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High Tech or High Touch?

June 14, 2011

There was a good conversation on Drive thru HR yesterday as guest Jay Kuhns discussed the importance of communication and transparency in organizations.  As I listened and followed along on the twitter back channel, this comment came from Jay –

“Don’t underestimate the power of the knowledge gap between leadership and the rank & file employees – communication is vital.”    And as a follow-up point, “it’s key to remember that the leaders may be living with the information every day, but most employees are not.”

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Ah yes.  Organizational communication continues to be a struggle for a variety of reasons.  It’s easy to instantly jump to the conclusion that here in 2011, with all the tools and channels available, we would find internal communication to be easier and way more effective.  But I’m not sure that’s the case.

I’ve been in the workforce for a long time so I remember the days of producing paper memos (via typewriter no less) that we photocopied and sent around via inter-office mail and/or put in the US Mail to be delivered to managers/employees at far-flung locations.  Then we progressed to the fax machine and at least those memos could be ‘sent” instantly.  Meanwhile, we oftentimes saved up the big news for the monthly employee newsletter (to be mailed out the 1st of each month).  But more importantly, in those pre e-mail/IM/texting days, we rang people up on the phone, wrote each other notes and taped them to doors saying “come see me”, or walked down the hall to deliver news.  We regularly called last-minute department or company-wide meetings to make important announcements with plenty of time for Q & A.  Oh sure, we used technology too – after all, that fax machine and the fancy IBM Selectric were pretty high-tech back in the day.

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Coincidentally, yesterday I also had the opportunity to have a conversation around this subject with someone who I consider a guru in the fields of organizational development and performance.

We were talking about how organizations can work to minimize a ‘gap’ in internal communication.   As we pondered the “what to do,” I (as is my tendency) jumped way ahead.

Me:  “The organization can add a wiki; a blog, a portal/forum for Q & A.  What about desk-top alerts or feeds?  It’s so easy to make information available so people can sift and filter and pull out what they need.”

Mr. Guru: “Whoa whoa whoa – rein it in.  That’s a common reaction – organizations or teams or leaders jumping ahead to possible “solutions” without understanding their current state and their desired future state.  First step is for organization to define internal communication for themselves (what does it mean in their setting) and figure out if whats occurring now is working or not.  It’s entirely possible that what’s missing may be as simple as remembering the value of the ‘high-touch” approach.”  (note – he didn’t really talk all that stilted sounding; I’m just making him sound super serious and smarty-pants’esque; cuz he is)

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Of course he was right.

The high touch approach becomes the basis for any internal communication program.  And I see it flowing from a variety of things:

Behavior of the Leaders – what’s being communicated (or not) by the leaders and, more importantly, how do they act around or within the message that’s being communicated.  Actions, after all, can speak louder than words.

Determining the directional flow of information – is it up-down; bottom-top; sideways?   Which way does it need to be flowing? Where, exactly, are the gaps?

The human connection  – Do people feel free to ask questions of their co-workers, peers and leaders?  Is it OK for people to stop and talk?  Can one pick up the phone or is that a method of operation that’s viewed as a time-waster?  Do people take the time to say “thank you,” share success stories and celebrate each others’ accomplishments?  Is it OK to just chat and see how another person is doing?

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At the end of the day, it’s an organizational culture thing isn’t it?  What do the people expect, desire and crave?  A shop full of (warning: stereotypes ahead) IT geeks and Accountants may be quite content with high-tech communication only (or think that’s all they need?….hmmmm).  But another group may need the high touch experience.  They want to be looked in the eye, spoken to directly and told things.

Or perhaps, if you must send out that company-wide email . . . they key is to follow it up with a man-to-man conversation.

(No sexism intended with the man-to-man comment; have you read my take on that at Women of HR?)

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