Any business, at its most fundamental level, is an interconnected web of human beings with formally recognised roles and functions, working and communicating with each other towards a common goal. Communication within a business could be thought of as the lifeblood of the organisation, the vital stuff that moves along the strands of the web, ensuring that all its parts function together cohesively as a functioning whole.
Communication is the transmission of thought. The sender has a thought that they wish to transmit to the receiver, and they do so by selecting a communication channel for transmission of the message. Successful communication occurs when the receiver receives the thought the sender intended to send.
What is a communication channel?
A communication channel is simply the medium via which the message is transmitted. For human beings, it could be the open air for a spoken message, an email or letter for a written message, a corflute sign for a graphical message, or video-link phone for non-verbal sign language. They all have one thing in common – they exist to transmit the message.
In a business, with communication so vital to the functioning of the organisation, selecting the right channel is paramount. However, many businesses cease to be efficient not because they fail to communicate, but because they fail to select the right channel for the message, resulting in distorted signals. If the receiver receives a thought that the sender did not intend to send, the communication has been unsuccessful.
This then begs the question – how do we select the right channel?
Transmissional VS Transactional Communication
There have been many different models produced to describe the communication process, but a fundamental distinction between different types of communication is whether the message is simply transmitted to the receiver, or whether the process continues to allow feedback from the receiver.
Allowing feedback from the receiver completes the communication circle, and allows the sender to determine whether or not the message has been successfully transmitted, and to provide further clarification to the message if necessary. Allowing for transaction within the communication greatly increases the chances for its success.
Transmission VS transaction can be understood as one-way VS two-way communication.
One-way communication means a message is sent and the process stops. A sign above a busy freeway with a picture of an aeroplane and an arrow underneath is an example of transmissional, or one-way, communication. The intention was to communicate which exit the driver needs to take to get to the airport, the message was graphical, and the channel was a painted aluminium board. There is no opportunity for the driver to interact directly with the message.
Two-way communication is a message that is sent, but leaves the channel open for feedback. A letter of complaint written to a business demanding a response is an example of transactional, or two-way, communication. The letter communicates the message that the customer is unhappy with the product or service, but then seeks a response from the receiver, either overtly or implied. Via a letter of response, there is an opportunity for the receiver to confirm they have received the message, to seek further clarification on the issue if needed, and to outline steps that will be taken to resolve the issue.
Simple messages that are intended to inform or provide basic pieces of information are suited to one-way communication, but for anything that requires a response, clarification or further formation of common thought, two-way communication should be preferred.
By way of example
To illustrate this, let’s look at a hypothetical office situation. The boss, Bob, notices that someone is leaving the fridge door open in the kitchen area. This is a waste of company electricity and runs the risk of spoiling the milk and food. Therefore, he needs to communicate to staff the importance of making sure the door is closed.
Knowing that his staff are busy and the fridge is old and won’t sound an audible alarm if the door is left open, he decides on a simple sign on the fridge to begin with that says:
This is a simple, one-way communication that serves as a visual and written reminder.
However, after one week, he still notices that the fridge door is ajar on occasion. He surmises that either people are ignoring the message, or that it was not clear enough, so decides to send an email to all staff reminding them of the requirement to keep the fridge door closed.
The message is still one-way because there is no invitation for a response. However, the channel selected (e-mail) is one that is normally used for two-way communication. This is where the communication may become garbled. All employees will receive the message, but not all of them will correctly interpret the intention behind it.
Some may read the email and think “OK, the boss wants us to make sure we close the fridge door. I close the fridge door every time so I’m all good”. This employee has correctly interpreted the intention behind the message.
However, others may read the email and wonder why it was sent to them. They know they always close the fridge door, therefore, why did they receive this email? In this case, the intention behind message has become confused.
Still other employees may read the email and believe that a response is expected because email is a channel normally reserved for two-way communication. They will, therefore, respond to Bob, reassuring him that they personally always make sure the fridge door is closed, leaving Bob with a number of un-asked for responses to his intended one-way communication.
Therefore, Bob realises he has not used the channel effectively for his message and decides to re-word his email. He reminds staff to keep the fridge door closed, thanks those staff who are already closing it and asks anyone who is confused to speak to him regarding the matter.
The message is now two-way, as it invites a response. But because it doesn’t demand one, and because it contains a “thank-you” clause to employees who are already compliant with the message, the staff can take it as a one-way message if required.
However, the fridge door continues to be left open. Bob doesn’t understand why his communication methods have been unsuccessful. He is considering other communication options when Joan from accounting comes to see him in response to his email and advises him she sees John from sales leaving the fridge door open.
Bob decides to call John into his office to discuss the issue one-on-one with him.
BOB: “John, I hear you’ve been leaving the fridge door open – do you have any response to this?”
JOHN: “Where did you hear that? Who said that? I always close the fridge!”
BOB: “Well Joan from accounting saw you put something in there and just walk off yesterday.”
JOHN: “oh, right, yes I remember now – I was in a rush, I gave the door a nudge and assumed it would shut itself. I must admit I didn’t stick around to check it had. Oops – my bad – I’ll take better care in future.”
BOB: “It’s OK, we all make mistakes, just make sure you remember because we don’t want to waste company electricity or for anyone’s food to go off before they’ve had the chance to eat it!”
JOHN: “oh of course, I totally understand! No probs, thanks chief!”
This is two-way communication, but because it is conducted face-to-face instead of via the static channel of email, the communication process takes on a dynamic flow. Several issues and thoughts can be formed and examined instantaneously. Not only this, but Bob now knows exactly why his message wasn’t getting through – it was John, who is always on a rush to his next client meeting.
Choosing the channel by context
We saw above that Bob chose several different methods for his communication. In the end, it was the face-to-face, two-way, transactional and dynamic meeting with John that resolved the issue. In the context of knowing who the culprit was, a face-to-face meeting was the best channel of communication.
However, next time an issue occurs, Bob may remember that the face-to-face meeting was the most effective, and decide to sit each individual staff member down for a one-on-one chat. In the context of an emergent issue in which the exact cause is not known, this would be a waste of time and human resources.
Taking the context of an issue into account is crucial in determining the best channel for communication.
Communication channels do not need to be rigid and inflexible. The channels can be as dynamic as communication itself, and can be adjusted according to the needs of individual receivers.
By understanding how channel and context affects the success of communication, you can ensure that the lifeblood of your business keeps flowing unobstructed.