Every single step in man’s ascent from ape to metrosexual has been driven by the power of communication.
Since a million years ago, when we first learned to wave our arms at each other in a meaningful manner, our evolution has been charted by revolutions in the way we engage.
And right now, we’re on the cusp of another one.
It isn’t the communication that is important, it is the way communication changes our very outlook and behaviour.
Look back in history: 150,000 years ago we learned to speak – and armed with that gift, we took our first step to globalisation and started long-distance trade.
That was followed by drawing and writing, which helped us learn from one another and become better hunters.
Then smoke signals took knowledge transfer to a new dimension – allowing us to speak not just with our close companions, but with the wide world.
Printing, the telegraph, radio, TV – and now the internet – have merely added to the mix, making mass communication easier and more accessible and each heralding a new era of social change and economic growth.
But the revolution taking place right now is possibly the greatest. And it is this: People can talk to whoever they choose, wherever and whenever they choose, on their own terms, with no control or moderation – and there’s absolutely no stopping them.
Is it good news for humanity? You bet.
Some people might turn into trolls. Others pursue perverse pleasures. And some even become terrorists.
But behind this veneer that might be described as abuse, the seething mass of mankind is perpetually engaged in a billion conversations – and most of them are constructive and helping, in different forms, to improve the way the world goes round.
Just as the printing press enabled one person’s ideas to be shared with tens of thousands and unleashed the power of knowledge from the grip of monks and nobles, so the arrival of social media has become the final act in transferring total control of communication to what we traditionally describe as “the audience”.
Which creates a dilemma for Britain’s bosses – and their IC teams – and their counterparts the world over.
For generations they have been able to manipulate the news and views their employees are exposed to – and their ability to speak back. And with the best will in the world, even the most enlightened IC culture is tinged with an essence of propaganda.
It’s a brave IC director who wouldn’t want to be on message and on brand.
But what about lifting the lid and letting all of our people speak to whoever they choose and say whatever they want, just like their parents do at home on Twitter and Facebook?
It is the challenge of the moment. And my message to those currently contemplating it is twofold:
1: You don’t have a choice.
2: The whole concept is brilliant – and if you try to ignore it, your organisation will be left in the Stone Age.
Many companies that my agency works with have been bold enough to countenance – even encourage – free use of social media among their workforces. And, shock horror, none would go back.
Because, they find, the occasional experimentation with negativity quickly becomes marginalised. Real abuse can be regulated by a few brief rules of respect.
And in a very short time the prevailing online behaviour becomes remarkably positive and constructive.
But, much, much more importantly, free speech and the right to network and converse with whom you like, unleashes the power of collaboration.
It changes the way people think and behave at work – it puts them in the driving seat – and it harnesses the ideas, opinions and experiences of thousands of people, rather than just a handful, to deal with the challenges a business faces.
That is, after all, how democracy and the free market economy works.
So my prediction for IC in 2016 is this: It will be the year that free speech, facilitated by internal social media, really gains traction in organisations enlightened enough to see the future.
For those that lift the lid, it will start to become an incredibly powerful force that will provide a massive competitive advantage.
But others will fumble with the concept, stuck in the belief that information and conversation are best left in the hands of the professionals, carefully managed for the common good.
Sadly, they will gradually become the modern day organisational equivalent of the old Soviet Union: A dusty showcase for a long lost culture that didn’t work.