icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

How to make a Top Ten

Turning information into communications success

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2017). How to make a Top Ten. Turning information into communications success. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 6.9 (September).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2017). How to make a Top Ten. Turning information into communications success. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 6.9 (September).

Either mathematics is too big for the human mind or the human mind is more than a machine
Kurt Gödel

London, 31 December 2017 - As I was saying in the previous icm2re article on the datafication phenomenon, one rule to devise and implement reliable and sustainable data platforms and processes is to keep in mind the distinction between data or information and communications. It is a basic notion, immensely relevant to understand both humans and machines interactions and it seems incredible that it is in practice ignored by so many who hold computer science or engineering degrees. But is is actually true that few have a deep understanding of it.

It is of crucial importance for our own survival as information seekers and producers, particularly for the success of communications in any context, from requirements gathering to public relations, and it works with different types of media and channels - word of mouth through social media as well as broadcasting or conferences and seminars.

The distinction arose in its present mathematical formulation in 1949 when Shannon and Weaver proposed their famous theory of information. By the end of the 1970s it pervaded any discipline in the mass media and technologies spectrum. Especially for the actual measurements of performance of information systems, audience shares or human computer interactions it is impossible not to rely on it. And yet, it is not always so obvious that behind any campaign or any act of communication and interaction there is a source, a recipient and a relay.

Furthermore, there is always a process in place, either designed or spontaneous, that is a specific way to organise the transmission of information in more or less codified terms.

Think of the black cab school in London, known as “The Knowledge” - a requirement for taxi drivers since 1865. The whole process of learning by heart the town’s map relies on the availability of information stored within the London’s map itself and memorised by the candidate but it also consists of the communications shared among practitioners and tested through a high number of examinations called “appearances”, along a period lasting two years, before the black cab driver gets his or her licence badge: the information (the map of London) has it all but cannot be confused with the communications flows and the interactions process and the liaisons within the community.

I picked up this example not by chance: “The Knowledge” is in fact also an extraordinary case of resistance to the disruption posed by early experiments of community informatics and social learning within local communities; we now see how topical and central this has become for competitive developments and innovation policies with the Uber case, for instance.

It is also worth noticing that the technology used by the London cab drivers community for over a century consists of pretty much nothing else than human language, memory and relationships: this is what information and communications technology are made of.

Information and Communications technologies (these days we would rather talk about platforms) are for mass media and social media what the immune system is for our wellbeing and quality of life: an inner strategist.

Communications in the age of the platfoms

Today, the dominant business models adopted by IT companies in cloud computing and internet services is based on contaminations and externalities. We all tend to assume that small and micro businesses can flourish reselling, servicing, adapting and complementing the offer of a “platform as a service” (Paas) with a myriad of applications designed and developed and above all scaled up very rapidly for a potentially global demand.

These platforms are very often at the centre of communications practices, where innumerable cultural and extra-textual aspects remain undetected, undetermined, unnoticed to most of their users - including engineers and communications experts. No surprise they can determine unintended consequences for their intended audiences that are conversely perfectly intended by competitors or adversaries.

Their life-cycles tend to be so short that they can be suddenly discontinued, repositioned and redesigned or disappear from the market in the blink of an eye - anybody who has been in the internet or other tech sector for at least three years has surely seen examples of this volatility in any segment. It is like you go to the office every morning and out of the blue you find yourself in a circus instead of your usual office space.

There is an overwhelming trade, technical, marketing and academic literature on cloud computing and “software as a service” (I am myself part of the circus by the way).

The main platforms’ players (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft) produce themselves innumerable guidance documents aimed at technical and marketing users. But what it is still rare to find is advice about the actual organisation of knowledge that lies beneath the structure and design of a certain platform or software solution.

What is the organisational culture that the platform implicitly endorse or support? Any business model does reflect an idea of your place in the world and above all an idea of how to structure, implement and deliver specific activities.

The same word ‘platform’ suggests there is an implicit infrastructural assurance that is actually totally unsubstantiated: the infrastructure of any organisation is given by its own instance of that technological platform in its own cultural, legal, operational environment - something completely different from what is being commonly sold as plug and play big data insight.

From the kingdom of groupware applications first and then from the world of consumer internet services, the concept of a platform as a standard organisational layer and then as a service for computer mediated communications has spread to the industry and has possibly reached its maximum hype recently, with the Industry 4.0 version of it.

The rethoric of a well known 1980s Drucker’s metaphor, the information-based orchestra, has become so inflated that it is even counterproductive, as people has generally lost - or they have never acquired? - awareness and capacity to see the difference between information and communications.

The Top Ten idea

For a couple of years between 1990 and 1992 I compiled an infinite number of “Top Ten” lists. These were in fact very appreciated and extremely effective to communicate data for marketing or company information purposes. Users were always willing to acquire a quick overview of a competitive scenario in a very short timespan: with almost no patience to read anything longer than a couple of pages, they loved the idea of seeing everything they should know just looking at the Top Ten.

This was at the time the equivalent of Today’s common info-graphics but in 1990 a simple chart would take hours to be designed and prepared with very advanced use of the available spreadsheets and analytics technology.

The success of the Top Ten I talk about here went really beyond my expectations and ambitions.

I was employed as a documentalist and information manager at Berlusconi’s headquarter in the early 1990s. One of his frequent if not obsessive questions he was asking the press office as well as other departments, from corporate development to international affairs, was the size of Fininvest compared to other international media moguls’ sizes.

The obsession was of course very grounded in that: he had to demonstrate he was the best prospect licensee in order to start up or took over new private television channels in Europe.

Perhaps it is useful to tell a bit more about the context. In 1986-1987 Berlusconi’s Fininvest had promoted an european consortium to launch a commercial pan-european tv channel. His partners were Robert Maxwell in the UK, the german Beta-Taurus of Kirk, the french shareholders of France 5, each with a 25% share.

The international ambition was at his highest pick in 1990 as Berlusconi was projecting into the European chequered board the cultural and engaging strategy that had led him to establish national private tv channels in Italy, in spite of the fact the Country did not have any national legislation allowing that. Fininvest had grown professionally and economically - and in a vertiginously short period of time - from a small clan of few dozens of clever financial brokers and broadcasting pirates to a media mogul group, with thousands of employees working in television, cinema, advertising, publishing, retailing and finance beyond the historical residual interests in real estates businesses. But it was still a private group, managed as a family business, not at all ready yet for going public with Mediaset - that would be the challenge of the mid-1990s, after Berlusconi decision to become a political leader.

In 1990 the idea that Berlusconi could become a politician would be considered as one of his jokes: nothing would be seen as more unrealistic and unlikely by his own closest collaborators and friends.

Conversely, the European business expansion was the next development scene for Berlusconi ambitions as a broadcaster, a publisher, a financial services innovator. That european expansion could eventually overcome, in the vision of many, also the intellectual and cultural hostility Berlusconi had been facing for his domestic plans, as he was depicted as the eternal parvenu of italian entrepreneurship and industrial politics.

Fininvest’s plans were opposed or held back with a legal, political and economic animosity well beyond and rational interest. The war against his commercial tv channels had reached ridicule levels of social frictions and tension by 1990, when eventually Parliament accepted and regulated the de facto existence of private television stations other than the public ones, so that when I joined the Group it seemed things were going to become easier and more professionalised.

I had been recruited to start a corporate documentation centre at the end of 1989. That office, that I would start up from scratch inheriting just Berlusconi’s former small collection of books on mass media and cultural studies he had allegedly asked his secretary to buy but never actually had the time to read, would feed those international plans, providing the systematic access to the best information and research sources and technologies of information and communications available at the time.

The expansion in the UK was seen a strategic move from a financial and industrial point of view. Berlusconi had already put money, people and technologies into commercial television developments in Portugal, France, Germany and Spain, since the mid 1980s. The UK’s franchise for Channel 5 was the necessary step to go further in his European plan and dream of a pan-european tv channel.

That in spite of not having many friends in the UK, where the press represented him for years as the villain of the piece. His poor command of English makes him uncomfortable about taking on Anglo-Saxon business deals direct and he is likely to find a British partner wrote the Sunday Times in 1990 (1).

He persisted for a couple of years in that ambitious goal of finding friends and partners in the UK, paying an army of intermediaries - lobbyists, merchant bankers, solicitors, journalists and more.

He had been backed by the French socialist President Mitterand since 1985 and besides his traditionally socialist political ally in Italy, the controversial Bettino Craxi, he had secured a pan-european base of cross-party private supporters within the communities of marketing and advertising SMEs and practitioners that admired his entrepreneurship and vitality. The big multinationals’ advertising spenders and hundreds of local tv and radio stations he had engaged with in Italy and in other European Countries were ready to follow his dreams and build up that envisioned pan european network he had been talking about since the mid 1980s. An on top of that he had very methodical trusted collaborators such as Fedele Confalonieri and Gianni Letta able to speak and mediate his disruptive and egocentric approach with intellectuals and bureaucrats from all walks of life.

Every question coming from the Press Office sounded a bit extravagant to me but that of Berlusconi’s size among the world’s media moguls was the most weird of all.

There were dozens of brilliant economists and lawyers working in finance, in corporate affairs and in the advertising branch of Fininvest, Publitalia, that would be more qualified than I was to deal with those matters of company data.

My only preoccupation, and main expertise, was to make the most efficient use of the enormous availability of data and ICTs I had at my fingertips, and dig out whatever from public databases.

And there was no external source dealing with the problem of Berlusconi’s financial robustness compared to other groups performance. That was for the simple reason that Fininvest was a private group that had not published yet any official figure about its consolidated turnover.

Everybody who would attempted an answer to that question risked to be told they had fabricated an unaudited figure.

It was therefore up to me, feeling pretty much like Bartebly the scrivener, to answer that damned question.

I decided to do so in a way that would have not only put a halt to all the objections or silly conjectures around the Group’s revenue and state of affairs but would also share an enduring lesson among our specialists, experts and external stakeholders.

Perhaps if I had had a better view of the problem’s context and the corporate strategy to address it, I would have discouraged a solution based on numbers. I could have had the courage to change the question instead and reformulate the problem - as I did when I decided to leave Fininvest because I did not want to be involved with and work for Berlusconi’s political party at the end of 1994.

The problem, in fact, was not how big and financially or technologically reliable Fininvest was to bid for the Channel 5 franchise in the UK, but how culturally estranged both Berlusconi as a person and the whole of Fininvest as an organisational culture were and were perceived in Britain.

What could or should he have done in order to become accepted and integrated within british financial and media landscape? Hard to tell now but after ten years of life in Britain, I can say surely say that bidding for a british tv channel in the 1990s for an Italian entrepreneur was an almost impossible mission to win in any case, no matter Berlusconi’s own personality, history or reputation.

However, it is true that Berlusconi’s teams were very immature for such a challenge at the time and did absolutely nothing to just acknowledge the existence of a gap between their plans and the way Berlusconi was seen by the british establishment. Culturally, they were on a mission to export a fighter against public monopolies in broadcasting and not a visionary of pan-european communications space.

So it seemed Berlusconi only preoccupation with the press was just to counter-fight the evidence that any Fininvest’s endeavour was reported with extreme prejudice, both in Italy and in England, as his battle was a matter of personal image more than corporate strategy.

In that, he had very little support by his own courts of employees and advisors, more interested in his unstoppable initiatve and inextinguishable need to be reassured. He was always introduced as a burlesque and controversial entrepreneur by his own friends, allies and partners. The British press went on and on hammering on the fact he was very much in need of a reliable British partner in order to “invade” British media, a message so fabricated and unwelcoming that seems, now, in retrospect, totally parodist.

Over two years of Fininvest’s campaigns in England for the purpose of just having a foot into the British tv market were articulated around the personal, failing allure and actually poor financial reliability of Berlusconi, always charged with the reputation of a cultural barbarian, surrounded by stripping housewives (that later would become younger and younger, perfect to make him appear a pedophile). He was told to be motivated by “unbridled populism” in doing whatsoever, and whatever reassurance he could put forward about the financial stability of Fininvest would be just a drop of water in a desert.

That was the reason why Berlusconi’s Chief of press and public relations at the time, Giovanni Belingardi, an engineer with an unforgettable creative and energetic temperament who died of cancer few months after the politics took over the organisation of communications in 1995, was almost in despair every time the Cavaliere phoned him to ask that question about the size of Fininvest compared with other media groups.

Giovanni would come to my office in a rush, begging priority attention and pretending he would be sacked in 15 minutes if we had no data immediately available to be sent to journalists all over the world, with updated quarterly figures about Fininvest's financial performance. He would say he was sorry as he knew he should have asked the data at least the day before yesterday, but he hoped Berlusconi’s phone call would not arrive so early this time. I would do my best in the pantomime saying again there were no publicly available data including Fininvest and I would try to explain the obvious - Fininvest had no public and consolidated financial figures at the time so that if he wanted some reliable comparisons he should allow me not less than a couple of days to gather all my sources and shake the numbers up in ways that could be deconstructed, verified and reconstructed by others, starting with internal corporate finance office.

So after one year of such regular pantomime, I decided that was a question we should answer in a standardised and transparent way and once and for all. We would make everybody ready to provide an answer to Berlusconi and to anybody else, showing the method and the sources used, starting with the internal spreadsheets coming from corporate finance. Then Giovanni would explain the exercise to the external stakeholders and journalists.

That 1990/91 exercise on the aggregate revenues among Fininvest’s divisions and subsidiaries were the first step towards an official consolidated balance that would become obviously normal when Mediaset went eventually public on Milan’s Stock Exchange in 1994. But at the time my Top Ten’s achievement seemed really heroic, something both inside and outside Fininvest everybody felt proud to contribute, comment, discuss, review and of course follow with other comparative studies.

When Giovanni made my Top Ten lending on journalists desktops, in November 1991, and that same Top Ten got the first page of Il Sole 24 Ore (1), it seemed we had eventually won the Champions League in the creation of trustable and agreeable company information around revenues figures. That was nothing else than the outcome of a basic exercise in codification of knowledge, achieved through consensus on basic arithmetic calculations. But in some ways it was magic. There was nothing before, and now we had a Top Ten showing Fininvest among other big players.

Everybody seemed happy to see we had produced information in a standard and transparent way so that no controversy would arise from the numbers.

However, Berlusconi did not make that leap in the public perception of his height he would have liked to: the fact that Fininvest’s revenues were comparable only to Bertelsmann’s ones in Europe would be simply dismissed by many as a tally story of his founder. We were in fact second, not first, in terms of advertising revenues!

In May 1992 Fininvest pulled out of contest for Channel 5 against the backdrop of the British tight opposition to Berlusconi’s European plan and a mounting tension on the Italian scene, where the ‘Mani Pulite’ investigations into corruption scandals involving also Fininvest were becoming every day more prominent in the public perception. In December the same year Bettino Craxi received a first prosecution notice and at that point his media joker Silvio Berlusconi had already been fed up and frightened enough to give up his pan European Tv dreams and concentrate on how to defend his established market shares in Italy and Spain (in 1994 Craxi flew to Tunis to escape jail, Mediaset went public and Fininvest’s founder promised to change Italian politics) .

The Top Ten became in the meantime a permanent line of investigations and annual studies into the state of the media business in Italy, mostly done by academics, freelance media consultants and small businesses, profiting from the positive externalities created with its original communications plan devised by Giovanni on my data.


We rely heavily on the information we find or that has been delivered on our desktop at a time in which we are pressurised to produce or do or say something. We do not normally trust any source other than the one that fits perfectly with the urgency or the crisis and fills the uncertainty of the moment: in those days no journalist would dare to trust a number found on a computer screen without explanatory notes. Giovanni and I triggered a new cycle of knowledge giving our stakeholders what they really need to look at seriously.

In that we all can act in a certain network as relay stations, replicating what we have found or what we have been given as the best possible canned answer to a frequent or recurrent question, adding our ideas and elaborations or obtaining new combinations.

Giovanni and I made the magic of producing something from nothing that could be analysed, deconstructed and reconstructed through calculus, commented or debated, copied and above all replicated ad libitum not only every time that Berlusconi would ask that question to any of us but also in any other pertinent context in which data about the international and european media markets were sought, analysed or commented and criticised.

That single plain document was able to catalyse attention and endorsement from hundreds of opinion leaders across the entire stakeholders’ spectrum, from political opponents to potential suppliers and partners, and to sparkle opportunities of new interactions for media consultants and independent lobbyists and researchers - in Italy and in Europe.

Even beyond our own expectations, the Top Ten was copied, reviewed, kept up to date and complemented with a huge number of further studies and datasets about media groups assets, mergers and acquisitions, products, audience developments, ownership, interlock networks or connections and so on.

However, the bid for Channel 5 was lost. The announcement in May 1992 that Berlusconi had withdrawn from the UK competition marked the end of his expansion in Europe and internationally and the start of a u-turn strategy for Fininvest, that would focus on the domestic challenges from then on.

If he had asked another question, perhaps the whole of Today’s Europe geopolitical situation would be different. Perhaps we could have not had any Brexit at all. I had not left my job to start up an internet consultancy. I would have not sold my home in Milan to become almost homeless in England. But all these are obviously other matters, and have little relation with unintentional changes that constantly shape our lives, nor they add anything about the fundamental difference between information and communications.

In sum, I have seen in recent years that the old Berlusconi’s conundrum on Channel 5 continues to puzzle the expert as well as the new kids on the block in many circumstances and sectors. How far can you go when you have the technology, the money and the resources needed to push forward your plans but you do not have the reputation, nor the understanding of cultural and organisational issues and, as an outsider, not even chances of getting the insignia required to get along with the relevant stakeholders? Public perception of your past, present and future endeavours will take its toll and to that extent communications are indeed strategic not less than focussing on information and added value that can really change a state of mind, not confirming biases and projections.

Most of the utopias and dystopias that surround our fantastic though so volatile digital platforms - in television, in the music industry, in the “software as a service” sector and other segments - are determined by cycles of knowledge that have not been really planned nor understood or where something has gone wrong more than lost in translation between information and communications. Focussing on public understanding of something is what really makes the distinction worth exploring, because sometimes people understand more with less communications.

Yesterday (30 Dec 2017) I have found on Facebook that some contents I shared earlier this year in respect of my forced almost homelessness circumstances in 2016 have been mangled to the point that it looks like I have been on a reality show or an adventure holiday, with a completely humiliating and mortifying distortion of my own image and personal history. As I said in a comment left on the Facebook page of BBC Politics , “true authentic representation of our personality traits are always mixed and mashed with contents we do not control and that is true for innumerable aspects of our online presences and interests, politics included”. Communications should not destroy their sources.

Can we design and implement software and media platforms that embed assurance and governance controls up to such point? I believe we can, and if we do not do it is because of extra-technical, extra-textual and extra-financial reasons.

You assume that building or joining a platform means not only adopting the cutting edge technology that opens the world of international trade and agreements but also that we are part of a certain ecosystem with certain possible patterns of relationships, agreements and trustable business developments, right? Well, that may be actually true but substantially wrong. It may work, but for completely different reasons, not related to the technicalities of the platform itself.

On the contrary, there is an enduring evidence that relying only on the information and communications technologies promise of innovation, in itself, can expose your business to greater competitive pressure and very negative externalities.

We all project on our platforms all sorts of dreams and aspirations - but perhaps that is exactly what makes life with technology so beautiful and interesting after all, no matter your place in a Top Ten.


Parts of this article were orginally published in my italian website in a collection of case histories (“Casi and Esperienze”) about digital entrepreneurship in 2006-2007, discontinued after I moved to England, in 2008-2009.
(1) Snoddy, R. (1990), Continentals tune up for stakes in Britain, Sunday Times, September 30, p. 1.
(2) Mele, M. (1991) Giganti europei, Berlusconi batte Rai, Il Sole 24 Ore, Domenica 17 Novembre, p. 1-2. A press clipping of that article is available here.