Communication audits

Effective communication is widely recognised as a determinant of organisational effectiveness. Factors that inhibit organisational effectiveness such as customer dissatisfaction can be attributed to communication problems. Internal organisational dysfunction can be attributed to poor communication. Improving communication has potential to dramatically improve organisational effectiveness.

The study of organisational communication is still a relatively new discipline. The earlier models of communication such as the Shannon Weaver model looked at communication as a mechanistic function based on the assumption that, in the absence of distorting “noise”, the message transmitted is the message received. Later models incorporated elements of psychology and culture. Contemporary models of communication emphasise the importance of shared meaning.

Learning about communication though is not just about the acquisition of new knowledge. To be useful knowledge it must also effect changed behaviours and attitudes. Communication behaviours and attitudes are learned from birth, far earlier in life than, for example, technical business skills and thus have the potential to be more fixed. Changes to attitudes about communication may well be generational.

iceberg principle 2011The iceberg metaphor illustrates how behavioural change – the visible part of the iceberg is most effective when there is a shift in the underlying bulk of the iceberg. These submerged elements include values, beliefs and attitudes.

While the above applies to individuals, it also applies to organisations. From a cultural perspective, Schein’s (2006) underlying assumptions are the organisational equivalent to the submerged part of the individual’s iceberg.

This paper considers the range of tools that might be used in a communication audit. For this exercise effective organisational communication is conceptualised through the paradigm of organisational culture. In many ways a communication audit is a cultural audit that focuses on communication.

Dimensions of a communication audit

The three dimensions suggested here approximate Schein’s three aspects of culture and Taylor’s (2011) model of culture. Picture 18They are:

  1. Underlying assumptions about communication and how the world is.
  2. Systems and behaviours.
  3. Artefacts.

Underlying Assumptions

According to Schein, the culture is heavily influenced by the founders and leaders of the organisation. How they conceptualise the world heavily influences assumptions about communication. At this level communication climate is not relevant – climate changes more readily than culture.

Many leaders were schooled in Industrial Age organisations that were structured on military models of command and control. These models are still prevalent. While management thinking has changed to conform more with the exigencies of the Information Age, underlying values and beliefs of individuals will have been variably effected. The challenge is to surface underlying assumptions that are incongruous with what leaders verbalise. The corollary of incongruous leadership attitudes are mistrustful, compliant and passive aggressive behaviours of those in the “lower ranks”.

The first tool required is one to elicit the underlying assumptions. These might be expressed on a continuum.

Industrial age Information age
military model network model
characteristics

strongly hierarchical

compliance culture

“waterfall” communication (top down)

fear and mistrust

characteristics

high levels of autonomy

co-creation culture

tidal communication (dialogue)

high trust

 

Different types of organisations might inherently gravitate towards on end of the continuum. You might expect a military organisation to be more military and a geographically dispersed marketing organisation to be more network orientated. However there will be variations between organisations of the same design.

One method to elicit perceptions would be to include a numerical scale with the continuum and ask staff to choose a number that best represents where their organisation is on the continuum and then give them the option of commenting on their choice. It would then be interesting to compare the collated results of various layers of the organisation.

Systems and behaviours

Systems

From a systems perspective organisations receive inputs, and process them to produce outputs. Invariably communication is a key dimension of complex organisational systems. Network analysis was developed to map organisational communication, but it has not shown to be pragmatically useful.

Identifying critical systems for the organisation provides an opportunity to isolate (as much as possible) one communication activity. While there might be many systems, this approach allows for the most influential systems to be selected as resources allow. Examples might include:

  • electronic communication systems
  • ordering systems
  • customer communication systems
  • supplier systems
  • quality systems
  • performance management

At least one key communication system such as the email system should be included.

Method

In initial discussions with a focus group, participants can identify systems and assess their importance to organisational effectiveness. The focus group and co-opted system users then map out the system and key communication flows. Once the group is clear about the system the following questions are asked:

  • What are the significant problems with this system?
  • Does communication flow through the system in a timely manner? Where does communication breakdown or hit bottlenecks?
  • How easy is it for feedback to get to where it needs to get to?
  • How easy is it to implement system improvements? What are the limiting factors?
  • How easy is it for stakeholders to 1) access and 2) interact with system information?
  • What improvements to this system will improve organisational effectiveness?

Responses to these questions will also reveal assumptions about communication.

Behaviours

Edward Deeming claimed that “95% of engineering problems are psychological”. Returning to the iceberg principle, those manifestations of the psyche such as attitudes and values are determinants of behaviour. By observing behaviour we may be able to ascertain values and attitudes.

Method

Identifiable hierarchical groups can be questioned.

  • Choose a word that best describes the communication behaviour of the majority of ……… (could be “staff” or “managers”).
  • Briefly describe a situation that illustrate one of the best experiences you have had working here?
  • Briefly describe a situation that illustrate one of the worst experiences you have had working here?

Meetings are an aspect of organisational behaviour that deserve special attention. One method is meeting observation. An outsider sits in on a meeting and maps communication flows. This will reveal who talks to whom and the frequency of talking. Other communication aspects that can be noted are evidence of listening, the ratio of communication motives (task, relationship, identity) the climate of the meeting. A debrief by the observer can elicit participant feedback about the meeting tasks and process.

Artefacts

Cultural is most visible at the artefactual level (Schein). The visible images of the organisations, its stories, its documents and its reputation and presence in the community are artefacts. There is an inevitable overlap here with behaviours and systems. For example the organisation may have a public relations strategy that impacts on reputation, but does not necessarily determine it.

Method

Three methods of analysing artefacts are:

  1. Describe the organisation through the eyes of an outsider.
  2. A valuable tool for this dimension is the net promoter score- it asks customers How likely are you to recommend this organisation to others? A single follow up question elicits primary concerns or benefits the customer perceives. Using this strategy US company HomeBanc identified that between 70 and 80% of its customer disappointment was created by communication failures, communication was more emphasised in training. A new innovation is to find out customer’s preferences for communication – phone, letter or email (Reichheld, 2006).
  3. Discourse analysis is used at an artefactual level and can triangulate data gathered from other methods. Either written or verbal communication is analysed.

The methods outlined above slice and dice the organisation to provide snapshots of organisational communication. They can be mixed and matched to best suit available resources.

Contact us for a communication audit.

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