Technology Does Not Transform Itself: The Role of People & Communication

November 1, 2021
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Technology does not transform itself. For organizational and digital transformation initiatives to succeed, we have to communicate—and with the right people. That sounds simple; so, where do we go wrong in the workplace? We learn to communicate when we’re young, often soon after birth, through gestures and facial expressions. Most of us say our first words around twelve months of age.

Why do we still struggle to effectively communicate years, and even decades, into our careers?  

An entire body of research exists in the non-governmental organization (NGO) space. It says that NGO initiatives live and die based on whether their leaders get buy-in from low-power, high-interest local communities—who literally often speak a different language than the people who “come to help them.”

This results-oriented communications and engagement research rarely stems from technology initiatives because we know that nearly two-thirds of IT projects are unsuccessful. That does not suggest that we have mastered communication in corporate circles. Indeed, we have a long road to travel before we get there.

What is effective communication? 

Communication flows both ways. It is a two-way street. It is localized, meaning it is relevant among parties to the conversation. When we communicate effectively, we localize what we say to reflect appropriate timeframes and content. We use words that respect departments, organizations, and industries. We speak the same language

Both sides can exchange views and information. Each person practices active listening. They feel that their concerns can be addressed. Each person feels heard, which drives them to contribute and enables them to add new value.  

In researching innovation culture at Fortune 1000 companies, Drs. Dobni and Nelson surveyed over 1,100 executives and found that the biggest barrier to innovation was not creativity, but empowerment. Missed opportunities, they concluded, result from the gap between creating knowledge for innovation and the ability to communicate it.

For its 2017 “Global State of Innovation Survey,” a research team led by InnovationOne CEO Victor Assad spoke with over 400 companies, finding that “high innovators use culture management to promote internal collaborative cultures.” They go on to say that those highly innovative companies outperform their competitors by a margin approaching 2 to 1.

Who are you communicating with?

People spend their careers learning how to communicate with executives. But, how do you communicate with other people who are affected by your initiatives? Who are the stakeholders most likely to be left behind? 

Stakeholders with lower power are often forgotten in the rush to deliver on projects and communicate our successes. They are the end users, the tangential people, the secondary and tertiary stakeholders, often front-line individual contributors who rely on collaboration with others to perform their job duties. These uniquely informed individuals are almost never in the same room with the organization’s empowered decision makers.

These low-power, high-interest stakeholders get swallowed in the ripple effect of poor communication. The outcome of the project may deeply affect them. They have high interest. But, they most often do not feel seen, heard, or listened to. That oversight contributes to the high failure rate of transformational initiatives in our companies.  

Take time to identify all stakeholders 

We cannot have effective communication if we have not identified all an initiative’s stakeholders. That requires emotional intelligence (EQ) and a knowledge of an organization, its members, and how they interact and interrelate.

The Discovery Process that identifies those stakeholders is often the most critical step in an initiative—and, just as often, improperly executed. This has a negative domino effect on the entire initiative’s ability to have the right people in the right room at the right time to discuss the right questions, create new value, and resolve issues. Identifying these stakeholders accurately and completely takes communication skills coupled with emotional intelligence to understand your organization and its inner workings.

Stakeholder discovery is not a directive, command-and-control exercise. Rather, it requires action that aligns with servant leadership and eschews an “our people will use whatever we give them and make it work” mentality, which has never been attributed to driving new value.

Before we can pledge to improve communication, we must identify all the recipients of that communication—and that takes emotional intelligence. Only then will we get the alignment that allows a culture of consistent innovation, which is the lifeblood of our organizations.

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