How Come the Message So Often Gets Lost in Translation?
By STEVE SHAW
Most companies and organizations do an admirable job when it comes to communicating with employees. That rumored merger, those pending layoffs, a change in leadership, or implementation of a new health plan are the classic reasons for reaching out and touching someone in the cubicle down the hall.
So, how come the message from the IT department often gets lost in translation?
Technology can be a scary thing, and oftentimes, it’s treated that way. The IT department is happy to be left alone to its bits and bytes, while the communications department says, “just let us know when we’re going to be down for maintenance or need to teach people how to use that new software.”
That way of thinking is no longer valid in today’s technology-driven economy.
According to the global professional services company Towers Watson, companies with highly effective internal communications had 47% higher total returns to shareholders versus companies with the least effective internal communications programs over the last five years.
A Gallup poll says 70% of U.S. employees are not engaged and that disengaged employees cost our economy $450 to $550 billion a year in lost productivity. The Work Foundation, a U.K.-based, nonprofit think tank, says organizations that increase practices related to engagement by just 10% increase profits by an average of $2,400 per employee per year. Do I have your attention now?
One of our healthcare clients, a mid-sized hospital system with 12,000 employees, is implementing a new hyper-converged infrastructure, totally revamping its approach to networking, data storage, and computing. This two-year effort comes at a time when hospitals, mandated by the federal government to adopt expensive electronic health record (EHR) systems, are asked to do more with fewer resources.
The new infrastructure will do that, cutting datacenter construction costs by millions and allowing the IT department to become faster and more efficient. They’ll even be able to monetize their new technology investments by offering services to the outside world. But that’s what’s in it for IT. What about the doctors, nurses, and administrators who just want to be able to access their work data from any device, anytime, from anywhere?
We recommend beginning the communications process by putting yourself in your customer’s head. They want the software they depend on to do their jobs to be available whenever they need it. They have little sympathy for outages, maintenance windows, and the availability of a technician to fix an issue when it arises. In most cases, they have little concern for operating systems, storage hardware and software, or data-center design.
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In that case, IT communications to an organization should come down to answering three basic questions.
• What are you doing and why? Use metaphors and real-life examples to put the answer into an easily relatable context. Try something like this: “why are we implementing a new network infrastructure? Think about how much data we all produce, share, and store each year. If you printed it all out, the paper alone would fill an 80,000-seat football stadium. Now, think about the secure network needed to handle that information, the machines needed to store it safely, and the system needed to protect it all in the event of a natural disaster. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
• How does the technology directly benefit the ability of people to do their jobs? Eliminate the jargon. The people who know the difference between ESX and Hyper-V will seek you out if they want to get technical. Your message? “Our new network will practically eliminate outages, support service times will improve dramatically, maintenance windows will go away, and if a piece of hardware fails, our backup kicks in immediately with virtually no interruption.” People generally don’t need to know how it works. They just want to know how it affects them. Resist the temptation to explain further.
• What do I need to do now? Be specific, but be reassuring. People customize their desktops and develop their own unique way of working. They also feel that, just when they finally get the handle on how to access the ‘E’ drive and navigate to where their data is stored, someone in IT decides to perform an upgrade that has them throwing a shoe at their computer screen. Sympathize. Produce easy-to-read checklists, develop logical implementation schedules, and communicate on a regular basis when things change. A single e-mail won’t do the trick.
The bottom line when it comes to communicating IT initiatives is this: you’re asking people to change (sometimes in a big way). There’s natural resistance to it, and it takes time. Don’t just tell them what, when, and why. How it will make their life easier is most important. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. You know what you want people to do. You just want to get them to think it was their idea.
You can’t communicate too much if the message is relevant and substantial. You can communicate too much if it’s overly technical and isn’t easy to internalize. Finally, choose your vehicle wisely. A one-time e-mail or fancy newsletter may find its way to the “I’ll read it later” file. Be creative. A mixture of written communication, live events, and interactive forums are critical for long-term buy-in.
Remember, IT is highly technical, but it’s not rocket science. Don’t confuse communicating the end result with a need to tell people how you got there.
Steve Shaw has spent more than three decades in the marketing and communications industries as a television reporter, production agency founder, and multi-media network executive. He is the vice president of Marketing and Communications for Holyoke-based VertitechIT, a business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firm; [email protected]