Tag Archives: Communication

In Praise of Babel Fish and Boundary Spanners

We’re all busy. In the public sector our huge workloads are compounded by the unending need to cut back on spending in response to ‘austerity’ (I don’t believe ‘austerity’ really exists, it’s just a convenient untruth, but that’s a post for another day).

Given the challenges facing us our instinct is to get our heads down and crack on – it’s difficult to find the time to do otherwise.

There’s a danger, though, in retrenching. If we retreat in to our organisational silos then we are likely to lose sight of the big picture. Organisations need boundary spanners – those rare individuals who can sit across divisional boundaries and understand the Babel Fishwider world. If you think for a moment I’ll bet that you can identify your own boundary spanners – people who seem to be involved in everything, people who can talk in the language of other departments. Maybe you’re a boundary spanner?

One of the things that boundary spanners do is act as an organisational babel fish. My favourite of all Douglas Adams’ amazing creations, the babel fish (when inserted in one’s ear) allows one to immediately understand anything that is being said – even if it’s said in a language we’ve never heard before.

Boundary spanners can speak the language of the whole organisation, not just the discrete area which we might consider to be the ‘day job’. Anybody at any level of an oganisation can be a boundary spanner but it’s an essential skill for leaders. A departmental leader should hold the service for which they are responsible at arm’s length. A good CIO, for example, must be as close to the business uniBoundary Spannerts as they are to the ICT department. This places the CIO in a position to effect 2-way translation – ie to explain to the ICT team what it is the customer really wants and to clarify/simplify the information which flows back from the ICT team to the customer.

Professionals in any discipline have a tendency to communicate with laypeople using impenetrable language strewn with 3 letter acronyms. A good leader and boundary spanner will ensure that this doesn’t happen – they’ll be a babel fish.

Another key role of the boundary spanner is to act as a ‘critical friend’. Using IT as an example again (because that’s my area) the CIO/boundary spanner will challenge the business units to clarify their thinking when it is apparent that the customer is not really sure what they want (or, more importantly, what they need). It works the other way too – the CIO boundary spanner should push back hard on the ICT team when they are saying, for example, that something can’t be done. Why can’t it be done? Are you sure? What if we do it another way? All this happens behind the scenes and can go a long way to keeping VIPs happy elsewhere in the organisations.

Sometimes boundary spanners emerge naturally – perhaps because a good leader intuits the need. Sometimes it’s just that the individuals concerned are a bit nosey and like to know what’s going on. Don’t worry though, if you don’t have boundary spanners you can make them – it’s not hard. I recommend ’embedding’ people in other departments – go talk to the various business units, attend their management meetings and, importantly, try to take a step away from your own service area and view its performance in the context of the organisation’s strategic direction.

I’ve talked about IT here but all parts of the organisation need boundary spanners – particularly the corporate support services such as HR, Finance and Legal. The cartoon below (and oldie but goody) illustrates the dangers of not having enough boundary spanners involved in any activity…

project_management

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Your Call is (Probably) Not Important to Me – In Praise of Email

We all have a strained relationship with our email inbox.

For many people Outlook is work (other email clients are available :-)).outlook

That little orange icon on our desktop can contain a world of pain and email has been getting a bad press recently. Some commentators have bemoaned the fact that people often think that they are ‘doing’ work when they are ‘doing’ email.

Strength of feeling is such that there’s even been a suggestion that email should be turned off outside of working hours.

You’ll hear no such complaints from me – I like email. The beauty of email is that it is an asynchronous communication mechanism. An email lands, you glance at it, triage it and if it’s urgent you act upon it. More often than not you delete it or leave it alone until it needs attention.

Compare this to that most cursed of devices – the telephone. “Answer me now!” it screams.

Bye bye to an old enemy.

Bye bye to an old enemy.

How often have you seen colleagues chatting around a desk – discussing a work issue – when the desk phone rings and the owner of the phone interrupts the conversation to answer it? What this person is actually saying is “I don’t know who is calling or what they want but this unknown person is more important to me than you are.” How rude!

Even worse than the phone is the Johnny-come-lately of synchronous attention seekers – INSTANT MESSAGING (IM). IM is basically email that you have to reply to immediately. It allows people to tip-tap-tap on your computer screen “Pay me attention, talk to me, stop what you are doing and talk to ME ME ME!” No matter how trivial the message – you have to drop everything and get involved in a text exchange.

My time is precious and I have to focus on the important stuff. Email allows me to do this, the telephone (and IM) don’t.

So I’ve long since abandoned the use of landlines. As, I’ve written before I have now diverted my work landline to a message asking the caller to email me. There are, of course, people who I need to be very responsive to, so my boss (etc) is now in the habit of calling my personal mobile. More often than not people will now email me with a quick “Rich, plz call me” – because they know this is the quickest way to get hold of me.

You've got mail.

You’ve got mail.

I like email – it allows me to control my day. I recommend you try giving up on your desk phone – it’s liberating.