Twenty years ago, we used two-way radios and pay phones to communicate between headquarters and our field personnel. A lot has changed in communications technology since then. Cell phones became widely used in the 1990s and ubiquitous over the past decade. We have had wireless broadband cards in laptops deployed in the field for several years. Now smart phones allow 24/7 access to email, text messaging, the Internet, and often our fleet-management systems, allowing us to stay on top of our fleets and to generate emails to everyone in our entire organization any time of day or night. So why is communication still one of the biggest challenges most organizations face?
One mistake we make is viewing technology as a panacea. Any piece of technology is nothing more than a tool that, when properly applied, can help us do our jobs more effectively and efficiently. Communications technology is no different. It must be properly applied in order to be of benefit.
That’s where the second mistake comes in, one that predates cell phones: mistaking sending information for communication. Communication is a two-way street. For communication to occur, not only must a message be sent, but it must also be received and understood by the intended party. For communication to be effective, the message sent must be well encoded: It must contain enough information for the recipient to be able to easily extract the intended information, and only the intended information. A message that is missing key information is not effective. Neither is one that can be interpreted to have multiple meanings because of either inadequate or overabundant information.
One way to ensure that communication is effective is to provide the opportunity for feedback in the chosen method of communication. Feedback is the process whereby the sender and receiver have the opportunity to ask questions and clarify points to make sure that the receiver of the message understands what the sender intended.
Email and text messaging tend to eliminate the feedback portion of the communication loop, or at least make it extremely difficult, leading to email threads in which emails are sent back and forth trying to guarantee that we understand what the other party is trying to tell us. Another downfall with email is the tendency to use too few words, causing the message to fall short of its goal of communicating the intended message. On the other hand, emails can contain too many words, including every detail that anyone could ever want to know, causing the key message to become lost somewhere in the middle.
Smart phones, text messaging, and 24/7 access to email have the potential to improve communication when used appropriately. When we have to reach multiple recipients, or need to include technical details or other information to which recipients may need to refer later, email is a great tool. We should carefully review email correspondence to make sure it contains the minimum information needed to convey the intended message, eliminating any extraneous information that may distract from it.
Sometimes, though, email is not the best choice. When a subject is complicated and may require clarification, a phone call is likely a better choice. Likewise, when information is time-sensitive, we need to make sure that the recipient does indeed receive the message, or when we need an immediate response, use the phone.
In order to communicate effectively in today’s 24/7 connected world, we need to stop and think before we reach for the Blackberry or smart phone. Is email the best choice for this message, or would I be better off calling in order to make sure that the other party understands what I am trying to tell them? Today’s technology has the potential to allow us to communicate better than ever before, but these devices are just tools. We still need to practice basic communication principles. The right blend of email and phone calls will allow us to be at the top of our game.