“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
I cannot confirm exactly when he said this (I didn’t look all that hard), but Shaw died in 1950, so, it’s been awhile.
What would he think now? Could he possibly have imagined that something so fundamentally true pre-1950 could become exponentially more true by 2014?
So, let’s look at the state of the illusion specifically in organizations:
We are creating too much noise and delivering too little signal. Sending it in an email does not make it communication. Your message has to be valued, read, and understood by the recipient to become communication. Many of us are overwhelmed by bloated inboxes full of irrelevant emails and don’t feel like sorting through it all to find out what is actually important to us. Most of us don’t have time anyway.
“More than half of the email we receive is not a priority to us.”
“We are twice as likely to read unimportant email than important.”
“We tend to reply to the unimportant emails first.”[i]
We are wasting time, energy, and money on poor communication. For many, checking email no longer facilitates our work; it is our work. The ease and expediency of sending an email creates an illusion of easy and expedient communication, but the reality is quite messy. It’s ironic that as initiators of communication we rely on email, and as receivers many of us hate it. Regardless, alternately using and hating it is consuming our workday.
“On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs; half of surveyed workers also confess they are reaching a breaking point after which they would not be able to accommodate the deluge of data.”[ii]
Poor communication leads to distrust, dissatisfaction, and disengagement. For most organizations, this reality is clear, but effective communication has remained illusory. And, the impact on our employees and partners has been acknowledged across industries. Research on physicians, for example, shows that they are generally distrustful of hospital management, feel uninvolved in decision-making, and are disillusioned with the level of communication they receive. And, the best-practices and strategic recommendations from across the industry start with developing clear and efficient communication channels.[iii]
In sum, communication is critical, but most of us work in a land of illusion.
So, what can we do to improve?
Be intentional: We have to start taking communication seriously and strategically rather than treating it as something that just happens. We should think about the communications element of everything we do and treat it as fundamental to our internal and external operations.
Use the right tools: We need to create and invest in new tools specifically for communication, specifically for our organization. We’ve overwhelmed email. Intranets are stagnant repositories. Social media and social media-ish collaboration tools are noisy and are inundated with messages by a few overactive users – losing their communication value. We can do better if we just concentrate on communication.
Focus on implementation, change: We have communicated so poorly for so long, it has become accepted. So, improving communication is also about changing expectations, processes, information flow, and accountability. It requires focus and effective change management. It requires communication.