Category Archives: Communication

Your Job Title

Your Job Title

What is your job title?

Digital Prophet, Chief Happiness Officer, Scrum Master, Paranoid-in-Chief, Hacker in Residence and Bacon Critic are all real jobs. There are even weirder ones than that around. It turns up on documentation, your email signature, your linkedin profile, websites and badges/labels at conferences.

How much does your job title matter?

It’s part of the first impression you make, and as first impressions are often online that occupational descriptor is important.

Your job title should say something about the field you work in, it might only be meaningful within that field. One of my communications colleagues used to delight in introducing me as a web mistress, to his ears it sounded much naughtier than the standard web master. I didn’t object to it on those grounds, but because “webmaster” has a specific meaning in the world of digital, and I do not have those skills.

Titles can also indicate your seniority, and in hierarchical companies that can make a difference to how you are treated. There can be differences in different countries, at one company I’ve worked with the media relations team had two sets of business cards, one for Europe and one for the US which used the identifier “VP” for vice-president.

In large companies there’s often a standardised list of titles that describe roles for an occupational framework. In one company that used such a job framework the official, HR sanctioned, job title I had was never used outside the company. Instead I chose something that was simple, descriptive and short. The digital field is littered with obfuscating titles, I didn’t want to add to the mess.

If you’re able to choose your own title go for something that describes you and lets people know your work. Be realistic, you want to be signalling to people who receive your business card what you really do. Make sure it aligns with your expertise and your seniority. If you work in a hierarchical company check that it’s in line with your colleagues  and your boss’ expectations.

You can create any job title, there’s even an online generator to help you. One word of caution, avoid the crazy terms, they may ruin your credibility.

Having said that my all time favourite job title was Chief Nerd.

Image:  Name Badges  |  University of Exeter  |   CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fake News

fakenewsFAKE NEWS!

The rise and rise of this term has made it even harder to determine what to believe, although it has a very long dishonourable history. I’ve taken to checking and rechecking posts before commenting. But yesterday a friend posted an article claiming that the BCC and CNN had faked reports of chemical attacks in Syria. Both those organisations attract criticism for bias but are generally respected for their journalism, so I checked. It’s been debunked as invented by Russian journalists. Shortly after someone posted a very unlikely-sounding story about massive ill treatment and incarceration of LGBTx people in Chechnya, the source was Daily Mail and I refuse to click on Daily Mail links but I can Google it. Horrifyingly it’s true, with multiple reports from credible sources.

How can you tell if something is really fake news?

Let’s be clear there are a number of ways a news report can be wrong.

  • error
    the news centre may have got its facts wrong. Reputable news organisations avoid this and apologise quickly when it happens.
  • bias
    the news centre may have a stated bias, The Economist for example is slightly right wing, the Guardian is slightly left.  You can read both of the same events. In fact that’s healthy.
  • misleading
    the news centre starts with a viewpoint and presents information to support that viewpoint. Most news centres are guilty of this at some point (and remember editorial is not the same as news). At last year’s remembrance service in London one news outlet claimed that the leader of the Labour political party had danced, and they had the pictures to prove it.
  • facts are fabricated with the idea of changing your opinion, this is what I would consider “fake news”, and the above story that BBC/CNN had fabricated information on attacks in Syria falls into this category. As does a certain head of state’s statements on many issues.
  • satire
    there are some great satire pieces out there, but as the news gets weird it can be hard to tell which is real. That is predicted by Poe’s Law.

There are four things to consider when examining the news

  • what quality is the source?
  • how accurate is the reporting?
  • is there bias in the reporting?
  • is it a joke (satire)?

There’s a graphic doing the rounds online that puts these characteristics into one handy chart. (Originally created by Vanessa Otero)

media analysis

I’ve seen some criticism out there already, from both sides, so please use this as a starting point to create your own guide on what to read. (Personally I’d have put “The Atlantic” to the right of the Grauniad).

There is a call for the various social media to do more to prevent the publication of fake news – particularly following the climax of Pizzagate when a guy with a gun turned up at an innocent Pizza joint based on fake news reports. BBC’s Click Podcast covered some of the reasons that technology is not and easy, or complete, answer.

FactCheck.org produced a guide on spotting fake news, their whole article is worth reading but this infographic summarises the main points.

How to spot fake news

Note that we need to check our own biases. A lot of news is being presented in a very binary fashion, with predictable partisan lines being drawn. Checking our own biases means being aware of how our own views play into what we want to believe. We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard in what we read, repeat, post, and believe.

My reaction to the flood of news reports from the various world horrors going on is to check and recheck the news I’m reading and to try to read mostly from the upper oval, in light green. I’m also trying not to get into link wars, but to have discussions and add links when asked for evidence. I have also take to asking people for evidence of their claims, so far none of the people asked have been able to provide any (even the Facebook friend who virtually shouted at me to “GO and READ”.)

There’s no technical solution to fake news.  It comes down to all of us paying attention. We need to find ways of distinguishing the real news, understanding our biases, being vigilant on what we believe and taking responsibility for what we post.

POSTSCRIPT

Alvaro Cabellero kindly sent me a link to Mike Caulfield’s excellent article How “News Literacy” Gets Web Misinformation Wrong. It’s a sixteen minute read; the tldr advice is;

I have a simple web literacy model. When confronted with a dubious claim:

  • Check for previous fact-checking work

  • Go upstream to the source

  • Read laterally

It’s a good process, and will get you to an assessment of the quality of the journalism pretty quickly.

Image:  News  |  Jenn   | CC BY 2.0

 

Uncanny Valley

We’re increasingly interacting with machines that masquerade as humans, either as an online chatbot, voice activated tools (Siri, Alexa and friends), and just occasionally as robots. As long as the machine is obviously a machine we’re comfortable interacting with it, and we’ll make allowances for its robot brain.

As our ability to use high levels of artificial intelligence delivers more human-like machines it will become harder to determine whether a machine is a machine based on the interaction.  When the machine starts to imitate a human well we’ll interact as long as we see the human.

The “Uncanny Valley” describes the feeling of being disturbed by interacting  and having the realisation that the machine isn’t as human as we’d thought. Or, conversely, knowing that we’re interacting with a robot but finding the speech, look and movements terribly life-like. It’s that moment when you think “oh, creepy”.  The term was created more than forty years ago by Robotics Professor Masahiro Mori.

As the robots become more human like this effect will, in theory, disappear. After all if we can’t distinguish the machine as a machine then we won’t have the discomfort. We still have some way to go but robotics engineers and AI programmers are getting us closer. Take a look at SAYA, the reception robot created by the Koboyashi Laboratory at Tokyo University of Science. Note this is from 2009, so I’m sure there have been advance in design and interaction since then, in the meantime SAYA seems uncanny to me.

Image:  Templum Ex Obscurum  |  Narshe Talbot |  CC BY2.0

Take the Survey

surveyCreating a good survey, one that gives you robust results, takes skill. In a former life I worked for a data analytics company where a team worked on creating surveys for consumers where I gained an appreciation of the skill. I have sincere worked with online surveys. Here are some aspects of survey design to consider.

Sample Size

Imagine you want to know whether Dutch people prefer dark or milk chocolate. The population of the Netherlands is 16.8 million. How many of them do you need to ask?

It turns out, not that many. If I collected data from 1067 people I could be 95% sure that my answer as correct with a margin of error of 3%. That means that if 70% choose milk chocolate the answer in the general population will lie between 67 and 73%. So if you’re a chocolate manufacturer you now know to make most of your flavours based on milk chocolate.

You can be more sure of the answer the further the outcome is from 50%. For the chocolate maker an answer of 47-53% would still be useful, but it’s problematic if you’re predicting political outcomes.

Once upon a time I knew the maths behind these calculations, now I just use an online calculator

Sample Selection

Your sample should reflect your target population as much as possible. This may involve excluding some people from  participating – if you are researching hair care products you don’t need bald men in your sample. For wider. issues it is more likely that you will try to construct a sample that mirrors the total population in terms of gender, race, age, income, family status, religion, location, gender identity and sexuality. That’s not easy. The further you are from your target group the less reliable the outcome of your survey.

Method Bias

Your method of collecting data may introduce bias, if you are collecting data by calling domestic numbers during working hours you exclude working people. If you collect data online you exclude those not on the Internet, and limit respondents to the small group that find your website.

If you are collecting data online you need to control for bots, and you may want to limit the number of times a respondent can answer.

Question construction

To get useful data from your survey you need to construct your questions to be neutral, unambiguous, not leading and specific.

Neutral

“Do you smoke cigarettes?” Is neutral

“Are you a filthy smoker?” Is not.

Unambiguous

It should be clear what information you ar seeking in your question; there are two traps to avoid here.

  • Asking two things in one question

“how friendly and helpful was your customer agent today?” Asks two things, and it’s impossible to decide how to answer if your customer agent solved the problem but was grumpy on the phone with you. You need to split this into two questions.

  • Using negatives

“Do you disagree that raising taxes won’t create jobs?” Is confusing. Rewrite this to ask “Do you agree that…  ?” to simplify it

Avoid Leading Questions

Leading questions contain details that indicate the expected answer.

“When will you start offering free upgrades?” assumes that you will offer free upgrades.

Specific

You will get more accurate and useful data if you ask specifics.

“Do you eat chocolate regularly?” doesn’t tell you much since ‘regularly’ means different things. Much better to ask “how often do you eat chocolate?” and give people a series of ranges to choose from.

What led to this post? A friend posted a strange survey from the President of the United States that breaks every single one of these rules, and a few others.

Here’s the title page of the survey, given that it was sent out after the press conference where the press was repeatedly called “Fake news” the title is clearly priming you to doubt the accountability of the media.

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-16-45-37

The survey was sent to known Republican supporters, yet the President represents all Americans. The questions are certainly not neutral, and some are just confusing. Here’s the most confusing;
screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-16-05-14

And here’s the most ironic, given that we have already seen that the President uses “alternative facts“, misleading statements and untruths.

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-16-41-47
 All of which is to say that when the Presidential PR machine talks about having data showing how people don’t trust mainstream media remember his data collection is flawed and the results cannot be trusted.

Images; What?  |  Véronique Debord-Lazaro  |   CC BY-SA 2.0

Sponsorship That Makes Sense

Sponsorship

What companies choose to sponsor says something about the company’s culture and ambition. Do they focus on sport or arts? Do they go for global events – football, olympics, Formula 1, or choose local events?

In another job I was involved in the assessment of a sports sponsorship, by the time we listed what was available, and eliminated options that were occupied by direct competitors the choice was between three. I think at the global level the decisions are pragmatic and connected to the desired scale.

So what about local sponsorships? Often there’s a direct connection based on the product, as in this case of a man going for the Guinness record on ironing – note the Philips logos in the background. I spotted a local sponsorship recently that got me thinking; the National Railway (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, or NS) sponsors book week in partnership with the Society for the Promotion of Dutch Books (Stichting Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek). It’s a brilliant sponsorship, here’s why.

Connect Company to Sponsor Event

At first trains might not seem to have much to do with books, but millions of people commute by train each day and many of them read. So the connection between taking a train and reading is already in people’s minds, and it’s already a habit. By sponsoring book week NS takes advantage of this existing habit.

If you’re looking for a local sponsorship look for something that connects your brand to an existing habit.

Easy to Communicate

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-09-40-53I understood the connection with one image of a passenger reading, it’s a very easy connection to make.

If you can’t explain the connection in one sentence or with one image it might not be a real connection. If the story around your sponsorship feels forced, you might need to rewrite the story.  There’s more detail (and examples) of sponsorship storytelling in this great article.

Activation with Benefits

The NS activation includes multiple events; book week, children’s book week and national book prizes. At each event there are multiple events, including free travel with a promoted book, an author signing her book on some trips, exchange of children’s book, and there is a book exchange room at the network’s biggest train station (although that station is being rebuilt – I hope the book exchange survives).

The promoted book is one written specifically for book week, and seems to be a commissioned book – the author for next year’s book week (in March/April) is already known (article in Dutch).

Look for ways to activate your sponsorship that get media coverage – in this case the national book prizes – and local interest – the free travel will appeal to Dutch (OK, I’m pushing the Dutch stereotype here!).

The NS sponsorship is great, what more could they do? I didn’t see them activating on social media, and search today doesn’t find any evidence that they used social media to expand their impact, that may be limited by the lead organisation.

Lessons for your local sponsorship;

  1. choose a sponsorship that has an existing connection to your company
  2. develop a simple story that explains the connection; aim for one sentence or one image
  3. activate to appeal to your audience, and use media and social media to promote your activities in a positive way.

I’m planning to join “Boekenweek” next year, and take the train trip with the sponsored book. I’m still slow reading Dutch so I might need to go all the way to Maastricht.

Image:  Nijmegen trio Plan V-SGMm en VIRM  |  Rob Dammers  |  CC BY 2.0 

In Our Own Bubble

2016June Bubble

The information superhighway took a turn for the worse, we now travel down it in our own comfortable, insulated and isolated bubble.

We can now get any information about any subject at any time online. There’s so much information available that we cannot consume it all, so we make selections. There are more than 500 million tweets per day, but only about 20,000 make it into my twitter timeline, and I only see a subset of those. There are 420,000,00 status updates on Facebook each day, a few hundred of those make it into my feed and I read only a few of those. Then there is Linkedin, YouTube, RSS (yes I still use RSS), and general news outlets.

It’s way too much, so we apply filters. A big part of the filter is who I follow or connect to, in general I follow people who have similar interests or views. As my major news sources are now online I’m unconsciously applying a filter to what news I get.

But there’s another filter being applied that we might not be aware of. The major platforms are also filtering what lands on our screen in our Facebook feed, and (coming soon) our Twitter feed, and our search results. Meaning that Google results are customised based on your search history, your browser, your language choice, your computer. Here’s how it works.

We know that news shapes our world view; in this TED talk Alisa Miller talks about the amount of time given to various news stories. As news organisations reduce costs and dismantle their international news bureaus the international coverage has reduced. She’s speaking from a US perspective, but a similar dynamic plays out in other countries.

If you add together the distortion in what is published, the “customised” news presented in social media and search, and our own filters in choosing who to follow and what to read, it’s fair to say that we’re living in a bubble. Throw into the mix the human tendency for confirmation bias and it’s easy to see that people become increasingly entrenched in their views, both less likely and less willing to hear evidence that doesn’t support their view.

In the last few weeks I’ve seen emotional discussion on politics from both sides of the Atlantic as the US heads into a presidential election later this year and Britain heads to a referendum, dubbed “Brexit“, later this week. It’s not pretty, in both cases it’s a polarised discussion.

It’s because of the level of polarisation, and the anger I’ve seen that I started digging into this. I’ve long thought that social media platforms were poor places for serious discussion for five reasons;

  1. Clutter; Facebook is a blend of photos of cuteness, personal confessions and travel photos. Right next to a photo of my niece walking a tightrope doesn’t seem to be the best place to compare a candidates track record on gun violence.
  2. Godwin’s Law; sooner or later someone is going to drop the N-word. Either of them.
  3. Reading Comprehension; sooner or later someone is going to misunderstand you, perhaps willfully.
  4. Not in Person: in person I could read the person’s body language to pick up on sarcasm or irony (better than in an online discussion)
  5. Asynchronous; nothing worse that waiting hours for a reply to your well-formed attack on a person’s point-of-view. (This should be understood as a tongue-in-cheek comment, see no. 3 above).

So I wasn’t surprised to discover that there is a known phenomenon called the “political spiral of silence“, which means that nuanced, thoughtful points-of-view which are likely to cover some of the middle ground are lost in the noise of social media.

The outcome is a debate so polarised that it’s destructive. How can we change this? What would it take to make your social media and search results more inclusive?

Start by reading opposing views, and having open discussions. We can agree to disagree, can’t we?

Image: Bubbles  | Michael Carson  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

Building Your Content Calendar

Content calendar

Using social media creates a content monster that needs to be fed. In most organisations a lot of thought and planning goes into the concept, design and development of content. Today’s post is a framework for building that content plan. I am focusing on social media, but the principles of building this plan work for other types of content.

Think about your content in terms of layers.

Content can be broken out into three types; evergreen, events and spontaneous. Each requires a different approach but when used together will increase the impact of your social media presence.

Evergreen Content

Sometimes also called drumbeat content, evergreen content can be planned and developed ahead of publishing.

  1. Use dates that are important in your industry
    Think more broadly than company specific dates. For example Philips, manufacturer of X-ray machines, posts on Marie Curie’s birthday.
  2. Build out from campaigns and events
    If you’re running a campaign on a specific product build brand content that supports your campaign message. For example, if a bank is running a campaign around savings products then the brand content could include articles on the psychology of saving.
  3. Build a theme
    Even if there is no specific date to connect it to you can build content around a theme, for example designate May as “Internet of Things” month and produce content around the trends, technology and developments in this field, of course you can connect this content to your own connected products,
  4. Build a series
    Use a specific rhythm to activate one idea. For example there’s a “Meatless Monday” trend in certain healthy circles if you’re a food company you could use this and promote vegetarian menus every Monday. Alternatively use a series of longer articles to go into depth on a specific area of your company’s expertise. f

To make this work

Research relevant dates for you and determine which themes/ series you want to build on.

Develop quality content, which means spending on design, photography, writing or filming the content you need.

Don’t be afraid to re-use this content, either posting highlights onto twitter/facebook, or repurposing it for other platforms.

Keep cultural differences in mind, not everyone celebrates the same thing, in the same way, or even on the same date. (Mother’s day is widely celebrated – but not on the same date).

Events

There are already a number dates to use on social media; those company announcements, conferences, events and campaigns that your company attends or produces.

Product launches are known months, or even years in advance, adding brand content to support the launch can increase the impact of the campaign.

Company leaders attend and speak at events throughout the year, decide which of these would be of more general interest, take any “infographic” or suitable images from presentations and re-use them on social media.

To make this work

Add the known events and campaigns to your calendar, include the event/campaign contact person.

Work with the event/campaign lead to develop content that supports their plans.

Use a simple hashtag for your own event/campaign and encourage a wider audience to publish under it.

Spontaneous

Your company wins an award, there’s the announcement of a merger (or divestment), you’re finally in the ranking you’ve been working towards, you hear of an significant date that matches your company’s portfolio – on the date itself.  Every content team I’ve ever worked with has “last minute” content needs. So while I’m a big fan of planning ahead you also need a little flexibility to take advantage of these opportunities.

To make this work

Prepare likely potential images for your asset library, eg relating to awards ahead of time. The more diverse your asset library is the more likely you are to have a suitable image to hand.

Use your social listening tools to monitor awards in your industry, and watch for the announcement of relevant rankings.

Maintain good contact with the colleagues who handle last minute announcements. Explain to them that you don’t need to know the content of the announcement which may be confidential, but if you know the timing and the sort of content they’ll need you can work with that. Encourage their input into the asset library, to build relevant assets.

Putting the three layers together we can see that the impact of your content, whether measured in exposure or share of voice, increase when the layers are combined.

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 21.42.05

Planning Ahead

All three forms of what does a content calendar need good planning to be successful, but how far ahead to you have to plan?

The honest answer is “it depends”.

For this blog I have a plan that’s about 2 months ahead, with a content deadline of about a week before publication. But that timing needs to change if you’re collaborating on content with a team or you have approval steps needed. Large organisations are more likely to have deadlines further ahead of publication and the plan for content themes is probably running 6-12 months ahead.

Tools

I use a google calendar, I can look at anywhere, on any device, I can add assets and links as I go. But my blog drafts are written directly into wordpress (not best practice). That works for a one person company and would probably scale up to a small team. For large companies there is an amazing array of sophisticated tools on the market. They enable planning and collaborative development of content, publication, sharing/editing of posts and assets, and reporting on content performance.

None of this is that hard to work out, but maintaining quality content requires a rare combination of creativity and discipline, with a dash of flexibility to take advantage of those out of the blue opportunities.

Image; Paper Craft Calendar | Berlin | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

3 Ways to Release the Content in Your Organisation

Balloon_ReleaseAt a recent meeting of Digital Experts (run by Advatera) the most common challenge raised for social media managers was sourcing content. Most participants knew there was content somewhere in the company but struggled to release it for use on social media. Most reported that they’d asked people to give them content but that hadn’t helped. The reality is that few people will think about your content needs and will need to be led into giving you the content you need.

One common cry from over-stretched social media managers is “I ask for content, but I don’t get any sent to me”. I recognise the frustration, but I can also see things from their colleagues’ perspective; it’s something extra in a busy day. However if you can lead them to give you content you’ll unlock the company stories needed for your social media presence.

Repurpose the ugly stuff

Almost every company produces reports on a grand scale, inside these reports are ugly tables of data. You can use that data to create infographics which have a visual impact that works on social media.

For example, the UNHCR’s data on refugees is transformed into a visual showing the scale of the crises in refugee source nations in the last 24 years. This is shareable, the original report is not.

RefugeeData

Take another look at your annual report, sustainability reporting and employee satisfaction reports. Very often these are produced with infographics, add a requirement to the briefing that a certain number of “mini-infographics” are produced for sharing on social media. It’s much easier to build this into the production stage than add it afterwards.
Tweet this
Look also for other data in the company, years ago we included “cups of coffee drunk per day” in a series of company data images. Of course that was the image that got the most attention.

To make this work

Add specifications for images for social media in your designer briefing. You’ll need to say the size, file format, any limits on the image and as far as possible identify the data points you think would be worth sharing.

Leadership Quotes

Your executives speak at events, press announcements, Annual General Meetings, staff meetings and write statements for company publications.

Pull quotes from these sources and present them in a branded template with a head shot, add a link to the report or event, and magically you have content to share.

You can also create events for them to speak, it would powerful if your leadership posted their new year’s resolutions for example. You can make a simple template for this

To make this work

Start early, particularly if you’re looking for new quotes, leaders’ calendars are stupidly busy and finding time to ask them for thoughtful input can be challenging.

Employees as Ambassadors

I guarantee your employees are active on social media, there will be people willing to co-create the content and share company’s branded messages on their own social channels. This has the benefit of reaching a different audience from your own company’s channels, and showcasing your employees pride in the brand.

In some countries – including the Netherlands – this is tricky, the Works Councils/Unions are really concerned at any expectation that work life crosses into private life.  Philips found a way to build a brand ambassador community that didn’t pose that risk using an employee community on the internal social network. They addressed potential concerns by;

  • Using an ‘invite-only’ community on the internal social network
  • Members invited once they’ve completed their initial social media training, ensuring social media knowledge of all participants was at a good level
  • Members are invited to contribute to content
  • Sharing content is always voluntary for each campaign
  • The company does not list, share, or monitor personal accounts of employees

The model of working was first tested on world coffee day in 2014. A series of image templates was developed that met house guidelines on brand and left room for a coffee slogan. On the brand ambassador community members were asked for their ‘coffee slogans’, those with the most likes were used to create assets for world coffee day. And all community members were able to share the images on their own social accounts. Here’s one from my former colleague.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 08.27.46

To make this work

First build a community of people willing to contribute to content, and promote your brand. Work with your brand experts to develop templates for use across campaigns. For each campaign collect the internal input 2-3 weeks ahead of the campaign date, this might sound last minute by other campaign standards but this step can help build momentum for the publishing phase.

You’ll notice that to make each of these work you need “pre-work”, there are no quick fixes. Years ago in digital it felt like we were the last to know, we’d beg for content and then get it right before it needed to be published because the running assumption was that publishing was no more than pushing a button. I think we’re seeing the same sort of tension for a lot of social media teams. The answer is to have the discussions about what’s needed for social media earlier in the process, join the editorial process earlier and discuss with the content writers what will work on social media.

Image; Balloon Release  |  Garry Knight  |  CC BY 2.0

Breaking down silos

I got a grumpy tweet last week, during the Thursday #ESNChat session, for using the term “breaking down the silos”. I felt bad, until then I’d been agreeing with much of what Greg had been saying.

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 16.07.19
Yes, I really said that.

The tweeter suggested I read his blog post which explains why he hates the term so much.

So I did.

I agree with the first part of definition of a silo he gives;

According to dictionary.com, a silo is “a structure, typically cylindrical, in which fodder or forage is kept”.

But I’m not convinced by the second part

In the business context, a silo generally represents a wall or boundary put up by an organization to keep them focused on accomplishing their goals and keeping outsiders from interfering with progress.

In my experience silos form in large companies to support the hierarchical structure of the company. It rests on an old model of thinking about work; that managers know what needs to be done and are responsible for directing all those under their responsibility to complete that work.

For me silos are are an outcome of an overly hierarchical company culture, one where people are unwilling to share knowledge, solve problems together or co-operate in any way.  The business directory defines silo mentality as;

a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

Visible signs that your organisation is in silos;

  • people talk about “us” and “them” meaning different departments within your company
  • you need agreement from management of two departments to get co-operation from another department
  • you need permission from a manager to approach someone in another department
  • departments in your company store their information online in team sites or shared drives that are only accessible for department members
  • you do have lunch with colleagues, but only ever from your own department
  • your personnel directory is searchable by name, or department, but not by expertise
  • when you look for specialist expertise, for example a Spanish-speaking tax expert with experience in Latin America, you start by emailing someone who speaks Spanish

silos

Greg, in his blog post, pointed to some good reasons for building silos within a company; allowing people to focus on the work at hand, and legal or regulatory reasons.

Yes there is a need to focus on the work, and that may mean that a project team shuts itself off from the organisation in some way. Yes in regulated industries there may be a need to put boundaries between certain parts of the organisation; the term used for this in banking in Chinese walls. In agencies temporary boundaries are often put in place around a project to prevent sharing of client information.

In general I wouldn’t consider anything temporary as a silo; just as you don’t move a grain silo easily, silos within companies take time to be established. I agree that there are regulatory boundaries to be considered, and while I’m probably guilty of understating those in my enthusiasm for improving knowledge sharing across a company, I’m certainly not thinking of them when I call for us to “break down the silos”.

I watched a TED video that talked about what might be one of the greatest silo breakdowns ever, and it comes from the US military. General Stanley McChrystal states;

The fact that I know something has zero value if I’m not the person who can actually make something better because of it.

He explains that it’s almost impossible to know who is the best person to use each piece of information, and that the army therefore moved from a “tell only who needs to know” to “we need to tell, and tell them as quickly as we can“.

It’s this philosophical shift I am referring to when I talk about breaking down the silos. In some companies the need is urgent, but I’m going to stop using the term, not in deference to Greg, but because it’s too urgent; from now on the term is “tearing down the silos”.

Missing Communication

communicationmissWhen a friend of mine didn’t answer question on Whatsapp last week, I went cyberstalking. I checked his facebook and found he was in the UK. Not really an excuse, it’s just next door and it’s almost the same timezone, his phone should work there.

Turns out, he has a brand new shiny phone, with a new phone number. I found this out because he emailed me.

I started thinking about all the tools I use to connect, and how I choose which tool to use. It’s a question that comes up in companies as communication tools proliferate, I can remember conversations with internal comms colleagues wanting to make a guideline to help people along the lines of “if you have this type of content – use this tool”.

It turns out that for me, it’s less about the content and more about the people, particularly when it comes to short messages.

Email

I have multiple email addresses, to add to the fun. I use email to communicate with my mother, she’s on a very different timezone so if I need to send her a message email works well. I know she’ll go to her desk at least once in the day and she’ll pick up my message (while I’m asleep).

In my social circle almost no-one emails me, unless they have a specific document to send me, or perhaps photos to share that they don’t want on facebook.

sms

One group of friends has never evolved past using SMS; few of them are on facebook, so that’s not an option, and one doesn’t have a phone smart enough to use Whatsapp. It’s fine, until you want to have a many-to-many conversation.

Lots of friends use this as the fastest way to get someone’s attention for a short message.

whatsapp

Currently my favourite tool, used by certain groups of former colleagues. It lets you have one-to-one or many-to-many conversations. It’s phone agnostic. Plus the emoticons are prettier. I tried using it with other groups, but mostly people default back to what they’re used to.

facebook

I limit my facebook to family and friends, so “only” have 111 facebook friends. I use the chat function within facebook a lot, it seems to be the tool most friends are most comfortable with, it works pretty well in the phone app (despite the endless invites to upgrade to another level of service). I have a group of friends from all over the world that I got to know online, we started out as anonymous handles in a chat room, but as we’ve grown to know and trust each other real names have been shared, and this group are the most comfortable using facebook – it’s a lot like having them in the room.

twitter

Rarely used for messaging, unless twitter is the only way someone knows me. Often use the “@” function to share something the person will find useful or (more often) funny. Pretty much no-one uses DMs.

linkedin

Former colleagues, classmates, conference delegates, business contacts – either through a message or an in-mail, the connections there are more of a work nature, and so is the contact.

homescreen2These tools are all available to all of the people (except whatsapp – blocked for one person). Who uses what has evolved, and there are certainly people I would contact on more than one platform. I don’t keep a list, I don’t use any special decision tree. The icons for all these tools are on the home screen of my phone so it’s easy. In the olden days I used to know people’s phone numbers, this knowledge has replaced that.

I think the same thing is happening in the workplace, each platform added to the workplace is adding another communication or messaging tool, and for some the choice feels overwhelming – particularly as the number of external tools is also growing. As people get more used to the tools, and understand how groups and communities form, it will feel very natural. Rather than take a prescriptive approach, trying to guide employees to a “right” way to use the tools, companies should take an open platform approach, simplifying access and enabling employees to find all the tools they need in one place.

Finding the right tool to communicate should be as easy as accessing it from my phone’s home screen.

Image; Communication Art Prize 2010 / Fellowship of the Rich/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0