Special Report - Moving Your Organization into the Communication Age

By Daniel Burrus

(Back to article)

For the last several decades, we have all been working hard at helping our company become a fast and agile information age organization. We’ve found new and better ways to distribute and display data and information. We now have 24/7 access to email and websites via a multitude of devices, such as smartphones, smart-tablets, laptops, and desktops ... in fact, it’s hard to find any area in an organization that doesn’t provide access to information. Yes, we’re definitely in the information age, and therein lies the problem.

We have more email than we can keep up with. We have numerous collaborative tools we’re trying to interact with. We’re members of multiple groups and associations that provide information. We’ve subscribed to paid and free e-newsletters, newsfeeds, and RSS feeds. We’re subject to mobile advertising and a barrage of information every day. Even the company leaders are constantly sending out plans, imperatives, directives, goals, strategies, and tactics to the organization, trying to get people at every level to take action on them.

We are literally drowning in information.

Even simple online searches produce more information than we can handle. For example, do almost any Google and it’s very possible (and probable) to get millions of results. If the information you want isn’t on the first four pages, chances are you’ll never get to it. But what if the exact thing you’re looking for is on page 5,000? In other words, even keyword searches aren’t working and are producing too much information. And let’s face it, just because a company is paying to be at the top of the search results doesn’t mean they have the best information. It simply means they have a bigger marketing budget. Frankly, our current information management systems aren’t helping because even our technology is overloaded by our technology.

The rate at which each person is creating information is increasing as well. We have so many more devices capturing information in real time that most people don’t even realize how much data is being created. Here’s a simple example: Every time someone is in a department store and buys a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans with a 34” waist and a 32” inseam, the moment they make the purchase, they’ve just created more data that is then converted into information and sent somewhere for analysis or action.

Clearly, the information age is wonderful, but it has also become a problem. So what’s the solution? We need to propel our organizations into the communication age. Only then can we reach the next level of organizational excellence.

Informing vs. communicating

There is a big difference between informing and communicating. Informing is one-way, static, and seldom leads to action. Communicating is two-way, dynamic, and usually leads to action. Realize that the information age is not our friend; it’s our enemy in disguise.

Ask yourself, “In our organization, are we better at informing than communicating?” For most people, the answer is yes. And if you can’t communicate internally with your staff, how can you communicate externally to customers and shareholders? This is not to say that you should stop informing people. However, you do need to tap into true communication. When you focus on maximizing two-way communications, you can create a communication age organization and cause positive change much faster.

Now here’s the interesting thing: Even if we embrace the communication age and go full force into it, the information age doesn’t go away. Informing has its role and can be useful. So you don’t want to erase the past, you simply want to move forward into the future. Think of it like this. All the ages of human history that have ever existed still exist today. You can go to certain places on the Amazon river and be with people who live as they did thousands of years ago. They wear loincloths, hunt with spears, and live in grass huts. Similarly, you can go to sections of Pennsylvania and Ohio and see Amish communities where people live as they did in the 1800s.

You can also go into companies and do a similar sort of time travel. Some departments or divisions feel as though you went backwards in time, with old operating systems and mindsets. Other departments and divisions are already in the future, using advanced tools and moving faster than most.

So, from an information perspective, everything that has ever existed still exists today. It doesn’t go away. The new simply gives us more options to innovate and lead. Previously, we jumped into the information age and have since done a great job of being information age organizations. The benefits of all that work don’t go way, however, in order to get rid of some of the negatives of the information age and accelerate growth, we have to move forward into the communication age.

The right tools

Ironically, we have all these fantastic communication age tools, but we’re using them in an information age way. Why? Because we still have an information age mindset. Therefore, it’s time to learn how to use the tools currently available in a way that will advance the organization and promote both internal and external communications. What follows are some suggestions that will help you move your organization into the communication age.

Know how people like to communicate and learn - Not everyone communicates in the same way. In some cultures it’s common that people don’t return voicemails, but they do return text messages. Likewise, people in different generations prefer different communication tools.The key is to understand how people like to communicate. Therefore, before you use a certain communication tool with an individual or group, ask yourself, “How does this person (or department, company, etc.) prefer to communicate?” If you’re not sure, look at how the other party regularly communicates with you. People tend to use the communication tool they’re most comfortable with. Better yet, ask the other party how they prefer communications to come to them. If your goal is to elicit some sort of action, you have to communicate in the manner that will get the other party to respond.

Just as people communicate in different ways, they also learn and absorb information in different ways. Some people would rather listen to a book than read it. Knowing this, do you think that people who would rather listen to a book than read it would also prefer voicemail over email? Probably so. A person’s learning style usually mirrors his or her communicating style. Therefore, if you’re trying to communicate and get people to absorb information, wouldn’t it make sense to deliver the message in a way that ties into their learning style?

With the communication tools currently available, you can tap into someone’s preferred style. Today, we have the technology that enables you to leave someone a voicemail, but they receive it as a text message or read it as an email. Or, you can text someone and the receiver gets it as a phone call. The ability to have a sender send something in the format they prefer and the receiver receive it in the format they prefer is here now. You simply have to use it. When you do, you’ll be maximizing communications internally and externally.

Get social inside the organization - Social media is all about communicating, not informing. That’s why it’s been so widely accepted. Before social media, the internet was a giant tool for informing. Now it has shifted to become a giant tool for both informing and communicating, and that shift has been rapidly embraced by young and old alike. But are companies using these communication tools internally? For most organizations, the answer is no. However, once you understand the power of the various social media applications and how to use them in your organization, you’ll quickly find that they can be invaluable tools to enhance your communications efforts. Following are some examples.

Facebook: Large organizations can connect all of their employees or members with an internal, secure Facebook like application. This has helped organizations to dramatically increase their internal networking and collaboration. Ask yourself: Could we use Facebook, or our own internal version, to get people to communicate and collaborate at a higher level?

Twitter: Young people use Twitter for answering the question: What are you doing? Business users could change that question to: What problem are you trying to solve? Several companies have used this as a fast way to solve problems. Hotels, airlines, and airports are using Twitter to pitch services, travel updates, and respond to travelers needs. Ask yourself: Could we use Twitter to solve problems faster with our organization or our customers?

Wikipedia: A large manufacturing company with engineers in locations around the world increased problem solving and collaboration by creating an internal, secure version of Wikipedia for sharing information on products and service offerings as well as repair and maintenance instructions. Retailers and suppliers could create an internal version of Wikipedia to foster education and training as well as enhanced information sharing. Ask yourself: Could we create an internal version of Wikipedia to foster better information and knowledge sharing?

YouTube: Businesses are posting humorous commercial videos to generate interest in their products with great success. The more entertaining it is, the more people watch it. Business partners could create a YouTube like channel for the purpose of educating and training. Ask Yourself: Could we enhance our marketing efforts as well as general communication by using YouTube or our own version of video sharing?

Digg: Many organizations have found this to be a good way to track the most interesting advances in technology or the most useful business news. Large organizations can create their own internal version for sharing what employees consider to be the most useful information. Ask yourself: Could we use Digg, or our own internal version, to get people to share their most interesting and valuable web-based information with each other?

Delicious: Business users can share their most useful websites with co-workers or business partners. If a customer purchases a product, sellers could share relevant bookmarks that keep the customer coming back for more information and hopefully more products. Ask yourself: Could we use Delicious to share important new web sites faster within our organization or with our customers?

LinkedIn: LinkedIn is a business-oriented professional networking website for exchanging professional and business opportunities. Large insurance companies use LinkedIn to foster networking with their independent sales representatives. HR professionals from all over the world could use LinkedIn to share best practices. Ask Yourself: Could we use LinkedIn to expand our organizational network for enhanced knowledge sharing?

Visual communications: Visual Communications, unlike traditional video conferencing, uses your desktop, laptop, or smart phone to hold a quick, anytime, anywhere videoconference with one or more other people. Travelers who must be away from home are using their laptops in hotel rooms with broadband access and free software such as Skype and AIM to communicate with family and friends to enhance their personal connection. Businesses are discovering the power of Visual Communications to enhance the connection with their sales force, business partners, and customers. Ask yourself: Could we use Visual Communications to enhance communications internally and externally?

By reframing the use of social networking technology, companies can increase communication, collaboration, problem solving, and competitive advantage with little cost. And since many of these tools are free or nearly free, they are accessible to organizations of any size.

The sooner you embrace these tools and put it to work for you, the faster you can enhance your ability to communicate information in a way that generates action and response in your people.

Create community - Two types of online communities exist: communities of interest and communities of practice. A community of practice may be all the salespeople in a company or industry, or a group of cardiologists. It’s a professional type of community where members share their knowledge and best practices.A community of interest may be people who love dogs, sailboats, or motorcycles. The topic is irrelevant. It’s an environment where people share similar interests or passions. You can even get granular when it comes to communities of interest. For example, you can narrow down your motorcycle community to one that only includes people who drive a Harley Davidson Heritage Soft Tail Classic. The more granular you get, the more targeted you can be in giving people what they would like rather than the junk they don’t want.

In your organization, you can set up electronic communities of practice in order to get people communicating ideas and sharing knowledge. You could have a community for your salespeople, engineers, HR, marketing, IT, etc. Then, consider expanding it to gain a greater level of communication. For example, what if you established a community of practice for all the CEOs in your industry? Now you’re going outside the organization and aligning the practice. You could even do one for all CIOs of Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 companies. The possibilities are endless and they open up the communication channels for enhanced dialog and innovation companywide.

All of these suggestions are aimed at improving communications rather than merely providing more information. Therefore, you need to ask yourself how your organization can use these tools not only internally, but also with your trading partners and customers to enhance information and add communication.

Embrace the future now

Do you want to get people to take action and respond to your communications internally and externally? Of course you do. Are the tools there to do it? Yes, many of them exist in your organization now but you’re people are using them in an information age mindset, which is giving them more to do but making them less effective.

If you have doubts about the communication age being upon us, look at how marketing has changed. It used to be one-way and static. Companies would do a television, radio, or print ad and put it out there, hoping sales would improve. Today, companies are doing marketing and advertising in a completely new way. For example, they have contests for people to do a video of why their product is great and then they air the winner’s video during the Superbowl. By doing so, they’re turning customers into active participants. The shift in marketing is actually a shift in communicating -- they want people to be interactive and engaged with the brand.

All this means you can’t just think of yourself as a CIO, CTO, or manager of technology, you also have to think of yourself as a Chief Communications Officer. Remember, the past doesn’t go away. And there's a time to inform and a time to communicate, so look at what your organization is trying to accomplish. Data and information are great, but if you want people to act on that data and information, you have to use today’s technology in a way that opens a meaningful dialog. When you do, you’ll move your people to action and will advance the organization to new levels of success.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.