Communicating In Chaotic Environments

    June 2, 2005

How do you, or would you, communicate in a chaotic environment?

That question was put to me by a reader who works in big, frantically-paced telecommunications company. Many projects operate at the same time, and many connections exist among the project teams.

In this environment, teams work independently, but at the same time depend on each other for critical information. Without that information, time is wasted and progress slowed.

In a broader sense, the challenge is to create communication systems that gather, process, and disseminate critical information. With this information, teams can work more efficiently and effectively.

The reader reports that one solution emerged out of a technical forum organized around a very large project. He says that while participants exchanged technical information, a lot of value came from the process, as well as the content.

Specifically, many participants got to know each other, sharing their experiences and insight. This opened up person-to-person channels that had not existed before. New, informal networks developed and participants found alternative ways to get information.

Therefore, he suggested that quarterly conferences might be a good idea, because they provide a mechanism for further developing and extending these networks.

My suggestions complemented his experience and thoughts. I recommended that each team develop an information requirements list at its planning meetings. After articulating such a list, team members can begin identifying where and how they will get this information. In other words, start with objectives, a strategic approach.

Teams should ask: What information do we need? Why do we need it? Where and when can it be found? Who will get it, and from whom? This takes the information shopping list to a new level, without necessarily adding a lot of time to the process. With the specifics identified, gathering the information should be quicker and easier.

On a related topic, technology opens up a number of interesting opportunities for better communication in such an environment. Email, discussion groups, and internal databases offer ways to get and give critical information.

On a smaller and less chaotic scale, I\’ve set up several closed, Internet discussion groups for associations with which I volunteer. They provide excellent forums for discussion between meetings or other get-togethers.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to create electronic mechanisms that actively draw out information, rather than just passively route it to the participants. One way of doing this might be to set up groups in which requests for information are posted and answered.

While such a process might not work for some organizations, the thrust behind it should work for most. That is, we can build effective communication systems when we start with a strategic approach, working backward from our objectives to the things we will do.

In summary, even in chaotic environments, we can develop systems that lead to good communication, allowing us to get and give critical information.

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