Monday, July 13, 2009

Communication Conundrums

Perhaps the greatest challenge and the main cause of issues and problems in IT (or anywhere else for that matter) is lack of effective communication. This is paradoxical as on first thought, the advance in technology and mobile devices nowadays should actually enhance communication. However, we see that in spite of the high tech capabilities to communicate being available, we still run into many “he didn’t tell me” or “ I was never informed about such and such” scenarios. Why is this?

In my opinion, the primary cause for poor communication is a lack of emphasis on this area by senior management. Communication must be deeply embedded in the very fabric of the organizations architecture and the ones to drive this through are the top management. Communication must be encouraged and rewarded, while a “shoot the messenger of bad news” predilection strictly discouraged.

Therefore, achieving successful communication can be divided into two parts: setting up the infrastructure for great communication technically and setting up the environment for communication “mentally” or “psychologically”.

The first part is relatively easy, as there exists an abundance of technology, applications and devices that create the infrastructure for effective communications. A great deal of information on this topic exists on the net and it is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into it in great detail. Furthermore, it is the other part of the problem, the psychological one that I feel deserves greater attention.

I have yet to meet a senior executive who did not believe in communication and publicly acknowledged the importance of it and yet most organizations that I have interacted with suffer from poor communication. Furthermore, these were organizations that had the latest infrastructure, applications and setup to communicate effectively and yet were facing significant shortcomings in their exchange of information, which in turn led to ineffective performance and low quality products and services delivered to the customer. The answer was that although the environment for effective communication was created technically and logistically, it was not created mentally or psychologically in the staff members minds.

Some significant barriers to effective communication in an organization are:

  • A change in predisposition required to communicate effectively. Most IT staff members are not used to efficient communication and have to make a shift in their habits to become proficient in this capability.

  • The formation of tribes or silos that have poor communication outside of their structure. This is something we have all seen and experienced. The QA department, for example, may deal well with each other internally but are in poor communication with the requirements group or the development group.

  • Too much information. If staff members are overwhelmed by too much information, then it becomes difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and important information can get missed or ignored.

  • Lack of standardized terminology within the organization. I have personally experienced test cases being described using three different names at an organization I worked at in the past. Needless to say, the testing was extremely poor and out of control there. This is where standardized methodologies like ITIL and Six Sigma can assist in bringing a standardized terminology throughout the organization.

  • Control issues & political games. Certain staff members might wish to deliberately avoid the circulation of information for their personal gains. Tactics of scapegoating, blaming, silence and exclusion are typically utilized here to achieve the control goals by people. It is imperative that management discourage this type of self-centered behavior and set a high standard themselves.

With each of these problems, management can play a crucial role in providing a solution by discouraging negative behaviors and setting themselves up as a role model of positive conduct. Especially important is the avoidance of “shooting the messenger syndrome” by management. Of course, over and above management guidance, the organization needs to foster an environment of easy and efficient communication by incorporating a planned communication strategy. The PMI body of knowledge offers the following communication management processes:

  • Communications Planning – determining the information and communication needs of project stakeholders

  • Information Distribution – making needed information available to project stakeholders in a timely fashion

  • Performance Reporting – collecting and distributing performance information. This includes status reporting, progress measurement and forecasting

  • Manage Stakeholders – managing communications to satisfy the requirements of and resolve issues with project stakeholders

Each of these processes is outlined in greater detail in the PMI Body of Knowledge publication and can be modified to suit the organizations individual needs. Clearly, the tools and techniques are available. What seems to be lacking is the determination by all concerned to make it successful.

Communications is the lifeblood of IT and just as a body with poor circulation will be host to disease and degeneration, so will an organization suffer from an array of problems and inefficiencies if communication is not managed and cultivated properly. It is the organizations own interest that the implementation of world class communication practices is given high priority and attention.

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