Introduction – context setting
Accolades from a university like the highest number of certifications, university rank holder, and top 1% in aptitude tests may not support you in long term success in careers if you lack the one underlying skill that everyone expects: communication (8). In an organisational context, communication is interlaced with the esoteric relationship that businesses have with their customers. Therefore a sustainable future for the company is out of the equation if communication is removed.
With up-to-date technological tools, businesses have opted for using multiple modes of communication: mainstream media, text messages, websites, and social media platforms, to name a few (5). I am unsure if more communication channels result in a stronger bond with the customer, but businesses sure use these mediums to stay agile in the market place.
The agile concept, along with the agile manifesto, have evolved for today’s VUCA world. Although the idea of being agile has multiple definitions, by fundamental nature, an agile organisation is quick in conducting experiments to test which strategy they should adopt to reach their goal (1).
But even then businesses still struggle – the problem
Despite having multiple mediums to communicate, organisations still struggle in understanding customers’ real needs because they are often non-explicit, latent, or even unconscious (1). The paradox of choice has presented business leaders with the arduous tasks of choosing the right software tool that would be a most suitable fit to their organisation culture, size, and most importantly, budget (1).
Even with the right tool, the current COVID situation has left big questions to our minds. What will the new normal be? How will an organisation capture the nuances of customer needs and create a competitive advantage? After knowing all the information that would be needed, how can business leaders have an informed workforce to achieve seamless inter-team coordination and collaboration?
The answer, in my opinion, in three simple words, agile internal communication.
“Today’s firms, particularly startups, require agile communication to sense and seize opportunities and to adapt to the market as quickly as possible”González-Cruz et. al. (1)
Imagine if business leaders were able to accumulate information relevant to improving the customer value proposition as an when an idea pops up in an employee’s mind. Assume every employee has one useful idea or thought a day, the number of informational pieces a business leader can get in a day equals the number of employees.
An informational piece can pop up any time: during a shower, impromptu discusses with other colleagues over coffee, overhears a random person in the hairdresser, and many more. As long as it is valuable information, there is considerable potential for such ideas/thoughts to influence the next major business decision. This practice provides the ability to have organisation-wide agility in gathering market information – more efficient than a small dedicated market research team.
However, if there is no means to express ideas and opinions as and when it pops up (i.e. no agile internal communication), an employee will not only be unable to share but also will forget it over the course of the day (7). Every idea or thought lost is an opportunity lost to gain a competitive advantage in the market.
Challenges in having agile internal communication.
With agility, the big question most leaders would have is the accuracy of information. Also, with an increasing influx of Generation Z into the workforce, who by nature prefer the speed of communication over the accuracy, can be a huge burden on decision-makers to filter noise from information (6). From an employee perspective, not thinking before hitting the send button can prove to be expensive. There have been cases where people have even lost jobs just because they accidentally hit send before completing the email.
The other problem of lack of focus could arise from a productivity point of view. Constant message notification could distract employees from the current task at hand, and this could cause delays in meeting deadlines – a strict no-go from business leaders. In fact, ensuring agile inter-team coordination to be flexible to market demands continue to baffle business leaders (1).
Lastly, the generational gap between employees in a firm can lead to different perceptions of text messages. It is hard for people to convey emotions through plain text. For example “Okay.” emote rudeness when compared to “Okay”. Ultimately, how one perceives a message relies on one’s current mindset (4), which makes it even harder to predict the mindset and to ensure that intentions are not misinterpreted.
If you do not believe me, google: “problems of not thinking before hitting send”. There is an umpteen number of articles that support the case that agile, quick messaging is not effective in internal communication. But there could be another side to this coin if a proper set up is made to support the core proposition.
On the other side
The organisational design elements have to be developed appropriately to ensure that the aspects of agile internal communication give benefits that would outweigh the costs. First and foremost is to isolate the discussion channel away from core team or project focused discussion groups. Research about 88 startups at different stages in Spain has shown that the usage of project management and communication tools has risen to approximately 47% of employee time. As there is no figure for larger organisations, it is safe to assume that the percentage can be significantly high. The research concluded by finding out that the startups that adopted an agile internal communication strategy were able to hold a competitive advantage (1). Hence, it is therefore a safe-enough bet to try using the existing project management tool for an impromptu idea and thoughtful discussion from employees. For example, in MS Teams, you can very well set a separate team (that has all employees) for such conversations.
Use the features like thumbs-up and reply for discussion thread as an upvote feature. Ideas and discussions that get a lot of upvotes can be picked up during weekly meetings. Remember the story of the kid who yelled “Wolf!”? Well, by using upvotes, unnecessary ideas will not gain negative traction. However, ideas that are not discussed automatically get stored in the database and can be later retrieved for use, or analysed for patterns which are all useful in implementing organisation-wide policies in the future (Analogous to black-box thinking). Employees and business leaders can get notified of the ideas/thoughts that receive most upvotes and can be picked up during weekly meetings.
Speed is everything, which is already set in the context of this impromptu channel. Hence people reading messages from this should automatically remember to avoid imposing an emotional bias. Notes that are written out of frustration can be looked as an opportunity for business leaders to be supportive of the employee and address the root cause of the problem they might be facing.
Institutions like the military can not afford for employees, check for grammars spellings and tone of language, and proof-read it, maybe let it rest overnight, and then send every message. Imagine if rather than shouting “INCOMING MISSILE” the soldier would think that it would be rude and hence would draft an email in the morning like “Dear General, I hope you’re well. I have received an alter from our RADAR systems that there is an incoming missile. I have informed the Major, cc’d in this email, regarding this and he instructed me to bring this message to your attention. God speed General. Regards, Soldier X”. As much as an exaggeration as it may sound, there are elements of this that can be translated into the practical business world.
Directing all employees through a restricted communication method could lead to delay in passing information and also could cost in employee training and development. The agile internal communication will allow organisations to focus on delivering high customer value and develop a competitive advantage when compared to others (3). These communication channels can be such a set-up in a fashion to ensure that other employees can continue to work without any distraction.
Having a strong, agile internal communication would enable organisations to generate more knowledge and therefore develop resources that would give them the strategic advantage in the market. This need is more significant for organisations that have multiple systems for operating it. And this combination that the mode would provide would prove to enable large organisations to generate value from such practices (2).
As simple as it may sound, agile internal communication is an under-researched field in the management sciences. I can, for sure, see the benefits of having this mode of communication because for an organisation to ultimately be agile, the internal communication also has to be agile. But given the benefits and demerits enumerated above, business leaders must skilfully manoeuvre rather than impose a hard stop on agile communication. I propose that leaders begin to develop this model within their practice to check if agile communication is actually working.