Guest post by Oliver T. Hellriegel, translated by Holly Mickelson
Do you remember what it was like to have a normal conversation with friends? On the phone, say, or in a bar, or sprawled on the sofa at home with a nice glass of wine in your hand? A normal conversation – that is, one that takes place in a defined space and for a defined period of time. This clearly defined environment is what made communication “simple.” That was true for companies, too. At least, until we began talking with the people we met in a parallel digital world – starting off with simple e-mail and leading up to today’s state-of-the-art video chat.
Today, switching between the online and offline world has become the norm, as has carrying out communication simultaneously in both worlds. While we’re having a conversation with real people standing directly in front of us, a quick glance at our “smart” phone reveals other conversations ongoing with online contacts. And the opportunity to keep in close touch with business contacts around the world via video or VOIP lends a whole new dimension to the idea of “digitalization” or “globalization.”
Current developments in communication
Communication is now taking another step forward. Not only do we use “digitalized” communication to talk with other people, but we also talk with bits and bytes. Our interlocutors are named Siri, Alexa or Cortana. And these digital bots understand us quite well – once they’ve made sense of our quirks. They turn on the lights, play our favorite music, or write e-mails and text messages that we dictate to them. And sometimes machines tell us what to do: the fitness tracker reminds us that we haven’t reached our steps quota, the app on our telephone (or smartwatch) reminds us about an appointment, and so on. We talk with our neighbors and bosses the same way window displays, manuals and even cars speak with us. Sensors talk to anything that has sensors. All this information that we so obligingly hand over to machines – often referred to as big data – lands in the giant cloud, where it is stored, processed, evaluated, and used.
What this means for corporate communications work
Does this mean person-to-person communication will be replaced? In the end, will only machines communicate with each other? Will anyone still write thoughtful, intelligent texts? And the translation of such texts by other human beings – will machines do that, too?
The contenders are already in the ring: data mania versus the human touch. Technocrats are interested in systems, processes and data, but people are not made up of ones and zeros. We are emotional beings who are capable of being inspired by things. Who can differentiate between what is useless and what is meaningful. Who can choose to be moved by brands or not. For whom reputation and loyalty have meaning, which for a brand may even wind up being a recommendation. And reaching human beings, in all their richly diverse facets, is the greatest challenge for (digitalized) corporate communication.
History and overview of digital communication
Web 1.0 – or how it all began
Back in 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee, then at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), developed the foundation for the World Wide Web,  no one could imagine the influence such a technology would one day have on communication. The “everyday” networking of computers allowed us to talk to each other in real time.
In the grand tradition of monologue corporate communication (preferred by radio and television), the idea of Web 1.0 is also taken up by companies. Megaphone-style marketing continues to dominate in the game to win over potential consumers: shrill and overstated, pushy and loud, and in many cases, overly simplistic or even dishonest. Whether as unwanted mailings that land in our mailboxes, puff pieces in (online) news reports (not that they would be any better if sent by fax), or customer complaints received via website contact forms, which are viewed as unpopular disruptions to the established workday: oh jeez, it’s the customer again…
But one-way communication only works for so long. The incoming flood of information often pushes us to simply switch off. Or change the channel. As consumers or recipients, we have many options, one of which is simply the freedom to ignore brands or media from companies that we think are too loud. We want to be taken seriously. And that can happen only in a dialogue.
Web 2.0 – The social web
The new web, which has been dubbed Web 2.0 in imitation of software version naming practices, does in fact make a new generation of web applications available. Where once monologue communication took center stage, the focus is now on an exchange of user opinions. Now the total of mankind’s knowledge is available to anyone with internet access, and the web leads to greater pricing transparency and access to information about offers of all kinds.
In communication and media studies, we talk about the internet now instigating a democratization process. The power of the companies is being transferred to the customer: personal experience and evaluations are the focal point, not advertised information. Customers or users answer questions from other users or interested parties and information is shared. The media also finds out the hard way that the gatekeeper era has ended: journalism’s elite is torn down and, at the very latest with widespread use of smartphones, every recipient is suddenly a broadcaster.
Companies are also seeing a shift in values: the inside-out mechanism popular in the 80s and 90s no longer works (we develop products and someone out there will buy them). Marketing-oriented companies are now forced to adopt the outside-in approach; products are developed with help from consumers, brands are managed with help from customers. And the web is suddenly a market research tool: we listen to what customers are saying (listen to learn) and we use the social web for interaction and as a barometer to measure opinion, the same way we use it to kindle customers’ enthusiasm or build up our reputation. Finally, the web is also a fantastic service tool with which we can make ourselves – if we so choose – available to answer and respond to our customers 24/7.
Yet this new transparency also means that customers and critics pick up on unethical behavior, errors and crises more quickly and easily, a situation that underscores the importance of crisis communication for corporate communications.
Web 3.0 – The mobile web
Does the name Nokia ring a bell? Surely many of us remember the legendary, unbreakable and seemingly always charged mobile telephone from the Finnish giant. In 2007, Nokia held well over 40 percent of the market  for mobile end devices. That same year, when introducing the first iPhone, Steve Jobs announced his sales target (which, by the way, was never reached!) and the Nokia managers just scoffed and confidently announced, “We will sell ten million mobile phones in two weeks.” In early 2014, Microsoft acquired Nokia’s mobile communications arm, and killed it off for good  (even if Microsoft has decided this year to reanimate the brand, there’s some doubt that it can ever recapture its former success).
Innovations by Apple, which have networked the markets and people into a closed ecosystem and cycle of goods, are today viewed as a prime example of the disruptive power companies possess. The mobile phone has become the nerve center of our digital life and is simultaneously the interface between online and offline. In 2016, the smartphone was cited as the most frequently used device for accessing the internet (66 percent of all online users). Users who also go online with mobile devices spend an average of 2 hours and 43 minutes on the internet, 35 minutes more than the average online user. “Mobile first” is unavoidable.
These devices are further reinforcing the trend away from material goods. What we used to shelve on our bookcases and record or CD racks, we now simply download onto our mobile devices. Those devices can also be personalized. Here’s a little test – look at the apps you’ve installed, and see whether your colleagues at the next desk over happen to have the same ones. No? They might be holding an identical piece of hardware in their hands, but they have made it uniquely their own. And because we can communicate with these devices in real time – make calls, video chat, SMS, WhatsApp, etc. – our mobile phone is an instrument of 1:1 communication. The advertising industry uses it this way too. Now, if we want to, we can communicate our message personally, as it were, and develop entirely new types of marketing concepts.
Web 4.0 – The Internet of Things
The next and, currently, last step of this development is the digitalization of every part of the company, from R&D to production, logistics to customer service. No job or process goes untouched. And the sensors mentioned above are no longer simple transmitters and receivers, but are universal sensors that will lead to an unprecedented degree of connectivity. Components on the assembly line will announce themselves promptly before they are installed; they will already have checked to ensure they meet quality standards. Our car, which also knows how we like our coffee, orders it automatically when we get in behind the wheel and simultaneously informs our barista when it should be ready for pick up, so that it’s still hot. Oh, and the car has already paid for it, too. Everything is smart and everything is connected – and takes place without any human interaction.
Each transformation is driven by the technology available at the time. In the (near) future, these technologies will enable forms of communication that today sound like science fiction. By communicating their experiences, early adopters thus contribute to the further refinement of the respective technology. There are (thankfully) enough willing and inquisitive people out there waiting to sound out and test the next technological trend.
Currently we’re doing a good job of allowing communication to continue on a human level, and not transferring it to machines or even letting them handle it completely. We still require sympathy and understanding in our interactions with one another as an integral part of our coexistence. That goes for interactions from company to company and company to customer as well. In short, the nuances, the reading between the lines, the understanding of key messages (including hidden ones) is a quality that, at least for a while, will continue to set humans apart from machines.
And what comes next? Controversial futurologist and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, who since 2012 has been Director of Engineering at Google, now called Alphabet, envisions the next evolutionary step will happen by 2045. He predicts that our near future holds a technological singularity, a human-machine being as a new, evolutionary offshoot.
Communication in general and corporate communications in particular are about empathy, commitment and passion. These characteristics, when paired with clear insight into human nature, are exactly what is needed in digital times.
 The birth of the web, http://home.cern/topics/birth-web, retrieved October 21, 2016.
 https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/12861/umfrage/marktanteil-von-nokia-smartphones-seit-2007/, retrieved October 21, 2016.
 Microsoft morphs into a hardware giant with
 Microsoft just unveiled a new Nokia phone, http://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2016/9/20/12986260/microsoft-nokia-216-phone-features, retrieved October 21, 2016.
 ARD/ZDF online study 2016, http://www.ard-zdf-onlinestudie.de/index.php?id=568, retrieved October 21, 2016.
 The Coming Merging of Mind and Machine: The accelerating pace of technological progress means that our intelligent creations will soon eclipse us–and that their creations will eventually eclipse them, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/merging-of-mind-and-machine/ retrieved on November 9, 2016.