Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
“Man measures time by happiness or sorrow, tranquility or torture. The one is past and gone so quickly that is seldom seized and savored while the other turns the hours into days and the weeks into years”. This was written by Major Pat Reid in “The Colditz Story” and, while it comes from a time of internment at a dark time in history the same is true today.
But what has this got to do with the value of communication? Communication today is faster, cheaper and more available that at any other time in the history of mankind. Despite ever-increasing speed and bandwidth and accessibility today’s communication often leads to frustration and time can stand still while we wait for decisions and agreement while enduring argument and misalignment.
We have a plethora of mobile devices and communicate through Email, proprietary Data Management systems, as well as Skype, Messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and SMS. There are almost twice as many devices than the world’s population. Many people have three or even more devices and yet communication is still perhaps the greatest problem that we have and plagues every aspect of our lives. Too much, too little, irrelevance or confusing messages; it’s seldom just right and is never, it seems, perfect.
Facts & Fiction
Forty years ago, at least in the UK, mobile telephones were less than mobile and coverage was limited. Site engineers would situate their office near a public telephone box, or for those with a more adventurous spirit, a pub; waiting for a payphone to come free can be thirsty work.
At an extreme, on one of my projects the only means of external communication was via a short-wave radio with two 45-minute windows per day for contact, the nearest ‘phone was in another country over 100km away, and it was a five-hour drive to the main office; planning and punctuality were bywords. Communication may have been difficult but the message regarding getting the work done was clear – get on with the job; if you need to involve anybody else you’ll have to work on it or think for yourself!
Instantaneous communication and being able to Google something with a few key strokes or even voice command were things of fiction. How did we get anything done without the Internet and the now ubiquitous smartphone!
That futuristic fiction of a few decades ago with readily available and cheap communications is now fact. Email has effectively replaced snail mail, and just as facsimiles have replaced telex, ‘phone calls between individuals have become on-line conferencing with voice-over-Internet protocols so everybody is ‘in the loop’. This communications revolution continues to revolve and evolve and, as the current pandemic flummoxes the planet, the once private face-to-face tête-à-têtes is a frowned upon ‘old normal’ as Teams and Zoom can now involve everybody, even if they haven’t been invited. Inner sanctums can easily become open arenas.
Dollars & Cents
Communication was expensive to the user. We counted every word and abbreviated to the point that messages were almost incomprehensible or sent messages outside working hours to benefit from cheaper rates.
Now, despite lower costs many believe that communication is effectively ‘free’. “Talk is cheap” goes the idiom but exchanging words or data or opinions as a consultant friend of mine once said is merely “selling air”. In exchanging air everybody pays or invests something through time, or the people involved, and other logistics.
As they say ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ and somebody somewhere pays. There is also the cost of having to wade through mountains of data sent to one-and-all so that, rather than no stones being left unturned, everybody is forced to see every pebble. Everybody is made aware of everything, or at least it can be proved that it was sent to them. Some communication may be sugar coated and be eye-candy for others but in this modern day it seems to be all about Teflon-coating and covering one’s backside.
Technology can allow us to communicate with multiple participants at the touch of a send button. Keeping people in the loop is essential for us societal beings but those ‘in the loop’ need not necessarily be decision makers nor do they need to be involved in the decision-making process. The observational truism that the chance of receiving a reply to an email is inversely proportional to the number of recipients it’s not unusual to have dozens of people included in emails and receiving everything. In these twittering 2020s we now have ‘looping’ whereby more and more people are invited into a conversation with impunity and under the guise of being ‘helpful’. But at what cost and what value?
Sense & Sensitivity
‘Communication sense’ is not a readily defined expression; some people and organisations can communicate and communicate well while others cannot. Just like “common sense” it’s not as common as we would like and being able to get a message through is a skill as well as an art.
The application of ’sense’ includes understanding the basics of getting a message through. It’s not only about the correct medium and formulating an understandable message or information, but also ensuring that the right people are involved at the right time. Involving everybody with everybody ‘in the loop’ or ‘in the know’ is akin to ‘many hands make light work’ and is all too often counterproductive. Conversely ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ and the crux of good communication sense depends on an optimal yet hard to define number.
Just as with ‘selling air’ some decision makers feel that everybody should be involved. This amounts to collective liability and any fear of being told “I told you so” may be countered with ‘you didn’t tell me’ or at least not vociferously enough. This ‘collective decision making’ may make sense and appeal to those who are uncertain, but such decisions may be either fraught with conditions or merely lackluster and without certainty.
Alternatively making decisions on the fly can be just as bad. These definitive but dictatorial decisions can lack both sense and sensitivity for the circumstances, the parties involved in or and those affected by the decision. Keeping some people out of loop can be just as treacherous as including too many.
We are now ‘digital’ from a technology standpoint but we humans are biological; no matter what the medium of transfer it inevitably starts and ends with biological entities who, for the most part have more ‘bio’ and less ‘logic’. In this interconnected age it’s all too easy to involve everybody believe that this is ‘good communication’. Too many people can result in circular debates and cyclical discussion with less than effective or efficient decision-making which wastes precious time and people’s effort.
We can end up with a smorgasbord of opinions rather than an a la carte tailored solution. Bespoke, quality solutions may seem to be more expensive, but they can and will satisfy all of the communication senses. A buffet on the other hand may be appealing but it may only be remembered as an eye-catching spread with numerous journeys to the table.
Communication is not just about cost and effort though. It’s about sensible and sensitive interaction with people, keeping the right people in the loop at the right time and ensuring that the right decision makers receive the right information rather than piles of data at every stage of a decision-making process.
The costs may be priced in dollars but the value of good communication is measured in sense.
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.
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