The Communications Paradox

‘We have a communication problem’ - it’s a lament I’ve heard constantly throughout my career.

Over the past 40 years our ability to communicate has grown and so has the number of available communication channels. Does this mean that the communications problems have gone away?

I don’t believe it has.

It’s reckoned that poor service costs a staggering $11 trillion dollars globally. This, I believe, can be linked to weak staff engagement stemming from poor internal communications and training.  

The always on always connected world means that there is no hiding place.

One former colleague shared with me the experience of being in a merger where no-one knew what exactly they were supposed to do differently. Internal communications was high level and uplifting but seemed miles from reality on the ground.

How can we have the most staggering communications capability in human history yet, at the same time, fail to use it effectively?

Organisational ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is a quote attributed to Peter Drucker. It is generally understood to mean that, unless you have an appropriate culture that is in line with the strategy, it is the culture, not the strategy that will prevail.

Many years ago I was involved in designing and developing workshops to support major IT projects. The HR director wanted be quirky about starting to get people thinking differently. They realised the need to communicate clearly about the changes they expected.

We decided, on the basis of knowing that a number of directors played music or were fans, that we would play Desert Island Discs. Each delegate was asked to bring their eight choices of music, a luxury item and a book. We played three rounds.

One delegate was to be the interviewer, one the interviewee and the other attendees were the audience. The rules were simple: the interviewer’s role was to bring ideas out the interviewee and to help them to share their interesting stories.

Not one interviewer could fulfil the role adequately. They all wanted to dominate and to demonstrate their skills, and how clever they were. The conclusion was that the senior culture was to talk but not to listen.

Try the game yourself.

I recently had poor service and complained to an organisation via their website. I got an acknowledgement, but nothing else. Three times over 4 weeks I’ve repeated the complaint. Still no action. Trying by phone I gave up after 25 minutes of listening to uplifting music and being told I was important.

I find it fascinating that many organisations complain that school leavers and even graduates have poor communications skills. This extends to organisations like the one mentioned above.

Why do you need better communications skills from individuals when the organisation itself can’t or won’t communicate?

The American satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked: ‘If two people can’t communicate, the least they can do is to shut up’.

One of my favourite managers once told me: ‘Listening to customers with your ears open and mouth shut’. He often told a story about a marketing director who argued: ‘The problem with listening to customers is that they don’t like what we tell them’.

From the board level down, we need to think about what communication culture looks like in the digital age. If we do, it seems to me, IT will achieve its potential in organisational life.

Looking at the enormous waste in this area, it could be a significant contributor to the UK’s poor productivity.

I heard an organisation claim that they have their finger on sentiment’s pulse. They know what’s going with their staff because they had a huge amount of data. Yet, despite the claimed insight, their annual employee survey showed sinking morale and a poor internal understanding of the strategy. How could this be?

I defer to a wise friend and colleague who told me: ‘The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said’.

Where’s the data to support what isn’t being said?

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  • 1
    John Sherwood wrote on 9th Feb 2017

    I think that the more we have communications technology, the more we believe that technology is the solution. Communication is a people thing. Technology is merely a tool to facilitate it. That's how the paradox arises. Just sayin'.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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