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Communication breakdown: the best ideas in the world are worthless if we can't communicate them to our employees, partners and customers.

WE HAVE A big problem, and that problem is communication!

Communication between co-workers, subordinates and supervisors, customers and suppliers and even investors is not at all what it should be. How can we improve communication so everyone does their job better and why is communication consistently a problem?

Let me give you a real-life example from my company. I keep saying that we need to ramp up our R&D efforts on new technologies. I go as far as focusing on a couple of specific technologies including lead-free. Everyone agrees that we need to focus on new technology. Later as I am walking down the hall I repeat our need to move quickly on developing new technologies. Again I receive agreement and confirmation.

After some time passes, I ask how the progress is going. "On what?" is the usual response. "On new technology development," I respond. "Oh," I hear back, at which point I begin to realize that I have encountered a communication problem. So I explore what could be causing this problem.

It is rather simple and boils down to three possible root causes. One potential cause is sabotage. OK, not exactly at the level of threatening homeland security. (My employees can be terrorizing at times, but they are by no means terrorists.) Simply put, some people listen to what is said and then add their own spin to the message and spread it around with the regular interdepartmental gossip. While this is human nature, the net effect is no less than corporate sabotage. By gossiping behind the scenes, some employees sabotage any chance for the message to be understood, taken seriously or implemented. Regardless of company size, gossip is a form of sabotage and takes its toll on communication.

Another cause of snafus in communication is simple: The people listening may not like what they hear. Most communication is a call for change, and few people like change. A meeting to discuss developing new technology is basically saying that the old technology is not quite good enough and that additional effort will be needed to institute change. To some that means more work. To others it means that someone else might get their credit. And to some it says that if the idea does not work they may be blamed. Even compliments can be taken negatively. So a call for change or a compliment and, God forbid, a reprimand are all the same--those listening may not like the message, so they simply ignore the communication altogether.

Which brings us to the grandfather cause communication mishaps: an AWOL communicator. By AWOL, I do not mean the military's Absent Without Leave. What I mean is being mentally Away Without Listening!

Let's go back to my communication problem. First, how often do I communicate with everyone involved? Not nearly enough! You must have regularly scheduled communication meetings that include the whole gang, say, once a month, as well as smaller departmental or focused team meetings with specific employees based on need and involvement. This might mean one department or a cross-section of several departments depending on the subject. In the case of my new technology development it should include at least Production and Process management and someone from Sales.

I should first tell employees in small groups which specific technology developments need to be targeted. Then at a larger company meeting, I can put the pieces together and explain what is going on in our company's overall drive to develop new technology, and why.

Next, how well am I am listening during those meetings? I had better listen so I can determine if everyone understands the communication. This is where I often fall down on the job. If, after I communicate, blank faces are staring back at me, I can be assured that either no one wanted to hear the message, or some innocent sabotage may have rendered the communication useless. I need to listen to all questions and ask a few people to repeat the key point of the communication so clarity can be confirmed. Was the communication received? Did enough people get it? Who may have missed it and why?

That leads to the most important time for listening: the aftermath. Later that day, if you begin hearing the message played back incorrectly--or not played back at all--then you'd better start the communication process all over again, because you did not get through. The old saying "Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them" is worth committing to memory, especially when the communication is either a message people don't want to hear or one that's perfect for gossiping.

Everyone admires companies that excel. In most cases, clear, consistent communication is at the heart of their success because they commit significant time and resources to communication. So, we have a problem. If we are going to be successful, as individual companies and as an industry, we must start communicating better with our staffs, suppliers and customers. It may be simple, but it's not easy!

PETER BIGELOW is president and CEO of IMI ( He can be reached at
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Author:Bigelow, Peter
Publication:Printed Circuit Design & Manufacture
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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