Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

The chemistry and physics of communications

ImageIt is remarkable how bad many organisations are at something which is at the very heart of the human experience. We are all experts in communication, it is an activity which we live and breathe to such an extent that we’re mostly ‘doing’ it unconsciously. And yet, when it comes to our corporate life, there are very few times when the companies we work for, deliver clear, well written messages. The complexity and incomprehensible nature of corporate communication is extraordinary, often leading employees, customers and shareholders to the conclusion that obfuscation rather than openness is the real aim….ultimately destroying trust and reputation. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that for many organisations, their external Facebook pages are more active as organs of communication than any newsletter, intranet site, etc, precisely because employees trust this perceived ‘unofficial’ channel more than any of the formal ones available to them.

What is the cause of this malaise? Is it the fact that producing simple, clear messages requires an editorial effort which is beyond those who are charged with the responsibility? Is there a fear that we’re giving away too much, that somehow a competitive advantage is eroded if we give our employees a particular piece of information? Is there an element of corporate laziness about the use of corporate speak, an unwillingness to put oneself in the shoes of those receiving the messages?

I’ve no doubt that there are many reasons for this. The two I want to address at this stage are the chemistry, ie the content, and the physics, ie the channels used. In my experience, the mismatch of message to communication vehicle constitutes a very large part of the ineffective nature of corporate communications. In other words, the means by which a message is delivered is often the most critical element of whether that message will be received.

Let’s take a few channels as an example. What might email for example be good for? Informing us of a fire drill, yes…letting us know about a new product launch, maybe if the team most affected has other more direct channels to draw upon, giving us important messages about company performance, no….performance issues, definitely not. The medium is impersonal, the best we can hope for is that it provides a level of knowledge or information to a broad group of people, which is not time critical and doesn’t require any action from the recipient.

Team meetings…..good for? Tactical, action orientated messages, yes. Feedback from customers, absolutely….knowledge transfer, possibly but not too much…the reason being that this is a forum where interaction rather than one way communication is most powerful….spending it boring on for 20 minutes is going to result in iPhone activity!

What about the intranet? What can you use this for most effectively as a delivery channel? Its large storage capacity obviously has its advantages as a knowledge management system but what can you expect your employees to use it for? It’s a passive tool, requiring individuals to actively engage with it to get information…so employees need to be guided towards it.

Videos? We know from recent research that they are powerful attractors as long as they are no longer than 1 minute in duration. Again the channel may be more important then the contents!

A long time ago a very clever communications person told me to think about the subject in terms of the recipient rather than the sender. She also talked about 4 dimensions of communications: what do you want the person to know? What do you want them to think? What do you want them to feel? What do you want them to do? Each dimension requires a different approach in terms of the channel…as a rule of thumb, the greater the action required, the more intense the communication effort that is required.

A bit like a pass in rugby, there is some shared responsibility in passing and catching the ball, but ultimately it is the person delivering the pass or in this case the message who has primary responsibility for making sure it’s received.

Categories: Change management, Consulting

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