Apparently we have a problem with communication. If you google the word, the first page of results seem to all lead to methods for fixing communication problems. Look to the top book titles involving communication. They all offer tips for better communication. In fact, according to a few of the search results and published resources, “faulty communication causes the most problems.”
We’ve been talking, as the human race, for thousands of years. You would think by now we would have figured this out.
Sad to say, but it is clear that we haven’t. Communication problems persist, and make our work lives both more difficult and frustrating – to say nothing of our personal lives. Just think, though, how many people would be without a defining career if we were all great at communication. Dr. Phil might be working the coffee press at Starbucks rather than dissecting the root cause of family communication problems on national TV. And Tony Robbins?
So, if we’ve been dealing with communication issues for thousands of years, why worry about it now? Why even try to correct communication problems? For the simple reason that if we at least work to improve our internal communication efforts we will save thousands of dollars every year on training, not to mention the cost savings resulting from general improvements in efficiency and focused work efforts.
What Is Organizational Communication?
Communication is simply the imparting or exchanging of information. Organizational communication, then, is the imparting and exchanging of information pertaining to an organization. The definition, however, leaves too much to the imagination.
The trick for organizations desiring useful communication is not to simply rely on a basic definition of communication, and draft strategies in accordance with this definition. For effective results, the understanding of what defines effective, organizational communication must be expanded – and this expanded definition is the focus of this post.
There are four elements that make up organizational communication (our expanded definition), and here they are:
- You keep employees well informed;
- You regularly share the status of goals and objectives;
- Important data and information is readily available;
- Managers are provided with the information they need to make good decisions.
Let’s explore each of these elements individually, starting with “keeping employees well-informed.”
Keep Employees Well Informed
I suppose we could spend some time here explaining the nuances of the statement, getting to the root of what well-informed means, but the statement speaks for itself. I will add, however, that it isn’t enough to just push information out to people and consider your job done. You have to establish “informed employees” as a mandate that everyone in the organization abides by – perhaps even going so far as to define informed employees as an institutional core value or characteristic.
Share the Status of Goals and Objectives
Now, I mentioned that simply pushing out information to everyone and calling it a day is not what you want to do, but that calls into question exactly what you should be communicating to employees, and what employees should be communicating to each other. That leads us naturally to the second element of organizational communication. What you really need to be sharing (communicating) is the status of goals and objectives.
If you have a clear direction, then everyone involved in moving the organization in that direction needs to know, at any given moment, where the organization is in terms of progress. Often, communication centers on tangential issues and concerns. Good news, bad news, new vendors, etc. should be shared with everyone – but in the context of strategy and direction. Everything else is just noise.
Make Important Information Readily Available
The third element, then, after communicating the status of goals and objectives, is ensuring that important information is readily available. This is usually where communication falls apart. The breakdown occurs when people horde information and then use it to buy favors or prestige. In other words, when people use information sort of like a “power currency.” Without a strong management focus on making information readily available, some staff will begin holding on to key information rather than freely distributing it. They do this because they see the truth in the old saying that “knowledge is power.” They know that if they hold the knowledge, control the information, then people have to come ask them for it. This establishes powerful leverage.
In my own travels, I have seen senior management afraid to lose an otherwise ineffective employee because that employee quote “knows too much.” What management team members in those circumstances seem to not understand is that by not encouraging broad sharing of information, making it readily available for all to utilize, they were the cause of their own frustration – not the employee controlling the flow of information.
As an aside, a chief cause of this problem outside of the management issues I just referenced is the reliance on employee handbooks and procedure manuals. For an explanation of my reasoning, let’s consider Encyclopedia Britannica, a 100-plus year old company that basically lost out to Wikipedia – which launched in 2001. There are two key reasons why Wikipedia is now the go-to resource for people searching for information – outside of Google itself. The first reason is that Wikipedia content is updated very quickly – especially for topics of high interest and relevance. The second reason is that it encourages – and rewards – user participation and content development. Information ownership is decentralized, unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica model which is tightly controlled.
And yes, before you say anything I understand that every now and then Wikipedia entries are incorrect – but try taking a look at some old Encyclopedias. I’m sure you will find that some entries are factually inaccurate based on the knowledge we possess today. The difference is that Wikipedia is likely to be corrected, rather quickly, based on the knowledge of a broad community. The old, incorrect information typically goes away.
In any case, in today’s knowledge-based economy the need for readily-available information is key, and inefficient, centralized processes for distributing information are being circumvented by innovative people looking to get answers in the most efficient way possible. So, your carefully-crafted employee handbooks remain shut tight (or un-accessed in the case of an electronic model), because it is more efficient and probably more relevant for employees to get the information from a person “in the know.” This means that unless you encourage broader information sharing and distribution a la Wikipedia, then you will encourage uncontrolled information consolidation by select few people.
Your best bet to ensure information is readily available is to allow all staff, even better – to encourage all staff – to contribute strategically-relevant processes, procedures, information, tips, tricks, etc. to a central repository that can be changed and edited by any other person in the organization. In short, your best bet is to build the framework that facilitates information sharing, rather than creating the information itself.
Provide Managers the Information They Need to Make Decisions
That brings me to the final element of organizational communication – that managers have the information they need to make decisions. This actually references two different things. First it references a somewhat different type of information than what I addressed earlier in the post. Rather than a broad distribution of updates, status reports, and engaged sharing of data we are now talking about relevant trend data. For example, managers need to know when growth benchmarks that trigger new hiring are met – so that they can make the decision to hire more people. A basic example, I know, but an example nonetheless of what I am talking about.
The key problem here is that often core systems contain the relevant decision-making data, but it holds on to it like a virtual example of the power-hungry employee I referenced earlier. One of our clients was expressing just how difficult it was to obtain meaningful data from the system they are on. The closest I can come to describing the process is that it sounds like distilling alcohol. To get data out of his system you need some fire, coiled pipes, the right temperature, and little bit of luck. By then, of course, things have changed and the data you worked hard to get is behind the times.
An effective system of organizational communication must be flexible enough to allow for managers to get the data they want to see in as easy a fashion as possible. Some systems are better at this than others, but seeing how communication is critical it is worth addressing data shortcoming in any system you have – and choosing to scrap ineffective systems. Yes, this step costs money – but remember that an organization incapable of making decisions because of poor organizational communication is losing money every day. Making a change to more efficient systems will be rewarded with better performance and profitability.
The second reference of “mangers having the information they need to make decisions” is that employees are encouraged to drive information up through the organization. Too often managers make decisions with the best hard data available – but without any practical field data. A key military leader, perhaps it was General Eisenhower though I am not 100% certain, said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Put another way, and this one is attributed to Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Making decisions in a vacuum, without front-line data, is like creating a plan without the checks and balances provided by confrontation with reality.
Organizational communication must have, or must provide, avenues to get managers real-word data with which to make or validate decisions.
It is clear that effective organization communication is critical to success. It is just as clear that getting there is not nearly as hard as it seems. I don’t think, for example, that everyone on your team needs to go to communication school to get better at it. People are naturally communicative, but the organizational structures we usually create do not encourage that natural desire to communicate. Rather, they create information silos and encourage the hoarding of information.
By simply mandating that communication is an organizational priority, implementing structural flexibility in your organization that allows for and encourages the sharing of information, and ensuring that systems do not lock away vital information needed to make decisions, you will find enriching information sharing among all employees.