I once read a paper which analysed the communication flow within an Indian organisation (Agarwala, 1974), and could not help thinking back to one of my experiences. That organisation that I was at (let’s call it Company A) was not very large — less than 200 employees, scattered across a few floors of offices in a small building. I should have noticed that something was amiss the very first day I stepped in: it felt like the air was stale with rigidity despite the open office concept, and in place of the physical walls that demarcated the various departments were powerful, invisible barriers which we usually call silos. I will elaborate on what I felt were factors that fed these barriers later on.
Fast forward a few months, and it was clear that the dysfunctional internal communication was causing many problems in Company A. I felt like a caged hamster on a wheel, because we often repeated work that was done a few years back, without anyone being able to tell me the reason, what was done and what happened after. Sometimes we would have to repeat the work that we had just done a few weeks or months before, because we had failed to consult other teams. By the time we were able to initiate contact and start discussions, we realised that something similar was already being done by other teams, or that other teams refused to comment for various reasons.
This was a few of the many tell-tale signs that the internal communications was not working, if it was even present. Other signs include work that was supposed to be done not being done, work outcomes that do not meet the expected standards, and differing priorities and direction across different parts of the organisation.
All the signs were present to differing extents in different parts of Company A, and it was very damaging both internally and externally. It was losing good, quality staff, which further perpetuated the cycle of lost knowledge. This then impacted its business, as customers were growing increasingly frustrated. A number had even explicitly complained that Company A was an “ivory tower”, and that their staff did not talk to each other and did not know what was going on. Needless to say, business went downhill for Company A, along with its prestige and ability to hire employees of better calibre, just as Smidts, Pruyn and van Riel (2001) had predicted. It took a major restructuring and numerous changes in leadership over a couple of years for Company A to gradually put a stop to this vicious cycle.
Looking back, it is amazing how the organisational chart so accurately showed how Company A operated and communicated. It did not help that different departments were put into different groups. The communication across teams and departments was limited, and virtually non-existent between teams in different department groups, unless it was approved by the next higher authority. Yet this approval process inadvertently causes the information to be filtered and distorted, which reduces the positive effects of the communication and knowledge transfer.
In this case, the default lowest cost option was to not share information unless it was highly critical and mandated by the management. In a study by Dewhirst (1974), the perceived cost of communication and requesting for information from fellow colleagues is directly related to whether the parties involved know each other and the perceived sharing culture. While technology as made it easier for us to receive information, the very same technology coupled with our working culture has increased the demands on our attention, time and energy. Communication and information sharing across teams will not take place unless the person takes the effort to work through every stage in the process: from identifying and articulating the communication need, to initiating contact with the other party, negotiating for the information required, working through the approval chains and reiterating the purpose, obtaining the information, making sense of the information, and finally using the information for its intended purpose. Many times we are required to loop back to a previous step, or realise at the end that our efforts are to naught because the information is not what we had originally thought it was and hence not so useful, or that the information was not in time. The perceived cost at every stage has a direct impact on the level of communication between teams — the higher the perceived cost, the less the amount of communication and information sharing.
Except in very small organisations, it is not possible nor necessary for every single person to know everyone else. What is necessary is that there are at most two or three degrees of separation between anyone in the organisation, through formal or informal networks and channels. What matters here is that each channel is credible — one that not only exists, but where staff believe that it functions well and will not be penalised for using it according to its intended purpose.
How then can we tell if there are a maximum of three degrees of separation between any two people in the organisation? How do we know what channels exist and whether they are credible? Do we know how the organisation is networked internally?
To answer these few questions is to conduct a communications audit, which will include the mapping out of the channels and networks of the organisation’s communications. This map should be able to let any reader know what channels are used, how the information and communication flows, and where the key nodes are in the informal networks. It is not necessary to map out every single node, but it is most useful to analyse this map to see what and where the barriers to communication lie.
The physical barriers to space in Company A had given way, but the invisible barriers to internal communications did not disappear. From what I saw, there were a number of factors which fed the existence of these barriers: fear of punishment for sharing confidential information, not knowing what to share, how to share and for what purpose. These factors in turn point to a few other possible underlying reasons: unclear communication and information sharing policies, managerial competency (Broos, 2008), steep hierarchical structure and lack of platforms for teams to understand each other’s’ work.
Such platforms are the precursor to building “emergency channels”, or forms of short circuits that are to be used when employees are handling emergencies or cases that require fast turnaround times. Many staff from various organisations, including those of Company A, lament that they are frustrated with the way they are being treated by their direct bosses, and do not have ways to which they can raise these concerns. Interestingly, the senior management in these very same organisations often claim that they have an “open door policy”, and staff may approach them to share feedback anytime. This is a sign that while there have been efforts to build emergency channels and short circuits, these channels are not seen as credible.
How then, do you make it credible? How do you make sure that different parts of the organisation are appropriately linked with the right channels? How do we remove the current barriers to communication? It takes a well thought out approach that is integral to the organisation’s strategy and not a once-off mention or the simple creation of platforms. This means that including internal communications as part of the strategic plan, and elevating internal communications to a decision-making position at the C-suite level.