CorporateInternal communication

Need to know or nice to know?

You don’t need to read this article. It may be nice, though, if I do a good job.

Frustrated business person overloaded with work. Credit: www.lyncconf.com

With ever-increasing amounts of information, it’s a dilemma we face many times every day: Do I need to read this email, or can I skip it? Should I forward this to my colleagues? Should I cc my manager on this email?

It’s not a new dilemma, either. Ten years ago, I did research for my MA thesis on internal communication in an Australian branch office of a large global corporation. And an important worry for them was noise. Not physical noise in the office, but the daily clutter of too much information, and a fear of not getting the right information.

I have seen this play out in subsequent jobs, and I have also seen good and bad strategies for getting it right. So here’s a quick low-down:

Three types of information

  1. Need-to-know: This is what you need in order to do your job correctly. Legal requirements, changed market conditions, customer information, etc. You can’t perform without this.
  2. Nice-to-know: This is not technically necessary, but it will help you out. Knowing the long-term corporate strategy will make you perform better, but in the long term. Reading success stories from other departments may boost your engagement and loyalty, but it won’t be measurable on the bottom line.
  3. Noise: This is neither. A poorly communicated case story or irrelevant details from other departments, for instance.

The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three are blurry, and poor decisions in determining the relevance of information often lead to an excess of noise.

How to decide

In the case of LEGO Australia (my MA thesis), there was a growing comprehension of the issue, which is a first step. An email training programme had helped people think about the receiver’s perspective when deciding whether to send an email or not.

While it may reduce noise, deciding on behalf of others is also risky. You can never adequately determine the needs of the other person, but your past experience with them can help you, and the more you work with people the better your chances of deciding correctly on their behalf.

This gives you essentially two choices: let the manager decide, or let the employee decide.

  1. The manager decides. For this to work, the decision needs to be reliable. But even if it is, the power relation carries a risk of people feeling left out, leading to low engagement. I’ve seen teams where everybody felt the manager was withholding information. Whether it was true or not, it was not good for morale and collaboration.
  2. The employee decides. On the face of it, an opt-in approach empowers the employee to make his own decisions, boosting morale and capabilities. But it greatly enhances the risk of noise, or of important information being left out. Actively training people in this task can help, but it may not be enough.

A mixed approach

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be either-or. The point is to use different channels for different types of information.

When I was Chief Editor in Maersk Line, I managed the global mass-communication channel to employees. This was a great tool for nice-to-know stories. People could opt in and read what they wanted; my job was to present the stories in an appetizing, simple, and correct way, and make sure it was in fact nice-to-know and not noise.

But it was not great for need-to-know information. First of all, it was pull, not push, so people had to actively seek it out. But secondly, nobody was expected to read everything – it they did, it would become noise from sheer scale. For need-to-know we relied instead on push channels: email, team and townhall meetings, manager cascades, etc.

So if you want just one takeaway from this, here’s a simple rule of channels:

  • For need-to-know, use push
  • For nice-to-know, use pull
  • For noise, don’t.

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