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Communicating Within The Organization | Communication Channels in Organizations

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Communicating Within The Organization

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This article focuses on communication in the organizational structure. In the development of an organizational structure, communication channels are an important consideration. The manager in a hierarchical system becomes a link in the communication chain. It is the hierarchical system that gives direction to and imposes restrictions upon the flow of communications. Management decisions and directions flow from higher to lower levels in the organization. Responses and reports from the lower level managers flow upward in the organization. Managers also spend time communicating with their peers. Therefore, we see from the outset that communications must function effectively in a lateral direction, as well as downward and upward.

Committees influence the communication process within an organization. A well-run committee can serve as a supplementary link in the communication chain and provide a means for disseminating information. However, committees often fail to ensure that Managers A and B tell each other what they wish or need to know. Although they cannot give directions or issue procedures, staff members influence the communication process within an organization. The advice or recommendations of staff members are accepted by subordinate managers, because of the anticipated support by the staff member's superior. When a staff member is given functional decision prerogatives, he essentially assumes the same status as his superior with respect to such matters. T. C. Warner believes that "one's accomplishment is... in a very real sense dependent upon the quality of the communication with others." And John Connor says that "there is no more valuable asset in business life than the ability to express one's thoughts with clarity and precision."

The Communication Process

To set the stage for information and message flow through an organization, let's review the basic elements of the communication process. These elements include: someone to send the message (the encoder), some means for channeling it, someone to receive it (the decoder), and a feedback mechanism. A multiplicity of encoders, channels, decoders, and feedback mechanisms can be used. However, for the information in a message to be processed clearly, quickly, and with a minimum amount of degradation, management must establish clear, formal communication channels.

Let's assume the message to be transmitted originates with the manager, or that he is serving as the agent for passing along a message from another source. Regardless of the source, the message passes through his (the sender's) filter before it reaches the intended recipient. The sender injects his attitudes and perceptions into the message; determines who should receive it; and the channels through which it should flow, i.e., upward, down-ward, laterally, or a combination of these. The attitudes and perceptions of the recipient, of course, influence the message translation, as well as the feedback he provides. Peter Drucker, noted exponent of good management practices, says:

"The manager has a specific tool: information. He doesn't "handle" people, but instead he motivates, guides, organizes people to do their own work. His tool - the only tool - to do all this is the spoken or written word or the language of numbers. It does not matter whether the manager's job is engineering, accounting, or spelling. To be effective, a manager must have the ability to listen and to read, and the ability to speak and to write. Managers need skill in getting their thinking across to other people."

This describes quite adequately the manager's role in the communication process.

The Communication Channels

The communication channel selected for transmitting a message plays a significant role in maintaining the quality of the original message in its passage from the sender to receiver. The sender, given the opportunity to weigh the merits of using an oral or written communication, or a combination of the two, selects the most effective for the situation.

Regardless of the communication channel selected, the sender will encounter obstacles. In the previous chapter, the various barriers to effective communication were analyzed. Considering the possible barriers, the sender must choose the channel which he feels will best guarantee transfer of the essence and meaning of his message without misunderstanding or distortion.

To counteract possible interference in the communication channel, the message should attract attention, contain redundancy, continue repetition, or use a combination of these approaches.

To attract attention, the message must be different from others competing for the recipient's time. A short handwritten message instead of the usual typed message is one method that can attract attention.

To provide redundancy, the message must be rephrased several times (the technique used in newspaper articles), and/or summarized in the final paragraph. The sender should avoid too much redundancy because this tends to clutter the communication channel.

To provide repetition, the message must be transmitted through more than one channel, as in spoken and written form, or transmitted more than once through the same channel, as in TV advertising.

Now, let's turn our attention to the basic communication channels within an organization. There are three channels: formal, informal, and unofficial.

Formal. The communication within the formal organizational structure that transmits goals, policies, procedures, and directions.

Informal. The communication outside the formal organizational structure that fills the organizational gaps, maintains the linkages, and handles the one-time situations.

Unofficial. The interpersonal communication within (or among) the social structure of the organization that serves as the vehicle for casual interpersonal exchanges, and transmittal of unofficial communications.

A more detailed examination of each of these communication channels will provide a better understanding of these functions.

Formal Communication

Formal communication - written or oral - follows the chain of command of the formal organization; the communication flows from the manager to his immediate subordinates. Each recipient then re-transmits the message in the selected form to the next lower level of management or to staff members, as appropriate. The message progresses down the chain of command, fanning out along the way, until all who have a need to know are informed. Formal communication also flows upward through the organization on the same basis.

Formal communication normally encompasses the transmittal of goals, policies, instructions, memoranda, and reports; scheduled meetings; and supervisory-subordinate interviews.

Informal Communication

No organization operates in a completely formal or structured environment. Communication between operations depicted in an organizational chart do not function as smoothly or as trouble-free as the chart may imply. In most organizations operating effectively, channels of communication have developed outside the hierarchical structure.

The informal communication process supplements the formal process by filling the gaps and/or omissions. Successful managers encourage informal organizational linkages and, at the same time, recognize that circumvention of established lines of authority and communication is not a good regular practice. When lines of authority have been bypassed, the manager must assume responsibility for informing those normally in the chain of command of the action taken.

There is a fine line between using informal communications to expedite the work of the organization and the needless bypassing of the chain of command. The expediting process gets the job done, but bypassing the chain of command causes irritation and can lead to hard feelings. To be effective, the manager must find a way to balance formal and informal communication processes.

Unofficial Communication

Astute program and functional managers recognize that a great deal of communication taking place within their organizations is interpersonal. News of revised policies and procedures, memoranda, and minutes of meetings are subjects of conversation throughout the organization. These subjects often share the floor with discussions of TV shows, sports news, politics, and gossip.

The "grapevine" is a part of the unofficial communication process in any organization. A grapevine arises because of lack of information employees consider important: organizational changes, jobs, or associates. This rumor mill transmits information of highly varying accuracy at a remarkable speed. Rumors tend to fall into three categories: those reflecting anxiety, those involving things hoped for, and those causing divisiveness in the organization. Some rumors fade with the passing of time; others die when certain events occur.

Employees take part in the grapevine process to the extent that they form groups. Any employee not considered a part of some group is apt to be left out of this unofficial communication process.

The grapevine is not necessarily good or bad. It serves a useful function when it acts as a barometer of employees' feelings and attitudes. Unfortunately, the information traveling along the grapevine tends to become magnified or exaggerated. Employees then become alarmed unnecessarily by what they hear. It is imperative that a manager be continually alert to the circulation of false information. When discovered, positive steps should be taken to provide the correct information immediately.

Coordination - Another Communication Function

One of the major functions of the communication process in an organization is effective coordination. Information available within the various functional groups is normally routed to key decision centers. It must be complete, accurate, and timely. When decisions are made, they must be transmitted to all concerned groups within the organization. The messages containing the decisions must be clear and precise. The success of the response to each message is dependent upon the preciseness of the original message, the communication channel used for transmitting it, the interpretation and understanding of the receiver, and the channel selected for transmitting the feed back. Lawrence Appley states: "There is little risk of over- simplification in saying that good managers are good communicators; poor managers are usually the opposite. If an individual has a sincere desire to clarify his thinking, there is no better way to do it than to put it in writing."

Communication Problems

Management must be continually aware of the barriers to effective communication and take steps necessary to keep the channels open. There are some approaches to solving communication problems that are worthy of consideration at this time.

Try to maintain a good relationship. A poor superior-subordinate relationship hampers the communication process.

Don't overlook the importance of upward communication from a subordinate, or lateral communication with a peer. This can hamper the communication process.

Don't clog the channel of communication. Its value may be reduced by a delay in receipt of the communication.

It is better for you as a manager, to pass too much information down the chain of command than to pass too little. The receipt of more information gives your subordinate a feeling of confidence and security; lack of information promotes insecurity and a feeling of not being trusted. The problem in many organizations is that too little information is passed down the chain of command, and too much information is required to be passed up the chain. This problem is discussed in more detail later.

Pay attention to the selection of the form in which the message will be conveyed. A message not conveyed in an acceptable form may fail to pass the barriers in the communication channel, regardless of whether it is moving down the chain of command, up the chain, or laterally.

Overloading

Much attention has been focused on the direction of the communication flow, but very little attention on the quantity of information in the communication chain. In your organization, is the daily message flow high and low? In most cases the organization would operate more effectively if the message flow increased; however, there is a limitation on the number of messages an organization can handle.

The free flow of information within an organization is an ideal to be achieved. When the information received far exceeds that required, the recipients cannot give proper attention to what is really needed. Much valuable time is devoted to the sorting and selection process.

One of the problems of using redundancy and repetition to minimize breakdown in the communication process is possible overload. Therefore, these techniques must be used with caution. If you are spending an increasing amount of time on the communication process, it is imperative to your future success that you develop an efficient information-processing skill.

How can an organization cope with an information overload situation? There is no one best way. The techniques that have been developed are often used in conjunction with one another. One technique involves filtering the messages so that the important ones, those requiring immediate action, get to the decision-maker first. Another technique involves delegating and decentralizing the decision-making process so messages do not go to a single executive. Still another technique involves carefully selecting information sources and eliminating those proven inaccurate or unreliable.

The Need and the Benefits

Sometimes top executives come to grips with basic practical viewpoints which, when carefully articulated, can help all of us. In a presentation to undergraduates, Howard Blauvelt said, "Business needs skilled communicators." This is a more kindly stance than that taken by many leading educators who are appalled at the inability of undergraduates to spell, write simple effective English or express themselves orally. "The ability to listen, digest, distill, and further communicate information is fundamental," Blauvelt said. His message is clear. Robert Sarnoff has said: "Today's leaders are frequently men and women who have mastered the art of communication. They know how to get their ideas across. And successful people - those who are continually sought for key positions - effectively combine their ability to communicate with a solid foundation of knowledge. For knowledge is the predominant quality in the transmission of ideas."

Do you have the basic knowledge to function effectively in your position? Assuming you have, have you developed the necessary communication skills to impart this knowledge to others? Peter Prior says:

"A major factor which must be considered, if the benefits of leadership are to be given full rein in an organization, is the existence of a good communications system, from top to bottom and across. . . . This is an area where a pinch of good practice is worth a pound of good theory."

Are you employing that "pinch of good practice," or are you bogged down with "a pound of theory?" Success in managing your business may depend on your skill in applying the communication process effectively in your day-today activities.

Meir Liraz

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