Food for Thought: A Children's Game - Too Risky for Social Business
Colleen Burns 120000C4RP email@example.com | | Tags:  femke_goedhart social_business ibm_redbooks
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Food for thought… The telephone game
As kids, most of us will have at one time played the “telephone” game. The game where you sit in a circle and one person whispers a message into the ear of the person sitting next to him who then passes it on to the next, and the next until it gets back to the first person. Great fun to do because it is almost a guarantee for getting some strange and funny results.
The reason most of us will have played it at one time or another is that apart from it being fun, it is actually educational and shows the unreliability of oral message passing.
Now is passing messages that way always unreliable? No, some messages get through quite good but others tend to be completely taken off the deep end. The reasons for that are multifold – people can misinterpret messages or because they don’t understand, deliberately distort what they hear or simply forget by the time they pass it on. So it is important to make sure that when you have an important message to tell, the message itself is clear and compelling and passed over the least number of ”layers” before getting to those who need to hear it.
"…[The telephone game] is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies as rumors or gossip spread, or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection" (Wikipedia).
So isn’t it surprising that in our modern businesses we often still play something that could easily be regarded as a variant of this telephone game? By allowing important information to trickle down or wriggle its way up the traditional layers of the corporate hierarchy where each layer informs the layer just below or above them? The more layers, the bigger the risk of the message getting distorted… haven’t we learned our lesson in kindergarten?!?
Taking out the layers
Apparently not, as many businesses still rely on this hierarchical way of passing information down or up the organization structure. Social business is a one way to combat that, because having a social platform where everyone is allowed and encouraged to seek information directly from its source means information providers don’t have to rely on the traditional hierarchy alone to get a message across. Instead, information providers can directly add the message to their social platform for all to see and to discuss. Instead of passing on "the message" verbally or in writing (for example, mail) the in-between-management-layers might now pass on a link to the information, sometimes supplemented with additional information relevant to their department.
So?! They could have passed on a mail message or a memo as done before to ensure the message wasn’t diluted or altered; what’s different?
The interaction is. As a memo or message is being passed down the various layers, it is going to invoke questions and responses. In the old way of passing information, those questions usually had to travel up the hierarchy the same way the message came down, causing possible dilution and misinterpretation of the question in the same way as the message. Most important though, the question (and subsequent answer) would be available only to those in the direct lineage of the requester. Others might never know the question was asked and answered and therefore might not benefit from the clarification.
So allowing people to see and interpret the message directly from the source not only limits the risk of message dilution, it also allows for a more direct interaction on the information. By allowing people to discuss, respond, and ask questions about it right there can actually enhance the message itself, as all can see and learn from the responses.
So, isn’t that risky? Couldn’t "negative" responses distort the message then? Well, in theory yes. But in general, people tend to be careful not to express negative opinions so publicly. And if they do, then having that negativity voiced publicly might actually not be that bad either.
By having it happen in the open, you might be able to better address it. An honest and direct answer is still the best response to negativity and at least if that happens you have a way to address it. If a message isn’t being received well in the traditional model, it might have caused a lot of negative chatter and grumping in the lower levels without any way to really address it. By having it expressed publicly you might be able to "nip it in the bud."
So take out the dilution ratio of passing information over all those management layers and start using social tools to convey and discuss your message. After all, kindergarten time has long passed hasn’t it?
Femke Goedhart is a Business Consultant for Silverside, an IBM Premier Business Partner from The Netherlands. She specializes in document management, collaboration and social business; she is an avid blogger, and a speaker at several events including NLLUG, LCTY, and Lotusphere. Femke is actively involved in the online community and was recently honored as an IBM Champion. She is also a published IBM Redbooks author and is a contagious enthusiast about all things social.
Femke is an IBM Redbooks Thought Leader