The Role of Open Communication in Digital Ecosystems

From Diana M. McGhee, Director of Technology and Information at Fort Thomas Independent Schools

“Hello, this is the technology office; how can I help you?”

“Well, my school ordered this new software, and we can’t seem to make it work on our computers. Can you help?”

Sound familiar? If you’ve worked in technology in a school system the last 15 or so years, you have probably experienced this exact situation. Too often, software or hardware purchases are made without input from or knowledge of the technology department, yet the technology department is told to “make it work”. A situation such as this could easily be avoided when all parties commit to communicate.

American author Marilyn vos Savant, who, according to the Guinness Book of Records, holds a Guinness world record of having the highest IQ (before that category was retired), once quoted, “Email, instant messaging, and cell phones give us fabulous communication ability, but because we live and work in our own little worlds, that communication is totally disorganized.” As Ms. Savant noted, we often work in our own “little worlds”, also known as workplace silos, and this process leads to disorganized communication.

Silos can happen in any organization, even educational institutions. Many of us, from all departments, work independently on various projects, often forgetting that others are doing the same. If you are a task-oriented person as I am, you know exactly what I mean. You have a task list a mile long, and each day, your goal is to check something off that list! Task-oriented employees are often more likely to work in silos.

Sometimes working in silos can be productive toward meeting a goal, but sometimes working in silos can be detrimental to an organization’s mission. Effective communication is the most fundamental way to prevent workplace silos, but how can an organization improve its flow of communication, particularly in the area of technology?

Look at organization’s internal structure

The absence or presence of effective communication may be enhanced by your organization’s internal structure. Who reports to whom? Which departments are responsible for what? In our school district, we have three main divisions of leadership: Teaching and Learning, Student Services and Operations (see below chart). Each division has a lead, and those leads report to the superintendent. The technology department falls under Teaching and Learning, and I — as the Director of Technology and Information — report to the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, whose duties include curriculum development. She and I work closely to assure our software and online services purchases help fulfill our district’s mission. She is the content expert; I am the person knowledgeable about hardware processes. A positive relationship between technology and curriculum is completely essential to effective integration of technology to enhance an educational environment.

Consider lateral relationships

Technology directors have been dealing for years with the notion that “if it has a plug, it belongs to technology”. For the most part, this notion is true, but the kind of technology that directors must deal with day-to-day doesn’t stop at the classroom door. While worrying about whether or not a specific curriculum package can run on the technology devices we have selected is something technology directors must do, we must also worry about whether or not that security camera can pull the footage needed after a break in, whether or not the door access control is scheduled correctly for the weekend’s events, or whether or not the HVAC system will remember that Monday is a holiday. For these reasons, creating a positive relationship with the lead of the Operations Department is crucial.

Ask questions

Even though I have often been criticized for being a “nosey” person, I like to think of myself as a “curious learner”. My first memory of being disciplined for my “curiosity” was in first grade when I pretended to need to sharpen my pencil. Knowing that the pencil sharpener was next to the door, I thought that if I could leave my seat to sharpen my pencil (which didn’t need sharpening, by the way), I could possibly see and hear the commotion happening in the hall. Mrs. Whitley, my first grade teacher, thought otherwise, and my backside quickly felt her response to my curiosity. Yes, my nosiness goes back a long way, but even after all these years, I like to think that this character “flaw” has served me well. I have never been afraid to ask questions. Asking questions is a skill necessary in the technology workplace today. If you have a building project occurring in your district, ask questions…ask to see blueprints, ask to be included in weekly progress meetings, ask financial questions. If a school PTO group plans to donate equipment to the school, ask questions…ask why, ask what purpose the equipment will serve toward meeting your district’s mission, ask what the PTO expects when the equipment has exceeded its lifespan. The only way to make sure technology is included in important decisions is to ask questions of those in decision-making positions.

Author George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Don’t assume that because you mention concerns that people “hear” you. Active listening requires concentration, understanding, remembering and responding. An active listener generally reacts to what is being communicated. If you are not being heard and reacted to, then your organization’s communication structure is not ideal. So, make some changes! Get out of your silo, ask questions and suddenly you may find that your monologue will become a dialogue toward solving whatever problem comes your way.

“Hello, this is the technology office; how can I help you?”

“Well, my school ordered this new software, and we can’t seem to make it work on our computers. Can you help?”

“Certainly! I know all about that software purchase, and I’ll be glad to help you!”

A 32-year veteran educator, Diana is the Director of Technology and Information for the Fort Thomas Independent Schools, a high-performing school district in Kentucky. In addition to her technology duties, Diana teaches the high school journalism class in which she helps students produce a newspaper, a magazine and the yearbook. In 2013–14, Diana served as President of the Kentucky Society for Technology in Education (KySTE), an ISTE affiliate organization, and she currently serves as an ISTE PLN leader. Diana is also a Microsoft Innovative Educator and a Level 1 Google Certified Teacher. She holds a BA in English Education with a minor in journalism, communications and speech from the University of Kentucky; an MA and Rank I in secondary guidance and counseling from Eastern Kentucky University and a Director of Pupil Personnel endorsement from Xavier University in Cincinnati.

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