Am I communicating with you...!

Communication Enhancement

Pick any problem in an organization that you have previously experienced - perhaps absenteeism, or a reduction in service or production quality. Was poor communication a symptom or a cause? Or was it both? Furthermore, while the solution to a current problem may appear to lie in a straightforward method of enhancing communication by, say, implementing a new routing procedure for transmitting information, is this really going to solve the problem?

The fact is, it's very easy to fall into the trap of saying that all problems are essentially a communications problem, and then believing that there is an easy fix. After all, errors, production difficulties, staff grievances, as well as absenteeism and a variety of organizational failures, don't happen on their own - the most striking examples of this misconception are the many disasters that have occurred, yet the root cause is more than just a failure to communicate (see: When It All Goes Wrong). Hence, communication may be one aspect of the problem but it is thoroughly intertwined with managerial procedures, training, supervisory responsibilities, design failures, and the predominating culture of the organization.

For Psychonomics, the start to understanding a communication problem is an awareness that calling its cause a 'communications failure' may distract from the real cause while providing only a simplistic solution. Indeed, in any attempt to enhance communication the 'communications failure' must be dealt with appropriately, as it may be a symptom of a more complex organizational pathology.

However complex the cause of the 'communications failure', though, there are often individual problems that signal a need for specialist help, and which we will fully address with clients. These include:

The error rate has increased but nobody apparently knows why
There is rivalry or animosity between departments
A series of small, almost trivial, accidents have occurred
Employees undergoing job succession complain they cannot access needed information
Documentation is regularly lost
Deadlines are constantly increasing, leaving clients waiting longer
Records show clients frequently complaining that the required product or information has not been sent or it is of the wrong type - and, even worse, it is still outstanding!
Production quality has significantly reduced
Employees don't actually know which manager is responsible for what, and don't know who to ask for support when there is a problem
Low level employees speak disparagingly about senior staff, and this has become commonplace
There is an abundance of paperwork and much of it is duplication
When a key employee is away this throws production or service delivery off schedule
There is a lack of repeat business, or this type of business has been decreasing

In terms of our main intervention, we look at the organizational system in place as a whole and not just one component. Nevertheless, having conducted a comprehensive assessment of the situation, and the individual problems occurring, we then look at what the feeds are. Often there are specific difficulties - besides any underlying cause of a major nature giving rise to a culture of poor communication - that once addressed helps to enhance communication between people and departments. For example:

Information transmission dysfunction: Communication can be verbal, non-verbal, or written, and all of these modes have the potential to lead to altered or misunderstood information as it is transmitted. The use of bureaucratese, is a prime example, where ideas are muddied as employees get carried away with their learnt ability to use the organizational or technical forms and expressions. Other difficulties stem from message distortion, where there is tinkering with the message as it is passed along channels, omission of details, information overload, and the misuse of the grapevine - the informal network that is particularly important for passing information about the culture. The transmitting of information also has to do with cementing relationships and group cohesion rather than just passing formal organizational information. Information transmission, therefore, takes place under much wider circumstances than is often realized.

Over-reliance on traditional models (1): Traditional models often center on the exchange of information. Organizations like to use these models because they easily depict information flow in a diagram. For example, as chains, wheels, and networks. Furthermore, conceptualizing communication in this way allows it to be mapped readily onto formalized organizations where there are clear demarcations of authority, hierarchies, and a great many procedures in place to keep everything working. Here, communication may be thought of in an overly simplistic manner as passing downward, upward or laterally, which may not be the case. These models also do not depict the human reasons that may underlie a communications failure.

Over-reliance on traditional models (2): Lack of context is another problem resulting from the inappropriate use of traditional models. What we talk about and tell others is context dependent, and formal models rarely address this. There's always much more going on and each situation is different. Furthermore, unless the model fits perfectly with the organizational structure - which is highly unlikely, as there are always unique elements - it is impossible to fully understand the problem being experienced. Many managers, however, will attempt to apply a traditional model, learnt from a textbook or a course, that is generic, but this is often really nothing more than applying an engineering-type model. Not only does it not transfer to the organizational context but it also may equate with the organization's culture and how it structures information transmission alone - because that is what ends up being depicted.

  The Kings Cross subway fire, in the UK, exemplifies what happens when bad communication is a symptom, and the underlying cause has disastrous consequences. The government inquiry showed there were extensive organizational failures of which communication failure was only one part. For example, safety specialists were spread over three inspectorates and focused on operational and occupational safety alone. Passenger safety was neglected by the relevant inspectorates, as well as managers who did not pursue this issue either. Hence, the need for communicating good safety protocols to staff was also overlooked. Similarly, the need to maintain controls against fire was not transmitted to passengers - smoking was allowed on trains and in the subway stations until this time. While headquarters had no access to a public address system for warnings to passengers.  

The common element running through our approach is the requirement to produce effective communication channels. And we work by example too. Throughout our intervention we take great care in fully communicating any changes to the parties involved.

The need for change is what often has to be realized by senior executives, while leaving behind any organizational bias or agenda they may harbor. Indeed, communication occurs at many levels within an organization and all levels must change to function harmoniously. In order to achieve this, we view communication not simply as a means by which change is brought about but a process in which all aspects of change are carried out. In reality, this means that any blockages to effective communication will stop change from occurring at some level and the organization cannot function effectively or develop; or worse, it may regress.

Overall, the question Psychonomics seeks to answer is: Why? …Why isn't information being listened to? Why isn't information transmitted? Why are employees assuming someone else is taking care of things? Why is no one taking responsibility? Why is there a culture in place that allows communication difficulties to arise? Then, ultimately, we ask: what is the best solution to apply?










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