Communication is an important aspect of any organization. Whether it is a small local retail shop or a multi-national organization, effective communications can mean the difference between success and failure. In a geographically dispersed workforce such as with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA), effective communication is vital to ensure everyone feels part of the team, motivated, and focused on delivering on our promises to Veterans.
Importance of Communication in VA’s Workforce
VA’s fundamental mission has expanded but remains unchanged since its founding. Yet, its workforce and how services are delivered continue to evolve every year. And this evolution is accelerating. In the past, teams needed to work together in the same physical location to do their job. Today, like so many organizations, many aspects of VA’s organization can and do run entirely from remote locations. They can work anywhere on the globe, connected through virtual communication.
As a result of these changes, effective interpersonal communication – not to be confused with networking communications – becomes more important than ever. Effective communication ensures that organizations remain cohesive. This makes communications and the IT technology that enables it, essential. Because of the complexity of the VA’s workforce, continuous communications is necessary to help build trust and create an environment of respect among employees. When done well, it supports every facet of the organization, from hiring and retaining employees to extending services to Veterans and their families.
Communication with Industry
The VA’s government workforce is augmented by a large number of staff from private sector companies that are embedded working side by side with their government co-workers. For example, approximately one-half of the 16,000 person workforce of VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OIT) works for a private sector company. Delivering benefits and services to Veterans is dependent on these industry partners augmenting the government workforce. So, VA must not limit its communication channels to email, Teams calls and social media, but must also reach out to industry through visits to companies’ headquarters, and participate in conferences, professional associations, interviews, and panels such as HIMSS, NVSBE, ACT-IAC, and AFCEA.
All knowledge does not emanate from VACO
Looking back on my time as Deputy Assistant Secretary for VA/OIT DevOps organization, I regret I did not listen enough to the field. I worked at VA’s Central Office (VACO) in DC, and I allowed myself to get trapped by the hustle-bustle of headquarters. I relied too heavily on the priesthood of press releases to get my message out and spent too little time listening to the messages coming in. My job was to build a culture of empathy, not only for our Veterans, but also within my workforce to include the contractor staff. I had a saying, “You were born with two ears and one mouth. Use them in that ratio”. I should have dedicated one of my ears to voices beyond the beltway and spent more time in the field listening.
Email is no substitute for face-to-face communications
Electronic communication is necessary, but it can also be a necessary evil. It is evil because it is so easy. George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” With the click of a mouse, we can push out an email to thousands of inboxes or Zoom to a hundred screens. This leaves most of us with the impression that our job is done. But since most real communication is non-verbal, an email cannot fully express emotion, posture, needs or intentions.
Electronic communication can be a convenient mask over realities we would rather not know about. I remember being flabbergasted at the age of PCs I saw in some VA medical centers. I remember being shocked by stacks of IT equipment that were beyond end of service life sitting in VA warehouses. I remember feeling ashamed while watching the frustration of a VA call center employee using a user-hostile software application while on the phone with a Veteran. And I remember being amazed at the brilliance of engineers I met on my trip to Silicon Valley. None of this would I have been able to fully understand from my office chair.
Effective interpersonal communication is key to any organization’s success. With IT, that communication can be streamlined so that large, complex organizations like VA stay connected, agile, and aligned. With IT, Veterans can be served with telehealth and tele-benefits services. But IT cannot substitute for personal engagement with government employees, industry partners, or Veterans.
This FederalEYES blog entry is the first of several on communications. In the near future, you’ll see articles addressing the following:
- Brand or be branded
- The Art Of Thank You.
- Quality Comms Builds Empathy, Credibility and Trust