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Better Communication: Technology Isn't Always The Best Solution Tue 04 Jan 11

Kiddo Discussions Bindaas MadhaviIT folks get a lot of knocks for poor communication skills.   In response we typically react by increasing the number of emails we send out and the announcements we post on our company's intranet.  Ultimately we are shocked to learn all this extra effort doesn't improve the perception of IT as poor communicators.

This is like the comic situation of meeting a foreigner who doesn't speak your language and assuming that they will surely understand you if you simply speak louder.  The sad reality is that when people refer to our poor communication skills they are often referring to the quality of our communication rather than the quantity.

Simply increasing the amount of poorly done communication doesn't make things better.  We need to change our style instead.  Email and intranet posting can be great ways to communicate, just not for all situations.

IT folks sometimes are slavisly addicted to their technology and are reluctant to give it up to get involved in all the messy interaction.  The key is to use the right technology; to use it properly; and, to know when to not use it all.

Good communication has two components.  First is the conveyance, the “how” of your communication.  The second and frequently over-looked component is the responsibility of the communicator to make sure the communication was received and understood.

Listed below are the more common communication methods we use which I’ve listed in a very particular sequence.

  1. Face-to-Face
  2. Video Chat/Conference
  3. Phone
  4. IM/chat
  5. Text
  6. Email
  7. Posting information on a website

Starting at the top with face-to-face communication you get: the greatest interaction (two-way communication); multiple forms of communication (words, inflection, body language), and feedback (the other person’s body language) and immediacy (rapid exchange between the two parties).  As you progress down the list these decrease.  Basically, the ability to make sure that your message was received and understood is highest and easiest with face-to-face communication and decreases as we go down the list.

Likewise starting at the bottom with posting information on a website you get: permanency (it stays there until you remove it); equality (the exact same message goes out to all that see it); and, ease of timing (you and the other parties can take part in the communication at different times).  In this case the ease of communication is highest with posting on a website and decreases as we go up the list.

I’m sure some will take exception to my assertion that posting to a website is easier than a face-to-face conversation.  After all, I can have a face-to-face in a few seconds while posting takes some time and effort.  All very true and in those terms face-to-face is easier.

Kiddo Discussions Bindaas Madhavi However, I’m referring to ease in terms of personal involvement.  With face-to-face you have to get involved with the other party.  You have to listen to them, watch for visual cues, think about their response etc.  All much more difficult than just posting something in a fire and forget manner.

So while the tech-savvy may tend to always default to the more technology form and the technophobes may naturally go towards the less technology forms it is best to pick the form that best meets your needs based upon its characteristics.  The key is to determine what you want to accomplish with your communication and the audience and then pick the method that is most applicable.

For example, if you’re trying to sell a project and get buy-in from other people a face-to-face meeting will generally work better than email.  For that type of communication you need the personal exchange to effectively get you point across and to understand their concerns.  Conversely, if you’re simply transferring data, operational metrics for example, a web posting or email may be the perfect way to go.

But most importantly you need to be willing to adjust your communication method if you see it isn’t working.  This is the basis of the “3 email rule”.

We've all seen the never-ending email chain of people going back and forth on a particular issue.  Email may have been a good choice of communication method based on how the initiator thought the conversation was going to go.  However, as often happens, your email may generate more questions and discussion.

An email chain soon starts and everyone’s frustration grows as they think to themselves “why aren’t they listening to me” or “their answer doesn’t address my question at all” or “they’re missing the point” and then go onto to send yet another email in reply.  It quickly becomes obvious that email isn't an effective communication means and the method needs to be changed.

In this example people are talking “at” each other rather than “with” each other.  The second component of good communication, making sure it was received and understood, is clearly missing.  Hence the 3 email rule which states if the email back and forth goes to 3 emails break the chain and try another method such as a phone call or a face-to-face meeting.  Sometimes face-to-face really can be more efficient and effective than email.

Too often IT gets a bad reputation for not communicating well.  Perhaps it isn’t always the quantity but the way we communicate.

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"Kiddo Discussions" photo by Bindaas Madhavi / CC BY-NC- ND 2.0 

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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