Effective communication. It is doubtless one of the most important factors in determining the success of any group project or task – be it something in the business world or out. When it comes to an IT project, effective communication becomes all the more important. In an industry where the typical project requires contributions from individuals with different skills from one another, different backgrounds and different responsibilities, it can become quite a challenge for employee A specializing in discipline X to get a message across to employee B, whose specialty is not in discipline X, but in discipline Y. One is very likely familiar with certain jargon terms that the other is clueless about, and vice versa. And it’s not like many of these jargon terms are as easy to understand as an adjective that you just look up in the dictionary; the majority sit somewhere in a long conceptual chain, where the understanding of one necessitates the understanding of two or three other, more “basic” concepts or terms. Being that such a challenge is more than just prevalent (it’s an obstacle that is there on the daily!), many just go the “Heck, I’ll do it myself and hope it all works out” route. This is the reason why members in the IT field have this terrible stigma for being poor communicators.
So what is effective communication? How can IT folks improve their communication skills? Is it even possible, given that communicating between two employees with different areas of expertise can at times be as difficult as speaking French to a Chinese man?
Effective communication occurs when a message is successfully delivered from one party to the other. For the message to be successfully delivered, the meaning of the message has to be the same for the recipient as it does for the person who sent the message. If I am sitting at a dinner table with you, and I ask you to please pass the salt, your passing of the salt is indicative that the communication – the request I made explicit to you – was successful. Similarly, I could look at you, make eye contact, and then point to the salt, without saying a single word; your passing of the salt in this instance would be just as successful as the audible one. If only communication in the IT field was as easy as getting someone to pass the salt at a dinner table, you say. I know, I know, it’s not. But it’s important that we define the terms that we are using.
Being that this is quite the heavy subject, as the directions we can go are innumerable, the best place to start would be to talk about the action step most easily implemented. That action step is being more specific in the titling of your emails. “Please help me” doesn’t really give the recipient of your email much context. “The submit button doesn’t work” is a lot more specific, and the recipient can easily find your email if he or she wants to re-read your email at some other time. There won’t be a need to search through the scores of emails, clicking on one generically titled email after another until he or she gets to yours. Project managers are especially appreciative of folks who give the titles of their emails specific, easily-understood names. They get hundreds of emails on the daily, and being able to parse through them with relative swiftness can up their efficiency by scores. Sometimes it’s the little things that take just but a few seconds to perform that can add up to an incredibly valuable change. Making the subject of your message easily identifiable is a perfect example of one of those small things that, in the long run, save time, money, and labor.
So we gave you one action step, but now it’s time to go back to the theory. In order to consistently reproduce desirable results in any discipline, an understanding of the theory is required. This may not apply to sports athletes who don’t have to understand physics in order to catch a fly ball, but for engineers and folks in the software industry, theory is necessary. Effective communication requires an understanding of the elements of thought. These elements are things you want to keep in mind, whether you’re working at a web design or web development company, an online marketing firm, a law firm, or a grocery store. Important communication has a purpose, a goal. The person sending a message to another needs to ask, “What is it that I am trying to achieve through this message?” If he is at all stuck, asking the question in a different form, like, “What thought am I trying to make explicit,” can be a helpful one to get the ball rolling.
When using words to communicate, as is the case for most of us in the business or IT world, being aware of the concepts we are using is pivotal to effective communication. If you are a web developer, there are going to be terms that your search engine optimization specialist will have no clue about. Being mindful of this can only assuage any possible frustration that may creep into the interaction for the SEO specialist. If you use a term like Cascading Style Sheets or Responsive Web Design, there may be a chance that your SEO expert won’t know what you’re talking about. Likewise, if the SEO specialist uses a term like Nofollow, PPC (Pay-per-click), or SERP (Search Engine Ranking Page), there’s a great chance that you won’t know what he’s talking about. Slowing down, and making sure one another are on the same page – making certain that each is familiar with the terms being used – will greatly reduce any possible frustration and greatly increase the productivity level of both parties. Now there are many more elements of thought, but we can’t go into them all here. For now, just be aware what your purpose is, and what core concepts are being used. If you stumble, or if the communication is not at all effective, quickly turn to these two elements of thought. Chances are, that’s where the problem is.
- Clarity: “Can I express my point in another way? Can I provide an example?”
- Accuracy: ‘How can I check to see if what I am saying is true?” A statement can satisfy the intellectual standard of clarity, but not that of accuracy, as in: Birds have 3 wings. The statement “birds have 3 wings” is clear but not accurate.
- Precision: “Can I give more details? Can I be more specific?” A statement can meet the requirement of accuracy but not that of precision. An example: “The development of this website is going to take a long time to complete.” How long? We don’t know. A more precise answer, would be, “This project should take anywhere from 40 to 70 hours to complete.”
- Relevance: “How is what I’m saying in the now related to the overall issue? How is this connected to the purpose? To the question?” Even if a statement is clear, is accurate, is precise, it may not be relevant. Your boss is complaining. The quality of your work is not up to par, and the website you designed is ugly. If your response is, “But I worked hard on it”, that doesn’t bear on the issue that the result isn’t good, and thus, is irrelevant. Asking what about the project needs to be improved, may be a more pertinent and constructive response to your boss’s dissatisfaction.
- Depth: How am I taking into account the issues in the original question? Am I addressing the most significant factor in question?” Clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance – these can all be addressed without there existing the necessary depth of the issue. To deal with the complexities of an issue, you need to move back and forth along the conceptual chain – to flesh out and cognize the meaning of the terms that are used in the definition of another, more complex term.
- Breadth: “Is there another point of view that I ought to take into account? Am I being partial or impartial? What would this look like from another person’s (my employee’s or employer’s) standpoint?” This is the empathic intellectual standard. Showing the humility to look at something from another perspective indicates that you are willing to check your premises, to question whether or not you are missing a key element of thought.
- Logic: “How does this follow? Are there any contradictions in what I’m saying now and what I’ve said earlier?” Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. Something cannot be both A and not A at the same time and in the same respect. The recognition of this means that you cannot hold a contradiction in your head about something and claim to have knowledge about that thing.
And so, for now, take the time to check for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth & breadth, and logicalness in your message. If you can’t get your message across, identify your purpose. If the recipient of your message can’t seem to grasp something you’re saying, break it down for him. Ask what part he is having trouble with. Identify that part and see whether or not there is a core concept that he isn’t familiar with. Do your best to explicate that part. If it is too complex of a concept, ask yourself if you can give him an example of what that concept is used for, or what it does. See if you can give him an analogy. I know, I know, all this is easier said than done; but it must be said, and understood, before it is done effectively – not just once, but on a regular basis.