We revert to dusty, expensive habits when communicating with employees and colleagues.

We live in a world where we are absolutely inundated with social media.

People tweet about the new movie “Gravity” and post about that great dish from dinner last night. We're reading articles recommended by our Linked In connections, and checking the coolest content on Pinterest. It’s never been easier to share information and ideas across groups and among individuals.

But there’s one giant holdout in this global wave, a place that is decidedly analogue in how information is shared — the companies we work for.

Think about it. If you have something you want to tell someone else on the job, you’ll send an email, maybe write a memo, have a face-to-face meeting, or sometimes prepare a presentation deck. Each of these “methods” has been around for 20 years, or much longer.

What’s more, the information we’re communicating, regardless of mode of transmission, is often not the ones with the biggest payoff.

The irony is that while social media may be commonplace when communicating with customers and would-be customers, we revert to dusty, expensive habits when communicating with employees and colleagues. 

How is information shared within your company? How are ideas transmitted to the community of people that make up any organisation? And what happens when those ideas remain locked in one person’s head, or one team’s experience?

Consider this: Neanderthals were known to use relatively primitive tools, in part due to the general lack of innovation among these pre-humans. If someone invented a new way of doing things, the ability to share that knowledge — the ability to learn as a group — was stunted in Neanderthals. As the actor turned communication evangelist Alan Alda said of the Neanderthals: “What happens in Cave #12 stays in Cave #12.”

Yet modern humans, who came to dominate as Neanderthals died out some 40,000 years ago, had superior, and complex, social networking skills that enabled greater adaptation and innovation. They evolved to develop social skills that enable extensive information and idea sharing.

The relevance of this history to modern organisational life is not that far-fetched.

It is remarkable how many organisations are populated by “Neanderthals” of the 21st century. While virtually every company is a potential hotbed of innovation, there is no working mechanism to share that deep knowledge.

For example, one of my consulting clients asked me to coach their executives on how to manage a critical leadership challenge they are experiencing. As it turns out, the same four or five problems keep coming up, whether it’s from a manager in Eastern Europe or Brazil, or someone working in research and development or sales. The details may differ, but the underlying challenges are the same. So when I offer insights from previous coaching calls there is almost universal appreciation for sharing lessons learned. 

But how inefficient! How is it that a company with tens of thousands of employees finds an occasional interaction with me to be one of the best ways to share information? There is incredible knowledge generated every day in organisations, but when it is not shared, it is lost. Even the Neanderthals didn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”

So what to do? The key is to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and wasted time, while still finding a way to broadcast what works, and what doesn’t. First, you need to support the effort at the top. If senior executives don’t buy in, why would anyone else want to play ball? Second, there’s not a “one size fits all” here. It might be necessary to experiment with different approaches to see what works in any particular organisation. It also wouldn’t hurt if successful efforts to disseminate knowledge to others were measured as part of regular performance evaluation.

How difficult might it be to pinpoint the most common challenges managers face in a company? Judging from what I’ve seen, not very difficult at all. Surveys, analysis of performance reviews and focus groups can all be used to identify such low-hanging fruit. 

In my experience, some of the everyday tough problems most in need of insight are about people: How do you influence other people when you don’t have direct authority over them? How do you effectively manage your boss? What do you do when two members of your team are always in conflict, yet you need them both? Because problems like these are so common, and might be affected by the culture of the company, the returns to effective “social networking” can be gigantic.

Specific ideas to generate information and idea sharing might include: Bi-monthly meetings where each person is asked to share an innovation or new approach to solving a problem; use Google docs or other social media tools to circulate good ideas; commission short case studies that can be used for internal learning; or broadcast your own case study by looking at the camera that is always staring at you on your computer and tell your story in five minutes or less; remove physical barriers to create more opportunities for impromptu conversations; adopt “open source” software to in-company problems, perhaps akin to a “quora.com” where people vote for the most useful answers to questions; ensure executive development efforts leaves plenty of time for structured networking.

Knowledge is the only asset that grows, rather than depreciates, with use. If people would dedicate to their jobs just a small fraction of the effort they already exert to communicate via social media in their personal lives, one good idea can pay off for dozens more. 

If only the Neanderthals had thought about that. 

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