C O C H R A N E    Issue 1.03 - July 1995

A Better Class of Communication

By Peter Cochrane

During my early career I worked in a government institution organised and run on classic civil-service lines: rigid, over-formalised and bureaucratic. The primary means of communication was paper, in triplicate, with the time needed to move letters and notes between departments typically 12 or more days. Why 12 days? For senior managers, dictating a letter, then having it typed, corrected and signed off could take two or three days. For junior managers, using the typing pool, this could extend to over five days. The internal and external mail system would then take a further two days, or more. If the original letter was dictated on a Monday morning, it would be posted late on Friday, arrive the following Monday, and the process would begin again in reverse.

No organisation could afford to work at such a leisurely pace today. So three years ago I embarked on an experiment to see just how fast communications could go - given today's technology. I told my entire 660-strong department in BT's advanced technology research group that I would respond to any electronic communication within 12 hours - and that I would destroy any paper correspondence generated internally. As I am blessed with an understanding family and a determination to see just how far electronic working could go, I took the 12-hour reply as a 24-hour, 365-day-of-the-year obligation. People outside my organisation still write me letters and I respond, but if their letter contains an e-mail address, I reply electronically.

Statistically, the change from my old civil-service days has been dramatic. My average response time to any communication is now about three-and-a-half hours. I have replaced most of my external paper mail with electronic communications, 98 per cent of which - both internal and external - are completed within 12 hours. All my managers are online, and have access to laptop computers enabling them to communicate from all points of the globe. During the working day the vast majority respond to communications well inside my 12-hour deadline. Overall, we have seen our operational performance improve dramatically with the adoption of electronic working.

Inevitably, however, statistics tell only the least interesting part of the story. For myself, the greatest benefit I have received from the 35-60 e-mail messages I respond to each day has been a dramatic increase in the time I spend engaged in the oldest means of communication: talking. The number of letters I write has fallen from an average of 12 a day to less than five a week. I also make fewer telephone calls - most of those I do make are made on the hoof, from pocket or car phone. True, I send far more e-mail than I used to send letters, but I spend less time doing it because it can be less formal, more terse and to the point. In reply to a page-long business case to buy equipment from David, my response would typically be: D = GO. P. A response to a group message requiring several diverse actions by Bill, Mike, Dave and Anne, my response - sent as a single e-mail copied to all four - might be:

B = OK - do it, but take care. P
M+A = I have no idea, but Roger might. P
D = I suggest you buy one and try it. P
A = Can I have a full copy to read? P
E-mail does not suffer from decades of formalised ritual, it is new and experimental. You can do what you like - discover what works and what doesn't in your organisation. That is the real power. It not only cut the time I spend on formal communication, but it has also put me into direct contact with a wider range of people. With a widened span of contacts, I have a better foundation from which to tackle the most important part of my job: a dialogue with my customers and colleagues devoted to understanding and directing BT's research effort. With less time spent on formal communication, there is more time to walk the floor and talk to people.

With more effective communication we were able to reduce the managerial hierarchy from four to two layers. It was also possible to empower everybody in the organisation to respond more quickly to customers and colleagues. Answers to questions, approval and agreement are only a message away. Decision-making can be immediate, and reassurance always on line!

So what are the problems? Well, e-mail can be too easy and too popular. Messages get copied to everyone. In some organisations, people receive over 300 messages a day. If you are to avoid electronic overload you need both self-discipline and efforts to discourage others from unnecessary communications. Living in a faster-paced world requires personal discipline to keep up with a more chaotic and more opportunistic business life. Also, even if you can reply quickly to a message, you don't always want to. Some replies need careful consideration if feelings are not to be hurt, or complex situations made worse.

And finally there is the problem of sockets. To try to honour my 12-hour promise, I travel with screwdrivers, crocodile clips, a set of international connectors, and a nose for sockets. As an engineer, it has been fascinating to discover the number of different socket types and communications technologies used around the world - and as an executive immensely frustrating. For example, the same connector is used in Europe and the USA, but with a different pin out. The most recent development designed to thwart my efforts is the installation of arbitration units in some North American hotels. These add long delays while some mysterious negotiation decides which carrier and circuit will carry my international call - which wreaks havoc with my computer.

Perhaps in a few years, digital mobile-radio will eliminate my socket hunt. I now have a GSM cellular telephone connected to my laptop, and within Europe I can roam from country to country. But as the majority of my overseas travel sees me in North America, where the mobile radio standards are different, I don't see any great increase in communication speed yet to come - at least not within my department. For most other companies, however...

Peter Cochrane is head of advanced applications and technologies at BT.