This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
Communications technology is truly amazing. We can carry in our pockets a device that has more computing power than you could pack into a house a few decades ago and that device can even make phone calls. We may not even have to dial the number: if you happen to own an iPhone, you need do nothing more than tell Siri whom to call and Siri places the call for you. What Siri, and its equivalents, cannot do is figure out who you need to call and when you need to call them. This is no doubt an interesting technical problem, made even more complex in the cases where the person you need to talk with isn’t someone you even know.
An article in the NY Times in Dec 2012 made the observation that when you put R&D and Manufacturing near one another, you get unexpected connections. Manufacturing can give feedback to research and vice-versa, and this feedback happens rapidly. MIT researchers are now studying the shocking revelation that people who are physically near one another will often talk to each other.
Okay, I’m being a little bit sarcastic here (but it is true that MIT researchers are studying this). The trap that we often fall into is forgetting that “Manufacturing” or “Research and Development” are not entities. They are merely convenient labels we use to identify different organizational functions. Manufacturing does not talk to Research and Development; the people in the manufacturing division talk to people in R&D. Despite all our technology, we tend to think about and connect most easily with the people around us. If manufacturing and R&D are located near one another, casual conversation and connection is easy, to say nothing of more formal communications. We don’t want them intermingled, for reasons that we’ve already discussed: they are different functions and need to have the space to forge a sense of identity. Neither do we want them so separated that they cannot easily communicate: that creates silos. It doesn’t matter if the silo is across town or in another country, it is still a silo!
Now, you might be thinking, how hard can it be to communicate? After all, those folks in R&D just have to call those folks in manufacturing! What’s wrong with them? The problem is that when we’re separated into silos, we don’t know whom to talk to! Even if we have a name, without a connection to that person, it’s hard to make that call and get them to listen: they are busy, we are busy, and exploratory conversations get swept aside in the rush to meet deadlines or deal with day-to-day business. Pretty soon, both parties forget. There is a real truth to the old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind!”
Building relationships with other people is a human activity. We can maintain relationships over a long distance and many years with our technology far more easily than ever before. What technology cannot do, however, is create relationships out of nothing. For that, we need human contact. We can initiate and reinforce those contacts through orientation and learning tools such as serious games, we can increase the probability of contact through the physical layout of our offices and plants, we can bring people from different parts of the organization together in various offsite locations, but no matter what we choose, we must create the opportunities for those contacts to occur. Once they do occur, we need to periodically refresh and reinvigorate them. Even professional relationships need reinforcement!
I was recently asked how to determine the ROI of holding a meeting to bring people together from different parts of the organization. This is the wrong question to ask. It is the equivalent of asking an athlete to determine the ROI of any individual workout. One workout is pretty much meaningless. If you happen to miss a trip to the gym or a run around the track, nothing much will happen. But if you stop going to the gym or stop running, after a few weeks or months, you’ll notice a difference! It’s the habit of exercise that matters, not any specific workout. Similarly, it’s the habit and ease of making connections throughout the organization that matters. It’s the flow of information that leads to problems being solved and innovation taking place. You can decide how much that is worth to your organization!
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