Are all communication problems same?

Date:   Tuesday , October 31, 2006

As managers in multinational companies, we have to communicate with teams across different geographies. I present two instances of cross-site team interactions, pointing out the problems.

1. In the first instance, engineer X from the U.S. office wrote a long, complaining mail to a peer Y in India, sending it to the entire team. The India team spent quite some time trying to understand why the nasty mail was sent. We decided Y should call up X and talk. I also decided to talk to his managerís manager to understand what went wrong.

I asked X if he needed any help in resolving the issue. It turned out that in his frustration at not being heard by Y, he talked to his managerís manager, which probably didnít do much good, and then he vented that frustration over the mail. After X and Y spoke, I talked to Y and then X, and both said that they talked a lot and were happy with the outcome.

2. In the second instance the team was stuck with a process issue. The discussions between the sites went on with lots of late night and early morning meetings involving the entire team, with no results. Finally, we decided that each site should designate a representative who would discuss and whatever they agree on, will be binding to both the teams. They quickly came to an agreement, and the teams were finally in sync.

I categorize these as different communication issues. The first happens because often we tend to read between the lines and get anxious. This happens more in cross-site situations, because you canít go and talk to the person if you do not understand something. As the natural inclination of an engineer is to try and get more information from existing data (the mail in this example), people end up over-analyzing. Sometimes waiting for more data helps to solve the problem more easily.

The second instance occurs more in bigger organizations. This is because we forget the basic rule of management, which says that large teams have more intra-team communication challenges. The more members in a team, the greater number of communication lines go wrong (C(n,2) = n*(n-1)/2 combinations of communication channels). In case of the cross-site, this problem magnifies since there are so many cross-site lines.

My analogy for this problem is two LANs connected via a low-speed, lossy, satellite link. The solution also comes from the same analogyóusing the lossy link optimally. In our company, representatives of teams interact with each other and we have seen good results. It also reduces the wear and tear caused due to late night and early morning meetings for most of the team members.

Overall, I feel that even though most of the cross-site problems are dealt as identical communication issues, it is very important to distinguish and solve them according to the category they fall into. Often, companies fall into the trap of solving all communication problems by imparting communication skills training and then getting frustrated when it doesnít work. Hopefully, next time when you face a problem, you will pause and dig deep into it.

The author is Director QA, Sum Total Systems. He can be reached at