by Betteke van Ruler,
Professor emerita, The Netherlands

“New technologies, evolving customer preferences and changing employee expectations are fundamentally challenging established ways of working in more and more sectors. It’s time to move beyond a rigid hierarchy, siloed business units, crippling bureaucracy and an increasingly unwieldy matrix. Agile organizations combine the efficiencies of scale with the speed, flexibility and resilience to compete and win in today’s world”, is the claim of one of the biggest consultancies in the world, McKinsey, on its opening page. Becoming an agile organization allows an organization to better respond and adapt to customer/client/patient/member needs and increase speed of execution, and that is what is needed today, as many management scholars say.

I discovered the agile way of working about six years ago. At that time I criticized the classical RACE planning model (Research, Action plan, Communications, Evaluation) and was looking for a suitable planning method for my idea of communication from an evolutionary perspective. That is how I discovered the concept of scrum, which at that time was up and coming in the field of ICT.

The term agile comes from Greek (the mythological figure Achilleus) and the Latin word agilitas and referred to the ability of a person to change the body efficiently and rapidly. Since the ninetees the concept of agility is also used for organizations. A quick Google search learns that organizational agility is widely discussed now. Supporters of the agile way of working scornfully refer to the traditional planning process as the “waterfall” or the “cascade”, where what needs to be done is devised in detail behind the desk. All actions are almost automatically supposed to be executed like a waterfall, without room or time for reality checks of various functionalities.

In traditional planning methods goals are formulated as the second step in the process and they need to be formulated SMART: Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic, Time-bound. That implies that the effects of communication are assumed to be predictable. To me, this is no more than an illusion. Communication is then seen as a kind of magic bullet. A magic bullet which – if properly orchestrated (usually with a core message) and smartly distributed – may well predict success. That is a completely pre-scientific approach to communication.

Of course, everyone knows it’s not that simple. It just cannot be that “if only you knew what I know, you would have the same picture of things”. Yet, I often see corporate communication and public relations plans promising specific effects, like greater knowledge, specific change in attitudes or behaviours without answering the question whether these claims can be made in advance and how they are to be justified. The erratic nature of ideas, attitudes and behavior of target groups isn’t usually a consideration. That is far from realistic.

The traditional communications plan does not take into account the complexity of most communication issues and its contextual dynamics. Many professionals, therefore, produce a communications plan – as is expected of them – and almost immediately put it aside because it is outdated the moment they have completed it. And many communications professionals rightly refrain from formulating specific objectives, but are then left with little to evaluate afterwards.

That is why I profoundly prefer agile ways of working and early on advocated for it in articles and books. Agility results in a radical change of approach towards planning, including its measurement and evaluation. It urges us to re-arrange our methodology as well as day-to-day working completely. Many scholars are now studying what agility means for our field, as our former President Oyvind Ihlen in Norway, Jens Seiffert in Austria and Lisa Duehring in Germany who is running a large research project. Agility is not the holy grail for everything, but it might be a fast forward for our field to become recognized within modern forms of management.

Lisa Dühring will give a presentation on agility
at the EUPRERA 2019 congress in Zagreb

Further reading:

Van Ruler, Betteke (2014). Reflective Communication Scrum. Recipe for accountability, Eleven international publishing, The Hague, NL.

Van Ruler, Betteke (2015). Agile public relations planning: The reflective communication scrum, Public Relations Review, Vol.41, 187-194.

Van Ruler, Betteke (2018). Communication Theory: An Underrated Pillar on Which Strategic Communication Rests, International Journal of Strategic Communication, Vol. 12, No. 4, 367-381 (open access).

Van Ruler, Betteke (2019). Agile measurement and evaluation. Journal of Communication Management, in press.

Van Ruler, Betteke and Körver, Frank (2019). The Communication Strategy Handbook. Toolkit for a winning strategy. Peter Lang, New York, NY.

Zerfass, Ansgar, Dühring, Lisa, Berger, K. and Brockhaus, J. (2018). “Fast and flexible. Corporate communications in agile organizations” (Communication Insights, Issue 5), Academic Society for Management & Communication, Leipzig, GER, available online at