In the 2004 Olympics, the American men’s relay team shocked the crowd for all the wrong reasons. With an average 100-meter sprint time of 9.89 seconds each, they were one of the fastest relay teams ever. Everyone thought they were a sure bet to win gold that year.
But they didn’t.
The team individually were so confident in their speed that they only ever practiced handing-off the baton together twice. A fumble during the race meant that the slower British men’s team, who at that point had not won a single medal at that Olympics, pulled ahead and beat them by only one hundredth of a second.
The athletes in the British team had suffered baton fumbles before in the1996 Olympics and 1999 World Championships. They knew that the smoothness of the handover and communication between themselves was just as important as their speed. So they’d practiced their communication and drilled the handover again and again. That’s what won them the gold. That’s what made them the better team. And that’s why intedepartmental communication matters.
- Why It Matters Part 1
- The Roadblocks People Face Part 2
- Strategies for Interdepartmental Communication Part 3
- Case Study on Interdepartmental Communication Part 4
Why Interdepartmental Communication matters
There are two types of internal communication: intradepartmental (within the same department) and interdepartmental (between two different departments). The benefits of cultivating strong interdepartmental communication are obvious. Like the British relay race team, interdepartmental communication ensures the company as a whole is powering toward its goals.
Good handoffs make everyone’s performance stronger, whether it’s Sales providing contest details to Customer Service weeks before launch so they can confidently answer queries, or Engineering sitting down with Marketing to ensure the new ad campaign is true to the product’s technical strengths.
Proactive cross-departmental communication also contributes to business efficiency and customer responsiveness. If Marketing can immediately alert Legal and Customer Service to a customer complaint on social media, then the company has more time to assess the risks and respond appropriately.
But it takes lots of practice to get interdepartmental communication right, and there’s a lot of obstacles in the way.
5 Roadblocks to Effective Interdepartmental Communication
Here are some reasons why cross-departmental communication breaks down:
The absence of an established communication framework.
Companies are always juggling multiple balls in the air, including developing products and services, maintaining client relationships, communicating with external stakeholders, and building up intra-departmental teams. Amidst all of this chaos, it can be easy to deprioritize interdepartmental communication. That’s why many companies don’t have the proper procedures or infrastructure encouraging the flow of information between departments. This, in turn, leads to decreased interdepartmental cooperation and collaboration.
Work Pressure. Most companies set team and individual KPIs.
This means that most employees within a department (understandably) tend to turn inwards and focus on meeting these KPIs without considering their effect or relationship with the rest of the company. On top of this, technology is keeping everybody constantly ‘plugged in’ to work. The combination of these intradepartmental targets and everyone concentrating on keeping up makes it easy for people to overlook interdepartmental communication, even where it might help them achieve their goals.
In the right (or rather, wrong) environment, politics and personal conflict can become rife within a company. In general, this breeds distrusts, hampers the flow of communication, and hobbles everyone’s performance as they try to get their work done without all the information or assistance they need. And when interdepartmental relationships break down, particularly where one or both of the employees are leaders, that attitude can trickle down to the rest of their team and compromise the company’s interdepartmental cooperation.
Physical barriers to communication, such as distance, can also make interdepartmental communication more difficult. Without strong company policies and practices encouraging interdepartmental communication, departments or teams on different floors or even different buildings or countries can become ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This means employees may not even think to clarify certain issues with other departments, or at the very least hesitate or decide against getting them involved.
It’s human nature to form groups and alliances with people who share your interests and preferences. It’s also human nature to look down on and distrust others who are outside that circle. In companies, this leads to teams and business units becoming siloed, decreasing interdepartmental collaboration and reducing the flow of information. It can also lead to negative stereotypes and poor interdepartmental relationships.
When your Sales team thinks IT Support are anti-social nerds, IT Support think HR is the cranky police, and HR think Sales are shallow idiots, you can guarantee that interdepartmental communication will suffer. Such a toxic environment can be devastating for a company, with individual employees too afraid or proud to reach out for help or professional development, and general mistrust and dislike impacting both employee engagement and the company’s mission.
Ironically, as a result, one of the best ways to relieve work pressure, defuse personal conflict, and break down silos and negative stereotypes is through positive interdepartmental communication. So how do we get there, and what does it look like?
Best Ways to Strengthen Interdepartmental Communication and Collaboration
Free online tools for work:
1. Fluxes.com — Free Project and Task Management Software
2. Status.net — Software for Effective Communication
Identify the information needed by other departments and design appropriate workflows:
A good place to start is identifying what information each department has, and then the type of information each department needs to perform. Once you’ve determined this, you can provide each department with a list of information that the other departments need from them. Using this list, they can build in a daily, weekly or even monthly routine to proactively share that information. Such workflows will cut down on the need to actively request information and the lag time between the request and the information being provided, facilitating a smooth flow of communication.
Encourage departments to generally share information:
Sometimes, a department may not know what information they actually need, or another team may not realize that an employee down the hall has the perfect skillset to help them solve a particular problem. That’s why it’s also powerful to encourage your teams and departments to share general reports and information that may be relevant to other departments. This can even include sharing intradepartmental meeting summaries and making weekly status updates public across the company, rather than limited to a specific team. Here are some examples:
In small companies, you could share status updates from every teammate:
In larger companies, for reducing noise and showing the bigger picture, you could get the department head to share summaries:
Document information and make it easily accessible:
Get your teams to document and share their information broadly. This will this help chronicle your company’s history and learning and provide rich data for analysis and improvement. Systematic documentation will also help your employees to draw upon past experience and research and troubleshoot faster.
Encourage regular cross-departmental meetings:
Schedule short and regular cross-departmental meetings between department heads to share updates and immediately address any issues and concerns, and encourage each department head to schedule similar meetings between their teams. This will help deepen interdepartmental relationships and increase collaboration.Of course, many people resent regular meetings that are pointless. To ensure each meeting is short and productive, make sure everyone agrees on the agenda in advance.
Case Study – The Boundaryless Organization
Here’s an example of what a powerful interdepartmental meeting can look like. First, some history. In 1990, CEO Jack Welch of General Electric became convinced that globalization and technological innovation required faster decision-making, active employee engagement, and a robust teamwork. He conceptualized and also advocated for a ‘boundaryless organization’, cutting red tape, and breaking down the walls between each group of employees.
The ‘GE Work-Out’ was born.
The GE Work-Out is a carefully designed, focused, multiple-day event where representatives of different departments involved in a particular project or challenge gather to analyze the matter together and develop solutions to address the tasks or problem. This process has not only helped facilitate change management within General Electric, it has been adopted by many other organizations around the world.
By planning and also designing for interdepartmental communication, the GE Work-Out has helped organizations streamline existing processes, eliminate unnecessary tasks, identify business initiatives and empower teams. It has also helped companies to break down their silos, paving the way for more efficient and fruitful interdepartmental communication.
Cross-train employees and managers:
One way employees to understand how everyone’s work is connected is to invite them to rotate or shadow other positions. Indeed, many large organizations often train their leadership team by giving them opportunities to manage other departments. Not only is this a powerful professional development and training opportunity, it helps your employees to form new friendships, identify interdepartmental collaboration opportunities, and understand the company as a whole and their role within it.
Create an environment where your employees can socialize and bond with each other:
It’s easier to work with friends when the going gets tough. Encourage fun social activities and also company culture to break down silos. Not only does this help keep your employees actively engaged, it opens up communication and strengthens interdepartmental relationships by letting people get to know each other as more than just a title or role.
We often talk about the importance of finding and nurturing the best employees and creating the strongest teams. But as the American relay race team in 2004 shows, finding the best individuals is only half the battle. The other half is developing the communication between them and also coordinating each unit into a more powerful whole. So think of the time you spend strategically strengthening your cross-departmental communication as reinforcing the seams of your company. As a result, if you do, you’ll put yourself in a better position to reach your company’s gold.
Effective interdepartmental collaboration is all about communicating effectively.
Status.net is a cloud solution for effective interdepartmental communication. It brings a more light-hearted tone to messaging making it easily digestible, and makes it easy for departments to provide and receive status updates regularly.
How to use status.net for status updates:
- Easily implement daily or weekly status updates for your teams by creating a status feed with questions like “What did you do this week?” or “Departmental Updates“.
- Peace of mind: No one forgets to fill in their status updates because status.net sends timely reminders according to the recurrence schedule you chose.
- Each status update has a separate section for comments, which is used by team members to clarify information.
- Optionally, enrich reports with the latest updates automatically added from web apps your team uses (such as project management tools, version control systems, support systems, financial applications, CRM, etc.) by connecting these apps to your status feed.
- Spend less time on interdepartmental meetings by making them more productive because everyone is on the same page at all times.
- Sharing: Status updates can be either— exported to files and printed, or sent by email;
— shared with manager online; or
— shared online as company-wide or team-wide status reports, i.e., all team members share their progress with each other.
How to configure status updates:
- Create a “Status Update” feed and set up a recurrence.
- Configure who will write and read status updates by choosing the “Participants” tab and then clicking the “Cog” button near “Feed Participants” title.
- Set the status feed as “Team-wide” if you want all participants from all teams to view each other’s status updates.
- Alternatively, you can allow access to status updates for certain participants only (e.g. department leads). In this case, turn “Team-wide” mode OFF and restrict viewing by unchecking “View” properties for other participants. Team members with the “View” checkbox unchecked will only be able to view their own status updates. Leaders of departments will be able to view status updates from all participants (make sure to leave “View” property checked for them).
- Uncheck “Update” for leaders if needed – in this case, they won’t receive reminders.
- The Recurrence setting configures how often participants receive email reminders to fill in their status updates. This feature is optional and can be turned off.
- You can add, remove, and assign new participants at any time.
Step 2: The text of the status update should be added to the “Update” field of status feed.
As soon as a new status update is added, participants with “View” rights can view it in real time when they log in to their accounts. They will also automatically receive emails with the full text of status updates.