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It's time we switch from a technology-driven to a message-driven communications culture PHOTO: Pixabay

Your business depends on effective internal communication to run efficiently, but this is easier said than done. 

With new channels and applications emerging all the time, employees face a bewildering set of choices. Matching the message to the solution is becoming increasingly important otherwise, you end up with missing information and missed opportunities.

Let’s start with the obvious issues.

Matching the Medium to the Message

When presented with a choice between multiple available communication channels, employees will pick whatever one is immediately easiest and then write the message to fit the medium. 

This is backwards. The message should drive the medium. 

To achieve this outcome, employees need message-driven guidelines on when to use each channel, such that the content can be optimally presented.

Shifting your communications culture from technology-driven to message-driven can be difficult in today’s handheld culture. Instead of providing instructions on how channels should be used, educate your employees on how messages should be delivered. 

Using interruptive channels like text messages or phone calls works best for extremely time-sensitive messages. In comparison, communications deserving long-term auditability or accessibility are better delivered as file attachments to email messages or on message boards. That way they can be stored in document repositories for easy retrieval.

The Demands of Group Collaboration

Large-scale group collaboration deserves a dedicated workspace where people can access multiple types of documents and messages. 

Tangibility is still a good approach for medium-term large-audience broadcasts (cafeteria notices), real-time creative collaboration (whiteboarding) and short-term interruptive immediacy (sticky notes). And don’t worry, you'll still have plenty of opportunities to send email: one-way announcements and memo broadcasts, personal non-urgent communication, casual communications (because they can be lost or ignored) and low-impact meeting management, to name a few.

Putting the right message in the wrong medium destroys the efficacy of communications. 

Senders must acknowledge the readers’ need to manage clutter and information overload and not cause even more disruption just to be heard. Instead, align your communication approach to the natural landscape of how recipients get their information. 

Of course, employees must also learn to receive materials with grace and not simply “let everything go to voicemail.” Respectful communication is a two-way street. Educating employees how to construct messages, in terms of length, focus, style or formality can also help.

Tapping Multichannel Communications for a Single Task

Coordinating a single complex message across multiple channels is difficult and demands specialized planning and attention. 

For example, when you ask employees to send in their weekly timecard you might start with a polite reminder sent by email (which is easily ignored) in the morning, followed by midday text message if there is no response, and finally an afternoon phone call if all else fails. 

Note that this communications approach depends on your company’s responsiveness to whether the timecard is (or isn’t) submitted. Without that, everyone will be unnecessarily pounded with emails, texts and phone calls.

For multichannel broadcasting, communicators need to think less about responsiveness (because broadcasts don’t require response) and more about targeting. 

For example, if a company’s healthcare benefits provider is making important changes to how those benefits are delivered, HR may need to reach different employees in different ways. 

Messages posted on a bulletin board would be different from handouts delivered via email. The content of a phone message would be different from that requested in the forms employees must review, sign and return. Communications might also include educational meetings, training sessions and a growing FAQ made available on the intranet. 

Manage the Communications Lifecycle

Communications have a lifecycle that requires management, both from a content and security point of view. 

Many organizations have clear policies around email privacy and abuse, but lack policies regarding email behavior and lifecycle — develop these. Can someone send too many emails, or cc too many people? Does an email message last forever?

Companies already have a difficult enough time managing “real” documents, but that’s no excuse for ignoring communications. Not all messages are created equal, so develop appropriate systems for capturing messages with long-term importance and destroying those with none. 

Saving everything forever is a bad idea, and yet it’s often the default position. (Try an experiment: What are the oldest unprocessed messages in your inbox? I still have a Yahoo! signup alert from June 2013.)

Automatic classification technologies are imperfect, but can help categorize communications into groups with different guidelines for security, access and storage. Customer communications, for example, can be governed by customer information policies, but only if those communications are identified as such. 

Dedicated approaches for different kinds of communications — SharePoint extranets, Skype for Business, business SMS — are good for letting messaging needs drive your tools, as described above. Or you can “make do” with what you have, interpreting after-the-fact by reviewing IP domains and employee IDs, or requiring project and customer IDs, toward identifying those communications worth special attention.

Matching stakeholders and topics to messages can place a big demand on information systems, but that's why you have information managers.

A Metrics-Driven Approach to Communications Governance

Use well-understood metrics to support your communications governance plan — which if you don't have already, you'll need.

For example, think about the cc feature in email. Some say that email business etiquette demands that the cc be banned, that it generates clutter and aggravates interpersonal relationships. 

Fortunately, you can measure this theory through a simple audit of the email server, with some additional review to interpret content. With just a little effort, it’s possible to identify whether employees are using the cc option to show off, play defense or passive-aggressively escalate conflict. If any of these dysfunctional uses are in play, consider a zero-carbon email policy and track compliance.

Message retrieval has perhaps the biggest influence on communications governance design. 

Consider how people search for email messages and documents, browse instant messages and message boards, or even analyze logs for phone calls, faxes and request tickets. Most projects have IDs and a workflow with identifiable stages, which may be good ways to organize project-related communications. Communications during a project’s formative stage may require extra collection effort. It’s easy to track how communications are tagged (or not), and to use these measures to improve guidelines and tools application.

But then you have the searches with mixed-word phases such as idiosyncratic combinations of topics, names and keywords (e.g., “copier Dave hallway” and “Gayle meeting disability”). Without a taxonomy in place, you'll have a hard time interpreting these. Scoping by project or sender and sorting by date are rarely enough. Develop a method for organizing and tagging content to make the most of employee communications.

Employee communications are a business asset, even after the reason for the original communication is over. As with any digital document, employee communications can be mined for information. 

Text analytics operating on stored emails can help identify expertise and opportunities, aggregate knowledge around people and ideas, predict non-compliance and collect evidence on past breaches. 

Organizations often ignore the potential importance of undeleted and forgotten communications. It's time to stop underestimating their value and design messaging systems that accommodate these use cases. Also, employees need to be taught and encouraged how to use them. Metrics-driven governance can help track how successfully these use cases are met.

Mix the New- and Old-School Technologies

With your governance and policies in place, it's time to think about the software. Are your communication technologies up to date? Employees are accustomed to user-friendly tools in their personal lives — don't give them clunky interfaces in their work lives. 

A good collaboration solution can bring together groups who perform different functions or are geographically dispersed. Companies that do not have social networking solutions such as Jive or Slack in place may find that introducing such tools encourages engagement, particularly for younger workers. 

But this doesn't mean you can ignore old-style channels. Water cooler interactions and telephone chats are important for people to work together, innovate and encourage synergies. Many people still work in offices and/or prefer to communicate in person at times. 

Face-to-face conversations with co-workers are as informative and generally much more nuanced than any form of electronic communication. A great deal of information is communicated by facial expression and overall body language. Often overlooked in today’s digital world, the reassuring smile or the ironic glance has no substitute (yet).

Thanks to the physical and digital architectures of the workplace, businesses are encouraging all forms of interactions. Now it's time to put these communications to work for us!