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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422
612-978-3050

The Complete Communicator

don't confuse two very different things . . .

Communication is the single most valuable function of almost every person's job (see "Your Job Description" ). You may not think of your job that way, but you actually spend most of your day influencing other people, and being influenced by them, in the form of conversations, memos, messages, phone calls, e-mails, meetings, and other formal and informal communication channels.

We invest in formal employee communications when we see a return on the added investment, as, for instance, when we believe that getting staff to consistently apply best practices to their work will reduce waste, enhance customer service, improve revenues, and so on. These formal communications could be training sessions, reference tools, policy meetings, sales conferences, online education, newsletters, or other devices.

But even the most brilliant new process, software tool, customer service standard, or product development method cannot spread and apply itself. They only return something on your investment when the message has an impact on the behavior of the employee, when another member of your organization either does something that benefits the company, or avoids doing something that could bring harm.

Building The Complete Communicator

Effective communication comes from a "complete package" that delivers crucial information in ways that maximize impact on the behavior of the audience. Your efforts to spread best practices may be more successful if you remember that:

Content knowledge and communication skills are separate assets, usually found to varying degrees in separate people, who may come from separate sources.

In the discussion below, I will expand on the three simple themes embedded in that statement -- themes that can make a world of difference to how well best practices are applied in your organization:

  1. Content knowledge -- what people need to know, and what they need to do -- is an entirely different asset from communication skill -- being able to transfer that knowledge to someone else so that they actually use it.
  2. These two types of assets, content knowledge and communication skills, do not automatically come together. You often have to work explicitly to combine different people, with different assets, to create a complete and effective communication tool.
  3. When it takes more than one person to get all the knowledge and skills you need, which is most of the time, either of those assets could be found inside or outside your department and your company.

Separate Assets

Intellectually, we generally accept that the information we want to convey and the methods we use to convey it are two separate factors in the success of our communications. But in the rush to get information out there, we sometimes are too quick to assume that all of the needed "assets" will be available to us, one way or another.

To get a feel for this, think about a practice that might be addressed in your company, and then imagine several possible people who would have sole responsibility for explaining what it is and getting people to buy into it. Draw those people from coworkers, from managers and executives, even from neighbors and strangers like celebrities -- a range of knowledge and styles.

Then, plot them on a two-dimensional graph of content knowledge vs. communication skills. You might come up with something rather like this:

Now, to be practical, you'll find that your ratings of any given person will vary depending on the situation. For example, you know people who are great communicators when it comes to mentoring their staff, but who give really dreadful presentations.

But the real point of the exercise is to get used to assessing these assets separately. That opens the door to determining whether the project team you've assembled to inculcate a powerful best practice has all the assets required to get the job done.

Separate People (Usually)

Given the importance of effective communication to your organization's success, it would be wonderful if it was common to find expertise about your practice (or product, service, or process) and skill in transmitting that information combined in a single person. But it is devilishly hard to find people who know a lot about a subject and who can get others, who know little about it, to master and apply the crucial subset of knowledge that will make a difference to their performance.

Most of the time, we're dealing with individuals who are stronger in one asset than the other. Let's look at some hypothetical examples, taken from the four quadrants of our plot .

Please note: these are stereotypes or caricatures designed to highlight the differences I'm talking about. I certainly don't wish to suggest that all members of any category (e.g., motivational speakers or in-house experts) fall into a certain pattern!

Cheap!

In the southwest quadrant, we have people who don't know much about the subject of the training or communication, and who aren't particularly adept at communicating effectively, either.

Obviously we don't go looking for people from this quadrant to handle our employee communication efforts. Still, it happens. Sometimes a particular person is tasked with a project because he or she is the only one available, because everyone else is on higher priority projects.

We can't expect much in the way of results from this quadrant, but we can think of it as a cheap solution at least. Generally this means making use of an employee already on staff, and not taking key players off other projects. And it should never be the case that you would hire external help that fit in this quadrant, I hope!

Better Than Nothing . . .

In the southeast quadrant, we have people with a lot of content knowledge, but limited communication skills. You've met these people before.

You know a lawyer, a doctor, a mechanic, an engineer, an insurance agent, or a technology support person who produces excellent results, but who can't explain to you what is going on, what is being done, in any comprehensible way. They clearly have expertise, but you have to work hard to benefit from it.

Within any company, there are clear experts on best practices, products, services, and processes. These individuals play key roles in developing employee communications, but they are rarely sufficient in themselves. They need to collaborate with others who can massage their knowledge into more effectively deliverable form, who can preserve the essential knowledge, strip out the details that don't affect performance, and transfer this knowledge, along with a commitment to use it, to employees.

Obviously this quadrant is more effective than the previous one. But with nothing but knowledge, the results will be very, very slow in coming, with a lot of frustration along the way.

Puts On a Good Show . . .

At first you might have a hard time figuring out who lives in the northwest quadrant. But a number of politicians, along with some highly paid motivational speakers and energetic sales representatives, embody communication skills almost to the exclusion of specific knowledge.

Again, sometimes motivation, to take an example, is just what you need at a particular point in a program. But great oratory, inspiring anecdotes, or persuasive arguments are not enough to permanently change employee performance for the better.

Think of the celebrity speaker, the high-pay, high-profile sports coach who gives a rousing talk, but who knows nothing about your company or what you are trying to do. Think of salespeople who mesmerize you in conversation, so that it takes you a while to figure out they aren't giving you any useful information for your decisions.

Certainly great skills are valuable in spreading best practices. But if the communication is going to be delivered by someone who falls in this quadrant, you'll want to make sure that the necessary details, the crucial content, are there as well.

Truly Effective

It would be lovely if we could just pick people who fall in the northeast quadrant, who have both the skills and the knowledge to be truly effective.

They do happen . . . but not very often. And when they do, they are in such demand that you may have a hard time getting their help anyway.

Assembling an Effective Communication Team

Most of the time, we create the "complete communicator" by bringing together different assets from different people. That can even mean breaking things down into smaller subsets:

  • different experts know about different topics in a field, or different steps in a process, for instance;
  • and some people speak very well but write terribly, or deliver instruction well, but can't design the best content structure themselves.

One more thing that's important to know: you can construct that "complete communicator" from any combination of internal and external resources that gets the job done.

Separate Sources

There is a tendency to look for internal expertise and external communication skill, and that pattern frequently works very well. But there is no reason to assume that it applies to any given situation.

There are several ways that completing the team can vary:

  • Sometimes a company has both assets internally, whether in a single individual or in a combination of staff. You connect your content experts with people who are effective in structuring and delivering information, for excellent results.
  • In other situations, both assets are hired from the outside. For example, you contract with consultants on an area of law, compliance with regulations, personnel issues, environmental issues, or any of a host of other topics. They bring both the knowledge and the effective delivery of that knowledge to your company.

It follows, from the above examples, that you may hire either knowledge or skills from the outside, to complete the assets your team applies to spreading a best practice. Or you may find either, or both, inside your organization.

And you'll want to look at the specific knowledge and skills you have and need, the subsets of these assets, to assemble the best team. To take an example from the area of communication skills:

  • For one project you may need to enlist someone who is good in the classroom, who can facilitate discussion and answer questions from employees.
  • In another instance, you may need expert instructional design and clear writing to produce online instruction or useful references and guides to procedures.
  • And in a third, you may decide that having the internal experts participate in delivery of the communication will add value, so you bring in someone with communication skills to structure their knowledge, develop aids and activities to support their points, and coach the experts in getting their message across.

Complement the Talents You Have

Simple as this little plot may be, I have seen many, many projects that would have produced better and faster results if the client were more willing to be objective about the talents they have on their project team, and more aggressive in complementing those talents with additional resources and team members, whether from inside or outside the company.

Unfortunately, project leaders often lack the courage to point out what is missing. And because most of us like talking to people who are like ourselves, companies sometimes hire outside help that does little to complete their communication capabilities. For example, faced with a strong tilt toward the southeast quadrant -- overloaded with content knowledge, in other words -- they hire a consultant who has a lot of the same knowledge, who can argue about the tiniest details, but who isn't much better at effective transfer that knowledge to front line employees. (See "Why Are You Paying for the Same Knowledge . . .")

Take a step back, see what you have, and get what you need, wherever you can find it. That's a simple formula that can deliver an enormous boost to the return on your investment in training and employee communications.

© 2008 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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