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January 28, 2013

Guest Blogger Nathan Zeldes: Why and How to Communicate Across Company Lines


Nathan Zeldes, Information Overload Research Group, IROG, Email overload

Have you tried to communicate with your peers in other organizations lately?

Throughout my career as a Principal engineer at Intel, I’ve repeatedly made a point to do that, and believe me, it wasn’t easy. Although by now every company knows that it should encourage internal communications between its employees to leverage the collective knowledge that is its main asset, it gets much trickier when you start looking at sharing insight with people in other companies.

Attempting such interaction can be a frustrating experience. Large corporations tend to be defensive and introverted; to talk to someone on the outside, an employee may need to run a gauntlet of formal approvals. Worse still, in many cases company culture is such that the very idea would never arise. I’d guess that a majority of employees would never dream to visit the building of another company in their field, certainly not a competitor’s; they’re happy to focus on the busy but narrow world of their own workplace. This is a great pity, because so much can be learned by seeing what’s going on beyond one’s own walls. Even observing how the same things are done differently elsewhere can trigger useful thoughts; and talking to one’s peers out there invariably widens your horizons and makes you a better (and happier) professional. In my case, my most powerful ideas – ideas that enabled me to lead innovative programs of worldwide scope when I was at Intel – have come from conversations with people in other organizations. Better yet, in some cases this allowed me to strike alliances and mount joint projects with like-minded engineers and managers – to the benefit of all our organizations.


Many factors may conspire, in varying combinations, to prevent such external exchanges:

  • An ingrown culture which simply prevents the option from being considered.
  • Inertia, aided by aversion to leaving the comfort zone of “the way things are done around here”.
  • Formal or implicit corporate paranoia about competition, IP leaks and related liabilities. Telling your counterpart to sign a legal form just in order to talk to you can have a markedly chilling effect.
  • The effort and cost required to actually travel and meet people (you can do a lot by email and phone, but at some point a face to face visit is needed to cement the relationship).
  • Lastly, lack of priority, support and encouragement from one’s management (you’ll have noticed that whenever times are tough, travel to conferences and other meeting opportunities is the first to be axed...)

So what can you do to safely navigate these perils? Of course, the easiest thing is to do nothing; nobody was fired for not initiating contact with outsiders. Or you can wait for the company to push you forward – good luck on that... But if you open your mind to the exciting possibilities of external communications, my experience is that you can initiate the contact by trying the following:

  • Be sure to join professional societies in your field; then reach out to other members.
  • Attend professional conferences. Better still, speak in them, volunteer to sit in their program committees, lead sessions or participate in panels. Once there, connect to the right people.
  • Organize visit exchanges with peers in other companies in your field – you can find them at conferences, in journals and blogs, or via social media like LinkedIn. You can start with near-competitors – companies that use similar technologies but make different product lines. Or you can visit companies in different fields altogether – many work realities are universal, especially around management methodologies.
  • Identify knowledge assets you can safely trade or even give away to other companies. For example, having brought up a successful Telecommuting program at Intel, I secured approval and happily shared our procedures and lessons with managers from other companies; I learned a lot from them in return.
  • Organize informal get-togethers with like-minded people from a number of companies. That’s how the Information Overload Research Group I chair was originally started – I was talking to a friend at Microsoft Research and we decided to host a workshop for people we knew would be interested.
  • If you’re truly fearless, negotiate collaborations with a number of other companies (and, possibly, academic research groups) where you will all cooperate to develop new insight. This is difficult but doable; I’ve once managed to pull together eight large organizations to create a lively knowledge exchange consortium for IT know-how.

From these examples, you may conclude that I was acting as a Change Agent at Intel, which of course I was, but don’t think that all this only applies to a few mavericks, or to people in specific external relations positions; I believe such external contact to be highly beneficial for every knowledge worker – middle managers, engineers and other professionals.

Needless to say, you want to get the full approval of your management, follow all applicable procedures, and steer clear of any IP hazards – in short, act like a mature, responsible professional. That done, my advice is to try and identify partners on the other side that are as eager to cooperate as you are, and move to an informal and friendly relationship with them. You must both satisfy your respective legal requirements, but there’s no reason to stay all legalistic or paranoid thereafter.

Lastly, to make all this worth the trouble, leverage your newly expanded horizons to advance your professional knowledge, create new value for your company, and encourage it to create even more connections across the inter-company chasm. This is sure to do your own career a world of good, and will add interest and fulfillment to your life as well. Have fun!


Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of technology and human behavior. His passion is the eradication of Information Overload, an area he’s been active in for 18 years, and where he’s founded the Information Overload Research Group, which he chairs. His professional activity is accessible at

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