In a conversation with a senior communications executive last week, I raised a topic that could easily brand me as a heretic, or even lunatic – I asked if managers were still the most critical and effective communication channel for employees. Sure, I was being a devil’s advocate, but I’ve been thinking about this issue for weeks and decided to air it out.

Here was my logic. With the advent of Web 2.0 technology and the dramatic changes in how people access, share and discuss information, is it possible that managers are less relevant and critical to the employee communication process? At many forward-thinking companies (including the one I work at) you can find a combination of the following developments that have totally changed the communication environment:

·         Intranet portals with RSS capability – which allows employees to “pull” relevant information as it is posted – and the ability to personalize content

·         Increasing use of webcasting and sophisticated video-conferencing tools – which bring executives and other employees “face-to-face” on the desktop or screen

·         Blogs that foster vigorous dialogue – both between executives and employees and among the workforce

·         Wikis or other virtual project management tools that allow increased peer-to-peer collaboration and user-generated content

·         Increasing use of podcasts, which allow employees to download and “time shift” content and access it when it’s most convenient

·         Internal crowd-sourcing tools that allow employees to suggest (and even rank) ideas

·         Expanding use of mobile technology – ranging from the ubiquitous BlackBerry to devices like the iPhone – that allow virtually any content to be shared, accessed and stored using a mobile device

·         “Virtual” sites like Second Life to conduct training sessions or conduct employee meetings

·         And finally, more employees are working virtually from the road or the local coffee-shop with free wi-fi…and that’s not even factoring in the expanding use of online stringers and ad-hoc teams who can’t even be considered employees

The impact of these developments is that many employees can (at least in theory) access critical information much more easily, more conveniently and in more rich formats than ever before. (And that doesn’t even touch on information they can access through external channels.) And none of these channels requires a manager.

So does that mean managers are no longer important in the communication chain?  I would say they still are…but less so. Just as we learned that email and intranets are not a panacea, there’s probably still a need for the “high touch” to go with this new wave of “high tech.” All the research I’ve seen suggests managers are still the most trusted and relevant information source for many employees. And there will always be a role for managers to reaffirm, interpret and customize corporate information to make it more relevant to their teams or regions – whether they do that in person or using the tools listed above. Furthermore, in some working environments – like manufacturing facilities or call centers – new technology is not as prevalent or useful as it is for the typical peripatetic professional. Still, it’s worth taking a close look at this issue and fighting the inclination to just accept conventional wisdom – even for the most sacred dogma of internal communication.