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What is Structured Communication?

May 20, 2022 in Ideas

At Cardinal we say we're "Structured Communication for Deliberate Teams," but what on earth is structured communication? And how can it help teams be more effective?

At its core, structured communication is about people agreeing on how they'll communicate with each other - systematizing it. It's about teams helping each other out by clarifying how the process they use to share information, which in turn helps those teams communicate more efficiently.

Whether they intend to or not, most teams operate with some sort of structured communication. For example, if a team member doesn't know who to talk to about taking a day off, they'll normally operate under a de-facto assumption that they should ask their manager. That manager fallback is a structure. "Don't know the answer? Ask your manager."

As teams grow, though, the number of these non-deliberate, assumed structures also grow. They usually take the form of asking other people where things are, where things go, and who to talk to. That leads to a ton of interruption at work - interruption with good intent but interruption all the same. Researchers at UC Irvine found that people are interrupted on average every 11 minutes and take on average 25 minutes to get back on task. Another study at UC Irvine found that interruptions surprisingly don't tend to slow us down so much, but they do drastically increase our stress and frustration levels, and they increase errors in work dramatically.

We live in an age where we carry all of the world's knowledge in our pockets, and yet somehow at work we're resigned to the idea that all we can do is ask someone. At Cardinal we think by changing a little about how we work we can challenge that assumption.

Documents and Discussions - Structuring the Unstructured

Documents and discussions or chats are at their core unstructured. They can be about anything, and for the most part they can hold anything we can type, and even information like images and other files. Despite their unstructured nature, though, they have some huge benefits over an un-recorded conversation or an idea that never gets documented.

Documents and discussions give us the ability to search. That helps with recall because anyone on the team can search for document or discussion that they have access to and find what they're looking for. And that search that ends in discovery of already documented knowledge most likely just helped the team avoid an interruption.

Second, documents and discussions trade structure for expressiveness in a way that's amazingly helpful. They help us communicate ideas when they're not ready to be fully structured into a stronger system, or we just don't know about the stronger system. As an example, think of asking for time off like we mentioned before. Initially a team member may just ask their manager in a 1-on-1. The next iteration of that can be the person asking the manager in a chat or discussion app in a space where others on the team can also discover the answer: "Hey, how do I ask for a day off?" Creative work is very often ideal in these unstructured formats where everyone can play off of each others ideas without strong boundaries due to the medium being used.

Structured Knowledge

As teams progress, though, they'll find some communication methods become so strongly structured that they can be set almost in stone. We call this structured knowledge - knowledge that's able to be recorded with a clearly structured schema to help streamline communication and search-ability. Structured knowledge tends to be a very powerful form of communication that we tend to almost stop thinking of as communication because we're exchanging data to communicate.

Going back to the time off example yet again, once a team knows exactly how time off should work, they may end up settling on using software to ask for time off, get approval, and track time taken off. That doesn't end the likelihood of someone asking how to ask for time off, but given a searchable discussion tool or great onboarding documentation it should reduce those interruptions.

Another example of a great candidate for structured knowledge is issue trackers for software or other related task management systems. Over time teams will find that they end up with a large backlog of work to be done which tends to have a very specific structure - who needs to do it, what needs to be done, and when it needs to be done by.

How Does Cardinal Help Teams with Structured Communication?

Our focus at Cardinal has been on helping teams structure their communication. We provide documents and discussions, built in, to help teams optimize unstructured communications. Everything in Cardinal is searchable. We purposefully focus discussions on a single topic rather than around audience to improve their ability to be searched.

Templates in Cardinal are our technique for helping teams move into structuring their knowledge in customizable ways. With our Template Designer teams can easily drag and drop fields to set up the structure of their data, and then once records are recorded they're also fully searchable, even against against specific fields. Teams can create as many templates as they want, allowing them to create customized, structured records for anything they like. Moreover, once templates are created they are adaptable, so teams can tweak them as their work and companies evolve.