Communication breakdown: 10 tips to get users to listen to IT

Alleviate communication barriers between IT and users with these 10 tips.

5 ways to improve your workplace communication skills Poor communication at work can kill morale, slash productivity, and even alienate customers. Here's how to avoid workplace communication missteps.

Most, if not all, system administrators have experienced what I call "communication difficulties" with our respective user communities. Maybe we upgraded a server, made a change to an existing process, or found a workaround to a current problem, which we then tried to share with the company, but something got lost in translation or missed entirely.

I can speak to this first-hand. I've built password reset portals, written elaborate documentation on how to obtain technical assistance and provided tips and tricks, which either weren't comprehended by users or never read at all. Worse is being accused of not providing proper advance notice or sufficient detail when you attempted to do so repeatedly, but it registered on deaf ears.

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To be fair, a large part of this is that communication (often in email form) provides too much information, is too repetitive (a true paradox in that the more emails you send the less likely users will pay attention), and does not use the right strategies to get the word out.

Here are ten ways to alleviate communication barriers and ensure that you provide details to users in the most meaningful—and memorable—manner.

1. Use standardized email templates

Scattershot emails from various IT staffers are less effective since users will probably feel that the information isn't relevant to them or "it's another boring security advisory." Standard templates discussing what users need to know can be invaluable to provide a consistent and reliable mechanism for disseminating information. To learn how to create standardized templates in Outlook in: How to use standardized email templates for better communication.

2. Be as concise as possible

Minimize your communications to stick exclusively to the "who, what, when, where and why" elements users need to know. Sometimes even the "why" isn't necessary—users don't necessarily care for the reasoning behind replacing a file server; it's just part of IT's responsibility. The shorter you can make your missives, the better impact it will have.

3. Use appropriate formatting

Nothing is less readable than one huge paragraph, which takes up a whole page (or an entire computer screen).

Spacing your material into digestible chunks (think one to two sentences per paragraph) helps to ensure data will actually get into people's consciousness and perhaps even register in their long-term memory. This way, for example, they may remember that on Friday email will be down for maintenance at 10 p.m. Of course, a follow-up announcement the day-of any planned work is in order, too.

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4. Target only appropriate groups

When you send out details to users, involve only users who specifically need to hear or be aware of what you're saying, otherwise you'll endanger your communication track record.

I've worked for large companies with IT staff, which sent out generic announcements to the entire organization about various systems or services being impacted at other locations. That was a big waste of time for those of us not located in those areas nor using the services referenced.

Of course, this means building a specific, tailored set of email distribution lists in advance, which includes departments, geographic locations, and customized user groups (such as those who use a particular database server, for instance).

5. Link to other webpages

You don't want to explain the same stuff over and over. Worse, you don't want to type the same stuff over and over. Set up an internal website with the material you can easily link to when you send out announcements.

Ensure the appropriate access to these links is in place, however, since if users don't have the rights to view the web pages they might just ignore the topic and move on.

6. Display notifications in a centralized location

Displaying notifications on an intranet site like a Sharepoint portal or wiki/blog page, which users routinely log into is another great way to get the word out.

Write a brief announcement with links to the full description/steps involved. You might even get creative and have announcements flash or appear in a separate window if necessary to ensure they capture people's attention.

7. Use videos and screenshots

When I first came across training videos (such as on YouTube) explaining how to perform various technological steps, I was not a fan. It seemed easier to just write down the steps involved so others could read and quickly follow them.

The video concept has grown on me. We're a visual society and multimedia and screenshots can help get the job done whereas the written word may not be as successful. There are plenty of tips out there on how to create training videos, which you can capitalize upon.

SEE: 10 ways to communicate more effectively with customers and co-workers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

8. Use printed material

It may sound anachronistic, and as a fan of digital-only material it's difficult for me to admit this, but sometimes the printed word is more meaningful than the electronic communications, which overloads us so frequently. This is especially handy with major announcements, or when working with users who are more comfortable with printed material.

Colorful printouts discussing upcoming changes or procedures can make a meaningful difference, especially if displayed in prominent locations or even handed out individually to users.

9. Get manager support

I've found it extremely helpful to get assistance from managers in the organization. A quick conversation urging them to remind employees to read and follow IT guidelines has worked wonders as people generally respond better to their own leadership chain.

It also never hurts for leaders to remind their employees that being aware of what's going on can help them do their jobs more effectively and reduce the potential for work-stoppage issues or confusion caused by not heeding announcements or following directions.

10. Ensure new users are covered

After you've implemented the above steps, ensure that new users are aware of whatever changes or updates you broadcast. This involves scrubbing or updating obsolete information, guides, company resources, and the like. I also maintain an internal webpage for documentation geared specifically for new hires to help get them up to speed and reduce the amount of hand-holding necessary for thorough information.

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