Communication Audits

The Communication Audit Results In Recommendations That Open Two-Way Communication Throughout The Organization.

By Thomas J. Roach

Business culture is not an abstract concept. When we decide who to speak to, when to speak and what to say, our utterances and silences are evidence of tacit social rules. In businesses with healthy cultures, employees feel free to speak up when they have fresh ideas or when they see problems.

In restrictive business cultures, employees are afraid to speak, and needed information does not pass through the system. The former is adaptive and more likely to prosper; the latter is restrictive and less able to respond to changes.

While the rules that govern a business culture are generally unspoken, the words we use are tangible and measurable. By auditing what we communicate, we can determine where communication flows freely and productively and where it is throttled and impedes progress.

What We Say
Like a financial audit tracking money, the communication audit tracks what we say and how we say it. Communication auditors start by observing. They attend meetings, look at email exchanges, and read literature the company sends to key publics like employees and customers. Then they interview people in the key public groups and ask questions in three categories: what information do you need, what channels of communication do you access and what rules govern how you use them.

The communication audit does not conclude by making decisions and creating guidelines for management. Rather, it results in recommendations that open two-way communication throughout the organization, and it anticipates that managers, once better informed, will take appropriate actions.

Communication audit research starts by identifying key publics. Publics minimally include categories for employees, customers, the surrounding community and shareholders. Some publics are large and deserve to be broken into subcategories.

With employees, one must distinguish between upper and middle management, hourly and exempt employees, and employees in different departments. The community includes neighbors, legislators and competitors. Employee publics are important to understanding and managing culture that roughly half of the research falls under the heading of internal publics.

Interviews, focus groups and surveys are then conducted within internal and external public groups to discover ways to make two-way communication spontaneous and ongoing.

One additional preliminary step, benchmarking, accelerates the audit process by identifying communication configurations at other organizations. Benchmarking data can establish a quick preliminary agenda of information and channel topics for the audit process. This agenda is called a research guide; it lists topics to be investigated.

Internal Guide
An internal guide might include topics like “Open Door,” “Reward and Recognition,” and “Awareness of Company Goals.” The guide is not a list of questions, as question-asking necessarily changes from one public to another and in different stages of the research.

In internal and external communication, the guides and research data are different, but the processes themselves are identical, so internal and external audits may benefit from being conducted simultaneously.

The first step is a round of moderately scheduled probing interviews with stratified random samples chosen from each internal and external public. This is followed by focus groups with new stratified random samples from the same publics.

The interview research discovers what individuals think privately about the organization; focus groups test the strength and worth of that data by asking subjects to express themselves in a more public forum where researchers can monitor phenomena like consensus and alienation. Interviews and focus groups are qualitative research steps and should be followed by surveys that quantify their results.

Qualitative research comes first because it not only explores issues, it generates them. The only value of quantitative research, the survey, is that it measures the extent to which issues apply to various publics.

Essentially, researchers can organize the qualitative data under the headings used in the guide and then abstract survey questions for each category. Surveys written without the benefit of qualitative research are guesswork and probably a waste of time and money.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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