Towards the end of last year I spent some time working with the staff of a national organisation enhancing their personal communication skills. During the breaks we, (as usual) chatted about this and that; and eventually (as usual) the conversation came around to discussing the communications systems within their own organisation.

They were not impressed. It was, they said, far too impersonal. One remarked that his Tuesday morning was completely taken up with answering his emails; the belief was that after the weekend every one got into work on a Monday and started disseminating information left, right and centre.

Another complained that there used to be briefings where senior staff members personally explained the direction and details of the months ahead. There was time to listen and time to ask questions – and everyone went away feeling they had a grasp of what was happening in the organisation.

Now apparently there was no time for such things. Instead they were bombarded by emails with probably three or four attachments; all of which were expected to be read and acted upon. Even if they responded with some question for clarification, it was often ignored, or when answered did not address the point.

One of the staff, demonstrating the frustration that the group obviously felt said “I wonder if they know just how easy it is to delete an email?” the rest grinned and remarked “You can always tell them that you never read it – they just assume you never got it!”

Now between you and me and the computer screen, how close is that sorry tale to what happens at your company?

The really sad part was much later when I met one of the senior executives of the same company at a business lunch. When he learned that I had been training his staff in personal communication skills he said, “Good thing too! They need it!”

I, (very tactfully) suggested that the problem isn’t always just with the staff – “Stuff and nonsense,” he replied “we keep our staff up to date with everything that happens – we use the latest IT to ensure that they are all well aware of what is going on – problem is, they just don’t listen.”

If only he knew!! The trouble is that he was absolutely sure that he and his executive team were doing the right thing. But communication is more than just sending out emails, reports, and such and overloading your staff with the technicalities of information. Unfortunately that is what modern organisational communication systems seem to be dominated by.

An organisation is a group of people achieving as a group things that they could not do individually. And the success of any organisation from the local cricket club to a national army is dependent on their communication systems. And these will be developed to achieve the organisational goals.

Regardless of the size the types of systems are usually the same.

First, there will be a need for an external communication system which sends and receives. This is the one where we communicate with our suppliers, customers, clients and where we receive information from other organisations, government departments and such.

Advertising, sales presentations, letters, reports, press releases and conferences all come under the external communication system. The survival of the organisation depends on the effectiveness of this system, and most will be relatively successful.

The second (and usually less successful one) is the Internal Communication System, which relates to those messages which travel up, down, sideways and diagonally across the spectrum of the organisation. These can be complex, and many people may not even understand that they are just as much an organisational system as the stock control.

These too, can be either formal or informal. The formal internal communication system usually means those pieces of information that are disseminated to inform people. It can be rules books, changes in admin procedure; alterations in processes, or training information. They can include the formal organisational newsletter, posters on the notice board and they are usually issued with the approval of those in authority. These are the emails that land in our in-boxes either first thing Monday or Tuesday morning, and will take us about three to four hours to read properly.

There is also what is termed the semi-formal system, which while still under the authority of the organisation is designed to be consultative. These are group meetings, where a looser style of communication is encouraged. Think-tanks; problem solving; developing new ideas – all those activities where personal interaction is important to reach consensus or agreement.

And finally – there’s the Grapevine! The ubiquitous meeting in the coffee room or at the water cooler; where the goings on of the organisation and its staff is ruminated over, dissected with the precision of a surgeon; is completely unauthorised and abounds everywhere.

There have been a number of attempts to control this method of communication, but all are doomed to failure. Where humans meet and converse it will be the norm. When a group of women do it – it is dismissed as gossip; when a group of men do it; it is the bush telegraph!! Which is a nice demonstration of assignment of importance to the same activity according to gender – however I digress!!

Anything is fodder for the grapevine, such as that throw away remark by a supervisor or a senior executive and which is overheard and chewed over until some sense is made out of it – usually wrong. It is also the way in which new members of staff are assessed; new ideas accepted or rejected and reputations made or smashed.

While the grapevine is extremely powerful, it is also very fast. A flippant remark made to the storeman will be in the marketing department in less than ten minutes. The problem with the grapevine is that it is more often than not, just plain wrong. People look at issues from their own point of view; and as the messages pass up and down the vine, it will be added to, changed and re-interpreted.

But the grapevine will grow and flourish where the internal communication systems are not effective. And when the information they do receive is unclear, ambiguous and cannot be clarified; and when communication between workers and departments are forbidden outside of the formal framework. The military is good for this one.

If you want your communication systems to be effective, you need to look closely at what you are trying to achieve; what methods you are using to achieve it; if they are truly the best ones in the circumstances; and to try to re-introduce the personal element in your formal communication processes.

That will help to reduce the necessity for the grapevine – for while the scary thing is that it is so often wrong – what is really frightening is how often it is right by accident.

Communication is Business – how good is yours?

Michele @ Trischel

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