New technology and internal communications

Traditional businesses bring workers together in work groups. These usually involve providing a physical location such as a factory or office. Several trends have emerged in recent years:

  • there has been a general trend towards harnessing technology for what it can provide best - fast and accurate fulfilment of programmable tasks, leaving human resources for what they do best, which is carrying out functions requiring discretion and judgement
  • many businesses have decentralised, using a smaller central or core administration and preferring autonomous or semi-autonomous business units
  • conversely, some businesses have centralised as technology has enabled them to exert control over day-to-day operations
  • there has been a tendency towards employing or contracting people to work on a more remote basis, often from home, which has resulted in fewer opportunities to bring those taking business decisions into contact with operatives actually carrying out the work
  • many service providers have moved away from high-cost direct sales forces in favour of centralised call centres, taking advantage of the benefits of database marketing and telesales

These changes have serious implications for internal communications. No-one doubts the effectiveness of team briefing or similar methods of bringing small teams together to share common goals. But how can this be facilitated if there is no longer a need to have the workforce together under one roof?

Technological developments have created new communication channels. These include video conferencing, use of e-mail and the internet. Soon, a new generation of communication tools will be in common use, including mobile telephones linked to the Internet and processing hardware which will probably make the personal computer obsolete.

The benefits are clear. Information can be communicated quickly and accurately and on a two-way basis, even in organisations with dispersed locations. Feedback is almost instantaneous when necessary, including across international boundaries.

Businesses can now take advantage of state-of-the-art management information systems (MIS) which can create and deliver management reports to facilitate pro-active decision taking or quick responses to initiatives by competitors. As well as providing for the vital but negative control function, MIS now has a positive impact on achieving objectives through knowing more about financial results, market performance and analysing competitor activity.

Storage and processing of information can be improved by using developments such as optical disk storage, enabling workers access to documents on screen and reducing the need to search for documents.

Technology can enhance the training process. Once dependent on bringing people together for courses and seminars, training can now be delivered through a wide range of media such as on-line ?help? services, CD-ROM packages, video tutorials and laser disk interactive video programmes with built-in checks to validate effectiveness.

By harnessing technology, organisations can reduce the costs associated with internal communications. By reducing the number of meetings necessary, it is possible to save time and money. By using electronic communications, the consumption of paper is reduced significantly.

Yet there are serious negative issues to be addressed in relation to the impact of technology. Innovation always involves change and people react differently to change. Whilst some thrive on challenges brought about by change, others are threatened by them. In terms of internal communications, this is likely to be of concern to those who prefer more traditional or accepted ways of working.

There are still many managers today, for example, who are intimidated by the prospect of using a keyboard at a PC workstation, associating this with typewriting and secretarial functions.

Even where technology is accepted, it takes time to ?learn into? new systems. In addition to carrying out normal duties, therefore, workers have to invest time in familiarising themselves with these systems. In instances where technology centralises decision taking, managers may resent the apparent reduction in authority or change in role. In many banks, for example, the local manager is primarily a salesperson with lending and other mandates determined centrally.

Many workers thrive on personal contact. If this is so, they are likely to be more comfortable in team situations and produce better results as a consequence.

Technology can reduce the need for interaction between individuals and therefore increase the sense of alienation of those to whom interpersonal relationships are an integral part of the work experience.

Members of sales teams may be accustomed to regular business development meetings which can fulfil a variety of personal needs, including social interaction, the need for recognition and achievement of status through comparing favourable results with peers. These are basic needs which were highlighted by Abraham Maslow 50 years ago.

New ways of organising work activities can bring pressure to bear on those responsible for communications with teams and individuals. For example, call centres have been likened by some to a return to almost ?assembly line? methods. This was brought to the fore during 1999 by a dispute at a major telecommunications company, where call centre operatives complained of an over-focus on productivity at the expense of other aspects of the job.

In a pressurised environment where results are everything, it is easy to ignore the simple needs to bring teams together to motivate and encourage.