When I began work in a new position at my husband’s small company recently, I expected that I would be able to accomplish the charter and goals established for my role fairly quickly. I was tasked with improving communication within the IT organization and more broadly, within the company. Having worked over the prior 20 years at various positions where communication techniques, software and solutions were part of everyday life I figured this was going to be a no-brainer for me. However, I was stunned by the difference in culture between my old environment and this new one. I was sure that nearly everyone in North America was an avid email, messaging and Web 2.0 user and had experienced the technology related paradigm shifts of the past 25 years with equal acceptance. Nope! Not so in the industry that this company succeeds within. Practices that I believed were now common across all American businesses were not part of day-to-day communication mechanics here.
While the company stayed relatively small (less than 1,500 employees), was primarily co-located in a single building, and maintained longevity of tenure (15+ years) for the largest percentage of workers, the need was not recognized for what we typically think of as Internet era, and then Web 2.0 era communication modalities. And most definitely, the Social era is seen as non-business by some leadership at this company and actively eschewed.
As communication tools and technologies were evolving over the past 20 years, most people who worked here just learned how to navigate through the high complexity of learning and maintaining the company business by walking to a co-worker’s desk and asking questions. Information transfer was primarily a one-on-one endeavor, in an apprenticeship-like model. Yes, there is an email system, but 80% of all emails are one-to-one between two individuals only. The structure of a distribution list, used to communicate simultaneously to many people at once, is reserved for a few line of business managers, a few executives, and key HR spokespeople. Yes, there is an intranet site built using an open-source platform on the cheap, but content on that site is primarily ‘flat’ in that it consists of simple linked html pages which display text only. There is no strategy, no overarching design structure, and just a little ownership of content in a few areas by some department leads. Usage statistics show that beyond the Home landing page which yields 76% of all hits, access dwindles to 3% and then less for all other pages on the site. The long tail for this usage data chart is asymptotic. Yes, there is a phone system for employees, and a call handling system in place for the customer support organization with front end routing, but the phone list is not integrated into any other communication system. The phone list is maintained in spreadsheets scattered around the business, and a home grown phone list search utility was developed in-house, and is linked to on the intranet Home page. Although there is an Active Directory in use, it is not populated with employee data. The Global Address List is similarly empty and unused. There are no formal closed-loop mechanisms in place for keeping the phone list or the email address list up to date.
All of this is changing…rapidly. The company has been on a steep growth path for the past year, and is hiring more new employees than at any time in its 50+ year history. Technology is being understood as a valuable competitive edge, and is used to provide customers with BI reporting solutions that help them manage and trim operating costs. More employees are now geographically dispersed across several sites around North America. Connecting with other employees, learning the business, and sharing tribal knowledge all require some supplement to the physical 1-to-1 human connection that sufficed in the past in order for this company to continue its success.
It’s in this environment that I will be defining an internal communication strategy and rolling out various solutions over the next two years. I will be documenting my experiences as this effort unfolds and will share them with you here.