Communication is the key to knowledge

Friday, 26 November 2010 00:29 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

by Subash Ranawaka

Most Sri Lankan business entities and even Government institutions or non-governmental organisations are experiencing hidden and/or exposed conflicts, mainly due to the lack of effective communication.

If we turn back and explore why we have failed or achieved a certain task after the targeted date, we will find that due to misunderstandings or being ignorant about more important information has been the most probable cause for those failures.

Though we learn management every day, or any other science, still there have been barriers in transmitting the correct message or information at the correct time using the correct channel to the expected recipient.

Especially in the Sri Lankan context, this is clearly visible. Once we look back and inquire, it is not very difficult to identify the said barriers even in the day-to-day working environment.

In the path Sri Lanka has chosen to be the centre of knowledge and also the aim of being the best supply chain hub in Asia or may be in the whole world, there is a fact that each of us must realise. That is the need of an appropriate education about the subject of communication.

Before we embark on identifying those barriers and preparing guidelines to overcome them, it is vital to be aware about the meanings, definitions of communication and its contents thereof.

There haven’t been many definitions but to define what communication is all about, the following two would be sufficient.

1.Communication is defined as the process by which people seek to share meaning via the transmission of symbolic messages.

2.Communication is the transfer and understanding of meaning.

(Quoted from Seventh edition of management by Stephen P. Robbins and Mary Coulter- Page 282)

In the modern day context it is important to know what is meant by managerial communication. Here it is emphasised that the meaning of calling a manager is not only a normal manager who holds a managerial position in an organisation but it could be a government servant, a doctor, an engineer, a journalist or even a leader of a country.

This is of course cannot be overemphasised to one specific reason. Communication is involved in everything a manager does. A manager has to seek information through various communication media and make decisions. After all, a manager is liable to communicate the decision again to his superiors or subordinates where he/she will have to depend on communication.

Therefore, the communication is the lifeblood of a manager and good communicating skills will make a successful manager eventually. On the other hand, ineffective communication will lead to disasters or conflicts.

As we are quite aware, communication can be divided into two types:

Before the communication takes place, a message which is to be conveyed must exist. Thereafter, the sender passes the message to the receiver and this is expressed as the communication process.

Various flow charts can be illustrated but the two charts given would certainly provide an idea about how the communication process works. (Chart No: 01 is quoted from seventh edition of Management by Stephen P. Robbins & Mary Coulter).

The meanings of these words are very important to understand:

1.Message sender: He or she is the initiator of communication. The one who needs to communicate ideas, needs, etc., is the sender.

2.Perception and interpretation: Perception is how the person thinks and views the message. This is a crucial point in communication since the perception which was created in the sender’s mind would have to go through several steps before the receiver understands the message. Then having perceived, the person has to interpret the message to the extent that it gives the correct meaning which was intended.

3.Encoding: This is the process in the human mind in the form of sensory skills that encodes the ideas which are to be conveyed into series of symbols, gestures or other forms of expression.

4.The message: The encoded information which is sent by the sender to the receiver is called the message. This is may be in the form of hearing, reading or other physical gestures.

5.Channel: The medium of communication. This may be in written form or it can be a viva (face to face conversation).

6.Noise: This is called the barrier to effective communication and it can confuse, disturb, diminish or interfere at any step of the communication process.

7.Decoding: The translation of the message into meaningful information is called decoding.

8.Feedback: When the receiver gives a respond to the extent that he has understood the sent message and action has been taken, that can be called the feedback.

Having the adequate knowledge on communication, we can find the media of communication as follows:

nOral/verbal (inclusive of Intonation)


nVisual: 1) Pictures and/or symbols

2) Body language

It is very important to know that when one is communicating in written form as one very often does, there are five basic rules:

1.Clarity: The message should be very clearly understandable and at the same time brevity is also important (the quality of writing something in short form). In journalism this comes as a major aspect and it is called précis.

2.Conciseness: This is the way of writing by using only the essential words but phrases without sounding like a telegram or in other words to conveying the message without being impolite but eliminating the irrelevant details.

3.Accuracy: The information which is sent should be exact and accurate but without any errors and oversights.

4.Completeness: The message should adequately explain what is needed to be known and answers to all of the questions to be included which the receiver is likely to ask.

5.Appropriate tone: The words or the phrases should be controlled with a good manner where the receiver could grasp the understanding of the message without being misguided. Further this could happen by using double meaning words or harsh words or may be inappropriate words as well.

The superior-subordinate communication or in other words organisational communication does explain communication between superiors and subordinates in the hierarchical system. Generally what we know is about is downward communication, which streamlines from the top management to the lower levels.

1.However, organisational communication also can be segmented into two areas:

2.Formal communication: This means the official chain of command or is part of the communication required to do ones’ job.

3.Informal communication: Here it is meant that the communication takes place inside an organisation but outside the defined organisational structural hierarchy.

(Quoted from seventh edition of management by Stephen P. Robbins & Mary Coulter)

In formal communication we can identify the styles of communication as follows:-

1.Downward communication

2.Upward communication

3.Oral and written communication

nOral/Written Communication can be divided into lateral communication & diagonal communication:

nLateral communication takes place among employees at the same level.

Diagonal communication always cuts across the work areas and organisational levels.

Under the informal communication, we can recognise the communication grapevine, which is meant to be the fastest way of transmitting information bypassing organisational structures. This includes talks between employees, chats and discussions which more or less happen unofficially inside the organisation.

Having browsed through the communication systems, we could find out the barriers, which certainly is a major problem in most countries as well as in Sri Lanka.

The following barriers are regularly found in the Sri Lankan organisations and it has been identified that great losses have been incurred due to poor communication.

The barriers to effective communication are as follows:

(1) Noise barriers: Noise is any external factor that affects communication effectiveness. Some of them are as follows:-

nInappropriate channel: This is a common error in Sri Lankan business culture. Using the wrong method or channel is very critical and gives unnecessary perceptions in the receiver’s mind. For example, most of the time e-mail is used unnecessarily where the sender and receiver could meet each other and discuss. When you discuss the matter and it can be solved face to face, each other can see the body language also. Meeting and discussing is more successful in passing the required message in comparison to other methods.

nImproper and inadequate information: This we learnt in the five rules of written communication, mentioned above. It is very vital to see that all information is correctly gathered and summarised and sent; then the receiver will have a good source of information and unlike in the Sri Lankan context, one should not have to go back and ask questions again and again to get the real picture of the first originated message.

nPhysical distraction: This is very important to the sender and receiver of the message since if they are in a bad mood or an ill health condition, the message would not be communicated as it was intended to. Therefore every time this type of barrier will not help to carry out effective communication.

nOrganisational structure: As we all are aware, the management structure could be another barrier to effective communication. The restriction in communication facility is one major problem in the Sri Lankan context. For example, telephone restrictions to certain levels of a company, internet barriers (authentications required prior to use) and limited corresponding authorisations are few of those. These may be imposed due to the data confidentiality or any other security purpose or it may be due to the requirement of one or two top people based on top of the management. However everybody feels discomfort since valuable time and action could have been taken then and there if those restrictions had not been overemphasised. Besides free communication certainly would have given more productivity which will be more profitable to a company rather than having nothing improved.

nInformation overload: This is meant to be the exceeding of information over the processing capacity. We find this problem regularly with the latest IT technology, especially with e-mail and related functions. The demand of keeping up with faxes, e-mail, phone calls, meetings, conferences and professional reading would obviously create an impossible situation in processing information. This will result in less effective communication finally.

nNetwork breakdown: This word is regularly heard in Sri Lankan business nowadays and this will allow a complete shutdown of communication through IT. Very recently there was a major breakdown due to damage to an underwater communication cable by a merchant vessel near the Colombo Harbour.

(2) Semantic barriers: This occurs due to difference in individual interpretations of words and symbols. It is understood that the message must be interpreted with the same meaning as it was intended to but most of the time we hear in our organisations arguments about messages which sometime affect interpersonal relationships. Sometimes the words which give double meaning should not be used and also the spoken language is not suitable to use in writing, which is commonly done in Sri Lanka. Semantic barriers may occur due to grammatical or simple spelling errors also.

(3) Feedback barriers: Any barrier which prevents a response which is given to a sent message could be taken as a feedback barrier. The only way of ascertaining whether the message is received in good order and the actions have been taken accordingly is by having feedback.

(4) Cultural barriers: The cultural differences between employees will affect communication; this is usually a common barrier in multinational companies where they will have to deal with people who come from different nations and cultures.

(5) Perception: This is means the process which takes place inside the mind of the sender and also the receiver at the time of sending or the receiving the message (or at interpretation). The way a person views the message is different from person to person, which should be considered as a crucial point when sending a message. Sometimes a mentality like defensiveness (the feeling a person get when he/she thinks that somebody is threatening them) would also decide the amount of damage that has been caused to the message.

(6) Sender credibility: If the sender is not a trustworthy, respectable person in the eyes of the receiver, the message he/she receive could be in danger because the receiver might interpret the massage from a different psychological angle. Therefore the message could be distorted.

In our own organisations where we work, we experience instances where plans have been made to take action on something but due to some matter it is delayed for hours and hours. This is what we have to avoid if we are to take the correct path towards globalisation.

We can take India or China and compare where they were in the late ’80s and where they are heading right now. They gave first priority to communication but at the same time they controlled unnecessary interruptions to their culture and society as well.

In other words, they prevented noise to a greater extent and in the meantime they managed to establish satellites for communication convenience. Why we cannot develop our communication skills is because of our attitude problems, due to the cultural and educational environments.

Especially in last four decades after independence, the Government has been empowered to handle many areas of the country’s economy. The people, especially State sector employees and private sector, were abducted by certain lifestyles that they were not even aware about the importance of accurate communication, thus being engaged in different types of jobs simultaneously.

Due to the rapid change in the economic system in 1977, the private sector emerged and resulted in concurring Government-controlled monopolies like banking, industry, insurance, financial, transport and other manufacturing areas.

Therefore, still the problems are present with the socio-cultural and educational environment since it is clearly visible that they are not catering to the modern day requirements of the economy.

For example, a few years back it was revealed that the percentage of the computer literacy in Sri Lanka is only 9% of the population. Therefore, we will examine the ways and means or the guidelines to overcome the communication barriers and achieve effective communication, since that is a dilemma Sri Lankan managers are challenged with.

(A) Using feedback and upward communication

We generally experience communication coming from the top to the bottom level (downward communication) but rarely see upward communication, which streamlines from bottom to the top level.

The feedback we get in return is the most important way of ascertaining whether the message is interpreted as it was intended to and the actions if any have been taken consequently. Therefore, it is understood that feedback is not only “yes” or “no”. Also, feedback may be verbal or even non-verbal. When we transmit messages through email, we know that automatically notifies whether the message has been received and whether it was read.  This is also a type of a feedback but not sufficient enough to be satisfied whether the message is being interpreted successfully. Feedback may be nonverbal clues like body language as well. When having discussions and conferences, body language is very useful and even in viva or interviews. Especially in interviews or official discussions, it is vital to understand whether the questions are open-ended or close-ended.

“Yes” or “no” answers are for close-ended questions and open-ended means it needs an explanative answer. In upward communication, we find that few devices have been used to improve the same. Suggestion boxes, group meetings, reports and workshops can be identified as tools used in upward communication.

(B) Improving listening skills

Even though we hear many things, how many of us have listened to those? Listening is a valuable asset a person could have and in effective communication it plays a vital role as well. Of course listening is far more tiring than talking, but it is recognised as an important intellectual effort in modern day effective communication. This will help avoid premature judgments or misinterpretations.

Researchers have found that a normal individual can talk 125 to 200 words per minute and a good listener could comprehend 400 words per minute. Therefore it is understood that adequate time is available for a listener to think, analyse and wonder before making a decision or interpreting a message.

Training should be given especially to Sri Lankan employees(or even non-employees but engaged in self-employment) to improve their listening skills since we usually come across unnecessary conversation and conflicts in our day-to-day working environment, where neither party is listening but talking and shouting.

Other specific behaviours that an active listener has can be illustrated as per exhibit No. 03, quoted from the seventh Edition of Management by Stephen P. Robbins & Mary Coulter.

(C) Constraints emotions

We as employees expect and are bound to accept any type of challenge in the working capacity and believe that we should communicate with each other rationally. However, it is true that the emotions of people can easily and severely damage or distort the intended message. The remedy for this is none other than refraining from communicating at that situation and trying to respond after you feel that you are in a more comfortable mentality.

(D) Develop writing skills

As we discussed in relation to the rules one has to follow when writing a message, it is said that writing should be short and sweet and in that case even speaking. Brevity and clarity as explained is very important in effective communication.

(E) Avoiding credibility gaps

Though the fact that credibility also may act as a barrier sometimes was introduced, it was not explained how important this is in a country like Sri Lanka. Even at our work places there are enough and more instances where people do not trust and respect each other and are sometimes even angry with each other.

In this scenario if a message is forwarded, it will certainly be identified as a harmful action and the message can be distorted or interpreted in a wrong manner. So it is very vital to develop interpersonal relationships when working and that will consequently help to be effective in communication and in return provide benefits to the workplace as well as ourselves.

Following, in brief, are the guidelines proposed by an American management Association:

1.The ideas and messages should be very clear, brief and precise.

2.Sense of timing


4.Consulting others involved in planning the communication

5.Prepared to assist the receiver

6.Use proper follow up

7.Communication should be comprehensive.

So, as discussed, anybody could understand the similarity between the facts given by above mentioned management association and what we learnt so far. However, it is noticeable that Sri Lanka needs better developed attitudes, cultural and sociological developments in order to achieve high productive effective communication, which will certainly benefit every organisation and finally the country’s economy. Further, it is a pleasure to see that the Government has come forward to develop IT as well as communication media with Government authorities. For example, the ‘Shaksharatha Program’ and establishing of IT centres in selected areas are good steps.

In developing the communication aspect, HR development is really essential and it is a good sign to see Sri Lankan management now heading towards HRD (Human Resource Development) from HRM (Human Resource Management), despite having personnel management, which is very centralised and bureaucratic and a barrier to effective communication as well. We e must focus on recruiting on the grounds of human talent management more in future to achieve the target of making the most capable employee or even manager.

The real solution in developing effective communication is in the hand of people and also depending on their positive change of attitudes. The key to be successful in communication is to always think in the other’s shoes before communicating and the recipient’s responsibility is to respond as soon as possible.