Emails going postal – and other communication challenges

One consultant's look at the internal communication in a SME context presents several pointers for disruption – and shows how consultants can bring value to communications

“We named this play Emails Going Postal.”

This is how one team started their play in a workshop on interdepartmental communication. We had some 30 participants who had been pondering their everyday communication challenges and prepared short plays about them.

They certainly made the problems of internal communication evident: emails with odd captions; team issues delivered to all personnel, sometimes even to the client; incomplete information that the recipient had to return immediately with a request for clarification.

Mail chains become longer. Working hours were wasted. Irritation grew.

In this company, the use of communication tools – and email in particular – was the hot potato to work on, and the sooner the better. We studied the cooperation between the consultant and the company and developed participatory leadership skills and corporate communications.

Certainly, no one hires a communication consultant unless he or she provides value to the business. So how is value co-created by company and cosultant in a communication improvement programme?

Family business

Our collaborator company is a supplier of electricity distribution systems. They operate in both the B2B and customer markets. The company has about 100 employees and ambitious visions of growth and internationalisation.

The company’s young CEO took the helm from his father, the company’s founder. Like many family businesses, this company is wavering between the conservative models of its founder and the renewals undertaken by the current CEO. These renewals also include communication development.

We soon realised several needs for improved communication. For example, management communication was mainly one-way; information flows between departments were inadequate; and various signs of mistrust, such as ploys, were obvious. Naturally, internal communication problems were also manifested at the customer interface level.

When considered in terms of communication metrics, the communication planning was not aligned with the company’s strategic goals, and it was not integrated with annual business-planning processes. The messages delivered in the company were inconsistent and took a shotgun approach. There were no media planning, communication staff or communication assessments.

The situation is typical in the SME context, where firms often lack resources in the field of communication and the responsibilities are shared among people with various roles, instead of handled by PR professionals. The positive news was that the management team was well aware of their responsibility for communications. However, they were confused about where to start and what tools to use.

"The situation is typical in the SME context, where firms often lack resources in the field of communication."

On the basis of the needs identified, we planned and implemented five different communication-related workshops for the firm, on managerial communication, employee communication, communication tools, interdepartmental communication and customer communication. Two of the workshops were video recorded for research purposes. In addition, my colleague held intensive and fruitful personal consultancy sessions with the CEO, which were, by the way, the key to developing a more participatory company culture.

Conclusions and lessons learned

My study revealed 14 distinct tasks of the consultant during the workshop: advising, appreciating, documenting, including, informing, interpreting, negotiating, organising, participating, putting at ease, questioning, repeating, supporting and time keeping. This shows that consultancy requires multitasking talent.

"To be a real change agent, you must be comfortable with confusion."

The outcomes and conclusions of the study can be summarised as follows.

  • Dialogic interaction and a relaxed atmosphere create prerequisites for learning in a business environment.
  • Extreme positivity may not offer the ‘noise’ needed to disrupt deeply rooted ways of doing in a firm.
  • Consulting is balancing between organising and disorganising (Clegg et al., 2004).
  • Outcomes of the interdepartmental communication workshop led to wiser email use, “how-to” video clips on communication tools and office layout improvements for more efficient information exchange.
  • Outcomes of the communication improvement programme in general: the creation of a communication handbook, better-structured meetings, improved managerial communication, more face-to-face communication and less emailing.
  • Situations of apparent conflict should be interpreted jointly with the client organisation. To be a real change agent, you must be comfortable with confusion.

To cite an article by Barbara Czarniawska and Carmelo Mazza (2003): ”Consulting can be a painful experience, where weaknesses rather than strengths are the salient aspects.” On the other hand, participatory methods, careful advance planning, competencies and emotional maturity help in situations of conflict.

Last but not least – conflicts may be necessary for disrupting established practices and boosting the development process.

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Helena Kantanen

Helena Kantanen worked for 15 years as a public relations practitioner, manager and consultant before earning her PhD and joining the Business School faculty at the University of Eastern Finland in 2010. Her research focuses on professional virtual communities and on business renewal through participative management, leadership and communication. Helena’s teaching involves courses concerned with marketing, communication and leading and managing change. She is currently looking for a two-to-three month assignment abroad to strengthen her ability to work with multicultural groups.