How not to run a business (Part 7): Communication
Internal business communication is a problem in any company, especially as a company grows. When you have a 10 person team, it’s easy for everyone to know what everyone else is doing. When you’re a 500 person team, that challenge becomes quite a bit harder. How do you solve this problem for a 500 person company? Let’s explore.
Don’t expect all team members to know everything that’s going on
Foster a company that values communication, knowledge, excellence and teamwork. One of the biggest problems facing any company is that people, in their zeal to get things done rapidly, gloss over explanations about critical points. In email, it’s really apparent when you get that miles-long email thread that effectively tells you, “Read the below 50 reply thread and figure out what’s going on”. You do this only to realize that no relevant customer information, times and/or dates of the ‘problem’ are even described in that thread. Worse, you’ve spent 15 minutes reading it twice. It’s no wonder things don’t get done quickly and that customers complain of slowness.
Team members should provide ALL necessary information to everyone properly for expediency. It is the originating employee’s responsibility is to describe all necessary information that identifies the customer in your company’s system. Without this basic information, someone will eventually have to stop and determine this. To solve this problem effectively, require the use of a ticketing system to track problems and make the ticketing system require input fields that force the employee reporting the problem to fill in all details properly. This completely avoids that 50 reply long thread where not one person defines the most basic things needed.
Wasting time on deciphering a miles long email thread is pointless. It’s much more useful to get to the heart of the problem immediately. Use ticketing systems to manage these communication problems. Email is for quick questions and small discussions. Ticketing systems are for resolving problems. Use the right tool for the right reason.
Don’t let your employees post internal company information to internet sites
Internal information flow is for employee use only. Twitter, Reddit, Quora or even your own external blog or discussion forums are not the place for employee communication. Hire people to manage external facing customer information. Saying or doing the wrong thing on public facing media, especially when you become a public company, can hurt your company and can become a permanent part of Google’s search database for years.
Your corporate communication’s team (you do have one, right?) should strictly control public messaging. On the other hand, employees posting their own personal views of non-company related matters is not to be restricted when not on the clock and when using personal assets and networks. As long as their posts have nothing whatever to do with company business, there should be no restrictions on use of employee after-hour use of social media.
Tweeting personal things while on-the-clock and using company equipment, should be frowned upon if for no other reason than it is reducing work productivity. If the employee does personal things during their break or lunch hour, it should not be restricted if performed from personal devices outside of company networks and not involving company business.
On the other hand, posting public communication involving the company or the company’s products on company time should be handled by the corporate communication team or by their approval. Saying the wrong thing on the wrong venue can cause irreparable damage to your company’s credibility or lose critical deals.
Don’t read every employee email or store them forever
While you can likely do this through auditing, it opens your business up to some legal issues. If the person reading another employee’s email becomes aware of something illicit that your team may or may not know about, it could lead to issues involving the company becoming an accomplice in whatever the act may have been. Not having the knowledge, it’s much easier to deny involvement and that the employee was acting on their own. That may or may not help your case, but it may prevent other personal lawsuits from arising.
Additionally, if you are reading employee email, that means it’s stored some place. Because it’s stored, it may fall under other problem areas like email retention. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t archive all emails sent by your employees, but keeping the emails stored too long is probably just as bad as reading them, in terms of legal problems. However, you may need to know if an ex-employee made sales promises to a customer that may not have been documented anywhere else. However, when you have emails stored, they can be subpoenaed during discovery of a legal proceeding. If you purge them after required legal retention periods, they’re not there to be discovered. At the same time, you may lose some historical information about your company. You have to make the call where to draw the retention line.
If you intend to keep backups of email, you should really only keep them for as long as the law allows, then purge them irrevocably from disk and all backups. Not having the information around can save your company from legal issues if an employee did something not sanctioned by the company.
Don’t use Google Apps, Postini, Appriver or other third party email servers without knowing how they work
If you outsource your company’s email system to a third party, you could open yourself up to lawsuits, loss of trade secrets or spying. You should always read that third party’s contract terms very carefully and ask for revisions for items which you don’t agree. If that third party reserves the right to archive, store and possibly even read those emails, this could open your company up to not only lawsuit discovery, it could lead your company to lost company secrets, lost company contracts, lost revenue, hacked email or lost customers.
A third party does have the responsibility to maintain some levels of privacy over contracted services, but you can’t control who that third party hires. If they happen to hire a person or contractor of malicious intent, you’re vulnerable. Simply using a third party, you’re at risk. In other words, that third party could end up hiring your competitor to provide some fundamental service that is conflict of interest to your business. Also, email hosting providers selling services to large corporate entities are prime targets for an attack. Beware of these risks involving third party providers. While using such a third party service may appear less expensive, you have to understand the hidden costs of running your business through any third party service. Only you can weigh those risk-benefits.
Even more, you’re also at the mercy of that third party’s security processes. If their process is not as stringent as yours, your company secrets could be at risk. If you don’t know the level of security that that third party provider offers, you could be a world of hurt if their email server is compromised and a bunch of your private company email appears on internet forums or on CNN.
Don’t pass trade secrets or confidential company information in plain text email
While you can’t rule out a corporate mole within your own organization, it’s far far easier to lose your trade secrets through email communication than through any other medium. If that communication uses a third party, you’re really at risk since few companies require encrypted email. If you choose to use email communication through a third party cloud provider, you should require that each employee send and use encrypted communications when discussing trade secrets, large customer deals, financial information or even discussing customer lists.
Setting up GPG, while not necessarily trivial, is one way to combat sending such easily viewed emails. Even the simple act of someone reading an email at home on their iPhone will transfer that email data across the internet in a visible plain text which can be read by anyone along the way. Email encryption prevents prying eyes other than to the recipient it was intended. Not all email communication requires encryption, but for those that do, encryption can be the difference between a lost deal and winning that deal.
The bigger your company gets, the more targeted it will be for espionage.
Don’t rely on chat systems to take the place of email
Chat systems are fleeting. These messages are easily lost. If you need records to be stored for your employee’s time use, then you should require email or ticketing to manage this. Chat is not always productive, but can be helpful to get answers to questions rapidly. But, don’t have your employee rely on chat to execute sensitive system procedures, especially if your company is using AOL, YMessenger or any other third party hosted chat system. Instead, for new procedures, use a local phone conference system. Voice chat is much more interactive, less error prone and, when combined with screen sharing, can provide much better methods of disseminating information and communication. Once the process has been nailed down, place it into an onsite Wiki that can be reviewed as a knowledgebase. Use a chat system for what it’s best at doing, writing quick small fleeting messages.
Don’t rely on third party services to run your entire communication business
If you can afford it, you should build and operate your own corporate communication systems behind your own corporate network infrastructure. If you farm out any part of your corporate communications to a third party provider, your communication is at risk. Risk from theft, from espionage, from hacking and from data retention that’s all out of your control. Instead, to control all of your communications (both internal and external), you will want to own all communication systems including ticketing, email and chat services. While you can’t own mobile device networks, you can own when and how they are to be used for communication.
Don’t forget to encourage employees to communicate regularly
While meetings are great ways at getting a lot of people on the same page at once, those that aren’t in the room during that meeting won’t have any clue. It’s also easy to forget who attended a meeting after the meeting convenes, so always make sure to encourage people who attended the meeting to communicate to those who didn’t attend and to whomever needs to know.
Also, require someone to keep meeting notes at all meetings and post the notes to a common department page after the meeting concludes. Better, require recording of meetings and store the meeting recordings as mp3 files for easy access and download. This not only allows those not in attendance to catch up on what was said, it also keeps those who were in attendance from claiming something was or wasn’t said. Basically, recordings keep everyone honest and informed. Remember to apply data retention policies to all archived meeting recordings.
Don’t tolerate employees who claim ignorance on what they have previously said
For any manager, director, VP or regular employee, honesty is the best policy. Keeping your employees honest keeps the company functioning correctly. However, any employee that regularly uses the ‘I never said that’ defense, usually indicates that they did say that at some point. Employees should not be allowed to get away with that defense, especially when it is found via email (or through recordings) that they did say whatever they claim they didn’t.
Employees using that defense more than twice and who have been found to have said it, should be officially written up and placed on a performance plan. Any further transgressions should be met with swift removal from the position. Honest communication is the key. Anyone intentionally sabotaging that goal by using this defense, should be swiftly stopped and/or removed. Fewer things make a company more communicably dysfunctional and time wasting than having to deal with unnecessary diversions (e.g. having to prove someone else wrong).
Instead, employees should always focus on the business at hand, not on doing historical research projects to find out what someone may or may not have said.
Don’t encourage employees to keep other employees in the dark
Barring salary and compensation details and upcoming earnings information, there are very few business topics that cannot be communicated to any employee in the company. Granted, some information may not be necessary for a specific person’s job role. There is no reason, though, that a person who manages IT couldn’t know the DSO number of a collections associate in Finance. This is not secret information. It may not be necessary information for that IT person’s job, but it should not be in any way a secret. Not passing unnecessary information is considered okay, but if someone asks it’s not a secret.
In the spirit of this section, all critical business information needs to be sent to everyone who needs to know. Example, when sales deals are closing, sales employees need to disclose all promises made to the customer and that information needs to be disseminated to all employees potentially impacted by those promises. Passing the information is not necessarily in place to prevent the deal from happening, but to allow anyone with extenuating information to inform the sales person of those business constraints impacting those promises. In other words, sales people need a technical conscience. The only way to manage this is to involve a technical person to help reign in the sales person and set proper expectations. Barring the use of a technical person in every sales deal, then the promises need to be disseminated to the technical teams to ensure the deal can be closed without problems.
If special provisions are needed for some promises, then the prospect needs to be informed of when those special provisions may become available. The last thing you want your sales person doing is making a promise without telling anyone. That’s the quickest way to not only lose the deal, but also to face refunds months later when the promises cannot be kept (and the sales person has spent their commission check after having left the company).
Checks and balances can only be performed with proper communication to all teams and by also not keeping employees in the dark. If you find your sales team making promises without informing people timely, this person should be reprimanded and written up. Further transgressions should be met by leading them to them the exit door.
Communication is always a challenge and keeping the communication flowing is the only way to ensure smooth business operations. It’s when communication stops, lags or is held back until it’s too late that it becomes a business continuity problem. As a company grows larger and larger, communication will suffer. When a company becomes divided by geographic boundaries, communication becomes not only worse, but compartmentalized. What one office may know, another won’t. That’s a recipe for problems all around. Unfortunately, that’s also the problem that most very large companies like AT&T and Verizon face today. With 10000 or more employees, communication between all of these employees will greatly suffer and is one of the reasons that ticketing and process flows become the single most important communication tool in a super sized company.
However, that you may only have 50 employees doesn’t mean your communication can’t suffer. Every company can improve communication by using the right tools.