8.1 Communication Challenges in Modern Organizations

All communication involves the transmission of a message from a sender to a receiver. Communication is central to organizational effectiveness and survival because the essence of organizations is cooperation, and no cooperation is possible without effective communication.Barnard (1938). While communicating effectively has never been easy to do in organizations, there are some special challenges to communication in today’s organizations.

Information Overload

Every organization must solve the problem of what pattern of communication shall be instituted, and what information shall be directed to what offices. One issue in establishing such a pattern is information overload. There are limits to the amount of communication that can be received, coded, and effectively handled by any one individual.Katz and Kahn (1966), p. 257.

John Kotter has an interesting anecdote that illustrates this problem. He asserts that the typical employee receives approximately 2,300,000 words or numbers communicated to him or her in a 3-month period. He estimates that the typical communication of a change vision over 3 months is one 30-minute speech, one hour-long meeting, one 600-word article in the firm’s newspaper, and one 2,000-word memo, which amounts to about 13,400 words. Consequently, roughly one-half of one percent of all the words or facts that an employee receives over 3 months will be focused on the change vision.Kotter (1996), p. 89. Clearly, routine information can easily overwhelm change messages.

Sterility of Electronic Communication Technologies

We live in a time of disruptive electronic technologies, some of which have led to new and powerful information and communication technologies. Data-based reporting systems, e-mail, voice mail, intranets, bulletin boards, Websites, and video conferencing are cost effectively breaking down large distances and providing information to huge numbers of people in relatively inexpensive but fast ways. Unfortunately, these mediums of communication are rather sterile and impersonal, and not as powerful or meaningful to people as more personal modes of communication.

Because change initiatives can arouse strong and passionate emotions within an organization, these marvelous information and communication technologies are often not up to the task. Since visual cues are so important in all human communication, non-visual mediums disconnected from context, such as e-mail, just don’t communicate well. Since human relationship is so important to communication, mediums that do not add to the relationship, such as electronic bulletin boards, can convey different messages to different receivers. And since impersonal “digital” communication is relatively fast and easier to do than more personal communication forms, senders are often not as practiced or as skilled in the more personal modes. In sum, electronic communication systems are invaluable to today’s organizations, but they have considerable limitations when it comes to bringing about change.