Communications: The Mechanistic Perspective Essay
Communications: The Mechanistic Perspective
‘Communication — – the process of transmitting and receiving ideas, information, and messages. The rapid transmission of information over long distances and ready access to information have become conspicuous and important features of human society, especially in the past 150 years.’
The encyclopedia definition of communication encompasses the ideas of exchanging a variety of messages with others. This is important to remember when looking at communications within an organization.
The whole process of communications within organizations is very complex and is certainly one of the major factors in determining whether an organization will succeed or not. The following paper deals with the different types, influences and improvements within the realm of communications in organizations.
Ways of conceptualizing communications
It is necessary to look at the problem from many viewpoints to understand how communications are performed within an organization. These include psychological, systems-interaction, interpretive-symbolic, and mechanistic. All of these areas are very important to understand the ‘whole picture,’ but the focus of this paper will be in the mechanistic perspective.
Information within an organization determines their ability to make informed decisions and the effectiveness of those decisions is based on the way they communicate. This mechanistic perspective on communications deals entirely with the message, the medium and factors that aid or detract from the process.
In this model, communication is initiated by the sender through to the receiver. Each process is then broken down into bits of data that can be analyzed. The areas of importance are the ways in which the sender and receiver utilize perceptive processes to encode and decode the messages and the fact that noise is in the system.
Any message from a sender to a receiver would convey exactly what the meaning is intended in a perfect world. It is very important that the sender says exactly what they are trying to say and the receiver knows exactly what the sender is saying. The following example illustrates this point:
Clear and concise is what is desired within a ship building contract. If the contract does not describe ‘exactly’ what is required, the contractor can get extra money for including those ‘extras’ during the building stages. The Irving led Saint John Shipbuilding organization has made much more than their original contract for building the Canadian Patrol Frigates due to these ‘arisings.’ It was even suggested that this was part of their contract plan from the beginning.
In analyzing this situation, it was very difficult for the Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) to ask for everything because of the complexity of the contract, the number of personnel on the contract writing team, and the fact that many iterations were required for DND and parliament prior to letting the contract. In fact, the writing was started ten years prior to the contract being let, so technology had changed many of the basic assumptions about the type of work to be done.
Verbal and Non-Verbal Communications
Inherent to transmission of messages are the verbal and non-verbal cues which aid in helping to decode a message.
Verbal cues are dependent on language. Nuances intrinsic to a language can make the decoding difficult if not impossible even by someone who uses the same language. This may be a local dialect or cross-country differences. Examples of cross-country differences would be English from England, Canada, and the United States. Each is the same language, but each has separate nuances that can make it very difficult to decipher by someone from another country speaking the same language. A personal example is asking for a washroom in Southampton, England, at a train station and being told that they did not have one. The word that I should have used was ‘toilet.’ Dialects within a country can make it impossible to understand the original message. Another personal example is attempting to decipher someone from northwestern Newfoundland; their dialect made it virtually impossible to understand. The point is to utilize the best transmission method in order to minimize the decoding difficulty for the receiver.
Non-verbal cues are ‘those expressions of emotions and attitudes toward another person and in regulating the interaction between people.’ The text organizes the cues into seven categories and includes good examples, including: environment, proximity, posture, gestures, facial expressions, eye behavior and vocalics.
One area missing within communications chapter was what the person is wearing, but was included in chapter 6, perception and performance evaluations. Many books advocate ‘dressing for success.’ Some examples include shopping, salesperson and the office. If you are going to shop at flea markets, dressing ‘down’ is a good way to start the bargaining process. A car salesperson should dress to show that he is successful, but not ostentatious.
In my profession, I dress towards the client based on whether ‘suit and tie’ or ‘casual’ are the choice for the client’s organization. This non-verbal cue can aid in preparing the initial psychological base for the remainder of the conversation and ensure that it does not detract from the conversation while it is ongoing.
Influences on Communication
Physical and personal factors influence communications. Organizational design influences physical factors, which deals with layout of the office, networks for communications, and the media selected for the message. Personal factors include the differences between individual styles, men and women, and cultures.
The design of the organization must be based on what the organization is attempting to accomplish. Technology can enable these designs to take on new meanings as methods become available to communicate as never before.
The first place to look at is the design of the office. The typical office has space allocated based on position of the employee. A worker may be in a ‘bull pen’ type of environment whereas the president will have a large office to show their particular status. Two personal examples include the Ship Repair Unit and Deloitte and Touche Consulting Group. Each has a typical office layout; the workers are in offices with partitioned walls; managers have outer offices, some with windows; and the general manager has the largest, most pretentious office space. The communications tend to have very structured down and up paths. Methods of communications include computer email, voice mail, and written memos.
‘Most critically, however, the intelligent office building must clearly improve the quality of the workplace for the individual, representing a major philosophical change in the office design. After all, what is the electronically enhanced office intended to facilitate, if not the effectiveness, productivity, and well-being of the worker, and the ultimate effectiveness of the organization.’
Traditional organizational design ideas are being challenged with the concepts of tele-commuting and virtual companies and offices. Technology has enabled us to plug into the office place anywhere in the world utilizing advanced telecommunications and computer advances. Many offices now have flexible office areas for their workers where they can sit down, plug in a laptop and have a phone, desk, and general office requirements available. When they are at their other office locations, they simply plug in to that particular location. All of this is transparent to the sender or receiver of information from that individual.
An example is an advertising agency where a friend of mine works for in Toronto which has other offices in New York and Chicago. When he commutes to these offices, he has all of the these resources available to him. This is transparent to his clients, who just thinks he does a wonderful job from his home office in Toronto. The types of communications are similar, with more emphasis based on digital transmissions (email and voicemail). I utilize voice mail effectively when on a client site by having a location for clients to call in for me and I can vet and prioritize my calls.
‘Employment in the Information Age is undergoing a transformation which may cause as much dislocation as the move from farm to factories did in the 19th century. Studies predict that the ranks of those with alternative office arrangements will grow by 10 percent or more every year during the remainder of the decade.’
The virtual company challenges communications within an organization even greater than present designs. This entity has allowed small organizations to work as effectively through the use of advanced communications and allows larger companies to change the way they do business. Some of the requirements for a company to be effective in virtual space include: robust infrastructure for individual employees, including cellular phone, portable computer with communications; remote managing – how do you know the person is doing their work?; employees must have the correct attributes to make it all work. When it does work, it works very well. The employee is either on a client site or at home and is more effective
A personal example is a company in which I was a co-owner. This virtual company was a computer consulting firm specializing in Microsoft Office Integration. We had a management team from within Nova Scotia (5 people), programmers from around North America, and clients from around the world. This organization was difficult to run from the perspective of handing off information and brain-storming, but was very good at allowing each employee to work in their space of choice to increase productivity.
The majority of the clients were local; a firm handshake and the ability to look someone in the eye is still stronger than the pen and keyboard. The international clients tended to be software firms who were looking for someone to subcontract a small portion of a project. The reason the business ran effectively was that the employees were suited to the environment. If the business was not as high tech orientated, I would be reluctant to state that it would work as effectively.
The type of design of the organization must be orientated to their mission. As the communication network characteristics shows , the different types of networks are good at some things and poor at others. The tradeoffs are usually flexibility and satisfaction against errors with simple tasks.
Risk to human life or catastrophic failure was a point missing in network design.
The text makes a number of good points about network design, but did not have an organization with strong lateral dissemination of information. This is important in more and more organizations as downsizing is taking out layers of middle managers, the overall manager cannot control or handle all of the information volume, but the job must still be done. The new managers require a horizontal flow of communications to get their job done.
The personal factors within communications are more difficult to define. Consequently, they are also more difficult to improve upon. The text outlines very briefly some of those topic areas, including individual difference, culture differences, and male and female differences.
Listening and Responding
Noise is another area that inhibits or distorts the transmission of a message. The text deals with ways to be more effective in listening and responding to messages.
A way to further analyze the effects of noise and barriers to communications within organizations is to study communications systems utilizing radio frequency (RF) transmissions; they have well documented aspects of noise which can be analogous to other mediums. Modulation is the technique of employing information (the message) on a carrier signal and sending that signal to the receiver who then decodes it and gets the original transmission. Noise is what distorts that transmission. Different types of modulation techniques are utilized to cut down on the noise inherent to the medium utilized. Analog and digital communications employ all of the different types of modulation.
The easiest modulation type (within the electronics) is amplitude modulation (AM) but which has the highest degree of susceptibility to noise. This is based on noise thresholds and the fact that background noise can be so loud that the original message is lost. This is analogous to trying to tell somebody an important message in a busy, noisy room. The background ‘din’ can make the message almost impossible to hear and understand properly.
The second technique is frequency modulation (FM) which is more difficult to encode and decode, but is less susceptible to noise. This is because the natural noises the stratosphere produces are not over broad frequency ranges. Phase based modulation employs similar techniques, but uses phase differences to encode the information. This is analogous to listening to FM radio, which is close to what the original sounds like, but still seems weak in comparison to the ‘real thing.’
Digital communications employ the same modulation techniques as analog communications, but have distinct advantages in conveying messages over analog systems. Analog transmissions have no discrete data; it is all based on ramps of information. This would be analogous to the difference between an analog speedometer and a digital one. The analog would give you a continuous representation, but has no distinct breaks; the digital speedometer can only show you discrete amount of speed indications.
In a digital system, the discrete data is only ‘on’ or ‘off’. This makes it much easier to distinguish the actual data from the noise because the threshold between the two can be much greater (the terminology used is decibels – the difference between the receiving message and the noise). This discrete data can be manipulated to ensure that the message is correct; this is referred
to as error correction. A communications system analogous to this would be downloading information off the Internet and it error-checking at the receiver’s end to ensure the file is correct.
The situation analogous to this entire noise discussion is that we would normally write something down if it was critical in order to ensure the information is transmitted correctly (digital systems). If we are not worried about errors in transmission, we will convey our message through speech (analog systems).
The other points, including fatigue, time pressure, selective listening, status, value judgments, and source credibility are very good observations on the barriers to messages.
An example of using listening and responding within communications was the idea that I based my first company on; producing multimedia applications. What possessed me to orient myself in that direction in 1991 was a statistic from the MIT media lab: 10% of people remember what they hear, 20% remember what they read and 65% remember what they interact with. One area that was missing in the text discussion was that you can get people to remember by interacting with the message. This could be in the form of CD-ROM computer based training, seminar, or one-on-one where the person is forced to think about the information being presented.
Application of Communications
A good example of multiple types of communications within an organization is within a warship. A personal example is H.M.C.S. Nipigon; a Canadian destroyer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The primary purpose for a destroyer is for a weapons platform in which the Government of Canada can utilize to direct their policy.
The organization must be robust enough to handle multiple contingencies, including loss of life, loss of systems, and loss of communications. There is redundancy within departments (supply, engineering, operations) in order to minimize losing one critical person. Therefore, network design facilitated this by placing the key personnel at different areas in the ship during war time situations.. There are multiple ways to power systems via primary and backup power supplies. Again, to keep communications open within the systems in order to keep the vessel floating and fighting. There are also multiple ways for external and internal communications to occur. The communications control room (CCR) can patch a multitude of apparently dissimilar systems, including telephones, radios, and digital computers. To minimize errors, the organization has a strict hierarchy with instructions as to the types of information to be handled by each person with the organization and how it will be distributed.
This is related to the network design and the media types for information. The crew will train repeatedly in order to minimize errors. This is related to how to minimize the noise within the system. In this case, the noise would be the amount of information available and the filter would be the voice procedures that personnel must utilize to talk both internally and externally. This is of vital importance if there are situations happening internally, including fires and floods, and externally, including incoming missiles, planes, ships and submarines.
The communication does not stop within the ship. Depending on the scenario, it could be a contingency of Canadian warships, NATO warships, or another conglomeration where various platforms. Inputs could be coming from satellites, helicopters, intelligence, other ships, and planes. There are strict communications protocols and transmission types for this exchange of information employing cryptography and error correction in order to minimize the chance for error. Multiple forms of communications are at work in this scenario, but the reason it all works is due to the design of the organization.
This chapter on communications dealt primarily with the mechanistic perspective. The other areas are needed to balance this sole focus on linear communications. Within the mechanistic approach, there were some areas which were missing which I deemed vital. These included the network flow of the large horizontal organization, importance of reducing errors in mission critical processes, and the application of technology. Communications in organizations having large horizontal movement of information is critical to its success. As previously stated, the reduction of errors can be critical to human life and also to the success of an organization.
Technology enablers have evolved so quickly that the types of hardware and software the authors talk about have changed. Concurrent engineering is a term used to describe 24 hour production of engineering problems by handing over the problems to destinations throughout the world. Bell Northern Research utilizes this technique to dramatically improve their time to market for products. Not enough research was placed into the way new companies (virtual companies) can communicate more effectively. The world is getting smaller as communications become more effective and this text should reflect more of that type of communication.