Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Network Model for Interpersonal Communication

Modeling interpersonal communication within an organization as a network of reconfigurable topology composed of high capacity data stores connected by limited bandwidth communication channels.

The Model:

The amount that we know on any given topic of interest vastly outweighs our practical ability to communicate that information in a reasonable time-frame. We simply do not have the time or the available bandwidth to communicate everything that we need to in the detail that the subject deserves. Our model reflects this - The data storage capacity at each node is immense, and contrasts sharply with the exceedingly limited bandwidth available for communication between nodes. The difference between the two is many orders of magnitude in size. For a visual analogy, we should not look to buckets connected by hosepipes, but rather half-million ton supertankers connected by thin cocktail straws. Transmitting even a gallon of knowledge is a challenge.

Chinese Whispers:

When communicating with distant nodes with messages routed through intermediary nodes, the information being transmitted is compressed to an incredibly high degree with a very lossy and low-quality compression algorithm. The poor quality of the communications channel is particularly evident when the network encompasses a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and terminological-linguistic subtypes. In many such cases the intent of the message can easily be inverted as relevant details are either dropped or misinterpreted in transmission.

Systematic Factors impacting efficacy of communication:

The options available for compression are greater when two neighboring nodes already have a great deal in common, where shared datasets, terminology, mental models, and approaches to communication can be used to elide parts of the message, reducing bandwidth requirements, and allowing for communication that is both more reliable and more rapid. As a result of this, communication within an organization that has a strong, unified "culture" (common knowledge, terminology and practices) will be far more effective than communication within an organization that has a less cohesive "culture", purely because the options for message compression are greater, irrespective of any other measures that the organization might put in place to improve the available bandwidth. It is worth noting that, whilst this does improve the situation considerably, the problem itself is fundamental and always presents a significant challenge.

Organizational Optimization for Effective Communication:

Given that there is nothing inherently fixed about the topology of the communications network within which we are embedded, one simple response to this problem is to remove intermediary steps from source to destination nodes, and to allow the source node to connect directly with the destination node, permitting a direct and relatively high bandwidth exchange. This is even more effective if the exchange is bidirectional, permitting in-situ error correction. This argues for a collaborative approach to organization - with technical experts communicating with one another directly, with no intermediary communications or management specialists.

Another approach is to optimize for effective compression of the messages being transmitted through the network. As noted above, this relies on a common terminology, a common knowledge base, and a common set of practices and approaches to problems. In other words, most of the communication is moved out-of-band -- communicated though various channels prior to the point where it is actually needed. Again, this is well aligned with the collaborative approach to organization - where the technical experts within an organization continually educate one another on their own area of expertise so that when they need to communicate quickly, they can do so both effectively and reliably.

A Common Antipattern: Spin Doctors and Office Politicians:

Of course, the approaches outlined above are not the only solution to this fundamental problem. However, I argue that at least some of these approaches are anti-patterns, detrimental to the long term health and development of the organization.

Many individuals craft the messages they send extremely carefully to minimize the probability of corruption or misinterpretation en route, partly by reducing the information content of the message, and partly by crafting the emotional tone to remove ambiguity. This process is colloquially known as "spin", or "crafting the message".

In some situations this approach may even be appropriate, for example: where the network is large and cannot be reconfigured so that messages must be transmitted over more than one "hop"; where the environment for communication is particularly disadvantageous, with little common culture, terminology, or background technical knowledge; and finally, where long-term systematic improvements must be subordinated to short-term goals.

However, there are a couple of significant drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, by restricting knowledge transfer, opportunities to grow a base of common knowledge and understanding are squandered. Secondly, this approach is in direct conflict with cultural norms that emphasize honesty and transparency in interpersonal communication, the adherence to which builds a basis of trust and mutual understanding that further enhances communication.