Learning to Communicate in a Digital World: October

Learning to Communicate in a Digital World

An advertising firm hit a resounding chord with people with its slogan for an insurance company, “People when you want them, technology when you don’t.” To say automation and computerized efficiency have become the norm is stating the obvious. Even the most seemingly non-technical fields have come to rely upon this digitized reliability.

But what about industries like public safety where one-on-one interpersonal communication, relationship building and good old-fashioned customer service are indispensible assets? Do we risk losing any or all of them to make inroads in the technology realm? Considering how much has been written in recent years about the human cost of living in the digital age, it’s clear to me that this issue is only getting bigger. Further, I had an experience recently that showed me how this issue can present itself in subtle ways.

Supply Orders vs. Help Desk Tickets
Before I delve into that experience in detail, here’s a question to whet the appetite—a question that may sound familiar to you: What is the difference between a supply order and a help desk ticket? They are both staples of the modern office environment. Both are computer-based, and both greatly enhance accountability and efficiency.

With a supply order, you’ve run out of “widgets,” so to get more you use a pick-list order form to select from a narrow range of choices and then anonymously push the “submit” button. With a help desk ticket, you “free-form” a paragraph, trying to explain what you want or need in the hope that a human can decipher your ramblings. In theory, both allow greater flexibility and a broader distribution of access to your whole workforce. You can electronically trace exactly who ordered what, who sent the request and where it went.

These days, even the newest recruit has their own e-mail account and personalized profile with the full expectation that they can make that PC dance. Thankfully, this new generation of firefighters (a generation that grew up on technology) is more than up to the task of handling both supply orders and help desk tickets with ease—or really anything computer-related.

But what about your senior members, your mid-managers who “picked up” their computer skills by hook, crook and error? With the lack of formal training they may have received, is it any wonder why they struggle? Because our focus was to create and develop great fireground commanders, we occasionally see jarring results when they’re seated at the keyboard.

For example, do you still get e-mails THAT LOOK LIKE THIS? Do your eyes bleed as you long for a hard return and period, or even a new paragraph? In all fairness, what has our industry done to improve those skills? Not as much as we should have.

But back to those command skills. Few traits inspire confidence like a command officer, facing hard and fast decisions, who never yells, who gives clear, concise directives, and who leaves no doubt that theirs is the absolute best course of action. When they fill out supply orders, those skills serve just fine. But when trying to explain a technological problem for the help desk ticket, those same skills can be a hindrance.

My Experience: Learning How to Communicate in a Digital World
Fire officers have read entire books on decision-making, methodologies of analysis, prioritization, execution and follow-up. Frankly, they are very comfortable making decisions. They usually live in a paramilitary world where orders are obeyed and tasks are completed, sometimes solely in response to only the rank and position they hold.

This was my mental and physiological bent as I sat down recently to submit a help desk ticket. In fairness, I am not a newbie to technology. The first computer I ever saw in a fire station was one that I brought in myself 25 years ago. Although I don’t know every up-to-the-minute update on the latest and greatest in technology, I’m a long way from being computer illiterate. Plus, as a division chief and ranking officer, I know how to make decisions!

Here’s what happened: A peer in another department e-mailed me a large video file that required a particular software package to view—a software package that was not installed on my work computer—so I needed IT support to install the software.

I submitted my help desk ticket and within an hour, I received a terse reply from an IT technician who assured me that no such software was approved for installation. He then proceeded to cut-and-paste-quote me the city policies that threatened real trouble for anyone using those infected thumb drives, much less anyone trying to install un-authorized software!

My ego now fully engaged, I immediately researched who sent such a reply and discovered that it was some new kid who was not intimidated in the least by my rank or uniform. To him, the decision was a no-brainer. I gave him a work order, but he did not work for me.

I re-read my ticket and realized that his rejection actually made some sense. I had told him what to do (“install this software”) instead of describing my problem and asking for assistance. The best thing to say would have been something like, “I can’t view this video. Could you help me?” However, by going with my initial request for that particular software (a narrow focus), without knowing it, I had just given him the easiest job in the world—saying no.

When communicating face-to-face, influences like “command presence” matter. A smile, a handshake or a raised eyebrow can seal the deal. But I relinquished those when I filled out the work order and sent it to a stranger who sits at a computer and blindly answers 200 e-mails a day.

You expect to have a short, simple, easy relationship with the online order processer, so you interact with them accordingly. However, the strengths of great leaders and commanders come to light when things are not easy, when it takes hours of blood and sweat, when you have to take the time to listen and seek lots of input. Those are leadership skills that translate to every situation and every workplace.

I crafted a response back to the IT tech and re-thought my opening. “Let’s try this again,” I began. “I cannot view this video file. Can you help me?” His response: “Sure. Send me the file and let me convert it to a different format.” Twenty minutes later, I was enjoying the video.

I eventually got the software installed, but not until months later. The IT tech and I documented many instances of jumping through conversation hoops and the inherent loss of quality in conversion until we finally convinced his boss that the new software was indeed warranted. (Turns out that the tech actually agreed with my initial request but did not dare violate the policy.)

Leaders Find a Way—Even Through a Modem
Technology has a tendency to separate people into “inboxes,” and I know American government and businesses are married to them. But those boxes will never share a cup of coffee with you, nor will they ever replace human interaction. So “size up” those relationships and do a “hot lap” before hitting that submit button. Gain some “situational awareness”: Is this relationship a simple supply order or a more complex, truly human interaction? Good leaders find a way forward—even when the route includes a modem.


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