Competence or confidence: Which is more important to IABC?

The industry alliance should focus on raising the confidence in the value of business communication rather than the competence of its members, this author asserts.

As the International Association of Business Communicators looks toward its annual change of leadership at its upcoming World Conference, it is faced with a stark choice. Is its real purpose to focus on the competence of its members or to raise confidence about the value that business communication provides by shifting its focus towards effective advocacy?

Ideally, these are not incompatible goals, yet IABC’s recently issued “Career Road Map Strategy” focuses completely on member competence while relegating advocacy to the status of an afterthought.

Whether members and practitioners are in need of yet more competency strengthening and validating activities in a crowded, competitive professional development market is not exactly clear. But the interest in IABC’s finally getting its act together in the advocacy department is clear and considerable.

What is ‘advocacy’?

The interest in more effective advocacy was reflected in Ragan Communications’ survey, which, in its being open to everyone, made it more of a referendum on the future of the association than a traditional poll.

The Ragan survey demonstrated a preference for improved advocacy (60 percent of participants identified this as an area needing improvement), while fewer than a majority (44 percent) rated the need for improvement in accreditation, IABC’s signature competency-based program.

There is considerable confusion about what constitutes “advocacy” in the world of business communication. In IABC’s last effort to address this issue, an advocacy task force I was a part of in 2007 became mired in a debate about whether IABC’s advocacy role should focus on promoting the industry (which is what the survey indicates practitioners want) or focus on yet more promotion of IABC.

At the same time, this question continues to plague practitioners: “How do specific investments in communication deliver real business benefits?”

A real industry advocacy effort must give practitioners the data and insight required to answer that question convincingly when asked by their bosses or clients. In giving them the knowledge that such data are available and accessible, a real industry advocacy effort has the potential to significantly raise the confidence of practitioners.

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How could this work? And why should IABC do this?

A powerful first step would be to reposition IABC’s research arm from publishing two or three studies per year to focusing on collecting, reviewing, and inventorying credible communication research from universities, consultancies, and practitioners worldwide. It would then publicize the most relevant findings, provide IABC members access to the data, and perhaps sell the information to free-standing subscribers or associate members as well.

In doing so, IABC would create a real product and service that has tangible value and which no one would be likely to copy.

As an online service unhindered by geographic boundaries, it could also open the elusive pathway to move IABC beyond its perennial total of 16,000 members worldwide to perhaps 10 times that figure, particularly if it creates a new class of subscriber-members who pay lower dues mainly for data access, and then buy IABC-affiliated services for a discounted a la carte rate.

IABC, in turn, would bring a lot to the table: its prospect databases, infrastructure and above all, its membersi-who could be engaged to identify research sources, spread the word, and perhaps to fund the initial research and mobilization effort.

Competence vs. confidence

IABC so far shows no inclination to go down this road. Instead, it seeks to call its revamped competency model “the definition of the profession.”

In its recent update about its overall strategy, IABC introduces the “Career Road Map Strategy” as being the apotheosis of the collective hard work and self-examination of several dozen volunteers and “IABC experts” who claim to have refined and defined the essence of what it is to be “a communication professional.” It also references a consultation process involving members and nonmembers.

But scant data are offered to justify this as a strategy for IABC, or as reasons why accepting such a definition and following the steps in this “Road Map” would produce tangible benefits for practitioners and the organizations for which we work.

Moreover, one can argue that by placing an all-in bet on a competency-based justification for IABC’s existence undermines the profession far more than it supports or credibly defines it. By its intrinsic message that business communicators have a competence problem that only IABC can truly fix, it sends a message to the market that it has a right to be skeptical about the value of our contributions.

In contrast, an advocacy-driven approach based on the circulation and promotion of data that demonstrates the real value and benefits we deliver will be far more positive. Rather than raise skepticism, it will answer it. Rather than question our collective competence, it will raise our collective confidence.

IABC remains the organization that is best placed both to drive this and reap the potentially massive benefits. IABC, for all its cultural and organizational challenges, starts with a global list of potential participants, data collectors and evangelists. It also starts with a strong research tradition, albeit one that has been focused on collecting its own stuff.

Once an effective data-based advocacy model is well in place, IABC would be in a far stronger position to genuinely redefine the profession, its standards and its optimal competencies based on hard data and on proven value. More to the point, it will be better placed to justify member expenditure on dues and conferences.

One of the things about road maps is that they may make it easier to follow one direction. But they actually offer alternatives for those brave enough to see them. Is IABC brave enough to change course?

Mike Klein is a longtime IABC member and former board member for the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia chapters, and the Europe-Middle East region. He is the author of From Lincoln to LinkedIn-the 55 Minute Guide to Social Communication, a co-founder of the CommScrum “Full Contact Business Communication” group on LinkedIn, and is based in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

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