Business Tech: A Seat at the Table: Communication

It's two in the morning. Your mom is worried. Why is she worried? Because she didn't hear you come in at nine o'clock and didn't see you go straight to bed. She thinks you're out there, somewhere.

When she sees you in the morning, there will be accusations and allegations. This isn't because you did anything wrong, it is because you failed to communicate.
Much of IT's problems are of exactly this sort.

LATE!!!!

You're working on a major project and it requires a couple of all-nighters. You blew off a friend's party to get it all done. We've all starred in this movie at some point.

But you do finish, every bit of it is not only done, but essentially bulletproof. You're so exhausted you oversleep the next day and miss the deadline.

Imagine that exact scenario but, just before you went to sleep, you sent an e-mail. It told the appropriate people that the project was finished. Now, two things have happened: first, they know you finished, second, when they see the time stamp on the e-mail, they might have more empathy when you oversleep.

Some of you are groaning that doing the work is more important. This isn't about what's most important, it's about doing the whole job. And paperwork — e-mail in this case — is part of the job. That's the hard lesson here: You didn't finish on time because you left out a critical step, communication.

Easy?

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to talk. I like to write. The communication part, while it doesn't come completely naturally to me, is easier for me than some.

What you must understand and accept is that it has to be done, even when it isn't easy. The job, pretty much any job nowadays, includes clear and effective communication.

That means timely communication. It means a passable command of grammar and punctuation. It means reading it over before you hit send.

Great Expectations

We also have to face the fact that most of our workmates, in and out of our department, struggle with effective communication. Part of the reason we need to excel is because we have control over us, not them. We are the only part of the equation that we can fix.

So, when the head of operations sends a memo asking for us the build a data unicorn, it is on us to find out what he or she thinks that is. If Dave guesses something when he requested it and we assume something else when we read it, then no one ends up happy and a lot of hours get burned.

Send old Dave a write up on what data unicorns do and don't do. Let him give you feedback so that you can both agree that he meant a data rhinoceros. Or perhaps he did mean data unicorn but not the type you were thinking of.

This should be standard policy. Even when you know Mary will bite back with "I don't have time to read this." You still have to do the steps. If I have to defend my department's work, "Mary didn't give us feedback" is stronger than "I assumed she wouldn't be helpful."

Manage expectations. Clarify goals.

However

Now I have to defend the Marys and Daves of the world. Responding is not the same as communicating. You need to know your audience. If I send a technical response to them that's over their heads — we get paid to keep current on IT, they don't — it is on me to be a better communicator. We can't hold their hands or make them read. That isn't our job. It is their job to do their job. However, we have to make sure we have explained ourselves clearly to the audience we are addressing.

This isn't, to quote a previous workmate, a case of "pass the monkey." We aren't responding just to put the ball in their court. The goal is useful information. Even if they aren't being particularly cooperative, we need to be. IT is a service department.

We We We All The Way Home

A lot of people have "I" disease. We need to learn to say "we" more often. There are several reasons for this pronoun shift.

When I tell you what I did, I exclude you from any credit. It is much easier for Andrea in the warehouse to get behind and idea the "we" (Andrea and I) cooked up and executed, even if I did most of the execution.

Additionally, "I" can sound like bragging. "We" is inclusive and therefore is automatically more generous. "Our team did" — as opposed to I" did" — might feel less fair but the goals are met. And, you do have to understand that we almost never succeed in a vacuum. I once fixed a major A/R problem by finding the last bug after someone else had already fixed the several dozen other bugs. So, yes, "I" fixed it, but "we" fixed it is more honest.

Self-Control

Some of us, maybe all of us have seen that organizational flowchart which implies that the boss' secretary is really in charge, right? We look, we laugh, we admit there's some truth to it. What gives a secretary power? Control of access and control of the narrative.

Access we get, if you are the gatekeeper I have to work with to get to the boss, that's power. The other one, narrative, many people don't understand its power.
Imagine if I wrote a memo which said: "IT agreed to complete all work within sixty days." Now imagine if it said this, instead: "IT agreed to complete all work in sixty days assuming Accounting has all the data ready in a timely manner."

The second one shares responsibility. The first is unconditional. The person recording the meeting notes might write either one. Unless, of course, the person writing the notes has a stake in the difference. I tend to write the notes for any meeting where my presence is important. That way, the details make it in.

And, I don't just protect Chuck's details or IT's details. I protect everyone's. That's why no one complains when I offer to take the notes.

When I'm done making my notes, I e-mail them to everyone with a request for corrections. Why do I request corrections? First off, I might not get everything right. Secondly, people often wish to clarify things they said in the meeting. Finally, I can't get roasted for doing it wrong over an error or two. It takes the pressure off.

* * *

I hope this series has been useful to you as we take our seats at the table. If I missed any important topics, e-mail them to editor@intl-spectrum.com and we can see about covering them.

CHARLES BAROUCH

Charles Barouch is the CTO of HDWP, Inc. He is also a regular contributor to International Spectrum Magazine, a former Associate Editor for both Database Trends and for Gateways Magazine, a former distance learning Instructor for CALC. He is presently the Past President of the U2UG. Mr. Barouch has presented technology and business topics in front of hundreds of companies, in a wide range of product and service categories. He is available for on-site speaking and consulting engagements in and out of the United States.

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