Tracking Information Flow

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Q: The tradition to measure communication effectiveness is not very strong at least here in Finland. We measure many details but are not able to see how different parts depend on each other. My idea is that we can think also communication as a process where we have inputs, channels and outputs. We have to measure inputs and compare them with outputs to find out our effectiveness. Inputs could be money and resources BUT above all:

How strong is the agreement inside the organization when we talk about the goals of our communication (and that means agreement in different organizational levels) and

How our team (division etc.) is really working for that goal: do people have access to the knowledge they need, are there points (=persons) where information changes or stops etc. (Channels are, of course, the media and other ways to communicate and output is the change of action or awareness). Now I’m trying to work out some model to really measure (not only to describe) the information flow inside the organization: how our system works. Of course, I can describe who tells whom and what and that way try to find out the gaps in the information flow. But I think that it is not enough. I need some tools to do it differently. Any ideas?

I’m sorry my English is not very fluent but I hope you can understand my problem (I’m not always quite sure I do.)

Leena Raukko

A: Dear Leena:

The topic you raise about information flow is an excellent one. Here are a couple of suggestions on how to quantify the flow in different ways.

Flow down the “cascade”:

We all know that the information “cascade” down the chain of management doesn’t usually work very well. One way to quantify where it is breaking down is to use a survey that quantifies the size of information gaps on different key topics (for more information, see my response to Clark Miller on communication audits elsewhere in this listing). If you are careful in developing your demographic questions, you could track where in the management chain the information flow is slowing to a trickle. For example, you might find the percentage of respondents who say they understand the company strategy well or very well is as follows:

  • 85% for senior management
  • 75% for directors
  • 65% for managers
  • 55% for supervisors
  • 45% for regular employees

This would indicate a gradual, but expected, drop through the cascade as information trickles down. However, here’s what I’ve found for different clients:

  • In one case, only 51% of senior management felt they understood the strategy, while 30% of the employees did. This suggested that the communication group and the company’s leadership needed to first communicate effectively with the senior management group on this topic. This was especially true because senior management was the single most preferred source of information on this topic for this company’s employees.
  • In another case, information flowed down very well to the directors, but in focus groups directors said they clearly thought it was part of their job to filter the information they shared with their own direct reports. This was done with the best of intentions to prevent overloading their people with information they “didn’t need.” The people below them said they really did need much of the missing information. The directors’ bosses, when asked in executive interviews, were adamant that directors did not have the option of choosing how much to pass on to their employees when senior management expected them to share something.
  • In a third company, the senior leaders had a high level of understanding, but it dropped sharply below them. In interviews, several of them said, without any prompting, that they themselves were part of the communication problem. They rarely passed on anything to anyone on their staffs after their monthly leadership team meetings. They hoped the communication department would find a way to “work around” the executives.
  • In a fourth company, middle managers at headquarters and regional offices had significantly less understanding of company goals than the plant managers. This report has just been finished. Because we haven’t done any follow up focus groups, we don’t yet know if this is because senior management tends to talk directly with plant managers, or if the corporate managers are so close to the leadership that they keep hearing conflicting versions of company goals, or if the plant managers are mistaken and only think they know something that they really don’t!

Flow among departments:

Another very important type of flow is information sharing between pairs of departments. Typically, survey questions ask employees to rate how effective communication is between work groups and within their own work groups. Usually the results indicate that there are more problems with communication between groups than within groups. The problem is that this type of question doesn’t help us fix the problem.

On some of my surveys, we have identified which specific pairs of departments have the greatest number of people reporting problems. What’s interesting is that usually only one of the two departments in a pair will report a problem and the other one will not. Once you identify the biggest problem areas, you decide in which of the problem areas a block in communication could cause a loss of revenue or an increase in expenses. For those pairs, you would then conduct interviews and focus groups to identify specifically what is causing the problem and what it would take to fix it.

I hope these two ideas help. By the way, in the 1970s a group called the International Communication Association developed something they called the ICA Audit, which is now available in the public domain for use by anyone. One of the five tools in the audit measured exactly how formal and informal communication flowed from individual to individual in an organization. However, because it was so specific, it was hard for employees to complete the form correctly and hard for the company to analyze and act on the results. But it inspired me to develop the inter-departmental flow type of questions on my own surveys. And at least one of the researchers who developed that instrument was a Finn, whose name I don’t recall.

Let me know if you’d like more information on any of this,

Angela D. Sinickas

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