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Technology and communication

Technology has changed the way we behave. It is not unusual to see a mother pushing a pram across the road whilst texting and the ability to stay in permanent contact places communications at the centre of our existence and blurs our life and work identities.

Despite the maelstrom of social networks, emails, texts and Twitter, people are increasingly lonely and look to their technology for solutions. Many people drive and most walk, with a mobile clamped to their ear, leading to a complete lack of awareness and consideration of others.

Nicholas Carr, who wrote the article, “Is Google making us stupid?” has just published a book called The Shallows, in which he considers how various human inventions have influenced our essential modes of thought. Compared to the advent of the book, which encouraged us to be contemplative, the internet’s ‘cacophony of stimuli’, has given rise to ‘cursory reading and superficial learning’.

Experience rewires our brain’s circuits (neuro-plasticity) and Carr writes: “If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the internet.”

If technology can change the ways we behave and interact and even alter the shape of our brains, it must surely have a revolutionary effect on the ways we communicate at work.

According to a Gallup poll, 69% of employees are not engaged while they are at work, which leads to lower levels of productivity. The best way to increase employee engagement is with effective internal communications.

Human Resources are increasingly being asked to lead and deliver internal communications and they need to produce and apply effective communications’ plans.

In its snappily-titled report, Effective Communication 2009/2010 ROI Study, the global professional services company, Watson Wyatt, claims: “Courage, innovation and discipline help drive company performance, especially in tough economic times. Effective internal communications can keep employees engaged in the business and help companies retain key talent, provide consistent value to customers and deliver superior financial performance to shareholders.”

The survey says that companies that are effective communicators, “have the courage to talk about what employees want to hear, can redefine the employment deal based on changing business conditions and have the discipline to plan effectively and measure their progress.”

Wyatt defines courage as “telling it like it is”, saying shielding employees from bad news is treating them like children and that if you tell them what they need to know they will reward you with solid performance.

Innovation needs to be constant and employees should be encouraged to rethink processes, streamline tasks, implement productivity measures and think creatively.

Troubled times require accountability, which needs discipline. Companies need to set direction and measure how they are doing. Plans need to be communicated, rather than just giving direction without context. A firm communication plan, supported by updates on intranets, blogs, emails and tweets, lets employees know how the company is performing.

Chris Bradford is an HR consultant who believes HR should be a value-adding advisory service to a business and consequently is likely to take the lead or share responsibility for internal communications.

Bradford says: “Internal and external communications must be joined up and consistent. Some organisations make big promises to external customers, but treat their staff as second-class citizens. Your people are your shortest route to market and personal recommendation is the most effective way of selling your product or service.”

She says that if communication is going to be taken seriously, it must be honest and authentic; over-engineered messages and spin make people cynical and distrustful; “People at all levels have an innate bullshit detector.”

“Communication must be two-way; in all relationships we resent being told and not being asked. Feedback via surveys is a key way of finding out what your staff really thinks, but listening is not enough; you need to act on the feedback, which creates a virtuous circle, reinforcing credibility and trust.”

Rachel Allen is head of operations at London Overground Rail Operations and writes about the role of technology and social media in the management of internal communications.

She says: “Social media is here and even if you don’t yet have a strategy in place, and even better, linked to your external communications, your employees are already using collaboration sites in their personal lives. This impacts internal communication as people are used to communicating in this way and expect to be able to do the same at work.”

New media, like traditional media, do not suit every person or organisation, but when used properly, blogs and social networks can pull employees into a community and give them access to people at all levels all the time.

Horizontal networks can be a very efficient way to find true expertise, often in unexpected places, but whether a company’s communications are horizontal or vertical, those responsible need to be aware of how employees are interacting and ensure internal communication maximises the desire to share information.

Allen says: “I think social media’s role in internal communication should be kept simple, it should improve interaction between employees at all levels. I think it needs to be demystified and viewed as another tool in our toolbox to help employees communicate with each other and the outside world.”

Unlike in the real world, where technology dangerously prevents people from travelling in a straight line, unexpected changes in direction should be encouraged in the workplace, harnessing the best of any available technology.

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