Communication Networks

Communication Networks Exist With Or Without The Help Of Management. Joining Them Is A Lot Smarter Than Trying To Beat Them.

By Thomas J. Roach

All human interaction functions within informal communication networks. Governments, corporations clubs, groups of friends and families, all consist of individuals sharing information, developing tacit rules of conduct, constructing identities and forming consensus. The great temptation for those in positions of authority is to try to control the information network by censoring communication and manufacturing consensus.

Controlling an informal information network is an expensive and time-consuming fool’s errand. Official decisions and approved stories must be constructed by a senior leadership team. Decrees and position statements are communicated through formal announcements, advertising, and public relations messaging. Communication within the network must be monitored, and those conforming to official rhetoric rewarded and those who question and disagree punished.

The Control Model
In addition to draining resources, the control model is slow and inefficient. While leaders in an organization plan and implement weekly message salvos, countless private conversations are taking place among coworkers and customers. If official messages are too far afield of the informal consensus, the official sources lose credibility.

In a competitive environment, the outcome can be disastrous. When employees and customers no longer trust leadership, the quality of products and services suffers, and consumers shift to more reliable providers.

The opposite is true of organizations that allow and even encourage open discussion and incorporate it in their decision-making processes. Better decisions are reached if they reflect ideas and feedback from all levels in a system. And members of the organization are more motivated to produce if they are carrying out orders they helped generate.

Leadership still maintains its authority in an open system. Just because management collects feedback doesn’t mean every decision has to reflect a corporate consensus. Those in authority are expected to be more experienced and to have access to more information. Nothing prevents them from moving contrary to the wishes of their employees and staff.

In an open communication environment, if staff know their voices were heard, and if they realize they helped direct at least some of the organization’s activities, they are more willing to be led and defer judgement when someone higher up in the system takes a contrary action.

Building Blocks
The building blocks of an open communication network are processes like self-managed workgroups, liberal open-door policies, employee communication meetings, and peer-based hiring committees.

When I was head of internal communication for a corporation that was selling one of its divisions to a private entrepreneur, we set up two transition teams. One dealt with management, human recourses and legal issues required to complete the transaction. The other handled only communication issues.

The communication team was composed of employees representing all levels of the division, hourly to upper management. They collected employee concerns about job security, insurance, and the viability of the company under new ownership. The concerns were communicated to the team handling the transaction, and responses were expedited back to employees.

The buyer saw the interaction with the communication team as an opportunity to learn about the workforce and to share his vision for the company. He cooperated by writing guarantees of job security and benefits into the contract. In the end, the employees, instead of being apprehensive, were optimistic about the new opportunity.

Years later I was working for a university that was merging two campuses. I sent the chancellor an outline of a plan to create a similar communication team and was told that it wasn’t necessary. As the merger progressed, rumors about the reason for the merger, the new leadership structure and the possible closing of one campus overwhelmed the process.

Years after the merger the rumors persisted, and there was a general consensus that the merger was a mistake that harmed both campuses.

Communication networks exist with or without the help of management. Joining them is a lot smarter than trying to beat them.

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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