Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New President Interview -- Part 31 – Effective Communications

  Effective Communications

Q:  In interview 12, “Executive Communications”[1] you talked about the lines of communications in an organization help to keep customers, staff, and students more connected.  In a 2010 booklet from Towers Watson & Co., “Capitalizing on Effective Communication” [2] They report that effective communications with employees is a key indicator of employee satisfaction and institutional performance.  I have heard that “no answer” is worse than answering, “No.”  How does the College seek to improve office communications?[3]

A:  A good observation. In the College curriculum many courses teach students analysis and writing
skills.  In English and speech classes writing, grammar, and use of language are emphasized.  Rarely does one find an executive or professional in-service training to enhance professional communications.  Partly because we assume that faculty and staff already learned how to write.  The challenge is that they may have learned how to craft a sentence, but never learned why one needs to communicate. Towers Watson found that companies that invest in helping leaders, managers, and staff communicate better are more likely to deal with change.  Dealing with change is how an organization becomes nimble and able to adapt to new situations.   Communications is not just writing a good sentence, but also knowing when to write and what media should be used to spread the message.

In every organization there are managers and followers.  Places such as colleges may have the lines blurred between managers and followers.  A person may be a manager one moment and follower in another.  For example a professor is the manager and leader in the classroom.  In the college hierarchy s/he answers to a department chair and dean.  The professor may also be in charge or just a member of a committee, event or process.  Communications is about giving the right message to the right people.  A dean needs department reports so that s/he can keep the departments working, on track and have information for other reports.  The dean needs to co-ordinate efforts to prevent wasted effort and resources.  The deans need to create reports for the provost, vice-president, or other managers and administrators who supervise other College entities.  Sometimes the messages require courage to create and circulate.  Urgent messages require systems that save time, frustration or even limbs and lives.  It is better to tell people the sad or happy news than have them wondering what is going on or to hear a distorted report on the 10 PM news.

For example when severe weather is a problem, we communicate immediately via e-mail, phone, and text messages.  Examples of poor communications are:  the administrative office sends one message to the students and forgets to tell the departments involved to be prepared.  The students are then met with conflicting messages.  A friend in another city told me about the mayor of their city making an announcement about a city college that the faculty and students heard about from news reports, not official college messages. This behavior creates an atmosphere of mistrust. How do you think a professor feels when asked about a college event and needs to answer, “That’s the first I heard of it.”

Q: How does the College innovate? How do people learn about the best practices?

A: The best organizations are innovating and encourage entrepreneurial behaviors.  At the College we listen to the students and the community. We adapt our course offerings to change with the needs of the community.  Companies listen to customers and give that feedback to the employees.  In large organizations there are internal and external customers.  For example the information technology (IT) staff is in charge of keeping the computers and all technology up and running.  The rest of the College are their customers.  They need to listen to customer needs and not just supply the “latest” gadgets.  They need to give the College the tools to do their task.

The College is in the business of educating students and the employees need to understand everything they do could affect student learning.  If the rooms aren’t clean or the equipment does not perform, the prestige and trust of the College is lowered in the student or faculty eyes.  

Reaching out with social media, giant screens, signs, etc. are venues to present the message.  For example at the College we have outside message screens for the general public, inside screens for promoting events, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter.  These are ways to publish short messages.  We also have general websites and departmental websites for more information and documents.

For best practices faculty are encouraged to communicate with each other and with colleagues in other colleges with similar interests. Membership in professional organizations is encouraged and supported.

Q: In the Towers Watson booklet they talk about three aspects of communications — courage, innovation, and discipline.  This is not their original idea.  They were just making astute observations based on their organizational research.  This past weekend we celebrated Independence Day.  Is there a connection between the actions of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and excellence in communications?

A: Good observation.  Last week’s Torah portion, Balak, (Numbers 22:2- 25:9) also has a good example of powerful communications.  The story has Balak, King of Moab, hiring the prophet Bilaam to curse the Children of Israel.  Bilaam refused and gave a blessing that is linguistically and politically powerful, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”[4]  In the Hebrew it is powerful Biblical poetry.  Bilaam spoke with courage and innovation.  He had the courage to go against his employer and say what was right.  He opened up his eyes to the situation and followed the word of God after his donkey spoke to him.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence also recognized the power of God in the creation of the world and granting certain unalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Governments are instituted to guarantee these rights.  Governments make laws based on the just powers derived from the Creator and govern with the consent of the governed.   The signers were communicating with courage, innovation, and discipline — courage to break with King of England, innovation to write a type of document that had never been created, and discipline to believe in God and recognize a power beyond that of mortal of man. The message of the document is that the signers made sure the readers understand the effect of their words and thoughts. Their powerful words that included using the authority of the Creator gave a strong clear message to the people of colonies and England.  The colonists would no longer submit to the tyranny of the King.

While corporate communications don’t start a revolution, the communications do affect the employees and customers.  Communicators (really everyone in the organization) need to understand the organizational values and culture.  But that assumes those values are well articulated and appropriate to corporate mission.  The acculturation process is the material for a whole book. 

Q: Corporate communications is not a new field.   Arthur E. Phillips published the first public speaking textbook[5] specifically designed for business people.  His work was based on library research.  He examined the works of Aristotle, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Homer, Victor Hugo and Dante.  He didn’t do any research in contemporary businesses.  What is your take on early publication communications publications?

A: In 1936 Dale Carnegie published a book, How to win friends and influence People.  He offered courses and his company still exists today.  He also did not do any behavioral research.  Even without research, people claimed Carnegie books and courses changed and improved their lives for the better.  Today we are a bit more careful to do research on how people behave. However, we still depend on library research and personal experience.

In the late 1920’s, studies conducted by Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger in the Cicero, Illinois Western Electric Company Hawthorne Works plant, investigated the socio-psychological aspects of human behavior in organizations.  They wanted to discover how to improve production with physical changes to the plant environment. What they discovered has come to be called “The Hawthorne Effect.”  That is that whatever the experimenters changed helped production.  What the workers really wanted was to feel that they were important and that management cared. 

What Philips, Carnegie and Mayo/ Roethlisberger discovered was that communication is complex.  It is not just the words, but also caring about the people receiving the message.  People need to be empowered in the workplace and feel their efforts are accomplishing the corporate goals.

Q: Returning to the need to communicate correctly what are some of philosophical pressures to the process.  In other words how to people learn the “why” of communications?

A:  There is little doubt that the pace of data production is accelerating.  Back in the 1990’s a small company of 500 could produce more words in documents in one month than the sum total of all the words produced before the start of printing.  In the study of ancient texts scholars could dwell on the significance of every letter.  Today the amount of data could double in less than a year.  I use the word “data” when others may use “information” because the term “information” implies there is some order or context.  Data are pieces of that need organization and context and may become information.  Once in a useful format, one person’s information could become another’s data.  The data and information may include non-print items such as pictures and videos.  The ability for anyone to become an instant publisher using social media, blogs, and other electronic venues means that we are bombarded with too much data. We probably have a harder time making sense and creating knowledge than the scholars studying ancient texts.

In the organizational/business world managers are dealing with information streams that did not exist when they first entered the work force.   Managers need to create streams of information that help workers do their jobs.  This requires a corporate mission that is translated to everyday activities.  There are companies that send all the new employees to “boot camp” for 1 or more weeks where they learn the corporate culture, how the company is organized, and how they fit into corporate excellence.
I heard a story from faculty member in another university who was hired two weeks before the semester started based on her resume and a short phone interview.  She never even visited the campus before being hired.  She learned some of the procedures from the departmental secretary.  She was invited to a pre-semester meeting, but most of her colleagues didn’t bother to attend.  About April of the spring semester she got an urgent e-mail asking why she never filled out a form for graduating seniors.  She never had a request for the form, never knew which students in her classes were graduating seniors, and in her previous experience never heard of this type of form.  No one from the department or university indicated such a form was required.   

This is a case of poor communications in contrast to the business “boot camp.”  This professor was denied the information tools to do her job and then was reprimanded for not knowing the procedures existed.

In short we need to communicate so that the organization stays on course and follows the mission.  That also assumes the mission is carefully worded with the wisdom of experience.  Grandiose mission messages that include unreachable goals are not helpful to the creation of a clear message. The upper management must set the example and everyone needs to feel they are part of the success.  Nothing demoralizes staff like conflicting or confusing messages.  A chancellor or president who says one thing to the faculty and another to the press quickly loses credibility. 

On one hand we must keep in mind those ancient texts and how important every word is to the understanding of the message and balance that with the ability to create messages quickly and easily.  Tell the reader what they need to know and don’t give unrelated ideas.
Four communication types include business and professional communication, managerial communication, organizational communication, and business/corporate communication.  Professional communications include how we connect to others in our profession or business roles.  Methods of communication include list servs, professional publications, and professional meetings.  Managerial communications include telling workers what they need to know about the organization and keeping people on the track to complete the goals.  These methods include policy documents, e-mail communications, and face-to-face meetings.  Business communications include the process oriented messages that we send to get the jobs done.  These are the e-mails, personal contacts, and phone calls used to keep each other informed.

Q: Any final words?

A:  In 1953 B.F. Skinner published Science and human behavior [6] where introduces the idea of operate conditioning.  We can shape behavior by giving praise and reward for desired behaviors and punishing undesired ones.  I take this idea further.  We must use behaviors to set good examples.  Communications are not just the words.  Context, action, body language, and delivery give strong clues to believability and credibility. Context includes correct grammar, spelling and other language features.  A high concept movie may be great entertainment, but it will not be confused with business communication.

Q:  Thank you very much.

Part thirty-one of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After more than 30 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Everything is true, but some events have not yet happened. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] Stuhlman, Daniel  D.  “Executive Communications.”  Kol Safran, October 25, 2012. Retrieved on July 3, 2015 from: .

[2]  Capitalizing on Effective Communication: How Courage, Innovation and Discipline Drive Business Results in Challenging Times  (2009/2010 Communication ROI Study Report).  [Arlington, VA] :Towers Watson & Co.,   c2010.  Retrieved  from:{70A3EAFB-0BDE-4359-B8FF-38FEC2E43853}

[3] This article is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to organizational communications issues.  To learn more read the book, Workplace Communication for the 21st Century  edited by  Jason S. Wrench.  v. 1. Internal workplace communication — v. 2. External workplace communication.   Santa Barbara, California : Praeger, 2013.

If you are looking for a how-to article a good one, “10 Essential[s] of Effective Communications.”  may be found at this link:
[4] Numbers 24:5.  Original: מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל.

[5] Phillips, Arthur Edward.  Effective Speaking : an exposition of the laws of effectiveness in the choice of material in speech …   Chicago: The Newton Company, 1908.

[6] Full citation for the edition that I used:  Skinner, Burrhas Frederic. Science and human behavior.  New York : Free Press,  [1965, 1953].

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