Editorial National Health Executive magazine

Communication Problems…In The Digital Age.  Really?   

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Stewart Gallington, Development Director at IQM Software with over 20 years’ experience in software development, explores how in an era of information overload, communication issues still affect us all.  

I realised something a few months ago.  A sort of epiphany, you could say.  Those things that we think work efficiently and which would be hard to improve on – well, sometimes they’re not quite as great as they seem.

What’s the one ultra-crucial aspect in your business, the single thing that keeps your staff informed, trained, capable and legally compliant and that ultimately keeps your services viable and your customers safe?  In my opinion it’s Communication.  Or rather, the way people receive, digest and act on the information that you send them.

Along with the power cuts and bad hair of the 1970s, we’ve moved away from paper-based company memos, printed on tissue-thin paper in bizarre purple ink on a duplicating machine, then left in your very own pigeon-hole.  We’ve embraced a brave new world of communication innovation.

Everywhere you look, information comes at us 24/7: online, via a PC, tablet or smartphone, not to mention company intranets and extranets.  Letters in what we now call “hard copy” are still relevant, too.  All emails are read, absorbed and acted upon; those who need to know, learn or respond to something important can now do so with ease.

Actually, are you 100% sure about that?  Can you prove it?  And do you have a historical record, or audit trail?

I’m just not sold on any of this maximum efficiency stuff.  Not only that, Houston, we have a problem.  Firstly, our working environments are challenging.  Employees at all levels have targets, objectives and KPIs.  In other words, we’re all a bit too busy getting things right and quite frankly doing our jobs, to review every piece of information that’s sent to us, whether via email, an intranet or the post.  It’s not for no reason that our working days are often longer than they should be.

Secondly, there’s a lot of information to absorb.  Sorting the important from the of-no-importance isn’t always easy.  The critical from the crud.  The useful from the useless.

Also, you’re aware that the “read email confirmation” button can be ignored.  You know that, don’t you?  Perhaps, without even knowing it, you’re giving your staff the right to ignore the vital information that you send them.

This all matters and it matters a great deal.  Within any environment, health and safety information, for example, affects all of us. We need to know how to keep ourselves and other people comfortable, safe and out of harm’s way.  It’s not hyperbole to state the obvious:  the heavy penalties imposed on organisations for non-compliance to even simple health and safety compliance could put them out of business.

Regarding a working discipline or sector, new or updated legislation must be communicated to the people whose jobs, colleagues and clients will be impacted; it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s an essential.  Training or HR documentation carries with it important, work-enhancing messages to improve, enhance and develop.

Above all, I have serious concerns that despite our advances in technology and communication, when it comes to sending and receiving information and equally importantly, the proof that said information has been read, we have a big challenge facing us.  The fact that information has been produced and communicated in a certain fashion, doesn’t necessarily score a tick in the “done” box in our Things to Do list.

If certain members of your department fail to review the stats you emailed for them to complete a report, if your team’s knowledge of the features behind a new product launch isn’t consistent (you know you sent them the data) or if a front-line engineer hasn’t read the information he needs, there could be consequences.  The report will be late, the team won’t win the pitch, and the equipment may fail.  And, you won’t know who’s seen what – or even when.  You won’t know either who didn’t review the information the last time round – or the time before that.

It seems that the Digital Age may still be the Dark Age.