Communication is generally defined as the transfer of information from one individual or group to another. This simple statement hides a mass of complexity. Individuals and groups get information from a bewildering number of sources (many of them non-verbal), and are likely to respond differently to exactly the same data as attitudes and circumstances change. This makes any communication policy difficult to plan, and demands a willingness to make adjustments on a regular basis to ensure that the correct communication channels are being used, the right message (verbal or non verbal) is delivered at the right frequency and feedback regularly monitored.
In other words, it is not sufficient to stick a message on the notice board and consider that communication has been achieved.
The three "M's" of communication
Communication can be clearly seen to have three distinct components:
Message – what is being communicated;
Means – the communication channels used for the message;
Monitoring – ensuring that the message is being understood.
Message. Best practice suggests that there are a number of basic rules concerning the way in which the enterprise should approach what message is selected.
The message should be important. This can be summarised as "Empty vessels make the most noise". As the volume of noise increases in the communication channel, the recipients will not be able to identify what is relevant.
The message should be simple. This can be summarised as "say what you mean". Audiences are not stupid, but they do not in the majority have the time or the energy to attempt to translate complex messages.
The message should be accurate. This can be summarised as "mean what you say". Audiences are quick to identify data that is inaccurate. Once lost, trust can only be slowly regained, if at all.
The message should be realistic. This can be summarised as "If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together".
The message should be consistent. This can be summarised as "Directionless ships run aground". Though messages will often have to change, as a result of altered circumstances, they should still retain a place within an integrated framework.
The message should be timely. This can be summarised as "Procrastination is the thief of time". Failing to control the information environment will mean that the organisation will continually have to react.
Means. Communication needs to be delivered, via a choice of channel or channels. Research suggests that multi-channel delivery is always better than single as individuals vary as to how they respond and access each channel.
Monitoring. In common with all other aspects of planning, the effects of a communication plan must be continually reviewed with the enterprise learning from its successes and failures.
Building the communication rich enterprise
One can define communication levels in enterprises that will range between communication poor and communication rich. Communication rich enterprises will build in a number of support systems which encourage two way exchanges of information, while communication poor enterprises will emphasise control and the reduction of communication channels.
From a planning perspective the steady introduction of various building blocks of improved communication creates a positive feedback loop as individuals and groups become more motivated to work smarter rather than harder. At the same time as new building blocks are introduced, barriers to communication can be identified and steadily reduced.
How these various changes are prioritised will depend on answers to the classic three planning questions:
Where are we?
Where do we want to be (and when)?
How are we going to get there?
The advantages to the enterprise are that the communication rich organisation is more likely to be able to control its environment rather than continually having to react to it, and in an improvement in overall decision making.
Look before you leap
In common with the management information system, communication approaches will be continually changing to adapt to new circumstances and new demands. Also like the management information system, the enterprise will need to review communication before certain types of major change. Of particular importance will be:
Significant changes in size and structure;
Mergers and acquisitions;
International expansion creating new cultural dynamics
Communication building blocks
Every enterprise will be communicating in some form or fashion. Through an understanding of what builds or destroys good communication, frameworks can be steadily improved. An initial review of the building blocks using some form of heuristic system such as a Likert scale can review strengths and weaknesses and key areas for focus.
Action standards. Good communication must include speed of response. Incorporating clear targets all of which are measured such as answering telephone calls, responding to e-mails, dealing with enquiries, and responding to complaints, will substantially improve the quality of the communication environment.
Advisers. However large and diverse the enterprise, it will always lack skills in specific areas. A continual review of knowledge gaps and the identification of the appropriate advisers will be essential to maintain an up-to-date flow of communication.
Appeals. The existence of an independent appeals process within the organisation sends a strong message to employees that conflicts will be handled more fairly than would be the case with an internal system which favours the status quo.
Appraisal. An effective appraisal system (especially one that incorporates 360 degree elements) will be essential for positive communication within the operational unit.
Approval systems. Ensuring that all investment plans are properly appraised and approved prior to commencement ensures that individuals within the enterprise are clear about how investments are assessed and integrated into overall objectives.
Audit. The creation and maintenance of an internal and external audit system based on conservative accounting principles provides a valuable communication tool to most stakeholders.
Authority and responsibility. Creating clear guidelines on authority and responsibility through job description and employment contracts establishes clarity over the expectations within the enterprise of employee performance.
Balanced scorecard. Creating a set of objectives that drive the organisation over the planning horizon will create an environment within which all members of the enterprise are working to common goals.
Blame game. Those enterprises that emphasise the placement of blame rather than the acceptance of success and failure as both parts of a learning organisation will dramatically reduce communication flows.
Bonus systems. The methodology of the bonus system provides a particularly valuable communication route. The measurement criteria, the form of the bonus, and the way it is distributed within the employee base all give strong messages concerning the treatment of individuals and groups.
Branding. The information provided in promotional material is central to the creation and maintenance of part of customer perceptions.
Budgeting. The creation and maintenance of budgets is one of the strongest communication tools. Attitudes towards the importance of budgets range from strict control with all minor expenditure determined at a senior level to the concept of beyond budgeting where budgetary controls are essentially removed.
Business model. The simpler the business model, the greater the chances of enterprise cohesion and understanding of communication messages.
Business planning. A formal business planning system based on bottom up development and knowledge center involvement will significantly improve the understanding of operational direction and implementation throughout the enterprise.
Certification. The achievement of appropriate industry certification creates a clear message that the enterprise is serious about its products and services.
Common language. For diverse enterprises the importance of a commonly used language will become paramount. If there is limited understanding between the various groups little common progress will be possible. Research suggests that improving language skills throughout the enterprise will also be the best driver of diversity and improved decision making.
Complaints. The speed and effectiveness of complaint handling is a key communication tool, as it demonstrates the enterprise commitment to solving problems to build relationships.
Contingency planning. The creation and maintenance of a comprehensive contingency plan will reduce uncertainty within the enterprise and communicate clear action and reporting paths in the case of major changes in circumstances.
Corporate governance. Corporate governance programmes include many components that add to communication values within the enterprise, Of specific importance will be codes of conduct and disciplinary codes and grievance procedures.
Credit policy. Clear rules concerning the management of credit add to the communication between enterprise and customer.
Cultural sensitivities. Different regions and different countries will make demands on the exact format of communication, the form of which need to be identified prior to message creation and properly tested before publication.
Customer panel. A vital part of communication is to achieve rapid and effective feedback on changes in products, services or policies. The use of a customer panel is one such mechanism in improving this component.
Customer relationship management (CRM). The formalisation of relationships between key customers and the enterprise through information management will demonstrate a commitment to improve communication.
Customer satisfaction. Measuring the effectiveness of the enterprise delivery of products or services will be an essential part of the feedback from the customer base.
Deming rules. Creating a production or service delivery system that is people rather than machine based generates a strong message that employees matter in reality rather than in theory.
Design. For the manufacturing and location based service enterprise, design provides an essential communication tool. The manufacturer can clearly demonstrate a common theme through such guidelines as Rams rules, while the service provider faces a continual requirement to review and remodel their service offering.
Devil's advocate. The institutionalisation of criticism of plans and policies within the enterprise ensures that the minority voice will be heard. This will be an important element in the testing of potential communication for important policy issues.
Dispute management. The way in which the enterprise manages its disputes both internally and externally will be a powerful communication tool.
Diversity index. The more diverse the employee base, the greater the pool of experience and knowledge available. Once all employees are properly integrated into the enterprise, and operate with a common language the depth and breadth of communication will be significantly improved.
Dividend policy. Creating and maintaining a transparent dividend policy will be a vital communication tool for financial stakeholders.
E-enablement. Creating a system whereby both suppliers and customers can deal with the enterprise should drive communication and effective sales growth.
Employee suggestion scheme. A functional employee suggestion scheme can be considered as one of the top investments that an enterprise can make in improving operational performance.
Employee satisfaction survey. The identification of both positive and negative components within the enterprise should be seen as one of the essential building blocks of communication.
Exit interviews. The use of exit interviews to probe the effectiveness of the enterprise in achieving quality operational performance will add significantly to the understanding of the communication environment.
Fringe benefits. Research shows that certain fringe benefits (notably the canteen) are often vital in improving communication within the organisation, particularly when they are used by all staff throughout the day. Other important communication routes include social functions, creches.
Game theory. Game theory provides a body of research which helps in certain circumstances to appropriately frame the message.
Glass ceiling. The existence of a glass ceiling within the enterprise communicates clearly that informal networks are more important than formal.
Health and Safety. A formalised and maintained health and safety system sends a message to all stakeholders that the enterprise is concerned about its operating procedures.
Industrial relations. Creating and maintaining regular communication with key employee groups will substantially improve the overall enterprise environment and reduce levels of suspicion. Incorporating individuals from employee groups into a supervisory board will further drive a communication rich enterprise.
Information flow map/ MIS. A well structured management information system developed from a detailed review of information flows and systems will be a basic tool in enterprise communication. It will include an assessment of what information should be restricted at what level to minimise operational secrecy.
Internal competition. Creating a system whereby operational units can gain additional resources through projects that achieve high rates of return will focus the enterprise on developing and delivering effective plans.
Internal marketing. Ensuring that objectives and plans are acceptable through a process of internal marketing will improve communication and understanding of enterprise development.
Internal satisfaction survey (ISS). Barriers to good communication between departments need to be identified and addressed to ensure overall enterprise cohesion.
Innovation ratio. The creation and maintenance of a high innovation ratio sends a message to all stakeholders that the enterprise intends to establish a leading position in the sector.
Job rotation. The movement of individuals from one task to another will break down organisational boundaries and improve individual understanding.
Joint planning. The integration of major customers and suppliers into the planning process will provide a valuable communication channel.
Keep it short, simple (KISS). Written and verbal communications are damaged by lack of clarity and structure. Developing clear rules (based around applications of the rule of eight) to improve this clarity will substantially improve overall communication quality.
Key fact recall (KFR). Creating a method of identifying the understanding of employees of key operational demands and monitoring this understanding over time will be a vital element in measuring the effectiveness of the communication system.
Key performance indicators (KPI). Focusing on key performance indicators within each of the knowledge centers with associated benchmarks and the creation of rolling targets will significantly improve the understanding of operational groups on their important tasks.
Knowledge centers. The creation and maintenance of knowledge centers within SBU's responsible for bottom up planning and control will build teams and team based solutions to problems and opportunities.
Labour turnover. High rates of labour turnover reduce the effectiveness of communication as messages have to be continually repeated and organisational stress will remain high, lowering their impact.
Location. The location of the enterprise communicates attitudes towards employees, customers and suppliers. The further away it is, the more likely that communication will be poor as management by walking about and random inspection is replaced by management by memo.
Management by objectives (MBO). A framework of project based work emphasises clear targets, timelines and tasks. When combined with effective investment appraisal techniques, an enterprise wide hurdle rate and effective supervision, it will provide a central communication tool to ensure that activities are directed towards the most effective return on expenditure.
Management by walking about (MBWA). Communication through vision and direct contact with employees, customers and suppliers will significantly improve information flows.
Management style. Personal example is one of the strongest communication tools. Authoritarian individuals encourage authoritarian behaviour, bureaucratic bureaucratic, and democratic democratic. Equally compelling is the way individuals react to rules and regulations that have been designed for the entire enterprise. Should these be ignored, the clear message is received that these only exist for the little people and not for the elites.
Meeting management. Meetings may often be the best method of reducing communication unless properly organised and managed.
Meme. The existence of memes amongst stakeholders may create a major communication barrier and need to be identified within the monitoring system.
Mentoring. The creation and maintenance of a mentoring system for individuals and projects will significantly help in the transfer of expertise and understanding of operational requirements.
Monitoring programme. A formal and regular review system involving knowledge centers and project based reporting through management by objectives (MBO) will provide the best framework for enterprise development communication.
Motivational mix. Reviewing the motivational mix for each key employee will lead to a focus on which employee is best incentivised by high levels of group and individual interaction.
Mystery shopper. Customer satisfaction surveys provide broad feedback on enterprise performance while mystery shoppers can be used to focus on specific areas, especially changes in products, services or procedures.
Negotiation. Much communication amongst stakeholders will consist of one form or other of negotiation. Understanding the dynamics of negotiation and establishing clear guidelines for their management will significantly improve the effectiveness of overall communication.
Nepotism. The appointment and promotion of friends, relatives to positions of authority within the organisation clearly demonstrates that there are two rules in existence and that informal networks are more important than formal.
Networking. Networking can be one of the most valuable communication tools when properly integrated via specific industry events.
News circles. The creation of small groups, often linked to quality circles, exchanging information through an internal system will be a further communication tool worth considering.
Newsletter. The creation and maintenance of a newsletter provides an additional communication route to stakeholders.
Noticeboards. Research suggests that the role of noticeboards is similar to that of the broken window theory, providing crucial information about how well the enterprise is managed. Best practice suggests single authority, and a separation into statutory, operational and personal areas with clearly defined time limits. Electronic noticeboards that incorporate movement have been shown to be particularly valuable for rapid transmission of information and to emphasise key data.
Order processing system. An order processing formalises the communication of progress on order management to the customer and internally for those involved in its completion.
Packaging. Packaging is a powerful communication tool for many enterprises, adding or subtracting from the product benefit.
Personal development plan (PDP). The inclusion of a personal development plan as part of the appraisal process for key employees sends a clear message to them concerning their value to the enterprise and how it sees their future.
Pricing. The way an enterprise prices its goods and services communicates the product or service benefit.
Promotion. An emphasis on internal promotion sends a message to the employees that they are considered the best source of future supervisory and management talent.
Public relations. Two separate strands of public relations as communication exist; the regular provision of information on products, services and procedures, and the management of exceptional events. Each of these require the creation and maintenance of specific plans.
Purchasing policy. The creation and maintenance of clear rules concerning the sourcing of suppliers, how they will be evaluated and managed further strengthens the communication between enterprise and supplier.
Quality circles. Research shows that the quality circle provides one of the most powerful communication systems for enterprise development.
Random inspection. Ensuring that individuals and groups are subject to random inspection sends a powerful message concerning the way in which their actions will be monitored.
Regulatory policy. Creating a framework within which relationships with regulators are developed and managed to the benefit of the enterprise will be an essential communication building block in many sectors.
Role play. The way in which individuals or groups will respond to different messages may be of paramount importance. Incorporating role play procedures into the design of key communications should significantly improve their effectiveness.
Sales promotion. The communication component of sales promotion should be carefully reviewed at the planning stage. The simpler the type of sales promotion the lower the potential for poor outcomes.
Security policy. The way in which the enterprise protects its plant, equipment, personnel and data will have important implications for communication.
Social media. The effective use of social media is becoming an increasingly important communication and branding tool.
Socratic decision making. Bringing groups into the decision making process through integrative techniques such as Socratic decision making will substantially improve group cohesion and overall levels of communication.
Software alignment. One of the most important building blocks of communication is to ensure that each operating unit within the enterprise is able to access the information systems that they require for improved control and productivity.
Special units. The creation and maintenance of special units reduces communication as the unit hoards knowledge and resources. Simple organisation structures will always be best practice.
Sponsorship. Sponsorship requires very careful assessment as a communication method to ensure that it is aligned with the overall positioning of the enterprise and will not result in damaging conflict.
Standard operating procedures (SOP). The creation and maintenance of standard operating procedures is one of the most powerful communication tools in the enterprise. It will both train and inform individuals about enterprise expectations.
Strategic business units. Small units communicate better than large. On first principles therefore the creation of strategic business units to cope with specific operational requirements will improve operational performance, though capital investment requirements may make such an objective unobtainable.
Stress. The impact of organisational stress is to dramatically reduce the effectiveness of communication and lower cohesion within the group.
Supervision. Effective supervision is a key communication tool to ensure that all individuals and groups are working within the overall framework of the enterprise.
Supply chain management (SCM). Integrating suppliers into an information rich system will improve communication.
Tax policy. The creation and maintenance of communication with the tax authorities will be an important channel for effectively managing tax affairs.
Telecommunications policy. The ease of access to communication within the enterprise will be obviously important in the transfer of information.
Teleworking policy. A move towards teleworking will require the communications problems that this involves to be properly assessed.
Temporary staff ratio. High levels of temporary staff reduce the effectiveness of communication as such staff have little interest in the organisation.
Total Preventative Maintenance (TPM). Proponents of the broken window theory suggest that maintenance (or lack of it) sends a strong message to all employees and suppliers that the organisation cares about its physical environment and supports its stakeholders.
Trade associations. Trade associations will often provide a valuable two way communication channel, delivering messages from the enterprise and providing information to it.
Training. A structured training programme (induction, maintenance and development) provides ideal opportunities for communication concerning operational excellence but also the importance of individual personnel to the enterprise.
Unique Selling Proposition (USP). The USP encapsulates the communication message between enterprise and customer.
Vertical tribes. Ensuring that operational groups are physically located together is vital to improve communication and reduce barriers.
Vision statement. A clearly defined and comprehensible vision statement will establish a clear focus for future direction for all stakeholders.
Wages ratio. Extreme wages ratios clearly communicate to stakeholders that there are two systems in place, one for the elites and one for the rest.
Web strategy and plan. The enterprise web platform serves many communication functions from basic external and internal communication through to full e-enablement.
Whistleblowing. A set of rules that protects whistleblowing clearly communicates that the organisation encourages transparency and individuals acting towards the common good, rather than protecting the elites.
Working conditions. The way in which working conditions are managed (size per employee, noise, colour, heat, air circulation, lighting) all provide evidence to the employee of the attitudes of the enterprise.
Integrating communication into the business plan – the 30 steps of plan development
The development of effective communication systems is one of the early components of the Ibis 30 step plan, as it creates and maintains elements of both planning and monitoring which are essential in the creation of expert systems.