When companies start debating the virtues and failings of strategic integration, it almost always dissolves into discussions about the organizational chart or the complexities of communications needed to overcome that chart. There are two problems here: First, strategic integration doesn’t boil down to an org chart, and second, communications shouldn’t be viewed as a tactic, but as the residue of the will and influence of effective leadership.
The real debate companies need to be engaging in is whether they have the right people to lead in this new environment—managers who don’t think in silos; leaders who understand the collaborative nature of idea generation and execution; employees who not only think outside the box but inspire others across disciplines to do the same; and executives who don’t crave stardom, but rather aim to lead all-star teams. At that point, communications becomes the lubricant of change. Let me give you two examples of what can happen when your company has the right people in place.
A few years ago, Waste Management began hearing stories about how its drivers were risking their lives to intervene when they saw a building burning, an accident or a crime in progress along their pre-dawn routes. It would have been easy enough for the chief security officer to issue a corporate directive and tell the drivers not to get involved. But executives in security and business development—two divisions that don’t often collaborate—recognized an opportunity to generate business by letting the drivers do the right thing while also helping local governments unable to expand their police ranks. They started a program called Waste Watch where they worked with law enforcement to train drivers about the right way to intervene safely, making them essentially an extra pair of eyes on the street and a new sales tool that appealed to cash-strapped localities.
Example 2: Nonprofits, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, working in Africa and other developing regions were struggling to ensure that life-saving medical supplies actually made it to remote villages. Instead of committing scarce resources in an attempt to find an individual solution, they broadened their thinking and began collaborating with one entity that never seemed to have trouble getting its product to even the most isolated community—Coca-Cola. The beverage giant began using its distribution network and its own shipping crates to bring pharmaceuticals to where they were needed most. Again, people going beyond silos—in this case, crossing the boundary between nonprofit and profit—to get a job done.
I think the point in both of these examples is that it’s not always obvious who needs to be collaborating to solve a problem, and it takes open and honest cross-disciplinary discussion to see where ideas may be generated. If, for instance, we narrowly define strategic integration as combining the marketing and PR units into an umbrella communications department, we’re missing not only the point but also an opportunity. Strategic integration is a method to change not just to whom we report, but more important, the way we do things and the way we think. Companies need leaders who place creativity above process and cooperation above job titles, because much of this expansionary thinking and sense of purpose must come from the top.
So perhaps the first step in strategic integration isn’t a revamped org chart. Instead, create an atmosphere in which this kind of leadership will flourish and where younger executives see this behavior as a valued commodity. Start presenting your potential leaders with problem-solving situations where they can show what stuff they’re made of, and create a rewards system that recognizes selfless cooperation and collaboration. Otherwise, you’ll end up tripping over entrepreneurial stars rather than creating an all-star enterprise.