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The Communication Gap in Innovation

May 25, 2011

I’ve been sitting on this idea for a blog long enough.  It’s high time I shed light on a CRITICAL aspect of the corporate innovation process that most netizens seem to have glossed over.

Communication.

We can organize and attend brainstorming and creativity workshops till we’re blue in the face.  We can assign a special taskforce to be the ‘innovation hothouse’.  Or we can hire a consultant to give us a kick in the innovation pants.  None of these tactics will truly work until we realize that the best ideas in the world will die a quick death without inculcating the right communication culture, or the systems and processes to support it.

When you make a decision to become more innovative as a company, you’re signing up to change the status quo.  And that includes the way you interact with each other internally.  How can you expect the square peg of innovation to fit into a company traditionally filled with round holes?  Something has to give, and that something is typically the innovation initiative itself.  By year’s end, it ends up becoming the butt of jokes at the office Christmas party.  “Hey Mike, remember back in March when the boss wanted us to create a new product for tweens?  Boy, was that a waste of time…”

It takes a village to raise a child.  By the same token, it takes a corporate community of equipped, aligned and enthusiastic employees to bring a new idea or process to market.

This is where Inventive Change comes in.

We believe that human beings are an inherently creative and problem-solving species.  Generating new ideas is seldom the problem.  But nurturing them to fruition is.

In our experience, we’ve seen many an innovation taskforce fail.  We’ve also been part of seemingly impossible successes, and have witnessed the crucial role that effective & authentic communication played in those triumphs.

We look forward to sharing our opinions and tools with you in the coming months and years.  For now, we leave you with these initial thoughts:

  1. Excellence and entertainment can co-exist.  The world’s most innovative companies (e.g. Zappos, Apple, Google, Pixar) inject fun and/or downtime to get the creative juices flowing, while still maintaining high accountability and performance.
  2. Don’t kill the (cash) cow that feeds you.  Innovation is not about disruptive change just for the sake of it.  If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  3. But don’t rest on your laurels either.  If your competitors aren’t incubating new ideas, then completely new entrants might be.  Technology continues to lower barriers to entry, so you need to stay ahead of the curve.
  4. Leave robotic work to robots.  Machines have automated a lot of our daily tasks, so let us humans (especially your knowledge workers) do what we do best in favorable climates – conceptualize and collaborate.
  5. Innovation without leadership and vision is tantamount to giving a monkey a loaded gun.  There may be more collateral damage than you bargained for.
So, welcome to the Inventive Change blog.  We hope you stay a while, chat and grow with us.

What are your biggest frustrations around all the talk about innovation these days?  Do you have a story of when poor communication led to failed innovation?  Please comment below.
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Questions that improve ideas and communication

August 29, 2011

Ideas are easy to come by these days, but how do you tell the difference between good and bad ones? Relying on gut instincts can be a valid indicator of whether something is worth pursuing or not, but when it comes to communicating your ideas, you need a clear argument for why something is worth others’ attention. Presenting a solid argument for a well-tested idea is no guarantee of success, but it is the best foundation you can give yourself in the quest for it.

Useful questions

To increase the potential of your idea (and prepare yourself for critique), you could start by asking these important questions:

  • Does the idea address an existing demand, or do I need to convince others of how this will add value to their lives? Failing to address a real demand doesn’t mean you should deem it a failure. Sometimes people are not aware of what they want, and sometimes they can get hooked on something irresistible.
  • Do I know the whats, whys and hows of the idea, or is it difficult for me to explain the bottom line of the concept? If you’re not sure of what it is about, how can you convince others that you’re onto the next big thing?
  • Is your idea generally welcomed by a variety of people, or do you have problems convincing people other than your friends and family that it is a good idea? Support from loved ones and your inner circle is something you can usually expect to get – no matter how good or bad the idea is. If strangers don’t show real interest in what you’re saying, you’ve got to refine it.

Going deeper

Notice that these questions have two components to them: the fact and the communication aspect. For example, if there is a low or an uncertain level of demand (fact), how can you convey to others that something has value (communication)? And if you’re unclear about the content of the idea (fact), how are you then able to make this clear to others (communication)? And finally: is it easy to get support for your idea (fact), or do you struggle to convince them that this is worth their time (communication)? The more you explore these questions in advance, the more confident and prepared you will be when you need to suggest the ideas.

Sometimes, your vision seems clearer or easier than the practical elements involved in realizing it. Being stubborn on vision can help you persist with the hard work involved in redefining an idea until it’s just right. But it’s important to remember that excessive confidence can also cause you to ignore details that get in the way of achieving success.

Testing before communicating

Once you get into the habit of testing ideas, you will find weaknesses in concepts that would have been spotted by the people you want to win over. If something seems impossible to understand clearly or you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall, others will most probably fail to get your point too. Perhaps you have some taken steps in the wrong direction – in which case asking questions can clarify your thoughts.

In the business world, ideas are not just about coming up with something good – it’s about making them work. Innovation is mostly a collaborative effort that needs the approval and effort of many people, so you are doing yourself a favor when you ask the questions others will eventually ask you anyway.

What do you ask yourself when you’re uncertain about your ideas?

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Changing communication style – is it really about changing perception style?

August 17, 2011

When you want to communicate in a better way people might tell you how to straighten your posture, keep good eye contact or pay attention to your tone of voice, but how much of this do you actually implement in your life? The Internet makes it extremely easy for people today to find quick solutions for any problem imaginable. Myriads of useful reminders of how to improve business communication are available via a quick Google search. However, searching for how to improve communication might instantly lead you down the wrong path when you should actually be focusing on changing your perception style.

Needless to say, good communication is central to organizational practice. It’s even central to maintaining healthy relationships. That’s why people love to read “how-to” lists and hire communication experts to guide them, but in the end, a lot of communication ‘guidance’ can make people appear more unnatural and out of touch with themselves. For instance, ‘forcing’ a naturally soft-spoken introvert to speak with huge gestures might be counter-effective.

Lasting changes usually happen through shifts in perception. By “perception” I don’t simply mean listening more. It goes way deeper than that. Communication is not just about the behavior you exhibit – it’s about being in touch with others. That’s something that goes beyond simple body language or how you phrase sentences. Consider these reasons for how perception supports communication:

  • Emotions significantly affect behaviors (incl. verbal behavior). For example, people who think their meetings are an utter waste of time are likely to be passive (-aggressive) or let their negative feelings guide their communication.  People sense and respond to your negative emotional state, even if you don’t utter a word.
  • A sincere interest in others can make you go that extra mile in trying to understand your audience. Communication exists so that we can make others understand what we think, but it takes effort to make a message relevant and meaningful to the receiver. If there is no interest in learning about the other’s way of thinking, your message might not be understood they way you want it understood.
  • Being passionate makes people more influential communicators. This doesn’t happen as a result of being constantly aware of body language or speech style. A positive and more confident body language becomes a natural part of you when you feel good about what you’re doing.
  • Empathy makes people more willing to be open with you. You’re probably not going to tell your boss about a slip-up if you think he wouldn’t understand your reasons for why things went wrong. In fact, why would you even want to confront him with anything if all you will get is the cold shoulder?
  • Challenging your own perspective can help you understand others. You need to take the perspective of the other person in order to understand where he/she is coming from. The less you put yourself in the other’s shoes, the less nuanced is your understanding of the other person – making it harder for you to tailor your message for that person.

So there you go – it’s important to recognize that the people you talk to have icebergs of things inside that drive the way they understand and speak. Instead of focusing on your own abilities to communicate (i.e. by reading yet another ‘how-to’ article on communication style), it could be far more beneficial to also consider why others communicate the way they do. When you start being able to see through people’s e.g. passiveness or non-sympathetic verbal behaviors, you will be in a better position to judge how you can more effectively get through to others. It’s more than just listening – it’s about relating to others. How do you try to get better at communicating?

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How To Use Rejections Constructively

August 9, 2011

We have all done things that didn’t work out. But when you have an idea you have put your whole heart into, the last thing you hope to see are rejection letters or a blunt “no, not good enough”, or perhaps worse: no comment. Your brainchild is dead. Or so you might think. The truth is, rejections are never pleasant, but they are the hurdles you have to deal with if you want to get ahead with anything in the business world or just generally. You are one of many people who has things to say about what should be done and how. If you are confident about something, there is no reason to believe everyone else will automatically feel the same way. On top of this, the way you come across can have a considerable impact on how others perceive your work or suggestions. With the right mindset and tactics, you can improve your chances of gaining others’ approval and at the same time stay strong mentally.

Being realistic

The number one step to cope with rejections is to know what to expect. If you are in a business where hundreds of other people are trying to catch the attention of the influential few, a good idea is rarely enough to get through. This means that actually – rejections are not something you should take personally, but rather something you can expect as the norm. Arts professionals are painfully aware of this. We can, for example, learn a great deal from authors who, after putting weeks of effort into writing a novel, get rejected time and again. J.K Rowling pitched her first Harry Potter script a dozen times before she finally got the backing that ended up making her one of the richest and most influential authors today. Pandora’s founder Tim Westergren had to live with over 300 rejections before he got the financial backing needed to support his now hugely successful venture. There are countless such stories. For many successful people, the greatest failures have preceded their greatest success.

Using feedback to your advantage

Deciding if you should hold onto something is largely an intuitive process, but there needs to be a balance between what you think is great and what others think is great. If you cannot let go of an idea that does not address a real consumer demand, for example, you might produce something good, but you might also waste valuable time on something that will flop. Using rejections as helpful feedback about what has been done so far is a constructive way of turning disappointment into a positive learning experience. Often, the very act of pitching an idea helps to crystallize it in a way your mind can’t do on its own. Some entrepreneurs don’t have clear visions to start with, but develop them along the way. Consulting friends or colleagues who are particularly upfront about your work is a useful opportunity through which you can re-evaluate ideas. It’s typically rare to know exactly how to make your ideas more valuable to others from day one, so it is important to listen to people who do not let good manners get in the way of telling you the truth.

Communicating differently

The way you frame an idea can make or break a deal. A few storytelling techniques can help you get the interest you need to get a “yes” (we’ll explore this in later posts). For example, appealing to the rationality and common humanity of others is a good place to start. Try seeing your suggestions from a different point of view – your listener’s – and think about what the other person is mainly interested in. If you are trying to get permission to do something at work, it helps to emphasize how this will benefit others or the organization as a whole. If you are pitching something, imagine the kind of ideas the listener is used to hearing from others – and try to make yours stand out from what you think others typically do. Keeping the presentation simple is an effective way to get through to others. If things become complicated too early, others might instantly lose interest in trying to understand. However, if you manage to keep their attention throughout your pitch, there will be a much higher likelihood that they will want to dive into the more complicated aspects of your idea at a later stage.

Brilliant ideas don’t magically become a reality. With innovation, the best suggestions should ideally have the greatest impact, but it is really up to the individual to get these across to the right people. Assess your situation realistically and plan rational steps to maximize chances of approval.  In this way you can become more resilient and much more likely to stay cool until you get that nod of approval. So no matter how many times you are turned down, at least you’ll be in a better position to know what should be done next time.

Image (and t-shirt can be bought) from zazzle.com

Three Challenges of Transparent Communication

August 1, 2011

It’s easy to say that open communication is important for innovative organizations in today’s uncertain world. Easing communication between and within departments can no doubt help, as emphasized in a previous post. However, the rapid pace of market changes make it difficult to steer entire organizations in the right direction quickly and flexibly. And some of you may be unsure about how to realistically implement this transparent flow of information, plus there may be good reasons given your experience. Perhaps you can relate to some of the following common obstacles:

Challenge #1 You may have found that not everyone feels they know how to be so upfront with others. Your organizational culture, or even just a general lack of communication between departments, may not be ready for such a shift in communication style.

Challenge #2 Involving staff may seem pointless. Staff may not feel they want to hear about the reasons for new policies or just want to get on with their fixed routines. Maybe their information load is already too much to bear, so that any new information just adds to their workload or doesn’t even register. These people may also lack the interest to use new information creatively.

Challenge #3 Misuse of information. Staff may make the wrong judgments based on what they hear. If everyone has the impression they are let in on everything that’s going on in the company, they may feel equally privileged to take initiatives that can eventually disrupt work.

Fostering transparency is easier said than done, but this does not take away the importance of at least trying. In each of the challenges above, identifying the state of your current communication patterns should be the first step. Every organization is unique in its work culture and systems, so what you need to do depends on the particular problems you experience.

Start by identifying people’s communication needs systematically e.g. via a quick 1-on-1 chat (for about 5-10 minutes). You could, for example, ask them how they feel about their workload and if they have any questions or comments about their job roles. Carrying out this initial investigation might be daunting for first-timers, but doing it collectively with other managers or colleagues will make it easier for you to follow through. Be as open and authentic as possible.  Planning your questions in advance is also an advantage as it will guide you and allows for easy comparison between views of different people. If the state of your current organizational culture is such that employees are not usually listened to, they may be baffled at first by this gesture. This is, however, the beginning of a communication shift that will gradually develop into more free-flowing interactive relationships – but you must invest in regular follow-up chats. Simply leaving your door open is not enough to make people voice their thoughts.

If your problem is mostly like challenge #1 you may want to consult a communication expert who can guide you in the right direction. Training managers in how to interact with employees more openly is also an option, but take steps to ensure that trainees follow through with their acquired knowledge afterwards.

If your experience is more like challenge #2 then use the information you gather from the chats – look for patterns, surprises, issues raised, as well as individual differences in levels of job enthusiasm. Employees who display high levels of enthusiasm and interest in their jobs are the ones who can potentially best help you champion your innovation efforts. And some people function best not knowing more than the bare minimum required for their jobs.

Challenge #3 can be addressed in informal forums where groups of colleagues can discuss their thoughts, questions and ideas together. The managers who participate in these forums should act more like a guide than an evaluator because people need to feel supported rather than observed in order to feel they can speak up openly. These forums can help you spot potential problems or prevailing attitudes that have not been communicated directly to you.

Overall, implementing transparency in your organizational day-to-day activities can strengthen relations with colleagues, which can ultimately help address your company’s challenges during an innovation effort. One of the most effective ways to communicate with people is to adopt a situational leadership style. This is something we will talk about in a future post, but for now – what are your thoughts on attempts to create more open communication with others? Do you think it is necessary in all cases?

Image from freelanceapple.com

Transparency at Work: Benefits of Open Communication

July 25, 2011

When organizations undergo rapid change, it can be tempting to hide the facts instead of letting everyone in on what is happening. Building a transparent knowledge culture can, however, work for you rather than against you. In a competitive business environment, companies that want to stay afloat in the innovation game need to get the level of cross-departmental communication right. Why? Because understanding the “why” enables people to engage constructively with their work. Consider the following scenario.

You remember when you were a child – when you’d ask “why do I have to do XYZ”? Do you remember the disappointment and frustration when all you got for an answer was “because I say so”? Thankfully, we are now old enough to think rationally about the world. We know that “because I say so” is not a worthy explanation, and that there have to be reasons behind the things we must do. Now think about how much time you spend at work each week. Chances are you spend so much time there that it is practically part of your identity. Whether you love it or hate it, you must go, and you must fulfil the responsibilities you’re contracted to do. Because most of us are attached to the work we do, we want to know that what we are doing is actually contributing to something real. People do not want to find that what they did needs to change yet again – with no explanation given.

Unfortunately, a lot of the things we encounter on a daily basis don’t have reasons written all over them. This makes us naturally come up with our own explanations when we are not satisfied with what we hear. These can be negative, positive, or just neutral, depending on what we feel in the given situation. If you hate your boss, you might think he told you to finish that extra pile of paperwork because he doesn’t care about you. If he, however, told you that he is really struggling with some new responsibility, you might start to see the situation for what it really is. That is – he is a person with limitations, just like you. When you involve staff in why they need to adapt to something new, you can reap instant benefits:

  • It gives staff a clearer sense of why they do what they do. When they can connect to the meaning behind their actions, it will make them more motivated to do their work.
  • It signals that you trust and acknowledge them.
  • You avoid the possibility that staff make incorrect (possibly negative) assumptions about why they must do certain things.
  • You build closer and more open relations between you and your colleagues. When problems occur outside of your awareness, your colleagues are then more likely to want to communicate them to you.

Now if your boss had told you explicitly why he recently had to delegate certain tasks to you, you might even be able to suggest some ideas based on what you’ve experienced. From a superior’s viewpoint, such suggestions may not seem as qualified as those of, say, experienced consultants. Yet this doesn’t take away the fact that you get to hear thoughts from the people who live with the consequences of your decisions on a daily basis. Rarely can a single person have enough insight to know what is best for a whole organization. At the same time, this lack of holistic insight brings with it the danger that irreparable issues can occur at any corner of the company. It is in your best interest to constructively bridge the voices across departments. In essence, transparent communication can provide:

  • An opportunity for people to ask questions that can e.g. refine the solution to a problem.
  • An opportunity for people to suggest solutions in addition to those of the decision-makers.
  • A broader contribution of ideas. The best ideas can come from anywhere. Accessibility of information gives staff the opportunity to come up with informed suggestions.

While open communication can foster increased employee engagement and a valuable source of idea contribution, it can have its downsides too. We will have a look at these in another post, but until then – how has transparency (or lack thereof) affected you at work? What do you think is the right balance?

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Cross-Cultural Meetings: Diving Into the Unknown

July 18, 2011

Business today is not what it used to be. We used to be encapsulated in our organizational bubbles, networking with our fellow countrymen. Then along came globalization which affects countless innovative firms who want to expand. It has never been more important to connect globally. This is not bad, although with an international interest comes the need to communicate with potentially unfamiliar cultures.

Let’s take an example. You feel quite comfortable interacting with colleagues in your country office. “Blah-blah-blah, I’ve got this great idea for the next project, blah-blah, could you please look into this?” But then your superior says you’ve got some new high-profile client who can really accelerate the growth of the company. ‘Fantastic!’ you think. There’s just one catch – the client is Malaysian, and YOU have been chosen to sell to them. Your boss pats you on the shoulder, saying that this is not a chance you should blow. ‘Great’, you think, ‘I’m a good negotiator, but how on earth will I know I’m not treading on someone’s feet?’

Fortunately, dealing with another culture is not that different from dealing with any stranger you meet in the street. Nationals from one country may have a similar cultural upbringing and social routines, but they are in fact quite unique on a person-by-person basis – just like you and me. Take a look around you. If somebody from an entirely different country was in your shoes right now, what kind of advice would you give him/her about how best to communicate with each of your family members, colleagues, or friends? Would you tell them the same thing about every individual you know? Probably  not.

It is often pointless to predict how best to interact with any strange, new person. A personal relationship with another is an organic development that starts from the first moment you are exposed to each other and interact. This is an intuitive process. There are, however, some general social norms that people from the same country adhere to. Look into these before your first meeting, and you have the foundation for developing healthy and effective interpersonal communication patterns. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Do your homework before your first encounter. What is the prevailing etiquette? Brilliant, comprehensive knowledge bases exist here and here, where you can look up information on any country in the world. However, do in general keep a critical eye as some points may be a little outdated or too specific.
  2. Okay – you now know the basics of the other culture. Make sure you note the most relevant points for your particular situation, and imagine exactly what you will do when you first meet that new person. How will you say what you need to say? A mental run-through helps you be more grounded when you’re in the actual situation.
  3. If you know someone who is more used to dealing with other cultures (or just a particular person in your target culture), ask that person for advice. What did he/she find most or least difficult about talking to the other person? What should you be wary of, and what is the best way to deal with this? Do you really need to do anything different in the first place?
  4. Think of how you can be polite in a way that meets the other culture’s customs half-way. Bear in mind that others will subconsciously expect you to stick to  your own gestures and belief systems, and that neglecting them completely might make you look like you’re trying too hard. Try to decide on the perfect mix of your own and the other’s customs.

When all’s said and done, most aspects of human nature (e.g. respect for others) are similar across most or all cultures. What makes us different is HOW we express these aspects. Once you’ve met for the first time, you will start to have a clearer sense of what these differences are. At this stage, you won’t so much be thinking of treading carefully, but rather of how you can make your differences work practically (and even positively) in your collaborative project. We’ll revisit this topic in a future blog post about addressing cultural differences at work. But for now – can you think of other ways to make that professional connection with another culture? Have you got any relevant stories to share?

Is your communication system helping or hindering innovation?

July 11, 2011

Innovation needs the right use of communication tools. From start to finish, it is vital to keep everyone on the same page, and that means communicating well.

Perhaps the best part about communication through new technologies is that records of conversations can be organized and retrieved. Having all these open lines of communication is great but it is also easy to get overloaded with crowded email inboxes, too many long voicemails or memos and post-its which can get lost.

Every new communication technology presents another option to send your message and each has its optimal use. People are clearly concerned about eliminating inefficiencies in day to day communications, as evidenced by the popularity of Chris Anderson’s email charter  to eliminate the time-sucking properties of ineffective email conversations. Every communication medium can benefit from this kind of attentive reexamination. Streamlined, clear and effective communication can both foster an environment for faster, more collaborative innovation and increase your company’s productivity in implementing innovation and change.

The following list is a reminder of the characteristics, pros and cons of each of these mediums of communication. A communication system which utilizes each medium to its full potential can make the organizational and procedural components of innovation that much more fine-tuned.

Email

Use email when there needs to be a record of the conversation and it is the best way to send exactly the same message to a large number of people. When undergoing a large innovation project, email is perhaps a key way to ensure that every employee has a copy of your objectives, plans and agendas in a secure place which they can continually refer to.

Clearly and prominently state what recipients should do with emails. Is the message something they should keep or can they immediately delete it? Do you need a response or would a reply be superfluous? Also be careful with Cc and Bcc lists. Take a moment to really assess your recipient list and avoid spamming.

Phone

Calls are best for quick reminders and coordinating people and tasks in real time, and especially useful in emergencies.  Phone calls are when you have to speak to that person right then. An “urgent” email might not be seen, let alone checked, for hours.

Over the phone, you are also less likely to have the confusion of tone that you get in text and chat.  If you have an innovation idea that requires a quick gut check from a coworker, and you can’t meet them in person, consider a phone call.

Leaving a voicemail is faster and easier than turning on your computer and composing an email but if you have a lot of phone numbers, addresses or names to leave, make your message brief and send a follow-up email too, referencing the voicemail. We’ve all had those moments where we hear a phone number and say it repeatedly to ourselves to try not to forget it before we can find paper or a pencil. Not to mention, sound quality can be bad, things can get misheard, and names that are hard to spell can get completely lost in translation.

Video Calls

Video calls are the closest substitution for face to face conversations. Many other remote forms of communication are generally restricted to just one sense e.g.phone calls are only auditory, emails and texts are just the transcription of the ideas the sender wants to convey. Effective sharing of the ideation and innovation processes often need gestures, tone of voice and eye contact to be communicated thoroughly. Video calls are the closest substitution for face to face conversations.

As more people use Skype or other video call technologies, it is important to consider video call etiquette too. Video calls are the most immediate, and also the most intrusive. If it isn’t a prescheduled video conference, send a quick chat message to make sure the other person is available and open to having a video-based conversation.

Text

Texting in the workplace is generally looked down upon, particularly because it requires the use of personal cell phones. Texting, however, can be an incredibly helpful tool.

Cell phones plus texting means people are reachable wherever they are. Phones can hold hundreds of messages, so conversations can be recalled far in the future. Texts aren’t time sensitive in the way phone calls are. Texts don’t need to be seen or answered right away which can be either a pro or a con.

If texting is going to be incorporated into your company, they can take the place of physical memos or notes and are especially useful for field-based staff like sales staff or on-site customer service reps. They are more permanent and as soon as one is sent, you can be sure that the recipient has got the message.

In the context of the innovation process, texting can be useful to send (brainstorm) meeting reminders, or to gather real-time data from the field for an innovation pilot.

Intranets, clouds and beyond

Recently, a whole new explosion of tools for the instantaneous sharing of information has emerged. During times of innovation and change, establishing an intranet or collaborative software can mean a world of difference for your design or tech team. But don’t get seduced by all the hype of these shiny new toys for communication.

An intranet, internal social network, or cloud can be a great tool for departments that require a lot of collaborative work. For workplaces without that kind of need, they can be a distraction and a time-waster.

If there is no legitimate need for one of these new technologies, you could just be making communication in your company even more chaotic. If you do choose to use one, make sure mission-critical functionality is emphasized over getting all the bells and whistles just for the sake of it.

This list is not an end all, be all set of instructions for how you should conduct different forms of communication in your company. It is simply a reminder that each medium has its pros and cons. These pros and cons will be different for every company and for every industry. It can be beneficial to reassess how people are communicating with each other in your workplace. Are you being as efficient as possible? Or are your lines of communication a tangled and chaotic mess?

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