Now more than ever we exist in an incredibly diverse business world. Not only in terms of our human resources but also in terms of today’s systems and social media. The pluses are many. With a diverse community of participants, we lower the risk of continually doing things the same way regardless of our record for past successes and failures. There is no denying that diversity of systems and social media is well received in the project world. In addition, we are introduced to new channels for industry growth. But where there is growth, new challenges emerge and cause us to sit up and take notice. With an increased number of systems and perspectives comes an increased risk that the messages we are trying to communicate are not being interpreted correctly. And when business communication breaks down, the business also breaks down.
What is the impact of perspective?
Every time we walk into a room, our perspective changes. It is not only a culmination of our history, including where we were born, the schools we attended, and the attitudes and perspectives of the people who raised us. It is also the result of things as simple as how challenging our day has been, or even whether we had a good commute to work. All these experiences, old and new, add up to our current perspective at any particular moment in time, and our perspective influences our interpretation of the things around us. Add to that the fact that we have a tendency to abbreviate and shorten words in our vocabulary, and in technology, we LOVE our acronyms! Even through all these changes and manipulation of the English language, somehow, we still assume that everyone interprets words and terms in the same way. But here’s the kicker. We don’t. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Not convinced? Here are a couple of examples
This first example is from a project I was working on to implement the technology for enterprise resource planning, commonly referred to as ERP. For the duration of that project, it was communicated to the business stakeholders that I was the go-to person for all thing’s ERP. One afternoon, on one average day, I was told to drop everything because something had happened, and I needed to attend an emergency ERP meeting. I quickly called my team together to ask if anything was going on and, as I thought, everything seemed to be going quite well with the project. As instructed, I dropped everything and headed to the ERP meeting, quite concerned that I had missed something of importance. Turns out, there had been an onsite incident at one of their plants and I was attending a meeting for Emergency Response Planning. Of which I knew nothing…
This issue is indicative of the challenges that happen when we rely on the use of acronyms. Full disclosure, I believe that at one time I was part of the problem. In the 1990s the implementation of technology was largely reliant on project organizations. Our teams would be tasked to build a certain system and we were then air-dropped into said organization, of which we knew nothing. Remember that this was before we could do a quick Google search to arm ourselves with just enough knowledge to do damage. At the time, we knew even less. Which in some cases was kind of a blessing since as human animals, we tend to quickly draw conclusions from whatever small amount of information we have a moment to read.
Armed with what little corporate information we could piece together, we would often come up with what we thought was a cool word to describe the system we were about to build. Then, and only then, would we decide what each letter of that cool word would stand for and we would declare it an “acronym.” Just another chapter in the technology strange-but-true manual.
This second example is courtesy of a good friend who works with a large ISP. The challenge she has within her organization is the naming and responsibilities of different departments. To be honest, this issue is so complex I had difficulty following what she was saying. But apparently, there are two different facilities divisions. One is called Technical Facilities, and one is called Facilities Operations. They both appear to do the same thing, and the employee job descriptions are identical. The challenge is that this confusion causes constant in-fighting regarding which department is responsible for what. In addition, it has created an endless approval loop since if one of the departments has a request that flows through the other, it is automatically declined.
One can be sure that at some point in time there was a committee that locked themselves into a room to draw up the organizational structure. Perhaps at least one of the participants was technical and familiar with the world of projects, and possibly at least one came from the world of day-to-day operations. They may have determined that Technical Facilities would be responsible for working with capital projects and Facilities Operations would assist with the day-to-day upkeep. The logic would seem to have a solid background. But the rate of process breakdown seems to be in direct correlation with the turnover of employees, executives, and systems. The distinct lines turn grey and training programs for new employees are dropped. New employees are not made aware that there was once a distinct line, and to do the best possible job, they are accommodating and productive. With no formal change process in place, the systems that were built to accommodate the previous residents no longer make sense and the result is infighting and lowered productivity.
Through all of the growth in technology, the numerous methodologies developed to measure and improve business processes and business communication, and the multitude of regulatory compliant standards we are forced to endure, somehow we have ended up with more issues than ever before. Not only have we lost the ability to communicate information to those that matter, but the very processes that would improve this pending disaster are the very processes that are first to get dropped from the budget.
Business communication processes we need to revisit
Corporate knowledge — and business communication — begins with the onboarding process. The goal is to advise and enlighten new employees about corporate culture, the strategic plan, the organizational chart, and the tools and processes that they will be required to learn and use. Consider distributing a glossary of terms during the onboarding process so that common language and acronyms used around the office is shared and not left to the imagination.
One of the most common red flags that I encounter is the use of the term “intuitive” when referring to any system. Technology has become increasingly complex. Some of this complexity is driven by need, while much of it is driven by effective marketing. Technology is not intuitive. While that is a broad statement, I stand by it. Some technology may be intuitive to some people with a very defined perspective, but there is no technology that is intuitive to all people. Training is a necessity not only to use any new technology but also to build and educate employees on the common language behind the system and behind the organization. Training should also be an ongoing commitment. It should not be something that is rolled out with a new system or process and then quickly forgotten. It should be revisited by longer-term employees and readily available for new employees.
I love swimlane diagrams. A process that could take a book to describe, can be drawn upon a one-page diagram and easily followed. In a perfect world, every process followed within an organization would be documented. If we rely on an employee who is heading out the door to quickly train their successor, we come up against a losing battle. This does not take into consideration the different learning techniques that work for various personality types. Also, the incoming employee will not yet understand the language specific to that company, and even specific to that department. They will interpret the conversation based on their perspective, and through no fault of theirs, this could have disastrous results.
Remember, business communication is not about the sender
We are conditioned to think that business communication is all about the sender. That instant gratification we feel when we hit the send button on an email. There is actually a biological component that is similar to other addictions. Endorphins are released and we convince ourselves that the “problem” is no longer ours. The reality is that all communication, especially business communication, is about the receiver. If the message is not understood upon receipt, it is not considered to be communication and by default, it is the sender who has caused the breakdown.
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