The Revolution Starts Now

This is the final part of The Business Communication Revolution. The full series can now be downloaded as a free eBook.

revolutionnowOver the course of this series we’ve seen the challenges in improving the efficiency of communication in a rapidly evolving business environment. The way we work is changing with an increasingly mobile workforce more widely distributed than before, and business processes spread across a more complex B2B ecosystem or supply chain.

For many years email has been our primary business communication tool, and it has served us well. But the limitations of email, and in particular the inherent lack of accountability it provides means that email’s faults now outweigh its advantages. Quite simply, email is no longer good enough. Many corporate intranets have also failed to provide the vibrant community for knowledge sharing they promised, and are now often described as “where knowledge goes to die”. We need a new set of communication tools for the 21st Century.

But it would be wrong to blame email and intranets for all our communication problems. The information overload many of us suffer from is not just an overflowing email inbox; it seems that every application wants to send us endless notifications and pop-up messages. If we are to succeed in making business communication more efficient, we need to take more responsibility for our own behaviour – both how we consume information, and how we communicate with others.

The rise of social networking in the consumer world provides the most obvious direction for the future of business communication. But the promise of enterprise social networking remains largely unfulfilled; initiatives towards creating a cross-department platform for sharing knowledge have been hampered by poorly defined projects, often lacking management support and without measurable relevance to business objectives.

We also need to exercise caution in selecting new tools – the internet is awash with startups providing new web services, and even those from large, established suppliers can be shut down without customer consultation. The temptation to adopt new tools with consumer levels of usability instead of creaking old enterprise systems is understandable, but can fragment and endanger corporate knowledge.

Most of all though, we need to recognise that the greatest challenge in implementing more efficient communication practices is the inherent resistance that people have to change. The ongoing upheavals at Yahoo have provided an interesting case study for many aspects of business communication, and again highlight the level of challenge involved. Earlier this year, they asked all employees to stop using Outlook as their email client, and switch to Yahoo Mail. Only 25% of employees actually did. This was not exactly a communication revolution being proposed – simply changing from one way of using email to another, and to the company’s own product at that. While it’s tempting to conclude that this says more about Yahoo than anything else, I believe that most companies would have similar results from any non-mandatory initiative.

For change to succeed, management need to lead by example and carry their staff with them. The tools deployed need to benefit the company but they also have to appeal to the individual employees. They have to protect the security and integrity of corporate knowledge, but need to be as intuitive and easy to use as consumer applications. And any deployment of such tools needs to be accompanied by a clear explanation of the objectives of the change, and guidance on how to ensure bad habits are left behind.

It would be wrong to suggest that this change will be straightforward. For many organisations, it will take several years to evolve from the chaotic, overloaded, unaccountable mess of email communication. But every journey starts with a single step, and the time to take that step is now.

Leave Your Bad Habits Behind

Time for ChangeThroughout this series, I have frequently suggested that one of the main obstacles to more efficient business communication is our own behaviour. If we are to get the best out of the next generation of business communication tools, we need to take more responsibility for our own communication habits and leave our bad habits behind. If all that the business communication revolution achieves is the same information overload in a different tool, we have failed. Many bad communication habits could be changed with existing tools, but this often isn’t easy as tools like email actively encourage you into these bad habits. So when you start using something new, it’s an ideal time to learn new habits.

The email charter suggests ten changes in behaviour – I fully agree with five of these, and half agree with another three or four. My list below draws on some of them but attempts to generalize these away from being email-specific, because in most cases the habit is equally applicable to other communication tools, and there is a genuine risk of recreating bad email habits in a newer tool. So here are 10 habits you should try to adopt when starting to use a new tool.

  1. Don’t base your use of a new tool on how you used old tools. Take the time to think about what you’re trying to achieve, and learn how the new tool enables you to do that. Don’t simply try to bend the new tool to your old working practices.
  2. Choose your audience. Just because the original sender copied 10 other people doesn’t necessarily mean that your reply needs to be seen by the same people.
  3. Choose your channel. One of my own top communication irritations is being asked non-urgent questions on highly disruptive channels such as instant messaging that implicitly demand an immediate reply. But it is also wrong to ask a critically important question on a channel that the reader is more likely to browse at their leisure. Similarly, I am mystified at to why some people choose to cross-post automatically all their Twitter messages to Facebook and LinkedIn. These are three very different social networks, and most people have significantly different contacts on each, so it is rarely appropriate to copy the same message to all three.
  4. Reply in a timely fashion. The email charter suggests “slow is not rude”, but if the sender has indicated that an urgent response is essential, then slow is rude. It is equally rude for the sender to demand an immediate response to a non-urgent question. This also influences the choice of channel.
  5. Learn to pull. If you wait for people to send you the information you need, you will almost certainly be deluged with information you don’t need. So when adopting a more open communication environment such as an enterprise social network, learn how to find the information you need without depending on other people. Not only will you save their time, you will put yourself back in control.
  6. Celebrate brevity. Mark Twain famously wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” There is a time and a place for beautifully constructed verbose prose, but business communication is rarely that place. Take the time to be concise, thereby saving your reader’s time.
  7. Avoid duplication. We all know how confusing it is when multiple copies of the same file are uploaded to an intranet or attached to emails. How do you know which is the latest version? Try and maintain as few copies of the file as possible, and direct people towards it rather than re-attaching or re-uploading every time.
  8. Cut contentless replies. As mentioned in the email charter, don’t further overload other peoples’ inboxes with unnecessary replies. But, as discussed earlier in Business Communication Courtesy Is A Waste Of Time, think about the difference between the “information value” and “social value” of these replies.
  9. Manage your interruptions. For many people, the biggest communication problem is not the volume of messages, but the way the constant stream of alerts distract you from what you should be doing. Consider whether you really need a pop-up notification every time you receive an email, are mentioned in a tweet, or when one of your Skype contacts appears online.
  10. Consolidate your communications. Don’t scatter discussions across an unnecessarily large number of different services and tools, because it makes it harder to go back and find previous conversations, and it increases the time spent managing all your communication channels.

It is amusing, but also sobering, to note that several of these recommendations are far from new. A recent article from BBC News listed 10 guidelines for letter writing that pre-date email by some time. The importance of brevity has been understood for at least 2000 years:

“Those that are too long, not to mention too inflated in style, are not in any true sense letters at all but treatises.”

And in 1686 the problem of people not replying in a timely fashion was well understood by Philip, second Earl of Chesterfield:

“It is a very great incivilitie not to answer all the letters we do receive, except they come from our servants or very mean persons.”

Proof, if it were required, that old habits die hard, even to those of us without servants.