5 Strategies to Improve Interdepartmental Communication
— May 18th, 2019
In any organization, no one department can act in isolation. Each department is connected to another and their work is linked. This seems like a simple concept in theory but in practice, the idea of departments working in collaboration can often fall down, leading to a siloed culture or worse: 86% of respondents to a Fierce study reported that a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication was responsible for workplace failures.
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Let's look at five ways in which a company can improve interdepartmental communications.
Innate distrust may exist between departments. This paradigm may have roots in historical discords and subsequently been baked into the current culture in an organization. New hires in marketing, for example, maybe told in a light-hearted manner "we don't get on with sales," but this prejudice, harmless as it may seem on the surface, could have a detrimental effect on interdepartmental communication.
Trust needs to exist if communications are to flourish between departments. An easy way to build up 'trust deposits' as Association for Talent Development calls them, is to offer help to other departments. If a department discovers it can be of assistance to another department, they should offer to help, with no strings attached. This act of altruism can kickstart the trust-building process and lead to a breaking down of any existing barriers.
In his now-famous New York Times article, Charles Duhigg suggests that when it comes down to it, people want to know that work is more than just labor. Often in organizations, this big-picture viewpoint is lost as people go about their everyday jobs. They perform their role but aren't necessarily aware of how their work benefits the organization. And if they don't see how they or their department contributes, it's even more difficult to understand where other departments fit in.
Put work into context. Have regular meetings where achievements or wins are recognized. Highlight the role each department played in these wins. In this way departments will see that they are all part of one organization, working towards common goals. This understanding could naturally flow into collaboration as departments become more aware of what other departments do and how they could potentially work together.
Department managers should formally meet on a regular basis. The goal of these meetings should be to understand how their department could contribute to another department. Let's look at an example: a marketing department feeds leads to the sales team, but rather than blindly sending the leads over, the marketing director could try to get more context by asking simple questions:
- How many leads do you need from us in order to hit your sales targets?
- Is there any way we can qualify the leads to ensure conversion?
- Do you need any marketing collateral that would help you to convert these leads?
With these meetings, we circle back to the idea of building relationships and fostering trust: how departments can help each other and how they fit together. As the old adage goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Establish cross-functional teams
It's natural that people build relationships with others in their department; they're working closely with them day in and day out. In some organizations, there isn't an opportunity for people from different departments to work together or even get to know each other. This siloed environment can have a negative knock-on effect on interdepartmental communications, and the longer it remains unchecked, the more likely it will continue.
Working together can be a great way to promote communication within departments. Establish teams made up of members from different departments to work on key projects. These can be one-off teams or they can work together regularly on similar projects. If setting up a cross-functional team seems challenging, why not try it out in a social forum by getting people from different departments to team up for a quiz or a game night. This could establish the idea of different departments working together, without any pressure or consequences.
A report by McKinsey highlights several real-world examples where cross-functional cooperation has had a dramatic effect on a number of organizations and has worked to cement a culture of interdepartmental communications.
In large or dispersed workplaces departments' paths simply may not cross. In these cases, communication is markedly more difficult. Or at least it used to be. Popping by someone's desk or meeting someone at the water cooler has moved online: it's gone virtual. Collaboration software and tools have made their way into the workplace, not just supporting remote workers, but also enhancing interdepartmental communications.
Tools like Poppulo, Slack, Zoom, Google Drive and Trello are gaining in popularity as organizations focus on more collaborative work practices. Virtual workplaces like Slack are online hubs where employees go to get updates on projects and check out channels relevant to their department. But there's also room for cross-functional collaboration where teams from different departments can discuss interdepartmental goals and projects. There are also opportunities to create social channels where people bond over their love of gardening, for example. These tools could be instrumental in fostering a culture of collaboration and encouraging interdepartmental communications.
Collaboration by design
Space can be largely overlooked as a way to encourage collaboration, but clever spatial design can have a dramatic impact on how teams and departments work together. At the University of Michigan, a complete redesign of its office space was prompted by the need to encourage collaboration. The final design relied heavily on making it easier for people to communicate spontaneously. It also featured a dedicated collaboration zone where teams and employees could go to work on projects together.
The great Steve Jobs also believed in the power of space to unite teams and departments. A New Yorker article talks about the rise of Pixar, which Steve Jobs purchased from George Lucas way back in 1986, and showcased how its success, in part, came down to spatial design. Jobs himself was a great proponent of technology fused with the humanities. He famously said, "it is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough."
He believed firmly in the idea that unplanned interactions can spark innovation. A renovation of the Pixar headquarters saw Jobs bring common functions like mailboxes, meeting rooms, the cafeteria and the coffee bar into the huge atrium space. This forced people from all departments to periodically visit this area during the day. Spontaneous meetings and simply running into someone from another department in the queue for a coffee caused impromptu conversations, which now and then, turned into innovative ideas.