The importance of Communication in a modern business of any kind cannot be over-estimated. We live in world of communication, we are all continuously posting on Facebook, writing blogs, taking selfies, etc. and yet the amount of communication that is actually occurring is extremely low. In this “information age“, it appears that communication is not facilitating information exchange.
In this article, I try to highlight the problem we are encountering in communication in today’s world, and make some suggestions regarding solutions.
Communication must be defined by reception, and not by emission. If no one is listening to you, you are not communicating; if no one is reading you, you are not communicating.
For over twenty years, I have been working in companies all over the world, in which people have been complaining about communication problems:
- Management doesn’t tell us what’s going on
- We are overwhelmed with emails and don’t have time to read them all
- Priorities keep on changing without explanation
- Someone else was working on the same thing as I was and never told me about it
- “They” keep on contradicting themselves
- and so on…
Even though they may complain about contradictions in what they are told (or what they remember of what they heard), most people are quite happy to use contradictory statements about communication for themselves. They will affirm that:
- “I am a good communicator: if you need something, just come and ask me and I will be happy to help” and
- “You are a bad communicator: if you have information I need, you don’t share it unless I come and ask you directly”.
In today’s world, millions of people are talking and writing at any given moment; only a fraction of that amount are actually listening or reading. There are currently approximately 2 billion websites worldwide (http://www.internetlivestats.com) with an average of number of users of 3 or 4 per site; the number of emails sent at any given moment is astronomical (nearly 3 million per second) – unfortunately there are no reliable metrics of how many people are reading or listening instead of writing.
What was once perceived as being the solution has become a major component of the problem as team members spent half their day reading and responding to emails: they feel that they need to read and react immediately when they receive an email, or – in some cases – even get into trouble if they don’t read it immediately: I have seen managers sending out an email requesting someone to attend a meeting immediately.
Another proposed solution to the communication problem is to get rid of offices and place people in open-plan areas, based on factory production lines, believing that this facilitates communication. In fact, the open-plan office facilitates interruptions and loss of concentration; perhaps this is not a problem in some jobs, but most office jobs require reflection and concentration that is not possible in this environment. So, the people in the office start wearing noise-cancelling headphones and isolate themselves from all work-related communication as well as from the environmental noise.
Frustration and despondency grow rapidly as team members feel that they are not respected enough to know what is happening with their job; work is being done by the wrong people, or is being done multiple times by the same people. Team members don’t know where to find the information that they need when they need it.
The continuous interruptions for communication may be seen as beneficial in some work areas, but mostly they are extremely detrimental. The advantage of the open-plan and the continual flow of emails, means that many team members never really have the leisure to wonder why they are doing this and how this work benefits anyone.
At the same time, we need information (knowledge, communication) to circulate through the company by its very structure. Rather than structuring your organisation according to the antiquated principles of monarchs and barons (as most companies have done), a modern organisation needs to be structured according to the required knowledge flow. More about this, of course, in my book Orchestrated Knowledge.
How do we get information to the people at the right time?
How do we allow the knowledge held within the business to be used effectively?
How do we allow team members to be properly immersed in their work without distractions and interruptions?
There is no need to read, respond or even react to an email the moment it comes in. A basic principle is that an email should be answered within 24 hours, if it is more urgent than that, there are better ways: walking over, telephoning, or using one of the large number of messaging applications.
My general recommendation (and personal habit), is that you should only access your emails 3 times a day at most. In the morning, check what there is, what is important, what can be deleted, what needs a response or action; again in the middle of the day and at the end of the day. The rest of the time, switch off your email system completely (and yes, if you use an email system like Microsoft’s “Outlook”, you can write emails without starting up the app).
There are sufficient tools available on the market place that allow for a structured approach to information sharing and knowledge management. The basic idea is that, when you need some information, you can rapidly and easily find it. Lessons learnt can be integrated into the tool, as well as design decisions, requirements, best practices, progress reports, and other key components that people will need at various times. The main issue with these tools, and where most companies in my experience fail, is that it is not enough to purchase the tool, you also need to get an expert in who will take time to study your needs and problems and will set it up professionally so that you get the most out of the tool. Too frequently, companies get won over by an impressive pre-sales demonstration, then find they have no idea how to use it once they have paid for it.
Sitting down on a regular basis for a “one-to-one” with your colleagues and those who report to you, will allow you to have a focused conversation, that may cover more than work items. On average, I would recommend having a one-to-one discussion every day with a different person. This should be in their calendar and considered as an important meeting.
During the discussion, make sure that you listen as much as possible and talk as little as possible, especially with your direct reports. You should not use the meeting to give them instructions and demand progress reports, there are other meetings for that. This is a discussion to find out what is bothering them, what are the obstacles, concerns and worries. Make some helpful suggestions or recommendations, but make sure that these are just suggestions or recommendations. If the person has a serious issue, make sure that you follow up soon after the meeting.
One of the traps to avoid in these types of discussions (other than bullying your colleague, of course) is the risk of falling into psycho-therapy concepts and terms. It is important to make sure that you understand what is making your colleagues unhappy, what is motivating them, but you are not (I presume) psycho-therapists and you should not try to be diagnosing depression, hyper-activity or other disorders: the purpose of the meeting is to have an honest discussion and see how things can be improved in the work place.
One-on-one discussions need to be done in an atmosphere of trust. Your colleague needs to feel that you will not misinterpret anything, assign blame or use the contents of the discussion to determine levels of reward or punishment. This is a very big request and obviously very difficult to implement: most people do not really trust their manager until the manager has earned that trust, and you can only earn someone’s trust by knowing something confidential and be seen not to betray it. This is why I would recommend getting an external consultant to conduct regular meetings with key players. Someone who can be trusted to speak truth to power, but not betray their sources.
The ideal office size is one in which a small team (5 to 7 people) can work together, focus, celebrate, discuss problems. The open plan office has been costed many times and the cost of the continuous interruptions on any intelligence-based activity is too high to be acceptable. Of course, having individual offices creates other problems and there is no point avoiding one extreme for the other.
A good working space would probably have offices for a half-dozen people all around the floor, each office with a window (if a hotel can manage to have a window in every room, so can your office building). Meeting rooms are available and are probably clustered into the centre of the floor, around the elevator shafts – meeting rooms generally do not need a window as nobody should be spending all day in there.
Maybe I will write more about environmental issues at a later date. The communication issue I want to cover here is that a team should be able to discuss or celebrate together without disturbing other team members who are concentrating on their work.
A lot of processes and procedures are written in most companies. I recently worked in an organisation that regularly produced “policies”. These were produced under the good idea that they were necessary, by different people, with little or no consultation, for various reasons. Some were created to please an auditor, some were produced to solve an immediate issue. Mostly, these policies were stored in different places, in different formats and were not appropriately cross-referenced or enforced. They were certainly not communicated to the people who should have been applying them.
Communication needs to have value.
The value needs to be perceived on both sides: “this is something I need others to know” and “this is something I need to know”. If the recipient does not see the value of the information received, they will not give it the attention that might be necessary. When preparing a communication, the author should
- Clearly identify the message to communicate
- Clearly identify the public or recipients who should be receiving this
- Make sure that the content is not redundant or contradictory with other communications
- Make sure that the contents are unambiguous and clear (for more on this point, I strongly recommend Tom Gilb’s books on Value Planning and Clear Communication).
Communication is not a difficult issue, but it is an extremely important topic and should be given careful consideration. There is value in getting key people to have one-on-one coaching sessions with an independent, external person on a regular basis (two to four times a year), who will have the ability to anonymize statements and tell senior management what employees might not want to say – including the fact that they are not sure what senior management is actually saying to them.