We are often described as ‘social animals.’ I think that means that we like to chat to each other. And when we chat with each other we do so for a variety of reasons. It might be to provide information, or we might be gossiping, or giving instructions or feedback. Within business there are many reasons to communicate – with staff, clients and customers, managers, the rest of the team. Communication is critical, and as with everything else, psychologists have characterized the different types and purposes for communication and there are some interesting insights for how a business copes with challenges, and innovates.
Allen and Henn (2007) describe three forms of communication that exist within an organization:
1. Communication for coordination
2. Communication for information
3. Communication for inspiration
The first two are straightforward and simply capture the conversations we have in the office when we are arranging the next meeting or describing the properties of a certain product. We do this sort of stuff every day and the communication may be in the form of a telephone call, an email or a face-to-face conversation. Coordination and information are critical to keep the wheels of business well oiled. The third form of communication – that of inspiration – is less well understood or appreciated. New ideas, new ways of doing things, and new solutions often arise from conversations or brainstorming sessions i.e. from communication between people. In fact, one recognised way of managing the innovation process is to bring specialists from different fields together to look at old problems in new ways. Actually, one definition of innovation is exactly that: applying a known solution from one field into a novel field.
I recently instituted a ‘review’ of the Parkinson lab communication process. It was mainly because I was getting increasingly frustrated by e-mail as a means of communication. Rather than liberating us, it seems to shackle us. There’s a well-known approach to time-management called Inbox Zero. I thought it might be even better to try Email Zero. In other words to stop using email altogether. Some organisations have done this internally and instead use other forms of social media to achieve successful organisational communication (for example by using Google+ or Twitter). I analysed one day’s worth of emails and categorized them as communication for coordination, information or inspiration. I realised that some of the email I sent should more easily have been a quick phone call or face-to-face chat. Some simple ones (mainly information or coordination) were indeed best served through email. None of my emails could have been defined as communication for inspiration. I concluded that Email Zero wouldn’t work – it is actually useful for certain simple communicative tasks – but more importantly, I realised that I needed to increase my opportunities for inspiring communication.
Essentially, we spend the least amount of time having interesting, thought-provoking conversations, but they are the ones with the greatest potential. And it has to be face-to-face (not email, not phone). Creativity and inspiration occur best under certain circumstances (which includes the right mood, environment and people). It is often a social phenomenon. In many ways, an informal unplanned chat can provide an excellent opportunity for new ideas. Unfortunately, many organisations are getting rid of their kitchens, canteens or social areas. Space is a resource that can be managed financially and so these ‘green’ spaces can be swallowed up in aggressive efficiency drives. But that would be a mistake.
Here’s an example of how to promote inspiring conversations: Nesta (http://www.nesta.org.uk/), is an organisation that (in its own words) “…is an independent charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life.” They recently tried an innovative approach to innovation (!) One of their jobs is to organise randomised controlled trials – a process to gather evidence in a controlled and objective manner. Instead, within their own organisation they ran Randomised Coffee Trials (RCTs). Employees signed up and had their names thrown into a hat. Pairs were drawn and their task was to meet and have a coffee. That was it. This RCT ran for several weeks and Nesta were simply interested if any serendipitous ideas or projects grew out of the informal meetings. And, of course, they did.
We’re going to try it here in Bangor University – we have a lot of specialists (academics) hidden away in their ivory towers (Schools). We’re going to try and tempt them out to talk to specialists from other Schools to see what exciting new ideas can be born. Watch this space.
What conclusions can we draw? Well, communication is a good thing. And face-to-face conversations can be really important for creativity and innovation. So, try and promote it within your organisation. It’s also important to get people talking who wouldn’t normally meet, so there’s an element of promoting new links rather than supporting old. Either way, if you have a commercial challenge, look inwards and release your own creative powers to find solutions. Enjoy!
– Dr John –
Allen TJ & Henn G (2007) The Organization and Architecture of Innovation: Managing the Flow of Technology. Butterworth-Heinemann.