In an increasingly digitized and computerized world, the image of the solitary IT worker is rapidly disappearing; this may be as much an image change as the truth, but one cannot deny that communication skills are becoming increasingly important for IT teams.
Nobody can work in silos. Although coding jobs make programmers sit in isolated cubicles with computer monitors stuck to their faces, their lines of code will eventually have to talk to other lines of code that are developed by other programmers. Work cannot happen in isolation; products and services are a result of joint efforts. The collaboration effort will ensure success and the binding factor that brings in the collaborating elements together is communication.
For example, a customer might say that he needs a light colored website with an option to blog and a shopping cart among other items. What the customer wants and how well the project manager grasps the requirements is dependent on the effectiveness of the communication between the customer and the project manager. If the customer has excellent communication skills and if the project manager is a terrible listener, requirements take a hit and this results in the end product being out of sync. Once the project manager understands the requirements accurately, they will have to cascade this information to the rest of their team—where once again communication skills come into play. In this way, every instance of collaboration is held together by communication.
The following figure has become a meme in project management circles. It depicts the breakdown of communication in a project. What a customer wants and what they eventually get are like the flipsides of a coin. Everyone has their own vision, unconcerned with the customer and without any alignment with others:
It is this unity between departments and the respective roles within departments that ensures that individual tasks, larger projects, and even larger business objectives are met.
It is this issue that should lie at the heart of the development of your staff's communication skills—good communication should not simply be desired for itself, but is rather instrumental in getting effective results. Thinking of communication skills as "soft" is a little misleading, as if they are not really tied to the "hard facts" of business. The truth is, they are; good communication skills absolutely impact the bottom line.
Communication is a major risk affecting IT organizations worldwide. To mitigate it, employees need to be trained on various aspects of communication, the dos, don'ts, etiquettes and other related areas of study. Since the recession of early 2000s, organizations are looking to cut costs, and increase productivity to survive in the competitive IT market. One of the areas where most organizations have stopped funding is in the training function. These days, companies expect employees to self-learn and apply the results at work. The days of companies sponsoring and nurturing employees are long gone. This is precisely the area where this book comes into play. It benefits organizations to run their own training sessions with minimal preparation, and employees are treated to valuable on-the-job training that is relevant to the work they perform and the knowledge gained here can boost their performance and thrust their careers into new horizons. This book can be used:
As a training guide: Due to the decentralized learning functions in companies, we have designed this guide for team managers to act as trainers who can impart the knowledge contained in this book. This guide consists of exercises that trainers can readily apply at the end of sessions, and incorporated exercises provide thought-provoking topics that will help teams come together and brainstorm ideas discussed in the book.
As a self-study material: The book can also be used as self-help study material. Employees can read and understand the material on their own, perform individual exercises, and get together at least once a week to discuss the topics. The uncomplicated flow and structure of this guide can be just as easily digested by the employees themselves. And, it could potentially be as effective as a trainer led course as long as they work on the exercises and discuss the topics as a group.
One of my professional roles is that of a corporate trainer. I train IT people in a classroom setting, and there are a few things I have learned along that way that has helped me develop as a better trainer than when I started out. I am going to share a couple of tools that are most useful, and they are result-bound. These tools are:
Relate training aspects to life activities: Make any training interesting by relating it back to the trainees, something that they can relate to on a day-to-day basis. Suppose you want to teach a topic on listening, start with a real-life illustration, say employees communicating with their girlfriends and boyfriends and how various conflicts arise out of not listening to one another before responding. At this point, you will know that you have connected with your trainees from the number of nodding heads agreeing with what you mentioned, and this is a sign that you have struck a chord. At this point, bring the focus back to office work, and map it to the activities they perform. Say, for example, customer complaints arising out of not understanding their problems. Voila, you have successfully mapped a topic on communication directly to work activities, and trust me, the understanding of the topic has been effective as well.
Indulge in role play: Another tool that you can employ during the training is role play. Develop a few roles that employees can enact in front of others, the roles staying relevant to the topic. Through role play, you are showing rather than saying it out loud. Prompt where necessary to drive the role play in the intended direction and to get the most out of it. Role play can be considered as result-oriented as the live everyday examples.
When you go shopping for a product, say a television, you would invariably want to get the most value for your money, in layman's terms—you want a quality product. Have you thought of what the word quality means to you? The fact is that the term quality can have multiple definitions depending on the context. There is no one single definition that can be attributed to quality. Meets the requirements, does what it is supposed to, works well for a number of years, suits my need perfectly, and there are many more suitors. In the case of the television, I would define quality as picture in high definition resolution, crisp and clear audio, and the product must last at least five years without any maintenance in between. As I mentioned earlier, quality means different things to different people. Ask yourself or your neighbor what quality means to them in relation to buying a television. They will give you a separate list of requirements and definitions.
When you go hunting for a professional training session, you would like to get a hang on everything there is to the subject you are intending to be trained in—in other words you are looking for quality training. Have you ever thought of what the word quality means to you? The word quality can have different meanings depending on the context. I cannot state a single sentence to define quality. Some IT professionals may relate quality training to the depth of knowledge that was imparted and some might give importance to the content that helps them get certifications. If you ask me what quality means, I would say that it should impart in-depth knowledge of the subject, provide sufficient examples for me to understand the concepts with ease, and if a certification is involved the focus should be on strategies to answer the certification exam. You might have a completely different expectation of what quality training is.
How can you differentiate a quality product from a non-quality one? The answer is improvement, not just once but on a regular basis. Regular improvements go by a Japanese word kaizen, which stands for continuous improvement. Kaizen ensures that the products and services are bound by continuous improvement, even if the improvement is miniscule. By improving continuously, products and services are always a notch or two ahead of the rest.
In communication, kaizen has a special meaning. The effectiveness of communication and the productivity must be improved on a regular basis. As individuals, you must always try to improve your communication skills by understanding and implementing the 7 Cs in your personal and work life, understand your own communication style and that of others who you regularly communicate with and make a conceited effort in building rapport with people who matter. This is not a one-time activity; you need to keep doing this as and when the situation demands it. To state an example, you can run this workshop multiple times, and the effectiveness in communication is bound to increase by a percentage every time you run it. Perhaps you can improvise by adding customized exercises based on your organization's cases. The underlying principle is that such workshops, whether they are on communication or any other topic, is not a standalone activity, but a process that has to be imbibed into the DNA of the organization.
Let's see what other aspects could render communication as a quality product or otherwise. Communication is of quality if it is effective in:
Transmitting the message in verbatim to the receiver (integrity)
Understanding the message in verbatim by the recipient as the sender intends
Presenting the message concisely and to the point without any unnecessary text in the message
Understanding the message easily
Providing due consideration to all recipients it is intends to reach
Being courteous and taking the cross-cultural attributes into play
Reaching the recipient at the time it was intended to
When you start to answer the question of what quality means to you in communication, you could come up with an entirely different set, plus or minus the set I have put forth. For me, if my communication can meet my quality requirements as stated here, then I can subsequently consider it to be precisely that—quality. This quality message serves as a baseline, from which I could then begin to work on the principle of kaizen through one of the methods that I discuss in the next section, The PDCA circle.
The PDCA circle is a popular model in practicing continuous improvement or kaizen. PDCA abbreviates to a four activity iterative approach—plan, do, check, and act:
This concept was tested in the real world and made popular by William Edwards Deming, and it is also commonly known as the Deming cycle. The cycle was, however, theorized by Walter Stewhart, and Deming during his years in Japan referred to the cycle as the Stewhart cycle.
When you create a new product, it is likely that it is far from perfect. However, you will probably have a basic or vague understanding of what perfect looks like. So, you start taking baby steps towards the perfection through the use of PDCA cycle. You will get to the point of near perfection as you keep making incremental and nonstop improvements. You can see your product evolve in every step of the way. Most, if not all, organizations use this methodology to make their products or services the best they can possibly be. Apple products did not come out chiseled the way they seem to be.
They grew slowly through multiple iterations of improvements, adding one feature at a time and one product launch after another. PDCA plays a major role in industries where the time to market is as long as the lifespan of a housefly. Let me take you through the individual stages of the PDCA cycle:
Plan: Chart out your objectives, goals, and targets that you wish to achieve in a given period of time. The planning stage gives you the direction for improvements and tells you how quickly and how swiftly you need to proceed towards the intended target. To do this stage effectively, you need to have the vision to see things from afar, which could be weeks, months, or even years. Every new product you get in the market is designed during the planning stage and then the team of developers bring the design on paper to life.
In communication, you need to plan your communication channels, policies, processes, and style guides among others. It is important to know that the communication planning plays a key role in ensuring that information is exchanged effectively and efficiently as well. Also, it can be done economically through the use of technologies such as VOIP and e-mails.
Do: In this stage, you start executing your plans. In the design of a cell phone, let's say that the planning stage came up with the concept of haptic feedback in theory. Developers in the "do" stage will look to breathe life into the design and make it a reality. To summarize, in this stage the actual implementation or deployment takes place, as specified in the planning stage.
The output of the planning stage—various planning documents such as policies, controls, and procedures are implemented in the doing stage. Implementation of communication controls will include training the employees, letting customers and vendors know of the frequencies and mediums that will be used and perhaps hand-holding employees, customers, users, and vendors to carry out the necessary communication-related activities.
Check: At this stage, you have a plan and it has been achieved as well. To what extent the plan has been achieved is the objective of the check stage. While the designs are given shape during the "do" stage, it is common to sway from the target—meaning the specifications might not be met. People working on projects can get blinded by the proximity they are in. But, when you take a step back and observe the progress, you will be in a good position to judge where we are in terms of achieving the goals put out in the plan stage. The "check" stage will analyze the product or service and compare it to the specification document from the plan stage, and then produce a delta analysis that basically tells all stakeholders what else needs to be achieved to attain the desired specifications.
When we implement communication policy and procedures, say by training employees, some may get it and some won't. It is also possible that the infrastructure does not support the communication needs or the users just don't feel like following the new rules around communication. In such cases, as an analyst, you would make observations on where things are not going as per plan and how they need to be tweaked.
Act: At this point, you have a gap analysis document in your hand listing the delta between desired and achieved. The next stage is rather logical and predictable, right? You act on the shortcomings to meet the desired results. In the corporate world, when new operating systems such as Android are rolled out, you see a number of updates roll in from time to time. These updates are coming from your act stage and are molding the sculpture slowly but surely. If you look around, you can find a number of examples that are living act stages in play.
The same goes for communication. Plug all the gaps and ensure that the plan comes to fruition by fulfilling the requirements.
The Iteration: The plan-do-check-act process that I took you through is considered a single cycle. You need to do it as many number of times as the product or service is live. The preceding figure shows you how multiple iterations improve the quality of the object and takes it towards perfection. The x axis is represented by time and y axis is represented by quality. As time progresses, you can get in more PDCA iterations, which leads to quality improvement—the objective of the Deming cycle.
Applicability: As I mentioned earlier, you can apply PDCA to any area and it is bound to produce positive results, including the area of your personal life where you can set yourself goals to achieve and work towards achieving them. After you think you have achieved them, compare them with your goals and identify the delta. Work towards bridging the gap and repeat the cycle as long as you are competitive to improve on a continuous basis. It works!
I used the example of a product mainly to explain the concept of PDCA. Apart from products, service industries can leverage on it too to improve the services they provide—potential areas could be IT services, hospitality, utilities and so on. You would definitely need to rely on this model if you are looking to bring about improvements into projects. I can probably go on for the next few pages on the industries where the Deming cycle would be applicable and still have a few more pages left. I will not do this, and instead hope that you understand the depth and compatibility with various systems, objects, and processes.
In this workshop, you will see PDCA in action. You will plan the workshop and then run the training to your employees and at the end of every chapter there is an assessment test provided. This test is a good reflector of how well your students understand the topics of this workshop. If you find the results of the assessment unsatisfactory, take a step back, and find another way to train them on the topics where they didn't score well. This way, you are not just delivering the training, but checking the understanding and doing what is necessary to bridge the gap.
As this chapter ends, you are expected to know the following:
How the training guide can be used
Strategies for trainers
The concept of quality in communication
The PDCA circle
In the next chapter, we will look into how companies are organized and dissect the term governance and its impact on communication, along with the communication process. We will delve into the basics of communication, the styles of communication, conflicts that could arise out of communication, and the importance of relationships and rapport to make communication effective and productive. In short, a number of exciting topics await you!