High touch is just as important as high tech

The promise of any form of communication technology, whether paper, the printing press or a PC, has always been to help people connect more effectively. On this measure, the explosion of IT in the last two decades has been disappointing. We all know that e-mail has transformed the way we work, social networking is progressing the way we communicate, and videoconferencing and online collaboration tools have enabled greater business efficiency. But has the divergence of communication technologies made us lose control of the information that is being passed around?

The promise of any form of communication technology, whether paper, the printing press or a PC, has always been to help people connect more effectively. On this measure, the explosion of IT in the last two decades has been disappointing. We all know that e-mail has transformed the way we work, social networking is progressing the way we communicate, and videoconferencing and online collaboration tools have enabled greater business efficiency. But has the divergence of communication technologies made us lose control of the information that is being passed around?

A recent study by Canon and ICM showed a significant uplift in digital communications in pan-European organisations compared with five years ago, with eight out of 10 respondents using more online platforms such as instant messaging, e-mail, social networks, online collaboration tools and videoconferencing. It also showed that more traditional forms of communication such as phone calls, face-to-face meetings and lunch meetings are, unsurprisingly, in decline.

Across all of these platforms, more data than ever is being transferred, but it feels as if our human connections have become less meaningful, less satisfying, less significant. We cannot blame the technology. The fault lies in our inability to adapt quickly to new methods, opportunities and styles of communicating. As communications technologies become more fragmented and businesses struggle to cope with the increase in digital content, organisations need to find ways of managing their communications strategy or risk damaging business relationships with customers, partners and even colleagues.

Poor customer service because of misplaced or unmanaged information is one of the main challenges businesses face in this area. We all know how frustrating it is to be passed from person to person, or for crucial information to be lost and no answer is forthcoming. People often ask their friends for advice on where to get the best deal on insurance, say, or tell them the difficulties they've been having with their mobile phone supplier. They also know that someone at the business may be easily able to answer their questions online, or help them get the best deal, but that those members of staff are too often left frustrated by their employer's social media guidelines or the many layers of approval needed to reply to a tweet or a Facebook comment. These conversations are happening both online and offline, so businesses need to learn how to manage this information and join in the conversation to maintain strong relationships with customers.

And what of our internal communications at work? The research showed that over a third have cut back on time spent out of the office at conferences, and 32% are attending fewer or no lunch meetings. It seems that face-to-face conversations are no longer the gold standard of communication methods at work as we rely on fast, instantaneous digital methods. Managing the point at which all these new digital technologies collide is a challenge. Get it right and companies can add significant value to their business. Get it wrong and they could end up with a fragmented approach to internal and external communications and be paying the costs for a long time to come.

Canon's research shows us how much work still needs to be done if we are to truly benefit from the IT revolution going on around us. Nearly half of the larger companies surveyed said that managing the increase in data was slowing down business processes and the resulting cumbersome and inefficient internal processes were the main barrier to business success in 2011. Mining these vast quantities of digital content is essential to keep in sync with your customer and key to creating and maintaining personal, meaningful relationships both internally and externally.

Companies need to build a framework to overcome the challenges faced when managing information and media across multiple channels. Helping businesses unlock the value of their information and aid communication with customers is crucial in the struggle to uncover the most satisfactory ways of using new technology.

It may be a cliché, but it is nevertheless true: In a high-tech world, we need high touch. These should not be seen as competing goals: we need to use our tech to grow our touch.

Graeme Codrington is an author, speaker and expert on the new world of work. See www.tomorrowtoday.uk.com

This was last published in March 2011

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