Effective communication: choosing the right tools
Source: Enterprise Ireland
Whether the terms of a complex deal change suddenly, a project's deadline has been brought forward, or you simply need to remind staff about a meeting, fast and effective communications are vital for keeping all employees up to speed with the latest developments.
Even in the most low-tech environments, businesses large and small have a raft of communication technologies available to them. These range from the relatively straightforward telephone call, email, or mobile phone text message to slightly more involved options like video or web conferencing, instant messenger programmes and online collaboration tools.
Deciding which tool to use is key; making the wrong choice could result in misunderstandings, miscommunication or, worse, deterioration of customer relations, perhaps even the loss of a client.
Choosing the medium
A recent study sponsored by network equipment manufacturer Cisco Systems examined how the choice of communications medium affects the efficacy of its content. "Our research shows that the media selected for a specific communication, whether it is instant messaging or video conferencing, is almost as important as the content of the communication," says Carolyn Shearsmith, an occupational psychologist at the Pearn Kandola occupational therapy clinic and a co-author of the Cisco report.
"Behaviours need to change to keep up with organisational structures and new technology," she states in the report. "The studies show how the correct choice and use of communication media can create the shared identity and shared context that is so important to successful virtual teams [project teams working in multiple locations and communicating electronically]. The reliance on email to converse with colleagues in different parts of the world, for example, does little to build personal relationships and trust."
With so much choice at your fingertips in the business world today, how can you maximise the benefits of modern communications methods, while avoiding potential pitfalls? Here, we take a look at two options: email and web conferencing. (In the next issue, we focus on instant messaging and mobile communications, and take a peek at some next-generation communication technologies.)
Email is a fast, cheap and reliable means of sending and receiving basic information and documents such as quotes, orders and delivery dates, as well as financial information like invoices, purchase order numbers and statements. Many email programs offer a calendar function so messages marked for future action can be synched with a diary.
Email has some drawbacks as a communications method, however.
It can be time-consuming, as employees spend an increasing amount of their day reading and replying to email. A phone call or an instant message may be a faster way to communicate.
It can be slow in terms of eliciting a response. The Cisco study deemed that a phone call is best when seeking feedback, while email is more suited to the provision of information.
It can be impersonal, and the nuances of tone can be lost. Tone can be particularly important when dealing with sensitive communications, such as disciplining a member of staff or replying to a customer complaint.
Excessive use of email can be wasteful of resources such as bandwidth in companies where large files are regularly transmitted over the network.
Failure on the part of staff to effectively manage their inboxes can lead to a loss of efficiency, as time is wasted searching for relevant communications, contact details and action items. (See Issue 161 for tips on managing your inbox.)
Although it shares many of the benefits of video conferencing, web conferencing goes a step or two further in terms of convenience. Apart from being able to see participants in a meeting, users can log into a forum - not unlike an online discussion forum or message board - where they can initiate conversation among a group of people in real time.
Web conferencing has a number of advantages:
- It's useful in terms of accessibility. No special equipment is necessary and the conference can be accessed from any PC with an internet connection, as long as the user has a log-in and password.
- It has record-keeping benefits, because meeting minutes are instantly generated verbatim as the text-based conference unfolds.
- Some systems have the ability to add audio conferencing features either through Voice over IP or a standard office PBX phone system. This improves the feeling of interactivity.
There are some disadvantages to web conferencing:
- The medium is sufficient for brief communications such as group project updates, but does not always lend itself to lengthy, detailed discussions.
- Some web conferencing applications are not compatible across different operating systems. For example, several options are available for Unix and Windows servers, but relatively few products support both.
- Training may be needed to get employees up to speed with using web conferencing software. Many applications offer facilities to work on shared documents - highly desirable for group collaborations - but it's important that people know how to use it correctly or there is a risk of inadvertently altering, or even destroying, a colleague's hard work.