organization’s database referred to its relationship systems should not only rely on data reported by its public relations professionals or consultants/agencies but on many other available internal and external sources.

    • Knowledge Storing

    This process inevitably requires a qualitative evaluation of the acquired data.
    Depending on the adopted knowledge sharing strategy (Personalization vs. Codification), this process can significantly change when moving from human to digital databases.

    In a scenario, such as the one we are exploring and where tacit knowledge is much more used than explicit knowledge and the majority of processes follow a personalization strategy, the really sensitive knowledge is most frequently stored in the brains of employees, managers and external consultants.

    In some which follow this strategy (e.g. Bain, B.C.G., McKinsey, Hewlett-Packard, etc.) the knowledge is closely connected to the person who developed it and shared mainly through person-with-person contacts.
    Individuals who share knowledge this way focus on dialogue without creating knowledge objects stored in digital databases, and un codified knowledge is transferred during brainstorming sessions and one-with-one conversation by phone, e-mail and so on.

    On the opposite side, in a culture characterized by an intense use of explicit knowledge, shared through a codification strategy (e.g. Andersen-Consulting, Ernst &Young and Dell), the process centres on digital networks and knowledge is carefully codified and stored in databases.

    By using a “people to documents” approach, knowledge is received from the individual who developed it, made independent of that person, and stored in a digital memory device. In this way organizations develop “knowledge objects” that allow others to retrieve codified knowledge without necessarily contacting the person who developed it. [Hansen/Nohria/Tierney 1999]

  5. “There are only a handful people in this business who have the knowledge and relationships that I have and that I could further enrich for the benefit of your company”, one might say during a job interview to paraphrase JPMorgan’s chief executive in appointing Mr Blair. An element not to be undervalued is that of the potential of personal relationship network making. Not only what s/he has to bring into a company but also what s/he might add by working jointly with the company’s already existant “relationship network” assets. One can claim to have networks he doesn’t fully has, so by focusing tout court only on this element could not pay off a company’s effort to find and then invest on the right person for its purposes. The “potential”, i.e. the capability to create new and expand networks is also important.

  6. Hi Toni,

    You’ve hit on a really complex issue! While I find your knowledge management approach interesting, I think it overlooks a very important point: talent. An artist can have a database of every nuance of colour imaginable. That doesn’t mean he’ll be able to paint a Renoir.

    PR professionals are understandably valued for their existing network of relationships, since a core element of their job is establishing and nurturing relationships. But I would argue that it is partly because their existing network testifies to a skill in this crucial area of relating to others. I know experts who probably have even more extensive address books than me, but I would never hire them for a PR job because they are like bulls in a china shop.

    Through my involvement with the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), I have the opportunity to witness many people networking, and I can’t believe how bad at it many of them are. To take the two extremes: Good networkers show up frequently, get involved (i.e. contribute to the community), build relationships with others and try to connect other people to one another. They accumulate good will in their account so that when they need to ask for something people are predisposed to say yes. Bad networkers only show up when they are looking for a job and send out their CV to everyone they’ve ever exchanged cards with. They only engage in the network when they need something. They come across as pushy and agressive. If you had been able to observe these two individuals networking, which one would you hire for a PR job? The choice is pretty clear to me.

  7. here is part 3 of the post. what do you think? useful, worth elaborating?

    The first things that come to mind when exploring the operative feasibility of transforming personal influence into organizational influence by applying knowledge management systems are, beyond the basic issue of its very desirability, caveats related to privacy and to intellectual property.
    Both of these caveats are related to public regulations and to the spirit and the letter of contractual relationships between an organization and its public relators, whether they are employees or consultants.

    It is clear that, in such a context, the dimension of how the personal relationship network is eventually transferred to the organization needs to be well addressed.
    But at the same time, it is also evident that the argument also needs to be reversed: i.e. when an internal or external public relator operates on behalf of an organization he/she also benefits from the personal relationships of other members of the organization, and when and if he/she, for whatever reasons, leaves the organization, their personal relationship system, admitting it is of value (but this is the whole premise of the paper), will have been enhanced.
    So the argument goes both ways.

    Having said this, it is clear that privacy is the first major issue to be addressed.
    What, when and how may a public relator transfer his/her personal relationships to the organization?
    There are different levels of information which do not necessarily breach privacy regulations. Name, professional position, relevant statements /decisions taken on the organization’s specific issues, options for direct and indirect accessibilty, members and roles of staff, and so on… are all part of a common data base that each professional should have no legal trouble in transferring to the organization and for the latter’s benefit.

    A second level has to do with direct access by the organization.
    There is no reason for the professional not to volunteer to introduce his/her relationships to other members of the organization. Also, more personal information (normally covered by privacy regulation, such as preferences, special attention, sexual orientations, special friends, any other info..) which is not publicly available should not be part of whatever form of contractualisation between the parties involved. Yet, we know that in many cases public relators jealously protect their ‘little black books’ and refrain from sharing them with others, even within their same organization, let alone, if they are consultants, their clients.

    A similar approach can be taken for the intellectual property issue.
    Undoubtedly each little black book is different from another and pertains to a professional’s (internal or external does not matter) intellectual property.
    But this, together with many other competencies which he/she brings to the organization, is precisely a value that the organization pays for either through salaries or consultant fees.
    Again, the organization could also claim that it enhances the professional’s value by giving him/her the opportunity of using and capitalizing on the relationship network of his/her client employer which a public relator will certainly not deny being the case.

    A third level has to do with the relationship process (phases, difficulties and outcomes) between the public relator and a stakeholder related to an activity carried out on behalf of the client or the employer.
    In this case there seems to be no reason whatsoever that whatever contractual agreement is in place it include detailed reporting procedures which allow the organization to capitalize on the information collected during the process.

    The next question then is: how can an organization collect and store personal relationship networks of employees or consultants?

    In a first phase, it makes sense to require that each professional member of a public relations department compile a detailed questionnaire requiring elementary and basic information on each personal network of relationships obviously used by that professional to implement his/her professional activities for that specific organization. The same requirement also stands for public relations consultants.

    In addition, the organization could enlarge that process and include members of top management and of other functions assigned to develop stakeholder relationships on behalf of the organization even if they are not part of the public relations function.

    Typically the questionnaire would require the compiler’s name and function, a list of names and accessibilities of their networks their function, their role, their relevance on the basis of specified issues relevant to the organization, number of contacts in the last year, formats of contacts, relevant items discussed and results.

    This data base (with limited and well argued access opportunities) can be extremely valuable to an organization if projected upon a carefully detailed list of organizational stakeholders.

    The result is a frequency and intensity map which may supply the director of public relations and top management an intelligent and convincing status of where the major gaps in stakeholder relationship systems lie.

    The system would need periodic updates, given the growing mobility of both individuals and organizations, and the accelerated dynamics of issues affecting an organization.

    Such a data base would allow the organization to capitalize on its direct and indirect relationship networks, to develop coalitions, and to better and more effectively communicate with their stakeholders through a one-with-one, one-with-few, one with many approach.

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