My friend Rakesh sighed loudly and then cursed. This was extraordinary coming from a mild mannered man like him, who is normally the epitome of courtesy and forbearance. Naturally, I asked him what prompted this uncharacteristic outburst and he answered, “Do people think they can get away by treating other people as ‘plug and play’ devices?” He went on to explain that he was deeply angry because many of the people he worked with apparently had e-m ail and phone systems that only seemed to work one way — the systems worked when they wanted to send mails seeking information or help; they became mute and unresponsive when it was time to reciprocate.
Did you say, “That happens to me all the time.”
In today’s frenetic/ frenzied times, the need for speedy information-exchange and resolution of issues puts enormous stress on people. To support this need, technology has come up with one solution after another. In less than four decades, we have moved from basic telephony and telegrams to video conferencing, e-mail and the BlackBerry via the teleprinter and the telefax in the intervening decades. At each stage, the technologies have evolved to help the ultimate user take charge of responding directly.
As is often the case, the technology has evolved, but the problem is with the people who use it. Let’s meet a few familiar personalities:
The gravity flow types: These are bosses or bossy types who believe in their divine right to direct lower beings through missives, but who do not think it necessary to respond when required to do so. Their attitude undergoes a sea change when they have to respond to beings who are higher in the hierarchy. In such a case, alacrity often marks their efforts to fight gravitational forces!
The centre of the universe types: These are the selfish and narcissistic types who believe the universe revolves around them and as such feel no compulsion to return something to the universe. Charles Dickens probably had them in mind when he made Oliver Twist utter those immortal words, “I want more.”
The ever busy types: These are the ones who have all the gadgets in the world to distract themselves with and get into a mode of being busy. There is plenty of activity, but the conversion ratio, to action, is often low. There is also the problem of prioritising in the face of excessive information inflow, much of it unnecessary and self-inflicted.
The asynchronous gadget types: These are the ones who constantly tell you that they have a problem synchronising their various gadgets that store information, but who will nevertheless not move to using simpler gadgets.
I am sure there are many more such types who colonise the corporate world. The net result is a dysfunctional organisation that seems to give an entirely new meaning to the term ‘information asymmetry’, and that weakens the system from within.
There needs to be an agreed-on communication protocol that, while protecting confidentiality, also ensures consistent and relevant information flow between all levels in an organisation. In the absence of such a flow, people will be information-starved and this vacuum will be filled by guesswork, gossip and worse.
A simply articulated communication protocol, something like a Magna Carta — a charter defining the rights and responsibilities with respect to communications between people in the system — will go a long way towards creating a positive and vibrant work culture. The protocol will work best if it can be internalised and cascaded down the line effectively so that everyone in the system appreciates the benefits that accrue to the individual and the system as well. Equally important, breaches should invite exemplary punishment.
What are you waiting for? Make that call now; send that e-mail response now.