Fast & Furious Communication

Fast & Furious Communication

February 21st, 2013 // 7:11 pm @

mobile_phone_confusion_3The massive increase in the speed and volume of communication is a critical issue in modern business.

Historically communications were much slower than those of today. In the days of sail powered ships, getting a message to India and back could take a year. In 1879 the UK got itself into a war in South Africa, which the UK government would have stopped had it not been for the fact a message from South Africa to London took six weeks.

The world in which we now live is radically faster. For example the president of the US can sit in the White House and watch combat troops in action, in real time. He can see what they see (From helmet cameras) he can hear what they hear, and he can if he chooses exercise complete direct command of those troops. This allows the most senior commander in the US to direct the lowest soldier without any chain of command if he chooses to do so, the implications of such communication on how we manage organizations is significant.

It is not only Presidents who have this information flow. As the Arab Spring unfolded, real time video of events were being uploaded from individual’s phones as it happened. Events could be watched on You Tube in real time by anyone in the world with Internet access.

This developing speed of communication has been happening since the start of the Industrial Revolution but has got faster and faster in recent years, with significant impact on how we manage in a business context.

For effective business management it is important to understand how human nature is affected by this faster and faster communication. And critically how it adds stress to individual, and damages effective decision-making.

Human beings like to feel important, that sense that what we are doing is worthwhile, and therefore we are worthwhile. We also within western culture prize speed of action as a virtue, being seen to be making quick decisions is perceived as good, while taking time to think as slightly unimpressive. Putting these two tendencies together we look on responding to communication quickly as important, even when the speed of response is not critical, but the quality of response is.

We have all heard the “I must respond to this email now” as people interrupt a meeting at the behest of their smart phone. Normally this is more to make themselves feel and look important than actually any commercial need for a rapid response.

This desire to be constantly dealing with “Urgent” communication has very significant downsides. It causes stress on the individual doing it, even though it is to some extent self inflicted, individuals are stressed by this feeling they must respond quickly.  It also interrupts other activity, and drives quick but often poorly though through decisions.

Human beings also like to feel safe, and this has a powerful centralizing influence on decision-making. It is well understood that delegation is a key managerial skill, however it is at odds with human nature. Delegating something to someone else feels unsafe, pulling together all the information and making the decision ourselves feels safer.

The speed of modern communication exacerbates this natural tendency as we can collect massive amounts of information centrally very quickly.

Therefore modern communication tends to pull decision making up the business to more senior executives, driven by their desire to be “In control” and feel safe.

The making of good decisions needs three things to be in the hands of whoever makes the decision. Authority to make the decision, knowledge on which to base that decision, and the responsibility for the outcome of the decision.

When decisions are pulled up the business structure, the authority is certainly there in senior management, but however much modern technology can give us access to information, the true knowledge relevant to the decision is normally at more junior levels of the business.

As to responsibility, too often senior managers make decisions and then hand them down to more junior managers who are expected to take responsibility for them. However it is human nature that decisions in which we were not involved are rarely ones we will take effective responsibility for.

Modern high-speed communication can therefore damage effective decision making by moving decisions up an organization, and separating, authority, knowledge and responsibility.

To ensure we use modern communication effectively, but allow time for thought and quality decision-making, management must now even more than in the past manage information flow and how decisions are made. Senior management tend to focus on making decisions themselves to the detriment of managing how decisions are made within the business.

Firstly there are some structural tools one can use to drive effective well thought through decisions.

Within the company structure define clearly who is responsible for which types of decision, and communicate these clearly to the individual and those they work with. Too often people are unsure about their level of authority, what decisions they should make and which should be passed up to more senior managers.

Secondly it is important to have a decision making process. Too often an issue arises, there is a flurry of emails, copied to as many people as possible, who all naturally feel obliged to reply. At the end of this flurry there are many emails with many hastily formulated thoughts and opinions, however there is rarely a clear decision made that is understood by all involved.

A process for key decision can aid in limiting this effect. For example setting a budgeting process with clear dates for when major decisions are going to be made, who will be involved and who will ultimately made the final decision. Following that setting a timetable for review gives a clear timescale to when any revisions are going to be made, and who will be involved.

If such key decisions have a timetable, there will still be the flurry of emails from time to time, but these can be useful as the sharing of thoughts and opinions, rather than as a decision making tool.

Leaders within a business can also lead by example in how they manage their communication:

  • Taking time when communicating themselves to make clear, whether they are asking for information, an opinion, or a decision. These critical distinctions if not clear will lead to confused responses.
  • Actively ask those you work with to tell you when they communicate with you what they are seeking, information, opinion or a decision.
  • Culturally set the example of taking time to review communication and respond to it, and actively encouraging people to take time to think. It is too rare to end an email with “Take a couple of days to think about this, and let me have your views then” instead we check our email ten minutes after sending an email expecting a response.

The speed and magnitude of modern communication are a great asset to business if used properly, but they will if not effectively managed drive stress within employees and poor decision making.

Managing this explosion of communication is a key driver of modern business success.

Category : Blog &Key Business Success Drivers

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