An idea, no matter how great, is useless until it is known and understood by others. Your cluster must be doing amazing work; yet, if it fails to effectively communicate with its stakeholders it will probably not be in business for long. This is true for the communication flowing between and inside the cluster companies (internal communication) as well as for the information and knowledge exchanged between the cluster and its external stakeholders (external communication).
Communication is to the cluster as sap is to the plants; it carries the meaningful information (nutrients) to the cluster members thereby enabling its development and survival. It plays the difficult role of connecting the cluster companies and integrating them into a new entity whose vision, goals and strategy may differ in important ways from those of the individual members. Also, it is critical to allow the rapid adaptability of the cluster to the demands of its stakeholders (cluster companies; cluster partners, clients or suppliers).
⇨ The CCP is a live document! It should be regularly evaluated, adapted and updated. But it does not have a life of its own; its content and effectiveness is unavoidably tight up to the strategic paths and the development of the cluster.
⇨ The CCP is not an isolated piece from the cluster’s strategy and goals. It is a live document! As such, it should be regularly evaluated, adapted and updated.
Who this guideline is for. The role of the Cluster Manager
This guideline was especially thought for the Cluster Manager (CM) of the SME catalyst. However, we must recognise that in practice, the Country Coach will take the lead of the implementation at the formation stage. It is not a matter of being more competent but of having developed a sense of awareness about the cluster companies’ –and the individuals’ – aims and beliefs. To have this sense of awareness of the other is necessary to develop an environment of trust and win-win flows exchange that will ultimately affect communication and contribute to the cluster’s IC enhancement.
The CM of the SME catalyst is accountable for the CCP; he/she monitors the CCP different steps and ensures the timely availability of the necessary resources for its successful implementation. The CM shall decide on the opportunity of creating a small group of 2-3 people to support him/her in this task. The support of the CF will be vital in this regard.
This does not mean, however, that other people from the cluster companies should not be involved in the CCP design and implementation. People other than the CM can hold valuable knowledge about how to reach a specific audience, create a compelling message or choose the adequate channel.
Equally important is that the CM will create, also at the company level, early awareness about the existence, the goals and the strategy of the cluster as the management cycle evolves –e.g. regularly updated newsletters, posts on the web, periodic meetings, could be of help. This will contribute broad support to the initiative as well as effect IC flows between and within the cluster members.
The Cluster Manager is accountable for the CCP: ensures the availability of resources and monitors its implementation.
What is the Cluster Communication Plan (CCP)
To be clear about WHAT to communicate (the message), TO WHOM (the target audience) and HOW (through which channels) is fundamental for the cluster’s growth prospects and smooth functioning. These are indeed the main elements of a communication plan.
Equally important is that, prior to undertaking these steps, you have reflected upon and are clear about the WHAT FOR, your motivations or the purpose for starting a CCP, as well as WHERE IN the management cycle of the cluster the plan will better fit in.
For CADIC, the CCP is both the document that deploys the cluster’s communication strategy and the process that drives its implementation. It makes explicit what its purpose or objectives are as well as how they fit into the global strategy of the cluster; the target audiences and what is expected from them; and the messages and vehicles to reach them. Evaluation – process and ad hoc – is also an important part of it.
To know WHAT to communicate, TO WHOM and HOW is crucial for the cluster’s healthy and organic growth. Also key is to be clear on the WHAT FOR and WHERE IN the cluster’s life stage.
The contributory capacity of the CCP to the operationalization and successful development of the cluster rests critically on the effectiveness of the CCP implementation. The routines (e.g. idea exchanges, knowledge sharing, etc.) that are built throughout the CCP implementation process effects the learning capacity of the cluster – and the cluster members – with major implications to its development. Communication lies on the foundations of trust building and collaboration, whose existence is a pre-condition for IC-flows.
The CCP is a bridging line between the cluster and its stakeholders –internal and external. It is the instrument that binds the cluster together and gives it a sense of community. It channels the strategy and the culture of the cluster, and contributes to reinforce both.
The CCP encodes the way the cluster, and the companies within it, communicate between them and with clients, suppliers, research and financial institutions, etc. On the other hand, it channels back valuable information about their interests, perceptions and needs. It keeps track of the relational spikes the cluster builds along its life cycle, both inwardly and outwardly.
The CCP is both the document deploying the communication strategy of the cluster and the process driving its implementation.
The CCP, the Cluster Management Framework and the Cluster Management Cycle: How they fit together
According to CADIC, the Cluster Management Framework (CMF) sets the bundle of activities and the necessary resources that are organically deployed by the cluster and the respective SME members with the objective to take the cluster to fruition.
In the view of the CMF, the CCP is one of CADIC management tools aimed at supporting such development process, throughout the whole lifecycle of the cluster (see Figure 1). The CCP cross-cuts the cluster’s life cycle and is regularly adapted and updated to respond to its evolving demands – and those of the cluster members – as well as to the eventual shifts of needs, behaviours or perceptions of its target audiences.
Because CADIC has a bottom-up approach, raising awareness about the importance of communication and activating effective communication throughout the cluster’s life cycle is key; it keeps the cluster moving. Moreover, doing so right from the outset (initiation phase) is especially fundamental. Content rich, fluid and well-targeted communication between the cluster founders might ignite ideas, foster proactivity and boost knowledge sharing. It lays the groundwork for true engagement, trust building and, ultimately, sets the context for the cluster’s continuous regeneration.
Affecting communication in-and-out flows throughout the cluster’s lifecycle is key. Doing so right from the outset (initiation phase) is especially fundamental. It is a principal pre-condition of building trust and enacting collaboration.
Typically, the decision to go through a CCP will come out from the strategy (step 3) of the cluster and consistently be included as part of its action plan or activities within the CMC (step 4) (see Figure 1).
Notwithstanding, the necessity and the opportunity to undertake such an exercise can emerge right at the very beginning of the formation stage, as a specific goal or topic to be tackled (step 1), or a bit further in the management cycle, when faced with the challenge of having to attract additional members (step 2).
In the latter situation (step 2), it might not be necessary that the cluster will undertake, one by one, all the steps of the CCP as described in Point 6, p.54. Assume the cluster companies have already started to make a way together and agreed on some general goals, one of which may encompass the involvement of new members. At this stage – the cluster still lacking a robust strategy and objectives – to go fully and in depth through the CCP might not pay-off. But the cluster and the cluster companies could certainly realise some benefits from taking the time to put in draft some ideas about ‘the company that might be a good fit for the cluster (potential partner); why it should be interested in me and how I could reach it’. To improve the chances of engaging the target partner, to make a more efficient use of the cluster’s resources and to contribute to clarifying its vision/goals while forging its identity are only a few of them.
“Already at the formation phase, we identified the opportunity to engage 2 leading French SMEs in the anodising sector. The CCP helped us build a win-win message to buy them in.” (GrInnANet)
The value-added of the CCP
There are direct and indirect benefits of undertaking a CCP. There may also exist differences in gains from the cluster and the cluster companies’ perspectives depending on things such as the business model, the culture, and certainly, the capacity of the cluster, and the company member, to absorb these potential gains.
Direct benefits have to do with the fulfilment of the key steps (see The steps to an effective CCP) and the effectiveness of the overall CCP implementation, the most apparent being the communication plan itself (the document). Among others, counting on a well-structured communication plan will help the cluster to:
- Gain visibility and target the different audiences with a unified and consistent message. This might have the additional benefit of reinforcing the vision and the identity of the cluster.
- Gain knowledge about the cluster’s aims, strategy and activities.
- Know the cluster’s audiences and count with an instrument to prioritise them without losing strategic sight.
- Master its relationships in a professional way and with the highest impact and benefit to the cluster partners.
- Increase the chances of reaching the right audience and do so effectively. You might have identified the right partner but if you address the wrong person or the right one with an inappropriate message or through the wrong channels the overall outcome of the partner’s selection process will be a failure.
- Save the cluster members lots of energy, misunderstanding, and ultimately, resources. The CCP offers the CM a practical guide to monitor and coordinate the cluster’s communicational flows.
- Enhance the intellectual capital (IC) of the cluster and the cluster members. As the CCP proves effective and the cluster develops, the IC of the cluster will also increase. The roads to achieve this are many and diverse. The most evident one is through the expansion of the relational capital of the cluster. But, possibly more important, is the leveraging potential it has by enhancing other IC factors such as motivation, professional and social competences, cooperation and knowledge sharing and IT and explicit knowledge. To identify and affect synergies between IC factors is part of the learning potential of the CCP and a challenge for the cluster partners.
As major indirect benefits of the CCP, we can point to:
- Enhance the learning capacity of the cluster and the cluster companies –provided systematically implemented. The new management dynamics the CCP may generate can also spur cultural and behavioural changes that are beneficial to the cluster dynamics and development (e.g. increased knowledge sharing and cluster awareness might spur new projects and contribute to the sustainability of the cluster).
- Improve the motivation of the people directly or indirectly involved in the CCP and cluster activities. Because the CCP also enhances communication within the cluster partners, it might have too a rewarding effect on the employees who directly or indirectly partake of the CCP implementation. For some SMEs addressing the changes that CADIC might encompass – e.g. having to deal with coopetition, high and dynamic IC-flows exchanges, and increased web-based communication – could entail significant changes in their traditional way of doing things and interacting with the environment.
Some benefits of CCP:
- Know the audience
- Gain visibility
- Address audiences with consistent and unified message
- Partners’ selection effectiveness
- Save the cluster members lots of energy, resources, misunderstanding
- Enhance the cluster’s IC
Improving communication flows and effectiveness is a dedicated task! Emails, twitters and similar others do not ensure, by themselves, effective communication. Misunderstandings can easily result and best practices may not necessarily be shared. The result will be poor cluster effectiveness and less efficiency in the long term.
Limitations to these benefits may stem from:
Lack of rigour in the implementation.
CC or CM’s weak or lack of necessary skills or active monitoring.
Failure of the cluster members to commit the necessary resources.
The steps to an effective CCP
A communication plan typically includes:
- Strategic direction: clearly defining the goals and objectives of the cluster and of the communication plan, and matching both to ensure strategic alignment and collaboration effectiveness. (Step 0)
- Content: clear messages tailored to the identified target audiences. (Steps 1-2)
- Channels: effective delivery vehicles for your messages (e.g. email newsletter, flyers, web, forums, blogging, face-to-face meetings, presentations, etc.). (Step 3)
- Activities: types of communications such as advertising, promotions, networking events, power point presentations.
- Timing: suggested frequency of activities.
- Budget: an estimation of the necessary resources (tangible/intangible).
- Evaluation: qualitative and quantitative measures to assess the effectiveness of the plan and corrective actions. (Step 4)
- Accountability: person(s) responsible for the communication actions and effectiveness.
Ask the following questions of your plan:Are the objectives clear? Are they consistent with the cluster’s overall strategy and objectives? Do they support the development of the cluster?
Is the plan targeted to your audience based on its input?
Are there feedback mechanisms built into the plan so that communication is two-way?
Is there a process and measures for managing and measuring the results of the plan?
Is there a team or person accountable for the CCP actions?
As with any plan, the CCP can take a strategic or a tactical view:
- A strategic CCP looks broadly at all aspects of the cluster and takes a big-picture view on developing programs and processes to support the cluster’s vision and objectives.
- A tactical CCP takes a narrower and often shorter term look at how to meet the cluster’s communication goals (e.g. buying in a partner to push it forward or addressing financial institutions to raise funds for a specific project, etc.). To start rolling the cluster the tactical is the recommended approach.
This CCP Guideline is especially intended to support the very initial steps of the life of the cluster. Its focus and emphasis is on the short-and-medium term (next 6-12m).
The examples and approach are mostly tactical-flavoured and refer to the cluster’s external communication (cluster level).
However, the CCP is equally suitable for enhancing the cluster’s internal communication (cluster and company level –within the cluster and inside the cluster company). Ultimately, this is a matter of deciding who the target audience is.
Each step can be undertaken on its own. At the formation stage, though, it might be worthy to go through the whole implementation process at least once –this depends on the clarity of cluster’s goals, networking maturity and culture of cluster companies, sector, etc.