Bridging Business and I.T. through Communication and Collaboration

How many times have you heard, “that’s what I said, but not what I meant or wanted”?  Too many times I would suspect.  Many symptoms of project issues are related to organizational, collaboration, and communication issues, not technology.  One of the challenges of any I.T. initiative is getting people to communicate and collaborate together, especially between business and I.T.

Communication

Wikipedia defines it as:

Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information. [...] Communication requires that the communicating parties share an area of communicative commonality. The communication process is complete once the receiver has understood the sender.

The last sentence above is quite important and often overlooked.  We rely too often on using static channels of communication, such as sending an email or word document to communicate a message.  However, the receiver of the message may not have understood what your intention is and we often ask ourselves “why people don’t understand it? I sent them the email with the requirements!”.

The sixth Agile Manifesto principle reminds us:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

Getting people together face-to-face provides richness in our communication through, tone of voice, eye contact, visual gestures and the ability to convey tacit knowledge.

Collaboration

Collaboration is working together to achieve a goal.  Agile And again, we can look to the Agile Manifesto for some guidance:

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams

During a team discussion, I liked what a fellow colleague said on what collaboration meant:

Collaboration means acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and that the collective wisdom is better used to solve problems.  Collaboration is being vulnerable and being transparent so the conversation brings out things that were otherwise not consciously known.

My communication and collaboration experience

Over the last several weeks I have been coaching and facilitating several inception/discovery workshops that included both business and I.T.  One particular workshop was attended by 35 people from all levels of the organization with some participants traveling from interstate.  The goal of the 3 day workshop was to discuss and plan how we would tackle a large program of work by identifying the program vision, goals, drivers, measures and the various streams of work that would make up the program.

In the 3 days we accomplished what previously would have taken weeks (possibly months) to complete.  The face-to-face workshops provided a rapid, efficient and effective way to for people to communicate and collaborate.  An important outcome was obtaining a shared vision amongst all participants.  After the 3 days everyone walked away with a shared understanding and vision that they can take into the various projects that would make up the program of work.

What I also observed was the large amount of informal communication and collaboration that occurred outside the workshop hours such as during breaks and lunch that otherwise would not have occurred.  Getting everyone together allowed whole team discussions which I believed lead to greater buy-in by all team members.

There was a high level of collaboration between everyone in clarifying business requirements, the problem space and each others understanding.  The power of bringing people together to communicate and collaborate to achieve a goal was powerful.  Trust was being built between business and I.T..  The business was able to understand the complexities and risk involved in I.T. development.  And the level of negotiation between the parties allowed mutual decisions to be made and the quality of the decision making was made possible by having the right people together.

Agile stresses the importance on communication and collaboration.   Alistair Cockburn recently remarked how important it is to increase collaboration between people and across the enterprise.  Effective communicators realize that the goal is to share information, and that the information sharing is typically a two-way street.  Through conversation we can iterate over meaning and seek clarification.  The ability to answer questions in real time is important because questions provide insight into how well the information is being understood by the listener.  Face to face collaboration also reduces the cycle time of information sharing through continuous flow of tacit knowledge.

Agile is about bringing people together to achieve more than they could individually.  It is only if we have consensus through group collaboration that we can provide optimal solutions to address business problems.  So next time you want to bridge the business and I.T. gap consider increasing the amount of real-time communication and collaboration between the two parties:

  • Get all the players in the one place and talk.
  • Engage the right players to make decisions.
  • Leverage the knowledge of the team – listen as much as you talk, ask questions when you don’t understand, question if you do not agree.  There is no silly question!
  • Clarify and iterate over meaning to get a common understanding:
    • “So what you’re saying is…”
    • “Let’s use an example…”
    • “Doesn’t that imply…”
  • Find the value that each member adds to the group.
  • Think ‘one team’.   We stand or fall together.  Collaboration expands our potential to succeed.
  • Negotiate to reach an understanding, resolve a point of difference, or to produce an agreement upon courses of action.
  • Document and capture important information so it is best not forgotten (don’t document just for prosperity sake) – it is the dialogue that is important.

Software development is a creative process and any creative endeavor requiring teams collaborating together to share knowledge, learning, ideas, solve problems and build consensus.   Communicating and collaborating will always help you steer your way to a far more successful outcome.

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