A Zen master asked his students a question which has always intrigued us as human resource management and IT specialists: ‘If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody near to hear it fall, is there a noise?’. There is no single answer, but we learn more about ourselves and the environment around us if we allow the question to stir our thoughts. Maybe the question cannot be answered!
However, the question prompts us to think about the actions of listening and hearing. What are their connections with communication as one of the ways to improve utilization and productivity of human resources in the expanding IT environment? There is no guarantee that, once a management decision has been taken about change, written up in a report, circulated to and read by all concerned, it will lead to effective action. People listen to communications, but they do not always hear the message.
Knowledge, information, and their effective use are the key factors which will lead to the competitive success of commercial organizations in the 1990s. Companies have specialists in information management, technical communications, human resource management, corporate relations, and all the various line management functions, each determined to communicate.
It is suggested by some of the researchers that managers spend eighty per cent of their time speaking, listening, and reading various types of communications. These communications are subject to misunderstanding due to the noise-distortion which is always present when two or more people attempt to communicate with each other. When two people face each other across a table, with or without a cracked mug leaking coffee, the possibilities for misunderstanding are legion.
A project leader praises the work of fellow members in the work group. A new member of the Information Center reads the advisory manual for helping the end-users to help themselves. A senior computer operator, standing next to a noisy high-speed output printer, attempts to give instructions to junior operational staff about controlling the equipment. The IT manager produces a written report which makes recommendations for new hardware and software required for the 1990s, and sends it to his CEO to gain top management support.
Each of these situations contains some form of interaction – the human resources are attempting to communicate with each other.
The process of communicating
There are a number of steps associated with human communications:
- A work group or an individual identifies information which has to be communicated to other work groups or another individual.
- The information has to be developed (encoded).
- A medium for transferring the information has to be selected. It may be a written report, a face-to-face discussion, or a sophisticated presentation using audiovisual aids.
- The receiving work group or individual has the task of converting (decoding) the medium to fit into their own ways of dealing with information.
- The receiving work group or individual responds by recognizing the need for agreeing or disagreeing with the information.
- The answer containing the information has to be developed (encoded).
- A decision has to be taken about the medium to be used.
- The original work group then has the task of converting (decoding) the medium to fit into their own ways of dealing with information.
Clearly in all these steps in the communications process there is room for much misunderstanding, much less hearing the message. In the complex area of information technology there are many problems to be overcome when attempting to communicate ideas and strategies.
Why are some people better at communicating than others?
People judged to be good communicators are those who recognize the need to keep all information short and simple. Information must not exceed the capabilities of the receiving work group or individual.
The abilities of human resources to process new information are not infinite. If a work group or individual receives information containing too many ideas expressed in words, numbers, and visual aids, there comes a point when their systems for comprehension break down – the information is lost, never mind the message.
Work groups and individuals have to monitor their capabilities for communicating information. It is too easy not to be sensitive to the amount of information other work groups or individuals can accept. Recognizing overload is an essential quality for all those communicating ideas, especially those associated with change.
Good communicators always recognize the limitations of the medium being used to carry their messages. We ourselves, whilst preparing this publication, have been acutely aware of the limitations of book format as the medium for communicating the complex challenges and opportunities associated with managing people in the information technology environment. There is so much information to be encoded and decoded in the process of understanding the strategic implications of human resource management and information technology. In book format we are not able to monitor the transmission rate, or the level of noise which might develop in the lines of communication between ourselves and readers. We have no way of influencing the approach used by readers to access the information, knowledge and experience. Our only solution is to structure a logical approach to the topics, pass through a seemingly endless refining process before reaching the final manuscript, and hope that readers are not overloaded with too many ideas so that our essential messages are lost.
Communication is influenced by physical factors
Non-verbal communication can influence the utilization and productivity of human resources. Facial expressions and body movements can have as much impact as the written word. Carefully structured plans can be demolished by the manner and tone of voice used in discussions. We have numerous examples of IT projects which have failed due to the attitudes of project leaders, IT specialists and end-users. The skills were present, the time and finance allocated were adequate, the requirements were specified correctly, and yet the projects failed. Team members’ attitudes and behavior, expressed in body language and the physical state of their offices, lead to a collapse in the relationships between team members, end-users, and their managers. Everyone forgets that human resources do not respond always in a rational manner, and this can be passed on as negative communication through physical factors.
Organizational structure influences the quality of communication
When structuring a work group it is essential to consider the requirements for communication both within the work group and between work groups. To be effective, communications must be able to flow in many directions – the horizontal and vertical needs must be taken into account. Also it has to be recognized that formal and informal communication flows coexist within all organization structures.
An IT function consists of many sub-units, and there will be formal lines of communication between the sub-units. Certain sub-units will have close relationships with end-users, and in turn these will be supported by more formal communications. All these communication links build up into major networks which sustain the life of the organization.
Performance is linked to the quality and shape of these networks. There are a variety of network types, but most can be classified as either centralized or decentralized. The centralized networks are dependent upon one point through which all communications must flow, whilst the decentralized alternatives are based on many people interacting, there being no. single control point. Simple tasks can be supported by a centralized network; more complex tasks (involving many more people) require decentralized procedures. Implementing the wrong form of communications procedure for a work group and the surrounding organization will lead to poor utilization of human resources and low levels of productivity.
Never forget the power of informal communication
Every organization possesses an informal communication network – the grapevine. It is powerful and should not be overlooked. Like the formal communications network, a grapevine can work to support the objectives of the organization or it can destroy management’s best endeavors.
Research findings suggest that eighty per cent of the information carried in corporate grapevines is correct. But like all 80/20 rules, attention should be drawn to the twenty per cent. These are the communications which may well cause serious trouble – most human resource management specialists will confirm that incorrect rumors of reorganization and redundancy frequently float around in the grapevines.
Given the existence of the grapevines, positive information has to be put into them throughout the development and implementation of strategies for human resource management and information technology.