Interview with Christian Garrels: Roles & Skills for Digital Transformation

‍Data-based communication is critically dependent on the skills of the people who handle digital data and tools in communication. The book project “Success Factor Commtech: The Digital Transformation of Communications” devotes a section to the question of which roles and skills are needed for this digital transformation – and how this will change or has already changed the reality of communications departments. We sent out a questionnaire to numerous communications managers – and received some interesting answers. In today’s newsletter, we document an interview we conducted with communications and brand consultant Christian Garrels ( Christian has many years of experience in transformation processes, including as head of communications at the Haufe Group in Freiburg, at ADAC in Munich or at Axel Springer in Berlin.

Christoph Hardt: Christian, what are the main trends and forces of change affecting communication?

Christian Garrels: The effects of digitization are also clearly noticeable in communication – digital channels are gaining maximum relevance, social networks are changing the way we interact, and the intensity of dialog and exchange has gradually increased since the pandemic. And, of course, the speed today is quite different than it was a few years ago; communication takes place almost in real time. These are substantial changes that companies must consciously decide to make. Does this understanding of communication fit us or not? Personally, I see a great opportunity in the fact that communication can play a decisive role in the transformation of companies and become a driver of transformation. In this way, communication ultimately also shapes and changes the culture and self-image of companies. That is why I am firmly convinced that communication is not only a strategic success factor, but can also make an important contribution to the success of a company.

Christoph Hardt: What effect does that have on the organization of communication? What changes have you implemented?

Christian Garrels: Once a company has decided to go down this path, it is accompanied by changes. Communications departments that used to write a few intranet messages, newsletter texts or press releases a week must become strategic partners with the claim to significantly shape the positioning and reputation of a company. The added value of communication and its contribution to the company’s goals can only become visible when communication managers sit at the board table and discuss the company’s strategy and future at eye level. In addition to appropriate structures, many companies need a new understanding of their roles, different skills and more self-confident managers who understand entrepreneurial thinking and action.

Christoph Hardt: Specifically, how has the day-to-day nature of communication changed?

Christian Garrels: When I look around at companies, I always recognize three points:

1. comms teams need to be not only creative, but significantly more business savvy. Communication must understand the company in depth and translate the portfolio into relevant, target group-oriented, dialogic stories.

2. due to the speed and multitude of channels, formats and requirements, processes are needed that are scalable and deliver verifiable results. For this, in turn, is:

3. A functioning editorial management makes sense, ideally with an assertive conductor who optimally orchestrates the polyphony.

Personally, I’m a fan of the CvD role, which manages complex projects holistically, holds the store together in terms of content and strategy, and ensures that communication can have an impact. All these points fundamentally change the roles and structures in communications departments. In addition to expert knowledge, this requires a trained eye for the big picture. At the Haufe Group, for example, we chose a completely new organizational structure in 2021 and created three central units: Content, Creation, Strategy. This has provided organizational clarity on the one hand and accountability on the other. That was important.

Christoph Hardt: What does that mean for you as a manager? Does that change your role as well?

Christian Garrels:
Of course, the role of comm chiefs is also changing. Ideally, you will develop from a service provider to a close advisor, sparring partner, pace setter and impulse generator. At least, that’s how I understand the role in the meantime. After all, the central task is to make the relevance of communication visible throughout the company and to fill said seat at the boardroom table. And as a manager, I have to motivate my team and enable them to participate in these fundamental changes, to actively shape them. “Do and let do” has always been an important motto for me. Means just not doing everything yourself anymore, but also being able to let go and trust. This is and remains a fundamental change task for many managers. But that’s what a comms boss ultimately has to take care of and stand up for.

Christoph Hardt: What new skills do you need in your teams for this change?

Christian Garrels: We need people who are able to think in terms of holistic communication projects, but at the same time are strong in implementation.

Secondly, we need people who can think in storylines and tell stories in a compelling and inspiring way.

And we need people who are able to integrate the mass of data and analyses available to us into our day-to-day communications in a meaningful way and make the right deductions and recommendations for action. There is, and I say this with great seriousness, still a great deal of untapped potential.

Christoph Hardt: What do you do to build or develop these skills? Continuing education or recruiting from other companies?

Christian Garrels: When jobs like data analysts or project managers are approved, that’s when the problem usually starts: Try to find a good data professional with good communication skills. This is virtually an impossibility, because virtually all companies are looking for precisely this profile. Nevertheless, this expertise is needed from outside.

Nevertheless, you should also look inward from time to time. Are there competent people within the organization who want to change and are up for something new and exciting? I have had good experiences with this in the past. Here, communication has a certain appeal per se because of its high visibility, especially if you tell your own transformation story within the organization in a smart and plausible way. But when it comes to re-skilling or upskilling, we should also remain realistic: Not everyone wants to change fundamentally or even reinvent themselves. Accepting this and dealing with it sensibly is also part of the change process and good leadership.

Christoph Hardt: What are the big hurdles to anchoring elements of Commtech in the everyday life of your communication?

Christian Garrels: Making communications work more measurable and thus more transparent is imperative. In my opinion, however, it already starts with the fact that communicators should develop a serious interest in finding out what has really come out in the end in terms of substance. I don’t see that too often, to be honest. Instead, many colleagues still accept this wonderfully simple feeling of “It actually went quite well. FAZ and Süddeutsche reported, we got a lot of likes on social, and a few people wrote us a nice e-mail yesterday” as subjective confirmation of communications success. As much as this may be understandable in human terms, it has little to do with evaluation, analysis and the question of what can be done better in the future. Classic monitoring is of only limited help here. For this, too, we need many more people in the organizations who are capable of sorting and evaluating relevant data and translating it into concrete derivations for the team. At this point, I always advocate that comms people should do something really crazy and apprentice with marketing for a few days. The colleagues there know exactly how to formulate KPIs for market success and how to optimize scaling systems. We, as comms people, can and should learn from this and learn a thing or two. After all, we are already the better storytellers.