Effective Communication In The Age Of Increasing Information

by Malcolm Faulkner, Senior Director Product Marketing, SAP

effective communicationHistory reveals that a lack of communication, or a breakdown in communications, can determine the outcome of individual battles and entire military campaigns.

Perhaps the most controversial military debacle attributed to an initially vague order unclearly communicated was the famous charge of the light brigade during the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

In another example from historian Joseph Persico’s excellent book, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, a senior officer, after the third Ypres battle being driven to the front lines, viewed the muddy wasteland. He is reputed to have broken into tears, cried, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” His driver responded, “It gets worse, farther on up.”

While the consequences of bad business decisions pale in comparison to military ones, there are lessons in communication we can learn and apply in business today.

Improving employee communication

As the much quoted Kaplan and Norton’s research reveals, “Only 5% of the workforce understand their company’s strategy.”  It’s not that companies don’t communicate their strategy – but they do a poor job ensuring the message is received.

In an age of increasing information, the challenge is sifting through relevant and trustworthy data quickly enough and surfacing the salient facts upon which to make decisions. Then, the directives that determine the desired course of action need to be regularly reinforced.

Effective communication doesn’t mean broadcasting a strategy once a year that most employees immediately forget.  Nor is it a matter of inundating employees with so many e-mails, meetings, and announcements that they tune out.  As employees are more inundated with information, their attention spans are correspondingly shorter.

We need to find the right balance in communication, and deliver a message that employees can embrace and provide them with the resources and support to make them successful. 

What not to do

It’s critical to recognize the limitations as well as the benefits of modern communication.  E-mails go unread? Time to pick up the phone!  Indiscriminatingly hitting Reply-All increases the chances of tuning people out. Webinars are not as effective as face to face meetings.  This might all seem a bit old school, but it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Endless op reviews and meetings might seem to make sense, but do these activities really translate into tangible change or are we just rehashing the same story?

All too often, senior management becomes removed from the day-to-day workings of their organizations. They hear from only a few voices, usually their direct reports. Their information can be skewed by personal and political factors or they may be simply tuned out.

Tools you can use

Performance management tools can help you pinpoint places in the organization that need your attention. In times past, the main challenge was just getting information. Now we have the challenge of too much information. Technologies can help us sift through huge volumes of data, highlight what’s most important, and take action.

One visionary example of the use of such tools is the widely acclaimed CitizenInsight application deployed by the City of Boston to keep its constituents informed of government initiatives and performance.  Creating a simple iPad application like this, that clearly communicates strategy and performance and is accessible and readily available, is an effective way of addressing the 5% issue.

But even this isn’t enough, though.  The message needs to be followed up to ensure employees understand it. Much like the charge of the light brigade – confusion can result in a disastrous course of action.