Issues in Communication

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Communication is undoubtedly one of the keys to success in almost anything you do. Good communication is valued and poor communication is considered a career breaker. Why is it then that we see so many problems that are attributed to communication breakdowns?

This article discusses three of the systemic and personal issues that make communication difficult in larger organisations. While understanding the issues does not solve the problem it at least helps to know what to look out for.

  • Organisational structure
  • “My e-mail said precisely what I meant. Why are you reacting this way?”
  • Why don’t people listen?

This article discusses three fundamental issues with communication and provides some real life examples to illustrate these:

The first part of this article focuses on how organisational structure affects communication. From what I have seen, this is one of the biggest factors in poor corporate communication. Restructure of an organisation more often precedes implementation of a new strategic direction rather than being in response to the new strategy. Discussion on how communication Context matters and the role of the Participants in communication will follow.

How Organisational Structure Affects Communication

Organisational structure is part of the way that humans are able to work together in large groups, beyond the approximately 130 people that we can keep track of in detail – very approximately the size of a local community or village some 500 years ago. We can keep track of that many relationships quite easily but once it is more than that number we need to have a structure that allows us to see between 30-60 relationships at a functional level (i.e. the HR Department) and only develop deeper relationships when this is immediately needed.

Size matters.

A small organisation is able to communicate fairly easily. Under about  30 people in an organisation you can know each other well enough to discuss almost anything with ease and there are unlikely to be any significant issues with “going through channels” to communicate the structure is likely to be a flat one with only 1 or 2 layers in it. In such small organisations it is possible for almost everyone to know each other personally and have relatively easy informal conversations to resolve any perceived issues. Formal communication is not often needed because it is possible for almost everyone to know what is happening just by talking with anyone else in the organisation about it, often in lunch rooms or in group discussions.

Above 120 or so, it becomes much harder. You do not know everyone personally and with perhaps 4-5 layers of reporting, you may not even know exactly how one person is linked to you in an organisational hierarchy. That is why larger organisations have Organisational Charts and a focus on formal communication channels designed to make sure that the corporate message gets through “unvarnished”. Informal communication still happens but it is generally confined to small groups that work together on a daily basis.

In this article we are talking about large organisations such as the Federal (Australian) Public Service 1


The Public Service in Australia went through dramatic changes between Federation and the early 1960s. Prior to the Great Depression, the function of the Federal Government was quite contained to collection of taxes and expenditure of those taxes for the Crown. National Defence, Law and Justice, Customs/Trade and Foreign Policy were the main roles of the Federal Government. The Public Service consisted of small teams of experts in their field with a relatively flat structure and well defined responsibilities.

Economic and social shocks from the World Wars and Depression changed the way Government saw itself. It started to intervene in the operation of the otherwise free market economy and to take a greater role in Industry, establishing the Commonwealth Bank and starting up manufacturing, such as Holden. Social Security became a Federal responsibility following the Depression. Health, Education and even transport infrastructure moved increasingly to a centralised administration in Federal Government. As a result of this expanded Public Service a military style hierarchy was built with many layers and increasing specialisation in workgroups. The four or more levels of communication (sometimes as much as eight)  that resulted meant that almost the ONLY method of communication was formal. Also, while this is primarily about the Public Service, it applies to many of the larger Private Sector organisations too. I will give examples from both.

The problem with Hierarchical communication

Example Chart
Reporting structure for sales

First I will start with a real life example from my first experience solving an organisational level business problem, back in the mid 1980s. I was a manager within a large (one of the largest ever Private employers in Australia) company that had a retail arm consisting of Department Stores prominent on the streets of most sizeable centres in the country.

The CFO asked me to help him design a solution to a big problem he faced. Every Quarter he had to make a significant adjustment to the sales figures from the Department Stores and it was taking a week to consolidate some information. The consolidation of information was simple enough but tracking down the cause of the inaccurate sales figures was a bit more challenging – or so I thought. It turned out that he knew exactly what the cause was.

Each night the Departments on each floor passed on their Sales direct from the till. The Floor Manager added them up and passed the consolidated figures to the Store Manager – the Store Manager did the same to the Regional Manager and the same pattern followed for the State and National Managers. In parallel there was reporting of the Departments’ sales to the Regional, State and National Buyers.

The process above took until 2AM before the CFO and Managing Director knew the daily sales. Along the way each manager transcribed figures from form to form and beyond each store sent the information by fax machine. Errors were common. But the errors were not just transcription errors because each end of month there was a pattern of overstatement of sales and then reversal of sales figures after the Quarterly reconciliation. The CFO was sure that this was to ensure that managers in the chain reached their performance targets.

Once we implemented spreadsheets submitted by e-mail (advanced technology back then) and automatically consolidated the CFO could go home at 8 PM and there were almost no sales adjustments required each Quarter.

The communication hierarchy, combined with sales targets that the managers were measured on and an error prone process, produced deliberately altered financial results when this would normally be unheard of. Incidentally, the Buyers got daily feedback on sales when they used to get that information up to a month later and then an adjusted figure a further one or two months down the track, after they had committed to the next season’s range.

Structure controls communication

I will illustrate another side of the hierarchical communication problem with an exercise I did when training ICT Graduate intakes at a Federal Government Department. This exercise was well received by the participants who had little prior experience of communication in  large organisations.

Here is how it works:

  • Setup the room in an h pattern of chairs
  • Have the Boss at the top
  • Have two managers, one on each downward arm of the h
  • have 2-3 Staff below each Manager
  • Two Managers can communicate both up (the Boss), down (Staff) and sideways (to each other)
  • Staff can communicate up and down only
  • Give one Manager the instruction that their performance is determined by the quality of upward communication
  • The other Manager is left to their own interpretation of what is important

You then give different people pieces of information that they need to pass along but only by transcribing the message and passing it on. All the information is there to solve a problem that the Boss knows that they need to resolve but with out the detailed knowledge held by the Staff. The usual way the exercise went was that the Boss sent out a series of requests for specific information and passed this through the Managers who then became overloaded with messages going up and down the chain. Rarely in a time limit of 15 minutes would the problem be solved. If it was it was due to the initiative of the Staff “down the chain”.

At the end of the exercise, participants would invariably ask why you could not just go straight to the Boss to give them what they needed to know. The discussion about being too busy handing a flow of requests from above to pay attention to something from a subordinate was always a good one. One year I invited a senior manager to answer those questions and the answer given was that “You need to make sure information flowed through the correct channels or you risked a poor decision being made if the information passed up was not thoroughly checked.”

Open Door policies are intended to overcome these kinds of problems, however they only work of someone is there most of the time to have the informal discussion that might lead to an alternative view being formed. The idea behind the once popular “management by walking around” was to break down the communication barriers and get an unfiltered view of what is happening.

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