Business communication is an interdisciplinary task

Business Communications Planning: A Prime Example of Interdisciplinarity

Planning – so what? Planning seems to be a pretty simple thing. If we know, where we are and if we know where to go, planning paves the way from here to our destination. Planning defines the steps we have to take to reach our goal. It’s as simple as that. So what’s the catch?

By Thomas Becker
(Professor for Media and Communication | Program Leader for International Business Management at Hochschule Fresenius, Düsseldorf)

Planning is one of the core methods we apply when managing a business. We have to be as sure as possible about the things to come. If we have to decide now upon the allocation of resources, if we have to decide now, how much money we spend for what kind of things today we have to be sure about the consequences. Because what we pay today should payoff tomorrow. We need planning for that.

And we do plan in businesses. Just think of operational sales forecasts, cost planning systems, staffing, cash flow planning, the entire management by objectives processes. We know this and we know how hard it is sometimes to get the right numbers and to get the numbers right as well. But to speak very frankly: This kind of planning is quite simple. This planning is trivial.

Business planning is trivial. Communication planning is complex.

Why? Because we know our numbers (that is fixed costs and variable costs, average revenue per customer, contribution margins, market growth and market share and all this stuff) and what we are basically doing is updating or adjusting the well known numbers for the next period. That’s it. So what make this kind of planning trivial? What does it mean if we call something trivial?

In trivial systems we have a quite clear input-output relation, like in a machine. We give some input. The machine is doing something (is running a set of defined processes) and if there is no problem we get the expected output. The same in business planning: It looks like a causal action-reaction frame: If we cut costs, we drive profit. If we invest in customer acquisition, we push revenue. If we freeze communication budgets, we heat up the quick wins.

This works wonderful on the level of accounting when the elements of the system are monetary values and the number of possible connection between these elements are limited. But this does not work when people are involved. Why? And now we’re at the heart of our topic. This does not work because biological systems and especially psychological systems and even more social systems are highly complex.

In communication we’re dealing with complex systems. A machine is a trivial system even if it’s a super computer processing a super sophisticated routine. But it’s still trivial because we know all the relevant aspects and how they are connected because we tell it the computer. We program the routines, the iterations, the algorithms. The same in the regular business planning process. We know our costs, we know the competive situation, we have a good clue in estimating the value we deliver to the customer. We connect these numbers and voilá we have a plan for the next period.

Communication should have an impact

When we now look at communication planning we see a completely different picture. Communication planning is the attempt to use messages that create attention to influence others for a desired effect. Let’s take this as a starting point.

Communication planning aims for influencing people and other social units (groups, networks, organizations etc.). We want to have an impact on these social units. This impact shall trigger something.
We want to cause a result, a change in cognition, a change in affects, a change in behavior. To get this running we are using messages that we encode with media like languages, images, cultural stereotypes and symbols.

We take these encoded messages and give it to the people we want to influence. To do this, we use channels – push and pull, digital and analog, direct and indirect, using the reach of mass media or the targeting accuracy of platform services. Then our audience have to notice these encoded and distributed messages. Attention comes first in a world where attention is one of the scarcest resources at all. After noticing our prospects have to decode the message and to understand it (that is aligning it to their own individual experiences and knowledge and creating meaning). And then finally they shall accept our message in the sense that we want a change an affects, behavior, or cognition.

It’s not a trivial system in the way that if we only increase communication budget we increase results in parallel and in an expected dimension. Communication planning is a complex system. Let’s see why. If we start with this process chain from encoding to effect, we can group the challenges into four:

  • Encoding and decoding of the messages
  • Channel mix (output) and the level of attention that it creates
  • Understanding (outcomes)
  • Effects (business results)

When we start with encoding and decoding messages, we first need to talk briefly about communication itself. Communication is a process by which living beings trigger and control coordinated (interrelated) behavior among individuals (that means closed systems).

The process itself, if we follow Niklas Luhmann in this matter, has three steps: generate information, provide messages, understanding. And these process steps work under the condition of oberservation of the environment and expectations due to the interpretation of the situation.

Humans are more powerful than animals because they communicate better

Humans are more powerful than all animal beings known to us because they communicate better. And better communication means that humans can better coordinate their behavior than all the other species. This is the result of media that are facilitators, amplifiers and accelerators of communication.

The important media developed by humanity are languages (mother tongue, mathematics, notation systems), distribution media (writing, pictures, recording etc.) and success media (money, power, love, etc.). An essential insight that goes along with this view is

  • that we cannot transmit meanings,
  • that we cannot exchange informations
  • that we cannot even share knowledge

The only thing we can do is to provide messages. Those who take note of these messages process them according to their own individual rules. What does this mean? If we start planning a communication campaign we have to carefully think about the message itself. This is not business administration, this is semiotics, graphical or motion design, cultural studies, media science, journalism, communication studies.

We have to understand the context in which we operate (culture).

We have to understand how we pick up fashions, topics, trends.

We have to understand how we transform supposedly boring messages into attractive statements. And how we do this without overburdening or underchallenging our audience.

Let’s have an example for this. Think about delivering the following message: Factory farming is bad. Become a vegetarian, now! All of us know that the industrial production of meat is neither ethical correct nor likeable. But as well we know that the majority still loves bratwurst, chicken wings and burgers. So how to communicate our issue? And this is where communication design matters: How can we translate our important but unattractive message into a shareable attractive message? This is the way the PETA organization did it in a campaign a couple of years ago…

Get in touch with the right people

The next thing in planning is how we get in touch with the potential customers. There are big differences regarding the overall approach: If we push our messages and display it to people that are not looking and not waiting for it or if we try to match those people that are already searching for products or answers that we can provide. In practice the first is done by media agencies who support their decision making on socio-demographic and psychografic data. The latter is carried out by specialists in search engine advertising and search engine optimization both based on web site analytics and user statistics.

In both areas – push as well as pull – mistakes can not only lead to results below the possible best case scenario. In the worst case the results can fail to appear at all if mistakes are made in the analytical work.
These analyses are based on concepts such as target groups. Statistics regarding geographic, socio-demographic and psychographic aspects provide us with a supposedly clear picture of the people we want to reach. But it’s not as simple as that.

Let us imagine the following target group: Male, 70 years and older, married with children, living in the UK, rich with a couple of million dollars free cash, loving winter sports in the Alps. Pretty clear, right? Let’s take a look at only two representatives of this target group. One is Prince Charles, member of the royal family. The other is Ozzy Osbourne, front man of the heavy rock band Black Sabbath.

If we focus on pull strategies, we like to use funnel models. We generate leads, nurture them and try to bring them to act in the intended way: for example they should push the „buy“ button or submit adress information. The regular way is that prospects first starts searching by using a search engine. From this point on we can measure

  • click-through-rates (from the search engine page to our own webpage),
  • bounce rates (how many users leave our webpage without any click)
  • exit rates (how many users drop out before the intented action happens)
  • and at the end the overall conversion rate.

If we want to optimize this process we get quickly tons of data from click stream analysis and understanding the different touchpoints and we have to find ways, how to use this big data, how to understand it, how to get learnings and insights.

Same topic, different understanding. That is the rule, not the exception.

The third relevant dimension is the process of understanding. Understanding does not mean correct understanding. Besides school there is no such thing than correct understanding. There is just understanding. People understand messages according to their own individual experiences and learned frames, depending on their current mood and condition, depending on their knowledge, their status, their role, their social context.

When we say, „our product is wonderful, buy it now“, the addressee may understand „I have completely different worries right now, please stop it, you annoy me“. Or the addressee may understand „Why the hell are they telling me of all people, I already know that“. Or the addressee may understand „Fine – but I’m not interested in that creepy stuff“.

Understanding implies skills and predispositions in relation to a knowledge object that are sufficient to support appropriate behavior. Perhaps you are familiar with the following cartoon, which is very well known on the web when it comes to describing the challenges of project management. But I think this will also help to understand the concept of understanding.

What we see here is what different groups understand about the same topic,

  • starting with the explicit customer‘s requirements
  • the visionary understanding of the product manager
  • the lousy execution by the developers
  • the fancy stuff the advertising department makes out of it
  • the features that are delivered
  • the reviews of the experts and last not least
  • the original idea the customer has in mind but was not able to communicate

Same topic, different understanding. That is the rule, not the exception. If we want to deal with the processes of understanding of recipients from a scientific perspective, we must apply concepts from sociology (e.g. framing, role models, social stratification), pedagogy (learning in its various dimensions), ethnography and psychology.

Understanding is created from the difference between information (the what) and message (who says so). Understanding itself is therefore not what we strive for. We want business results and on the way there we need understanding as an intermediate step.

A brand and not the balance sheet is ultimately the condensed symbol of economic success.

When we define business results at the highest level, it is about increasing the value of our offerings to the customer. We are here in the domain of marketing as the discipline of value creation. A brand and not the balance sheet is ultimately the condensed symbol of economic success. To say it with Philip Kotler: „if you are not a brand, you are a commodity“.

A brand is an umbrella term for all the things that makes meaningful differentiations between tangible goods and intangible services. A brand helps us to decide which product to buy within a certain category. In other words: A brand is the symbol that represents the overall value of a product for the buyer.

Business results are not only about sales and profit. Business results reflect the value that our value propositions actually deliver to the customer. And we do it with the well-known steps:

  • Understanding the social context
  • Analyzing the strategic triangle: company, customer, competition
  • Segment and target your customers
  • Get a position in the minds of your prospects, and
  • Apply the marketing mix

These steps create your (hopefully) unique value proposition.

At the bottom line we see: Planning is definitely an interdisciplinary task when it comes to business communication. We need very different skills to be successful and there are almost unlimited possibilities for combining them. We are dealing with a high degree of complexity.

To make this manageable for us in the planning process, we work with specialized agencies. If we look at the content production process (encoding the message for best decoding results) we ask advertising agencies, copywriters, journalist, graphical designers, photographers, motion designers, app developers and so on. We find helpful insights in academic disciplines like semiotics, dramatics, and cultural studies.
If we want to reach these prospects we need business administration skills because there is a lot of money involved. But as well we need statistics, website and clickstream analysis, and this at very different customer touchpoints.

We want that all the recipients that notice our message understand it and we know that the people are very different even if we put them into a sharply defined target group (remember Prince Charles and Ozzy). If our target group has 100 potential buyers we have 100 different people and 100 ways how they may understand our message. We have to be keen on understanding our audience and this means we have to apply findings from academic disciplins like sociology, pedagogy, ethnography, and psychology. And last not least we must deal with the effects of our communication strategy. What does it deliver? What does it contribute to the overall value proposition? Again this is a subject of business administration, especially for the performance measurement part and it’s basically the core of marketing as a c-suite method to lead the entire business organization.

Excellence in communication planning derives when different disciplines are brought together around one table. The crucial point is to align these broad scope of insights, methods and applications to one core task: creating value for prospects and customers.

Now let’s take the last step and discuss quickly what this means for academic education. We can record a few points, I guess:

First: We cannot be specialists in all relevant fields. But we must be able to work with specialists. To do so, we need to build up a basic understanding of the broadly diversified disciplines. We are generalists when it comes to planning.

But we also need special expertise for one reason: If we only can provide our services when we work together with many specialists then we have to be specialists ourselves when it comes to communicative competence.

Thirdly, we must understand that simple „how to do lists“ or tutorials or best practices will not help us. When the environment is changing rapidly, as it has been doing since the 1990s thanks to emerging network structures based on digital technologies, then we have to accept as a central premise that a perfect plan is not the essential thing. The essential thing is that we are perfectly adaptive to the dynamic environment.

And last not least: For planning in complex systems, a predictive approach like in the classical waterfall models is probably not as successful as applying more agile methods as we know it from software development.

Planning – so what? Does this mean we don’t need planning anymore and do all the things in an agile, adaptive mode? No. We need planning more than ever. But we have to rethink about how we plan in today’s world. At the end this well-known quote from Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, has never been truer than today: „By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.“ Or to say it in a more adaptive way with the words of the famous hockey player Wayne Gretzky: „Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been“.

This text is a transcription of a guest lecture Prof. Becker gave at the HTW College of Engineering and Business on December 9, 2020.

Photo by Austin Chan [Licence] via

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