Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Don’t invest in ideas, invest in people with ideas 34 – the issues and challenges of communications in a business 1

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on November 12, 2017

This is my 34th installment in a series on cultivating and supporting innovation and its potential in a business, by cultivating and supporting the creative and innovative potential and the innovative drive of your employees and managers, and throughout your organization (see HR and Personnel – 2, postings 215 and loosely following for Parts 1-33.)

I have been writing about bringing in and retaining creative excellence in a business, and on securing and maintaining a best possible assembly of skilled, experienced and innovative hands-on employees and managers there, throughout this series. And at the end of Part 33 of that narrative progression, I cited two approaches to business communications, as can be carried out in-house and among hands-on employees and managers, that I have previously invoked when discussing business operations per se: two basic categorical patterns of communications that shape the employee and manager experience, and what they are allowed to do, and what they are required to do at work:

Structured and even formally structured communications, as arise for example in the context of annual performance reviews with their pre-vetted review forms and protocols (to couch this in a specific case in point example of possible Personnel and Human Resources terms), and
Unstructured communications, as tools for arriving at unexpected insight and types of it.

And I added that I would delve into the issues and implications of those two modes of communications here, and use those selectively stated points of definition as a starting point for discussing best practices in identifying and cultivating innovative potential in a business.

Let’s begin this by at least briefly reconsidering these modes and patterns of communications in general, and for what they bring with them that would shape how we would think about and understand businesses that employ them in general.

Structured communications systems and the communications channels that they allow and support, are crucial to the day-to-day functioning of a business and certainly for standard and standardized processes and practices as collectively comprise routine business operations in place. There, a same basic flow of work is carried out and tracked and reported on, and by essentially the same people and on a routine basis. Exceptions to that, as arise when employees join a business and enter into these communications flows, or leave it and move on, do occur. And they arise when key participants in these conversations are out on vacation or on sick leave or maternity leave too, to add in three other possibilities here. But however these disruptions arise, they represent types of exception that at least should be prepared for, at least in general terms, and even if specific instances of them can create special challenges – and even for what would nominally seem to be more routine positions.

The term single point of failure enters in there, when for example a business suddenly discovers that some specific manager or hands-on employee was the only one there, who can actually carry out some specific and here-crucial task, at least in a timely manner – and suddenly they are out sick or away and out of touch on vacation, or they have just left the business for a new work opportunity elsewhere. But let’s set aside that range of possible contingencies at least for now, in order to keep this discussion more focused and free of possible digressions from the core topic under consideration here. Structured communications form the information sharing framework for routine business as usual, and certainly insofar as real effort is made to develop and adhere to standard business as usual practice and avoid ad hoc exception making.

And to add in one perhaps complicating detail to that, which in fact always has to be taken into account, this is also essential for maintaining standardized and routine-enabled security control over sensitive information held by the business too. I have only skimmed the surface of this area of discussion here, noting that there is a lot more to it even if this should suffice for purposes of this series and its narrative.

Unstructured communications arise when the more structured approach that I have just made note of, break down and for whatever reason. And I raise this entire line of communications patterns discussion here, to separate out some of the possibilities that can easily become conflated and blurred for their separate types and significance – and to the determent of a business that faces that.

Unstructured communications become necessary, and certainly in the eyes of the people who resort to them, when the systems and processes that they rely upon that should be more routine and standardized, significantly break down and in ways that block their being able to carry out their essential duties to successful completion. This can mean carrying out tasks that they would in fact complete themselves and for use within their own work team, and with little if any direct follow-through consequences for any others if they cannot do so. But more importantly, and I add much more commonly, this can arise in contexts of task completion dependency where a more distant individual or another other work team in the business, here identified B cannot complete, or at times even effectively begin to work on one or more essential tasks that they are responsible for until A has completed some task that they are responsible for, and until it has handed off the results of that work to B and at least indirectly to C and D and others who are waiting further down some task completion dependency track.

If standard and routine break down and others and perhaps many others are depending on work affected being completed, the pressure becomes enormous to find work-arounds to accomplish that. And when this means having to bring in non-standard resources and the stakeholders who would provide or at least control them, that means entering into less or entirely unstructured communications flows too, as roughly defined above.

Here, unstructured reflects a more “shoot from the hip” crisis mode response to the unexpected and unplanned for, and a response to what is now suddenly challenging for that. Compare that with the second basic scenario that I would raise here, for how this type of communications mode can arise, at least as described in general terms:

• The emergence of need for creative and novel communications patterns, bringing together what for that business would be non-standard combinations of stakeholders with their particular areas of knowledge and expertise, and of authority to provide resources and approvals to use them,
• That can become essential when pursuing disruptively novel sources of potential value for the business: possible disruptive innovation opportunity.

What binds these two communications contexts together: one negatively framed and the other positively framed here, and in ways that can make them difficult at times to distinguish between and certainly when attempting to do so without the benefit of hindsight? A succinct starting point to answer that can be found in how different stakeholders and involved gatekeepers can and do see and understand risk, and the relative levels of benefit and risk that might be expected.

I am going to further flesh out my second scenario as started above: the possibilities of positive value creating disruptive change from within a business, in my next series installment. And after that, and building from this posting and that continuation of it, I will more fully consider the issues of risks and profitable benefits and how their evaluation, as variously considered, shapes both communications within a business and its capability to either innovate for itself, or respond to innovation taking place around it.

Then I will step back from that narrative at least somewhat to reconsider innovation and the capacity to innovate, as an at least potentially innovative business moves from early startup to established business: and does or does not develop itself in ways that would make that readily possible. Who is brought in and retained, is only one piece to that puzzle, but it is one that I will explore as a more central point in that discussion to come.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 4, and also at Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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