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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?

Image from stlouiscnr.com

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