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Human Communications Protocol

By | March 26, 2015 in Service Desk

ITSM communications is a two-way process

How many times does the word ‘communications’ get mentioned as an issue in your organization (and we’re not referring to networks and routers)?

The basic human function of communicating information accurately and appropriately between people seems to pop up regularly as the reason for failure, the stumbling block, the broken link in the supply chain, and generally as the barrier to success.

Often the term ‘communications’ is used to cover a multitude of issues, from lack of information, to too much information, plus of course inappropriate information. Usually, however, this comes down to the extent to which individuals are aware of their own communications actions (or lack of them) and how this is received or experienced by others. Often it’s about misunderstandings, or in some cases personality clashes – i.e. when people don’t get on with each other.

The net result however is usually some form of problem: waste of money, delay, additional cost, failure of delivery, loss of service, missed business opportunity, etc. So communications failure isn’t just about people not being nice to each other – it’s a real business problem.

Consider the following scenario:

Your organization may be implementing a new technology service and needs some external (paid) consultancy to help with technical implementation. However the consultant is booked to arrive on a day when the person who needs to give said consultant access and support to your infrastructure isn’t available, or even aware of this happening, so the cost of the consultant is wasted.

Why did this happen? Maybe no one contacted and booked time with the relevant people. Or maybe an email was sent but didn’t make it clear what was expected, or even was sent with the assumption that all involved were okay with the details and didn’t check up. Nobody purposely meant to fail, but poor communications meant that the result was failure.

Of course when you get large projects and these gaps are not managed, this can have a huge impact on budget and delivery targets – and this regularly does happen when dependencies and logistics are not closely and dynamically managed. In addition, you are probably already aware of the potential for misunderstanding when escalating incidents and events between teams, if written and verbal notes between teams are not clear and very specific.

Technology can go so far in reducing these issues but ultimately this comes down to how well people communicate with each other as human beings. How can we make this better, particularly as people working in technology where communications is a huge part of what we do apparently…hmmm.

Send and Receive

Communications must be a two-way process. Successful communications only happens when messages are not only sent, but also known to be received and understood.

Too often in IT we think that simply sending out a message (e.g. an email) is sufficient as a form of communication, when in fact this is only (the first) part of the process.

It might be useful for IT folk to consider one of the most basic of all IT standards as a parallel – i.e. communications protocol.

As soon as computers began communicating with each other, and across geographical divides, it was established that simple protocols were needed to establish that contact was good – reliable, continuing, consistent, and also two-way. Communications protocol states that all electronic communication is predicated on the following steps:

  1. Making contact– verifying and acknowledging the link. This happens as a 2-way process, with send and acknowledgement messages being exchanged.
  2. Maintaining contact– ensuring that the contact remains in place and that messages are exchanged successfully. This involves a continual process of send/acknowledgement messages.

Technology communications protocols do the things that we humans often forget to do, namely: (1) check and acknowledge that contact has been made and (2) keep checking and verifying this.

It’s never enough to simply send a message to another party; there needs to be an acknowledgement back that the message has been received. If no acknowledgement has been received then the sender needs to take some further action to establish and confirm that two-way communication has taken place.

So, if computers do this, why don’t we humans follow the same approach?

Appropriate Human Interactions

Of course it is important to check that your messages have been received and understood, and to then also check/verify the next course of action that will be taken and by whom. This comes naturally to some people, whose personality drives them to check up and chase for responses and answers when they send out messages. These individuals are great for incident tracking and SLA management, as well as driving for results for longer term issues or problems.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always a natural condition for technical people and often they need systems (and nagging) to drive them to check up for responses. One way or another there needs to be a culture in organisations that ensures that ‘sending is not enough’. Follow up/chase activity is just as important, and is the responsibility of the sender until a response has been received.

Here are some further recommendations that can help to improve communications and thereby reduce problems:

  • Think about the message that needs to be communicated. Communication will be more successful if there is a clear objective in terms of message that needs to be sent. Try to edit and remove non-essential details that might distract or confuse the key message. Often IT projects can over-communicate too much information that is unnecessary and actually blocks the understating of the key messages.
  • Write using appropriate language for the receiver. There’s no point in using jargon, technical, or IT process language when trying to communicate with non-IT people – so don’t do it! It’s actually quite patronizing and disrespectful to include content that your audience doesn’t understand or have any need to know, and again this will reduce the impact and level of understanding of your intended message.
  • Test the understanding of your messages. It’s useful to use a number of informal feedback loops, for example the coffee machine conversation, to check senses and understanding of what you have communicated. There’s nothing like a dose of reality to help you to improve and refine your messages and the various media that you use to send these out.
  • Simplify / visualize / tell stories. Words and text are useful forms of communication but of course they are only one form of contact. Pictures and simplified short sentences are more memorable and therefore more likely to stick in people’s minds. Nobody tells a child a bedtime story using PowerPoint slides and bullet points – for a good reason. Stories require emotional engagement and use of the imagination for understanding. This actually uses more of the brain than simple text and therefore will be more likely to be retained. Use this principle to send out simple clear messages to individuals or groups.

Overall it’s important that IT people understand that they need to be good communicators to be successful at their jobs. IT people need to be able to use some basic communications skills to show that they are listening and understanding. In other words – even though they are usually listening and understanding, they just need to make it clear to their customers that they are doing so. The great news is that this is not difficult and it will only take a few changes to really make a difference..

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Noah Kauffman

About Noah Kauffman

Noah has been a computer and IT enthusiast his entire life. Since the first time he called his ISP for help to get to Yahoo in 1994 (who knew you needed all this "http://" stuff?!), Noah has been tightly aligned to all things tech. His career has seen roles in development, marketing, sales, and support of many solutions. His passion for efficiency and effectiveness makes his newly found love of ITIL and ITSM a great asset within the SysAid family.

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