When to move away from “oral tradition” or oral internal communication?
If you have worked in start-up companies or other small organisations, you will have observed that the internal communication mode most often used to pass on information to newcomers is what one might call: “oral tradition” or oral internal communication.
Generally, internal communication stays informal in small organisations. Information is mainly passed on by word of mouth, and is not written down. However, this should not come as a surprise. Working in a small team means this communication mode is what makes most sense; there is no point in writing lengthy procedures when you create a start-up, as your main focus will be on strategy, business development and having a basic operational set-up to support all your activities.
When the organisation grows with an increase in new comers, problems will eventually arise when there is no time to spend with them or train them. As knowledge is passed on from one person to the next by “chain communications” or “through the grapevine”, information gets transformed in the process and people begin to get creative and interpret what had been handed to them. While the result may be hilarious when playing “the telephone” game, in organisations it creates problems for its inner workings.
It is important to understand why we do things and how we should do them. If explanations are not forthcoming and documentation is unavailable, then people start making assumptions and things can become a bit chaotic.
You will know your organisation may need to move away from oral internal communication when for e.g.:
- you get conflicting, unclear or no answers to a basic question on internal processes, after having called up several people in your team;
- everyone seems to be frustrated about not knowing how the process works and no one bothers to go any further to find out, as it would take up too much of their time and energy;
- individuals start getting creative and begin to deal with things a certain way, although it is not recommended, because they do not know how else to do it;
- a colleague is absent and everyone else seems to be at a loss as to what work should be done.
While oral internal communication is good when an organisation is reasonable in size, once more people begin to join the organisation, things start getting out of hand as information is not passed on fast enough nor in the proper way. Subtleties and details get lost. The organisation may be developing but not the people.
Once an organisation has reached a certain number of employees and is categorised as medium to large, it should move away from “oral tradition” and ensure it has documented its main procedures. It may feel like an exacting process, but it should be done. There would be considerable stress if there is no one available to help out and there is also nothing (i.e. documentation) to refer to.
Over a period of time, the organisations that grow, but maintain the “oral tradition” are likely to become disorganised and inefficient. They may, however, claim that they are maintaining the “original purity” of the organisation and are holding on to the “fun factor” of enabling people to meet a lot and talk a lot to each other.
Ultimately, the right time to move away from “oral tradition” is when there are more people than the time available to rigorously share the knowledge. It should be done before people keep complaints to themselves and start their own creative practices that are unaligned with internal policy.