You need some input from someone in the marketing department about a style guide related issue. Problem is, you don’t know anyone in marketing. Do you start asking around if anyone knows someone in that department? Maybe fire off an email up the chain of command and wait for it to get forwarded across the organization to (hopefully) the right people? Spam everyone on the company-wide mailing list? None of these options sound very tempting.

The traditional way of connecting people across a company is through hierarchy—the organizational chart. Your message is sent up the tree, across the organization and eventually back down to the intended recipient, having waited most of the time in different inboxes. You may even be able to find a common time to sit down and have a meeting.

Your question could easily be solved in a few minutes, but getting the answer in this manner might take hours, days or even weeks. And yet—it’s the norm. Why?

The communication medium. Email is still the de-facto communication channel in the workplace. One of the properties of the medium is the recipient field—that is, you need to know who you’re sending the message to. Don’t know who it could be? Tough luck. Hope you can find the right person or mailing list on your corporate intranet.

Control. As a team leader or manager, it’s your job to shield your team from unnecessary disruptions. This can, generally, be a good thing. But there is a very real cost to this gatekeeping: the introduction of bottlenecks and the creation of information silos.

Information work is chaotic and unpredictable. It’s a far cry from the sequential and predictable world of manufacturing, from which many of today’s hierarchical organizational models come from. Synthesizing information from across the company is part of daily work. Being able to have conversations with the right people at the right time is critical. Even though it might seem to make sense when you’re only looking at your team, putting such bottlenecks in place is counterproductive when the company is considered as a whole.

With work being increasingly interconnected and dependent on people with different skillsets, the need to find the correct people from across the organization is becoming increasingly common. The mark of a modern, digital company is being able to, on demand, quickly solve problems using a variety of disciplines.

A portal to the experts

What if you could magically open up a window to just the right people, lay out your problem, have a short discussion and come up with a solution within minutes?

Finding the right flow

This is exactly one of the scenarios that we’re building Flowdock for. Flowdock is split up into flows, each one being a chat room for a team, department or topic. Flows default to being open—visible and joinable by everyone in your company—to encourage cross-company communication.

By opening up their flow, a team gives everyone else the ability to contact them when needed. The flow becomes the go-to place for discussions related to the team’s focus area. And when all teams in a company do this, everyone gets a superpower: the ability to contact the foremost experts on a topic in seconds, just by typing the topic’s name.

Best practices for scaling up

An obvious challenge arises when anyone can contact your team: how does this scale? There’s no silver-bullet answer, but by taking these best practices into use, keeping your flows open shouldn’t be a problem.

A thoughtful communication culture.

This advice isn’t specific to opening up your flows, but is particularly important. When communicating—especially with a larger audience—it’s important to keep these questions in mind:

  • What am I trying to achieve with this message?
  • Am I using the most appropriate channel for this purpose?
  • Am I being clear and concise with my message?
  • Am I helping my colleagues answer the question “is this relevant to me”?

It’s very easy to start communicating on autopilot, not taking these into consideration. It happens: your discussion about a new feature in the development team’s flow turns into a conversation about marketing the feature, which would be much more appropriate in a marketing flow. Making it socially acceptable to (politely) nudge a conversation elsewhere or towards another topic adds a positive social pressure to keep conversations on the right track and in the right place.

Internal and external flows for teams.

Even though we’ve argued for giving others in your company access to your team, it doesn’t mean that all of your team’s conversations need to be public. This makes sense from an information volume perspective: inside a team, the conversation’s level of detail is generally very high. Teammates need to discuss the nitty-gritty of whatever they’re working on, and it doesn’t make sense to grab the attention of people outside the team with these details. If everyone in the company was present for all teams’ internal conversations, they’d drown in the message volume.

Because of this, it most likely makes sense for teams to have internal and external (towards the rest of the company) flows. The internal flow is used for detailed discussions and everyday chatter, while the external flow is used for higher-level information sharing and answering questions from people outside the team—a sort of company-internal support channel for whatever the team is responsible for. The internal flow can be open, but the title and description of the flow should communicate what to expect.

A good rule of thumb for flows is the more people in a flow, the lower the conversation’s level of detail should be.

@team instead of @everyone.

When you have a question for the core team of a flow, use @team instead of @everyone. Instead of pinging everyone in a flow with a notification, it will only send notifications to the people who have decided that they belong to @team in that flow. Less unnecessary notifications means a more scalable practice.

Have an appropriate flow name and description.

Having an open flow is useless if no-one can find it. Make sure that your flow’s name describes what you do or who you are, and that the flow’s description contains keywords with which people will most likely search for your flow.

Open it up

Flow Members settings

To change your flow’s access mode, select Flow Members from the gear icon next to your flow’s name.

In today’s fast-paced, fiercely competitive world of commercial new product development, speed and flexibility are essential. Companies are increasingly realizing that the old, sequential approach to developing new products simply won’t get the job done.

In addition to the message, the great thing about this quote is that it was published nearly 30 years ago. Things definitely haven’t slowed down since then—quite the opposite. It’s time to tear down those information silos and make information flow faster inside your company.