More than 40 years ago, Paul Newman's prison guard in the film, "Cool Hand Luke," made famous the phrase, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Yet, today, a quick Google search of the phrase will pull up more than 400,000 hits.

With the quantum leaps in communication technology over the last 10 years, the failure to communicate effectively has become a mortal sin, whether you're talking about communication within an organization or between an organization and its partners or customers.

Communication is a key piece of the IT landscape that has undergone a paradigm shift in recent years (storage/management and analytical capabilities are the other two). E-mail, location-independent telephony (mobile and VoIP), collaborative authoring and the personal network broadcasting capabilities of social media enable radically different capabilities.

With modern communication technology and currently evolving communication practices, people expect to:

  • Be able to get any information, wherever it's stored, whenever they want it
  • Reach anyone at any time of day in near real-time
  • Be able to find out what people or companies are up to in near real-time by "checking their status."

But enabling this kind of communication takes changes in practices and behaviors as well as technology. In addition to its impact on customer and agent communication, these changed expectations have a significant potential impact on the way IT leaders will manage their own organizations and their relationships with their business counterparts, in four key areas: information accessibility, skills inventory, activity transparency and customer communication with business counterparts.

Solving the "Knowledge Management Problem"

IT organizations create masses and masses of written materials: systems specifications, use cases, strategic plans and presentations are already usually archived in some kind of searchable document repository, but a large amount of knowledge creation and exchange happens in written form that is not searchable or accessible via e-mail. By moving conversations from e-mail to wikis and blogs whenever possible, IT groups turn ephemeral communications into searchable and retrievable team assets.

Making this knowledge preservation a byproduct of communication has the potential to solve the "knowledge management problem" of user motivation. With most knowledge management (KM) systems designed on a database paradigm, users (also known as "people") are expected to sit down and do a brain dump into a series of fields with no short-term benefit to themselves. It's a little like asking programmers to document their code after the application has already shipped. There's no motivation. Making KM a frictionless byproduct of a communication platform, avoids this problem and facilitates the capture and retention of institutional knowledge.

Skills Inventory

As people have been trained by Facebook and LinkedIn to post their profiles online, many technology firms have established internal social networking platforms that make it much easier to assemble a skills inventory of internal staff. Having this inventory makes it much easier to assemble project teams, understand a team's abilities to support new applications and direct recruiting strategically.

Activity Transperancey

The growth in personal adoption of "status updates" is a dramatic development in interpersonal relations, which has a huge potential impact on team and relationship management. For the first time, it is possible to find out what people are up to without asking or observing them directly.

In the same way that wikis and blogs have the potential to help solve the knowledge management issue, social media has the potential to help solve the resource allocation puzzle. While consultants and lawyers are used to filling out timesheets, most IT workers are not. Like KM systems, most timesheet systems are designed on a database model. The user tells the machine what he or she did, the machine records it, transaction over.

Imagine a team where each member posted his or her current/working projects on the internal social network. Not only would other team members who might be able to help with specific tasks or who are affected by them be made aware of relevant developments as they happen, all of that activity could be recorded and analyzed to determine where people are really spending their time.

Again, the creation of the record becomes a byproduct of communication, not an onerous task disconnected from the actual accomplishment of work.

"Customer" COmmunication with your Counter Parts

As I've written in previous columns (September/October 2009), CIOs struggle to communicate effectively with their business counterparts. One of the biggest challenges is being able to provide accurate and understandable information about project statuses and developments and resource utilization in a way that business can understand.

Traditionally, the gathering of that data has been onerous, and the communication of it requires a level of formality in reports or presentations that inhibits the free flow of data.

The aggregation of data about team activity created as a low-cost byproduct of social media can provide a wealth of information that can be used to communicate with business sponsors, and the same channels (e.g. status updates) provide a high-volume, low-cost communication channel to business partners.

One way to view this is through the metaphor of programming methodologies. Today, the way most IT groups communicate with their business counterparts resembles a waterfall structure. Activities happen, reports are prepared, communication occurs. What social media use enables is something much more akin to iterative development.

Business and IT are aware of developments through a low-cost, low-commitment channel that enables much more rapid response and facilitates a much closer communication.

Fully leveraging social media to improve the internal management of IT and business/IT relations will require rethinking behaviors in light of changes in information communication capabilities.

Most management approaches are based on managing information, and the tools to manage information are changing. Management approaches are likely to change significantly along with them.

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