wordle2We have developed a set of nine principles for effective communications.

These cover all forms of communication – not just digital:

Principle 1:
You can improve (but not guarantee) your chances of ‘success’ in communication if you have clear purpose(s) and select appropriate strategies.

Your chances of effective communication can be improved if you can decide what you really want to achieve and then selecting the best strategy to make this happen. But this cannot guarantee success and there is no ‘one best way’ which will work all the time.

One of our starting points is the fact that humans are always interpreting the meaning of events on the basis of the information available. Whatever our message it will have some effect on our audience and we should at least be clear in our own minds what outcome we wish to achieve. If we are unclear then our audience will be more so.

We can also cause difficulties in two ways – by having vague or inconsistent objectives and/or by choosing an inappropriate strategy.

Principle 2:
Communication always means more than ‘the message’.

To communicate effectively, you need to anticipate how ‘messages’ will be interpreted in context. And there is never ‘just one message.’ No matter how simple the situation, you can always think of a number of different messages which can be exchanged. You need to consider the meanings which will be ‘taken’ from your behaviour. Ambiguity is an inherent feature of both language and nonverbal communication.

Ambiguity can be worse if some forms of digital communications are used as there can be less opportunity to interpret meaning through signals which we take for granted in face-to-face communication, e.g. voice tone, body language etc. Hence it is important to ensure clarity and use of plain language when using digital forms like email or Twitter.

And this also suggests some very simple approaches we can use to support this principle:

  • recognising that ambiguity is an inevitable feature of human communication.
  • looking for feedback and checking understanding.
  • accepting that others’ interpretations are legitimate.
  • realising that discussion is essential to arrive at clear, shared meaning.
  • recognising that some forms of digital communication provide limited opportunities for effective discussion and interpreting messages through non-verbal cues.

Do these approaches characterise everyday interactions in your organisation?

Principle 3:
Communication is always based in a specific social, cultural and technological context.

We need to recognise the constraints which influence communication because of the social, historical and technological context in which it occurs, and respond accordingly. We will criticise attempts to provide guidelines or techniques for communication which ignore the context. For example, many management texts endorse the values of assertiveness without referring to the research which shows that assertive behaviour may be seen as aggressive or inappropriate in certain cultural settings or by certain individuals.

This principle is very important in a situation of change. Management who wish to introduce new processes or procedures should be sensitive to the meaning of the existing patterns of behaviour.

Principle 4:
Communication and action must ‘match’.

Your verbal and nonverbal communication must express the same meaning if you are to be believed. If your body language contradicts what you say then the other person will have to choose which channel to believe. Early research suggested that the nonverbal channel would always be believed and many popular handbooks simply repeat this conclusion. We now know that it is more complicated but we do we know that we are very sensitive to this sort of ambiguity. If your speech and body language do not agree then this will almost certainly be noticed and interpreted by your audience.

Linked to this idea is the oft-quoted statement that ‘you cannot not communicate’. In other words, failing to act can be seen as meaningful. For example, how do staff feel about the Chief Executive who always stresses the importance of communication in public meetings and media interviews but who never contributes anything to the staff newsletter?

And this suggests how to follow this principle – act in the way that you say that you do. Of course, there may be some issues of interpretation and these should be sorted out as soon as possible. The management team who announce that they have an ‘open door’ policy to all employees should clarify what they mean with some examples or through discussion. It is very easy to set up expectations with a snappy slogan which makes claims which are obviously over-optimistic when you consider the likely interpretation by the audience.

The use of email and social media in organisations makes this even more important as it is so easy for anything that is digitally distributed to reach large audiences instantaneously and for large groups to discuss what you have said and done (or not done) – even if they were not part of your intended audience. Generally, it is best to assume that anything that you say or send electronically can reach people who you did not intend to communicate with.

Principle 5:
Communication can always be improved.

Although we accept that some people are inherently more skilled in their communication, we can all improve our skills with the right coaching or preparation.

As we said in the previous chapter, if you believe that communication can be improved then you will devote time to at least some of the following activities:

  • reviewing the impact of your own behaviour on others.
  • requesting feedback from others.
  • developing strategies or plans to improve your communication.
  • developing your digital literacy including the ability to choose the appropriate means of traditional or digital communications for a specific context and audience.
  • developing your skills in self-review.
  • trying new techniques and reviewing their effectiveness.

Principle 6:
Communication is a fundamental management responsibility (which we must all share).

If management do not accept responsibility for the quantity and quality of communication (both traditional and digital) in the organisation, then who will? Management must take responsibility – but this does not absolve us all from our responsibility to behave effectively and ethically.

This principle can be translated into practice in various ways. For example, we can ask how far the behaviour of managers at all levels throughout the organisation reflects concern for and commitment to communication.

This has been a longstanding concern for organisation theorists. Our first edition referred to Werner David’s (1995) five fundamental steps:

  • making a senior manager formally responsible for “linking every employee into the communication network” (page 4).
  • systematic training in communication.
  • building the organisation’s communication network in a way which uses all the available media and which is especially sensitive to information which indicates the need for change.
  • continually monitoring the network to make sure it works effectively.
  • costing communication so that its effectiveness can be measured.

As with all general strategies, there are possible pitfalls. For example, the notion of making one senior manager ‘responsible’ could lead to other managers ‘leaving it to him or her’ rather than taking equal responsibility. Costing is difficult to organise and monitor. Furthermore, these ideas were developed in 1995, before the advent of social media and mobile devices. We now work in a world where business and technology are tightly integrated, allowing individuals to communicate in a multitude of ways with large audiences – both within the boundaries of “corporate” systems and externally with the world at large. This places an even greater need for management to take responsibility and be able to balance open communications with communication protocols that address corporate needs relating to e.g. confidentiality, intellectual property, privacy, data protection and other compliance agendas. At the very least, the fundamental steps listed above need to be enlarged with, for example, systematic staff training in digital literacies and development of communications protocols for staff. Although we have reservations about some aspects of David’s approach, we wholeheartedly agree with the overall concept – that management should have an explicit strategy which is regularly reviewed.

Principle 7:
New media can and should enhance communication.

We now have a wider choice of communication media than at any time in history. These media can make a profound and positive impact if they are carefully introduced and maintained.

We will discuss various aspects of new media throughout the book, including:

  • use of intranet and internet technologies to distribute information both within and outside the organisation.
  • use of social media, such as blogs, wikis, social networks etc. For example, tools such as Twitter can support teams in sharing ideas and information, building knowledge-bases and task management.
  • the potential of all these technologies and media to support cost-efficient (or “lean”) ways of working and new business relationships e.g. global teams, partnership working, supply chain working.
  • application of real-time conferencing (e.g. audio/video-conferencing, web-conferencing) to enable meetings which might otherwise be too expensive to sustain.

All of these examples depend upon management strategy – management will invest to provide the facilities and then the commitment to sustain the appropriate use of this technology. We do not have to look far to find examples of computer failures and the repercussions for the organisation.

But we can learn from the mistakes of the past and devise effective ways of using ICT to augment human aptitudes. And the same is true of communication in general. Reflecting on some of the problems and pitfalls of human communication in organisations can show us how to avoid them, providing we are prepared to take the responsibility.

Principle 8:
Digital literacy should be a core part of staff professional development

Digital communications are becoming so integral to business operations and working practices that what is now known as “digital literacy” must be considered a prerequisite for staff skills.

Professional development in organisations has to place more emphasis on:

  • self-directed awareness and learning about new technologies – particularly awareness of the capability and potential of new technology.
  • forensic ability in finding, analysing, using and managing information.
  • effective practices of digital communication, collaboration and participation in networks, sharing, facilitation, mentoring, coaching, critiquing, group learning etc.
  • effective practices of critical reading, creative production, persuasion, argument, expressing and sharing ideas.
  • knowing how to choose and apply technologies to cost-effective business practices e.g. project management, product innovation, sales and marketing, finance, lean working, team working – with an understanding of broader contexts.
  • ability to influence colleagues and the organisation in adoption of appropriate communication technologies.

Principle 9:
The ability to influence has become a key communication skill in modern organisations.

Most current working practices are predicated on group-working with the days of the lone-worker long gone. To be an effective team-worker requires the specific communications skill to influence others towards achieving goals.