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There's too much talk, not too much communication

A blogger says we overcommunicate in the business world. Toni Bowers says that's wrong.

Steve Tobak, a blogger I admire, recently wrote a piece for MoneyWatch that outlined seven modern workplace myths. The one myth he mentioned that I had an issue with is:

Myth #2: We need more communication. He said:

Sure, communication is as important to business success and organizational effectiveness as it used to be. There's just too much of it. Workplace communication has so jumped the shark. The old problem of protecting domains by limiting the flow of information has morphed into a new problem of hyper-collaboration where everybody's included in everything. Communication overload has reached epidemic proportions and it's killing precious productivity and effectiveness.

I have to take issue with that statement. I think there are way too many ways of communicating -- of putting out there what we think -- but real communication, which I think of as a two-way street, is in short supply.

We all know those people who will tweet to the general population about 800 times a day with their favorite quotes or their latest brainstorms about Lady Gaga but who would rather have their eyeballs rolled in pepper than reply to an email with an answer to a question or give the people they work with a heads-up on some changes coming down the pike. So, yeah, I think there are a lot of words and pixels being tortured in the name of communication, but I'm not sure much of it is helpful.

Now, I'm with Steve completely that there's a problem with overcollaboration -- in the sense that too many people are included in every initiative and decision that comes to pass. Because of that, you get 72 people scrunched around a conference table, eager to be noticed, bringing up every godforsaken detail that could possibly be imagined, 98% of which will never be relevant in the long run. Nonproductive? Sure.

My guess is that the principals are thinking, "I am physically incapable of passing this information on to anyone else who should know, so I'll invite everyone with a pulse to be there, so I won't have to! Plus, people will get the illusion that their opinions matter. It's a win/win!"

The fact is, communication methods are more numerous, but real communication is close to extinction. That's my opinion anyway.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

19 comments
Pragmatic Rich
Pragmatic Rich

I have to agree. As a freelance software engineer I've experienced this far too many times. Companies where nobody wants to take responsibility for a decision on a product, so the whole department is drafted in and the requirements get put together by a committee that can't agree or remember what they agreed. Then after the requirements are finalised and development starts a director gets involved and starts dictating his requirements. I've never had all my teeth pulled out but I've experienced the pain. Just give me 2 people in the company to work with who have the intellect , business knowledge and the guts to put their cojones on the line and make a decision. There seems to be a relationship between company size and the amount of over communication that's done. There's a critical mass beyond which a company can afford to become slack and less to the point, i.e full of wind, because their size seems to carry them despite their indemic ineptitude. Just my 2 pence

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

...of the basics on which life operates. I say LIFE, because a business or production group is a living thing and operates on principles that are common to all living things. Take your own body as an example. It requires good communication through its various regulatory systems to maintain optimum operation. Too much communication through one system (say you hit your thumb with a hammer or something) can completely distract it from what it was supposed to be doing, or even knock it out entirely. I didn't go to business school to learn these basics. I hope they teach them there, but maybe not! I learned them when I went to work for my church. They sure were taught there! Good communication IS two-way. In our organizations, it is actually a minor offense to NOT respond promptly to a received message. It is also an offense to pretend you understand a message when you really don't. Because good communication also includes DUPLICATION. In our organizations, we also have a concept known as DEVELOPED TRAFFIC. This occurs in many forms, but it basically amounts to unproductive communication. It can include too much communication, which can result is people spending too much time handling their messages instead of doing their work. According to our theories, dev-t is caused by people who either intentionally want to cripple the organization or, more often, by people who are UNHATTED - don't know enough about what they are supposed to do or what other people in the group are supposed to do. Thus, communication problems in a group can be handled in different ways depending on what's causing them. If people aren't taking communication seriously, they probably need some training on the subject and how vital it is to the health of the group. But if the communication lines are clogged with a lot of useless nonsense, chances are someone, or perhaps many staff, need to find out what they are really supposed to be doing, and also what the people around them are supposed to do. Then if someone is willfully goofing off, the others will spot it and confront him with the problem. Communication in life or in a group is a VERY important subject! It can pay off grandly to get this subject fully understood and working well in a body, a business, or a planet.

brandt.tullis
brandt.tullis

Whenever a client forgets to tell me that they really wanted something, I take note of what I missed and make sure to offer that something the next time. Every time I'm given instructions, I play them out in my head and look for things that were left out. This way, I rarely have to say, "But they never asked me to do that!" The people who run my IT firm are really skilled at "client whispering." Sure, the communication we receive can be garbled, emotional, and full of holes, but IT pros can strip away the bull and fill in the blanks. The longer I've been in IT, the less frustrated I've become with lack of communication. Anticipation improves communication.

dustinsc
dustinsc

We have "Shared Governance". My first week on the job, I got to sit in at a meeting, just like you described, with about 25 people. The meeting was beyond ridiculous. That project eventually got the green light (mostly because there was a grant tied to it). After a year and a half since then, we are still in the process of rolling it out. At my old job, our team would have had this thing on the client???s web site in a month.

GSG
GSG

As an invitee, I look at what the meeting is about, and if I don't think I can add anything, I decline the meeting request with an explanation. I sometimes will call the inviter first to ask for more info about the meeting and then have a short discussion about whether I really need to be there. Rarely do I need to be at a meeting after one of these discussions. An invite is usually not a command performance, and when it is, the inviter has a responsibilty to note whose presence is required versus those who are optional.

cwarner7_11
cwarner7_11

Many, many years ago, when one wanted to record important information for posterity, one carved it into store. Later, we learned that making impressions in soft clay and firing it was much easier- and the volume of information deemed worthy of preservation increased considerably (or, so it seems, based on the volume of clay tablets uncovered by archaeologists). Later, we learned an even easier way, by painting symbols on scraps fo animal hides...on to the printing presses and today with computer-generated content. Each advancement has broadened the concept of what is worth preserving. Which means it gets harder and harder to actually find that little tidbit of information that provides the "aha!" moment that gets the project moving along. It is not the lack of information that causes the problem- it is the critical information hiding in a forest of information that "might be useful someday". This increases the "cost" of the important stuff, because it takes more time to find it. Which encourages certain personality types to hold the really important stuff in secret, to improve their personal power. I think someone who could come up with a decent filter could make a fortune...(Are you listening, Google?). Maybe something like, "Who has the answer to my question?" Of course, we have to be sure we are asking the right questions, first...

yodi.collins
yodi.collins

Unfortunately in this Information Age too many conflicting workplace agendum means that a strategic dearth of effective communication will remain the status quo.

tbmay
tbmay

You're talking about two issues really.... One issue would seem to be a matter of thinking well worded responses to e-mails is important. If this is a company priority, the company is going to have to be willing to pay for it. From an IT point of view, expecting people to solve complex technical problems on tight deadlines, and still take the time to write super prose might be unrealistic. They might not even know how. If it's that important, you might want to consider hiring a liaison a bit more adept at artful communication. Everybody does not have the same skills. Regarding over collaboration.... What I've experienced in darn near 30 years in the workforce is the agency problem....i.e. employee self interest (including management) superseding the interests of the organization....is the norm. Honestly...that's almost a "well duh" statement because we all work to be paid. We rarely honestly believe our product is something that enhances all that is good in the world. Management is typically very dishonest about this. Lets face it, it's not a just world. There is a book out that is mandatory reading in some MBA classes that basically tells the reader to forget all the nonsense you've read about working hard and doing a good job and learn how to "play the game." Politics trumps performance. I digress. http://www.amazon.com/Power-Some-People-Have-Others/dp/0061789089 While managers are busy self promoting, they have to figure out how to spin it as what's good for the company. One of the things that comes from this is the over-collaboration you're talking about. "I'll call this meeting and ask for the input of everyone. As you said, I get to pass the buck, look important, and give them the illusion I care about their opinions." And, of course, the subordinates, seeing narcissism really is the key to success in the corporate world, dives in. The ones that don't because they just want to do their jobs, or they are averse to this dishonesty, are often said to have attitude problems. Of course current technology compounds the problem of white noise that comes from all this. In any event, I don't think this is something you can fix with evals. This is a systemic issue that will require a change in culture. In my opinion, the key to getting quality communication is the same as getting good attitudes and loyalty...honesty at the top setting the organizational culture. Maybe even a bit of humility as a way to set an example. If that leadership exists, it will set reasonable expectations and lead by example. I won't hold my breath.

jonrosen
jonrosen

It's hard to say if there even is one at this point for many companies unless a LOT of work is done from the ground up. Much of the problem is due to the lack of common sense, and yes, I'll put blame on both the whole PC (Politically Correct) movement and the managerial love of buzzwords. Lack of common-sense, corporate/managerial slang (buzzwords), and a fear of saying what needs to be said, because it might offend someone (non-PC), is a major problem. One of the abject examples I can use is the ITIL certification. When I got it, I was an end-user IT support. 95% of what I had learned was common sense, and the rest was managerial re-wording of the English language (much like lawyer-speak). ITIL is primarily to show the financial managers (who don't know a damned thing about IT or how it works), to understand why it is worth funding. Especially since it is often the CFO or the like who has a large say in how the IT group runs. I've seen it in many places. The IT geeks KNOW what they're doing and how it ties in. How and why it gives value to the company (when it's not a software-development company) I'll admit, ITIL looks nice on the resume, even for a non-manager. But to me, it was personally a waste of time and a joke to bother. I learned nothing truly useful that wasn't a practice I try to make sure happens in the first place.

dave the IT guy
dave the IT guy

I think that cultural issues can even further cloud this problem. Working in a multinational organization I have come across situations where the idea of over communicating is built in to the normal way things are done. But all that happens in this scenario is that decisions take longer and longer to be made because everyone's opinion MUST be heard and taken into account - unless of course you are from a different country with a different work culture.

andrew.bream
andrew.bream

I agree that this happens at most companies most of the time, but what to do about it? It's obviously not a technology issue...

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

You said, "From an IT point of view, expecting people to solve complex technical problems on tight deadlines, and still take the time to write super prose might be unrealistic." I agree with that but I never suggested that answers to email had to be pretty. I'm talking about yeses or nos that are needed to go further on an issue. I don't care if a response is five words written in pig latin if it gets me the information I need to do my job.

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

Probably the only solution will be to make communication skills a part of the review process. The only way to do that would be to use 360 evals that have questions for coworkers and direct reports that evaluate how well a person communicates important initiatives and answers email. Of course, I'll catch all kinds of hell for that from IT pros who "don't have time" to answer email.

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

...I said what I was driving at. LOL

tavent
tavent

I actually got dinged for writing emails that were in complete sentences, speaking the King's English. Somehow the people who fancied themselves qualified to evaluate me, wanted management-speak. That is, fragment phrases apparently. And the odd thing is that I really was not entirely convinced that communicating ANYTHING to some of them, was really my job to begin with. And the ironic thing is that my job is teaching technical training. Those people who complained, were not my students.

tbmay
tbmay

I made an inference based on your post where you talked about adding how well a person communicates important things.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Employees need to be able to review their manager's communication skills without threat of reprisals.

toni.bowers_b
toni.bowers_b

That's why I said questions for direct reports. Those should definitely be anonymous.