As an ex-journalist inside of a corporation, I’ve been giving more thought lately to a concept I dubbed “corporate journalism” when I joined McKinsey & Co. six years ago. While my initial assignment was to create an online experience for the firm’s clients, a site focused on so-called “horizon” technologies, the popping of the dot.com bubble doomed that initiative — woefully named — TomorrowLab — and I soon found myself wondering if I’d have to crawl back to Forbes.com and debase myself to get my old job back.
One McKinsey partner, Lowell Bryan, evidently saw some value in keeping me and a former PC-Week colleague : Rob O’Regan on the payroll, so we were re-pointed in the direction of a problem that had been nagging the firm since Powerpoint overtook Word as the Firm’s preferred communications medium. In the good old days, a McKinsey consultant would share his or her learnings with the rest of the firm by writing up a white paper sanitized to keep any one specific client’s identity confidential. That document, which took several forms, could hold huge intrinsic value to the firm if it contained a framework or solution that could be reapplied to another client’s problem.
Alas, along came Powerpoint, which, when combined with McKinsey’s famous “up-or-out” policy, which gave the average consultant an expected tenure of little more than two years, meant a huge amount of the firm’s knowledge was being lost. Once the topic of admiring case studies by the Harvard Business School for its pioneering efforts in the new science of “knowledge management,” McKinsey was confronted with a huge loss in its institutional wisdom due to the pernicious evils of Powerpoint and the high degree of ongoing turnover. The expertise wasn’t getting written down — Powerpoint requires a presenter to narrate the pretty waterfall and boat charts — and moving to a horizontal, presentation formation meant the old vertical Word documents of old; those classic narrated case studies which could be read without the guidance of the original author, meant the firm was losing its edge.
Bryan understood this and stepped up to the plate to reform the system. My job (and O’Regan’s) was to provide some journalistic instincts to the process of figuring out how to “capture” (that was the verb) what was locked inside of the heads of the Firm’s partners and consultants before they made the transition to the real world as the CEO of a company like Enron or IBM.
It was a great experience in terms of access. Rob and I were given the equivalent of a passport throughout the firm, helping to identify what was hot and what was not and then grilling the experts on everything from the implications of 3G wireless on ecommerce to risk capitalization frameworks for global banks under the terms of the still-debated Basel II accord. We stuck lenses, microphones and notebooks into the faces of anyone who sit still long enough between actual consulting engagements to talk to us. The result was a rich media — from plain text up to stream media — library of smarts accessible over a global private network to any McKinsey consultant who needed to get intelligent.
In conversations with another McKinsey colleague, Tom Hayes, a former NYT reporter, we came up with the term “corporate journalism” to describe what we were doing inside of the Firm: applying classic reporting techniques inside of an organization to determine what, if anything, was “interesting” and deserved attention. That filter, “interesting” is subjective. Through McKinsey’s lens it meant information that could enrich the firm through more client engagements and increase the effectiveness of its consultants.
At Lenovo we’re taking a similar approach with Louise Kehoe, former Silicon Valley chief for the Financial Times, now with Ogilvy Public Relations. On the phone with her the other day, I told her I was jealous of her access within the firm, sitting in on high level strategy meetings, working her way through the organization mining it for stories with a passport and degree of access no external reporter could ever be granted.
When I left IDG in January to join Lenovo, Sam Whitmore at SWMS told me that while I was leaving “media” he supposed everybody was media these days. After a few months I am getting a better understanding of what he meant: organizations need to report upon themselves with the objective eye of a journalist, holding any statement or action up to the same skeptical, unconflicted scrutiny that an outsider would hold, to determine how it will sit with the most important segment of its public … its customers. Podcasts, blogs, vlogs … these aren’t corporate communications department’ efforts to end run the media , but will be perceived as just more corporate spinning unless they present the good with the bad.