In many ways, this is just common sense – if staff feel no connection with their co-workers, or have no idea why managers make decisions, then their enthusiasm and commitment will rapidly drain away.
Clear channels of communication are critical for survival. Staff should understand their responsibilities; how their performance is being measured; and how their work fits within the broader objectives of the organization.
The value of this is illustrated by an exchange between JFK and a janitor at a NASA space center in 1962. The president asked the man what he was doing. He replied,
Well, Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon.
The shared mission
Being united by a common goal gives staff a sense of purpose but it also allows the team to do a better job – being able to suggest changes and improvements to processes aligned with the business’ fundamental objectives. It also allows them to be proactive.
In a large construction project, for example, dozens of individuals may well be contributing to the process. If they understand what is fundamentally intended and work in concert then the process is likely to go far, far more smoothly. After all, a business that has 100 employees spends a reported 17 hours (or two working days) a week trying to gain clarity from poor communication – illustrating the sheer scale of the issue.
The Toyota Production System similarly gave every worker on the line the authority, and the responsibility, to stop the line if they spotted a defect. This reinforces the employee’s pride in their work but also gives them the freedom and autonomy to act – recognizing their skill and expertise.
It’s good to talk
This is all part of the process of opening up communication flows within the business. Encouraging staff to connect across roles, disciplines and levels of seniority presents the opportunity for them to acquire new perspectives and to find novel solutions to old problems – in effect, engineering serendipity. This can also do the more basic job of letting management know about the issues that are being felt at the coalface, and the various bodges and workarounds that staff are deploying to get their jobs done.
And organizations can actively encourage these kinds of cross-disciplinary connections via workshops, company social events and by promoting a culture of communication. For example, when designing the Pixar offices, Steve Jobs argued the case for having a large central space that allowed the company’s computer engineers and animators to meet and mingle. Whereas different departments had previously been siloed, this opened the door for unplanned collaborations and for new ideas to move across the company.
Networking with personnel from other businesses can fulfil a similar if broader function – making staff aware of new markets and technologies, and best practice approaches being applied across the industry. Given the fluidity of today’s commercial market, new contacts may also provide direct value to the business, whether by becoming employees, service providers, subcontractors or by referring customers.
There can be anxieties, however, that these kinds of programs will suck up time and resources. In his book, Collaboration, Morten Hansen recommends that the solution to this is to pursue "disciplined collaboration” – recognizing, for example, that not all goals require wider inter-departmental cooperation. For broader success, though, Hansen advises that organizations should seek to create “nimble and effective” cross-departmental networks; and that managers should be deeply integrated within their own units while also working across divisions.
And, in many respects, modern technology can make workplace communication far simpler. Tools such as Okappy allow workers to easily access and share files and media, and to remotely communicate via text, audio and video.
While the benefits of digital technology might often seem to be directed towards office workers, these capabilities can be enormously valuable for workers in the field, whether engaged in construction, repairs, cleaning or inspections. Indeed, whereas employees would have had to return to HQ to provide updates or to be directed to new jobs in the past, this can now be done instantly and without them having to leave their location. And this is a change that is being seen across an extremely wide range of industries.
New ways of working
These types of platforms also allow employers to flexibly absorb freelancers, gig workers and subcontractors into their labor force – something that is increasingly important considering Gartner’s prediction that more than 40% of field service work will be performed by technicians who are not employed by the business that owns the customer relationship, by the year 2020. And while lack of visibility might have historically been a showstopper for these types of engagements, modern technology can provide complete transparency for management and reporting, making extensive, scalable collaborations simple.
This can also incorporate agile working practices – regularly collecting customer feedback and incorporating it into an iterative development process.
In the broader scheme of things, communication and collaboration – both within the organization and beyond – are essential for businesses to succeed today. The siloing of information and resources wastes effort and reduces the organization’s capability, efficiency and competitiveness. Indeed, a first step in any effort to boost business agility is to establish where communication flows are being blocked – and to promptly tackle the problem.