Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The spinach protocol of communication

In my lab we recently started playing with softwares to improve communication - we have to manage the computers, web servers, articles and meetings, and e-mail is not enough. At the same it must not be something too complex, or otherwise people will simply not use it - or worst, use it wrongly and have a false confidence of correctness. (If you are curious, we are testing an internal blog, google reader, google docs and later Mendeley/Zotero as shared solutions).

My personal goal is that we can all achieve the hourensou model of communication. I know this term is also a management mumbo jumbo, but in Japan it's something much more prosaic, that all students learn and that pervades all relations - at least between responsible members of the society. I also have a feeling that it is a polite way of avoiding conflicts within the hierarchical system.

The word hourensou means spinach, and the saying goes that we should always eat our spinach. But in our case, the hourensou is an acronym for houkoku, renraku and soudan. Houkoku (報告) means "reporting", "informing"; renraku (連絡) means "contact", "to get in touch"; and soudan (相談) means "consultation" or "counseling". So the habit of eating your spinach means to have a smooth communication channel with your colleagues, for example with the regular reporting of all relevant activities, asking before changing/removing something, and always allowing for feedback.

The idea is to eliminate the "didn't you get the memo?" syndrome, and to shift the responsibility from the receiver of the information to the sender. Obviously you don't need to work in a Japanese company to know that: anyone who helped maintaining collaborative projects or developed open source software should be familiar with the ChangeLog files, for example. In my case I learned to always report my activities and respond to requests when I was an undergrad and we the students were responsible for administrating a server. Even after many years away, I still know pretty accurately the situation of this machine thanks to the culture of hourensou we developed.


  1. I'm quite interested in your opinions and conclusions from all those shared environments. I hope you can provide us a small review soon, with pros and cons of intensive use of those tools.

    By the other hand, the hourensou model looks very desirable, but I bet that will be hard to adopt it by latin people. At least you have an ideal team to implement the model.

    Thank you for this piece of reflexion about team communication.

  2. I'm the one who should thank you, after all your lecture was of great help in setting the stage ;)

    I guess the challenge is not so much in the specific tool, but in making people use it, and use it regularly (which depends, of course, on the complexity and on the perceived future utility of the tool)...

  3. The same principle, explained by former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo:
    "Keeping records of deliberations is important for understanding the process of how a policy was forumulated. It is essential to be able to understand decades later who proposed what law for what purpose and under what circumstances."


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