Improving Coordination, Integration and Communication in NGOs

coordination integration communication ngos
Wednesday, 5 August, 2015 - 10:20

This article attempts to offer some practical suggestions into how coordination, integration and communication can help to improve the working environment within a NGO

Having headed up the strategy and communication unit at a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for five years now, I see coordination, integration and communication as key to organisational success. In my experience most organisational problems and challenges are related to a lack of one of these three.

It might seem obvious that coordination, integration and communication are crucial elements of any striving organisation, but common sense is not always common practice. The challenge is how to put these ideas into practice. While entire business schools have been established to focus on improving management and business practices in the private sector, little time and very few resources are available for analysing how NGOs work. Literature about NGOs often centres on processes and practices related to the content of our work, but analysis of day-to-day operational issues often fall short. In this paper I attempt to offer some practical suggestions into how coordination, integration and communication can help to improve the working environment within a NGO.

Working in development and social transformation is complex. Current discourse on social change acknowledges that such processes are not linear but embedded in complex systems that are influenced by a multitude of internal and external factors. NGOs craft processes and tools that attempt to bring about positive change within this complex environment. Every aspect of our work has to be constantly scrutinised in terms of how it contributes to the vision of the organisation. Successful NGOs constantly push their own boundaries and question their own effectiveness. Many NGOs rely on staff with specialised skills and subject knowledge to implement their projects and programmes. And these projects and programmes are, in turn, often embedded in an organisational support structure comprised of components such as finance, administration and operations management. Managers in a NGO context are often expected to be both content specialists and management experts. Being dependent on external funding adds another dimension, adding constant pressure to deliver ‘value for money’ in areas that are often intangible and difficult to measure.

Their staff are a NGO’s most important asset; NGO workers are often passionate about contributing to change. It makes sense, therefore, for NGO managers to emphasise creating an enabling work environment in which their staff can flourish. However, many NGO leaders feel daunted by having to manage complex organisational systems and, at the same time, keep staff satisfaction high. A focus on creating an organisational culture that values coordination, integration and communication can assist NGO managers with both of these tasks. 

Coordination

Most dictionaries define coordination as the process of establishing harmony between different activities, so that desired objectives can be achieved. Coordination thus ensures that tasks can run in parallel, without interrupting or obstructing one another. The underlying principle is that all parts of the system are interdependent. Coordination should be pervasive, but it does require deliberate effort, and should therefore form part of each manager’s responsibility. When done well, coordination builds team spirit, gives staff clear direction and optimises the use of resources. All of this helps organisations to achieve their objectives, and increase efficiency. (Akrani, 2001)

Integration

Integration in an organisational context is often explained using the term coordination. On BusinessDirectonary.com, integration is described as the process of attaining close and seamless coordination between several departments or groups. I have chosen to separate the two terms because duplication and working in silos is especially common in NGOs, and I suspect that the root cause for this is a lack of integration. Thus, while one project in an organisation tries to address a specific aspect of development or social transformation, another project within the same organisation might focus on another facet of the issue, but approaches it from a different angle. Yet, both projects form part of the same organisation, and have the same vision, and this often leads to duplication. For me, integration refers, firstly, to ensuring that all units in an organisation understanding the work being done by other units; and, secondly, to establishing processes that enable staff to complement, support and add to each other’s work without duplication occurring. A side effect of integration is organisational openness and a fostering of multi-disciplinary approaches and skills.

Communication is a very broad term. In an organisational context, communication refers to the interaction and flow of information between internal and external stakeholders through various channels. Effective communication requires both technical resources and that staff understand the value of different types of interactions. That is, electronic communication and record keeping can be as important as face-to-face time in structured and unstructured meetings. However, for communication to work well, roles and responsibilities about who has to communicate what, when and how, has to be clear.

Practical ways of fostering coordination, integration and communication

Shared calendaring

I work at a NGO that has one office located in Cape Town, but we work throughout South Africa, as well as in eight partner countries, and we manage country surveys in an additional ten countries. This means that a large part of our team is constantly travelling. Finding dates for joint meetings is a huge challenge. Although we have so far introduced shared calendaring mainly at a senior level. Apart from making our planning far more effective and simple, I estimate that it saves me about two hours a week. Presumably, the other senior staff are experiencing a similar benefit. I am hoping that the soon to be introduced intranet will make a shared organisational calendar possible so that we can improve coordination and communication for all staff and avoid the frustration of ongoing date clashes.

An organisational calendar, regular communication about whereabouts of teams and type of work conducted enables an organisation to understand how its different parts operate. Shared calendaring offers the opportunity to be respectful to the work of colleagues. The reputation of an organisation might also improve if it appears to have a well-coordinated calendar of events. Besides having an organisational calendar, access to key dates and colleagues’ calendars contributes to effective planning. Some ideas how to best implement shared calendaring:

  • Offer the technical resources required for shared calendaring through software such as Outlook or Google calendar linked to a 24-hour online access;
  • Ensure that staff know how to use the software;
  • Enforce the usage of the software;
  • Foster an organisational culture of shared calendaring;
  • Embrace shared calendaring as management and promotes it among teams;
  • Assign responsibilities to various people within the organisation to keep calendars updated, communicate organisational dates and other key aspects; and
  • Encourage staff to share access to each other’s calendars.

Fostering complementarity and collaboration

Lack of integration displays itself in frustrations by team members about duplication of work. Or it manifests when staff feel their work could compliment other projects but no processes are in place to do so.
Regular sharing of content and deepening the mutual understanding of the work is the first step to address this challenge. However, busy schedules and the overall size of the organisation might prevent this. Organisations can address this by creating various platforms for sharing.

Creating platforms does not automatically ensure that a broader understanding of each other’s work grows. Not everyone likes sharing. A culture of openness across the organisation has to be cultivated, and goes hand in hand with a culture of respectful and constructive criticism of each other’s work.

An increase of knowledge about each other’s work often results in ideas for collaboration. When these ideas emerge management needs to actively encourage collaboration by freeing up time and resources to enable collaborative efforts. At this point teams often verbally agree about collaboration but the day-to-day schedules normally draw staff back into the initial work routine.

I think the management team has to lead strongly when it comes to integration. Leadership often knows about areas of potential overlap and collaboration at early stages of organisational planning. Integration is often tricky to implement and staff will require guidance about how to do it practically. For example, managers can:

  • Ask project staff to share their work at regular seminars;
  • Have short updates during monthly staff meetings;
  • Create an online platform to share weekly highlights;
  • Foster a culture that encourages constant sharing about work content and constructive criticism;
  • Allow for some structural and budgetary flexibility for spontaneous collaboration;
  • Plan jointly across the organisation to ensure resources for collaboration can be allocated; and
  • Create an organisational structure that offers space to have multi-disciplinary teams crafting projects and implementation plans.

Electronic communication

Electronic communication, social media interactions and information overload add enormous amounts of workload to our workdays. In the working world we are expected just to deal with this information overload. Little time is spent to assist staff how to cope and how to manage the influx of information.

A while ago a colleague from another team asked to speak with me. She seemed very distressed. We sat down in my office and it turned out that we had been working on something together on my PC screen a while back and while doing so, she had seen how my inbox was organised and structured. She was in real turmoil because her work entailed a lot of email communication and she struggled to manage her emails effectively. She asked if I could explain my system. Another time, I checked with a colleague if he had gotten an email I had sent. He responded that he probably had but went on to explain that he struggles to keep track as he has 1 500 unread emails in his inbox. These two incidents left me stunned and reminded me not take it for granted that staff know about email management.

Emails are at the centre of internal communication and an important asset for record keeping. Much has been written about email etiquette referring to the number, types and content of emails,[1] which I am not going to repeat here. My concern here is about effective internal communication. Organisations should clarify what types of emails need to be shared with everyone, which emails staff are expected to respond to, and which ones have to be read. Whether staff are expected to read and respond to emails when travelling for work is another important decision to take and communicate.

The use of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and others can be beneficial especially in the NGO environment to be up to date about trends and initiatives worldwide. But these tools can also be very distracting. Again, offering guidance on use and time spent will be helpful. Herewith some practical ideas for effective electronic communication:

  • Make sure that staff are well-trained not only to use email programmes but also how to manage, prioritise, file and archive emails;
  • Clean or well-managed inboxes should be as important as keeping your physical work space tidy;
  • Agree within the organisation on an internal email etiquette;
  • Clarify expectations about turnaround times to respond to emails and state deadlines clearly;
  • Have clear and direct subject lines;
  • Train staff in email and information flow management as an important soft skill; and
  • Share tools and information on the effective usage of social media.

Meetings and face-to-face time

Our monthly staff meetings are attended by staff members from our cleaning staff to the director. These meetings are scheduled to last for about three hours and take quite a chunk of time out of your working day. During the meeting, we talk about operational and strategic matters. The longest part, however, is dedicated for report backs per team to succinctly talk about current activities and planned outcomes for the next month. The report backs are kept short but I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of work that emerges.

Most people dread weeks when their diaries are filled with meetings feeling that one cannot get any work done. I think that face-to-face time with colleagues can contribute to working more coherently. Meetings need to be well structured and conducted with respect to each other’s times though. Organisation-wide meetings often take longer and for someone under pressure those might seem a waste of time. Nonetheless, hearing about the work of each part of the organisation creates an appreciation and mutual understanding.

The sentiment that meetings are ineffective can also be linked to a lack of following through with actions and decisions taken. The energy and motivation emerging from productive meetings is often counterfeit by a lack of tangible results. Some examples:

  • Have monthly staff meetings where each and every staff member is invited to participate;
  • Hold management meetings at least once a month;
  • Teams should have short weekly check-ins; these can be conducted with everyone standing up so that the meetings are kept short;
  • Create spaces (such as a monthly shared lunch) for staff to socialise; these should not replace team-building or strategic planning sessions but create informal face-to-face time;
  • Call ‘buzz meetings’ when cross-cutting issues emerge, and try and bring all affected stakeholders together; and
  • Meetings often generate exciting, energy and ideas. Before the end of each meeting, ensure that actions are decided on and responsibilities are clear.

Conclusion

Most of the points stated above are not new. The real challenge is translating them into action. Firstly, incorporating the suggestions requires buy-in from the leadership and acknowledgement that they are key management features. Secondly, initiatives to foster coordination, integration and communication need perseverance. Thirdly, resources need to be allocated for the often intangible efforts in the form of human resources and to a smaller extend financial means. Appointing champions on the management team for each aspect mentioned above might be one solution. Fourthly, using your organisation’s name as an active actor responsible for the change is not productive. Often people within organisations fall into the trap of talking about ‘the organisation (add name of the NGO)’ as the one that ‘should do’ or ‘should implement’. Always ensure that when complaints are raised, ideas are proposed or tasks are divided that names and responsibilities are clearly stipulated.

Practical application of organisational coordination, integration and communication can become great assets if implemented with drive and passion.

References

Akrani, Gaurav. 2011. Importance of Coordination: Why Co-ordination is Necessary? http://kalyan-city.blogspot.com/2011/05/importance-of-coordination-why-co.html
Duff, Victoria. 2015. What Is Organizational Integration? http://smallbusiness.chron.com/organizational-integration-82053.html
 

Picture courtesy of Euthenic Energy: http://euthenicsenergy.com

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