Converging process and personnel, it can be argued that communications might be a valued new partner to bridge the two. But for that to happen, chief learning officers have to take the initiative and endow communications with more power as a contributing partner in critical business processes. For example, if CLOs trained decision-makers as to the muscular and proactive contributions communications can offer, there might be fewer lapses and failures. And if CLOs needed a training rationale of the benefits of communications to decision-making, the following might nicely serve.
Communications minimally can bring three dimensions to current decision-making when invited as partner to the process at the outset. The first is to put the decision arrived at on pause in order to determine its “communicality.” The second, according to Paul Bennett (in “Governing Environmental Risk,” appearing in Progress in Human Geography) and Gregory Daneke (in “Systemic Choices”), tests the capacity of various and often conflicting information sources to be sufficiently broad-based, reconcilable and integrated to elicit collective support. The third, according to David G. Ullman (in “Robust Decision Making,” appearing in the Journal of Engineering Design), focuses on decision-making as a values process in which a series of smaller values decisions punctuate and stir the final summative decision.
Proactive Role of Communications
In this instance, communication functions as reality check. Managers can be taught the basics of anticipatory or proactive perceptions. How will this decision be perceived and received by a representative array of employees, customers, stakeholders and shareholders? Is its “communicality” rating high or low? What are some of the ways it can be misunderstood, even distorted? To what extent is the decision a match or mismatch with the culture? Is it a fit with mission and expectations? Is it operationally savvy, or is it a square peg being fitted into a round hole? Ultimately, will this decision affirm its makers or give the impression that the emperor has no clothes?
The responses to such questions of communications may be disturbing enough to put the decision on hold. Risk analysis thus becomes perceptions analysis. Communications thus functions as an advance guard, an anticipatory manager and measurer of decision impact. Typically, decision-makers are too embedded and absorbed in the process to undertake 360-degree evaluation. They may be myopic and focused on the short term. But communications stands between the decision and those affected by it. Its allegiance is to those directly and indirectly impacted, compels awareness of both immediate and long-term consequences.
Managers are trained to see both sides of the street. Communications simulates the voices of acceptance, rejection or ambiguity. That feedback alone is sufficient to affirm or challenge the decision. In the latter instance it warns of failure or miscalculation. And its message then is clear: The decision in its present form and direction needs to be changed. And with that powerful corrective, communication establishes its value as a special and perhaps equal partner in the decision-making process. In short, reconfigured and refocused through training, the decision process becomes a double process: the decision to do something and the decision to communicate that something.
Integrative Function of Communications
Communications also has the capacity to be a broker of information input into the decision process. Managers can be given workshops on data sources as alternate communication paths. The goal is always to identify the broadest base possible on the one hand, and the durability and longevity of the life cycle of the data on the other hand. To accomplish and converge that double focus, communications has to champion the integration of information over the long term. That future dimension tests the durability not only of the product or service, but also its supporting information.
In the process, managers can appreciate the traditional persuasive power of communications as it seeks to coach various owners of information to share and to integrate sources and outcomes. Those putting forth trends, market segments and customer buying profiles tend to be lone rangers riding their own hobbyhorses and pushing to be positioned as the number-one source. Because communications alone embodies audience, it imparts the force of the collective to the decision-making process. It uniquely can serve as the gatekeeper and guardian of integrated data. If, as noted earlier, communication can serve to give voice to those impacted by decisions, here communications has to orchestrate a series of data soloists into a coordinated choir. This is particularly critical because the common lament is that there is never enough data for decision-makers. What communications brings to that perennial gap is at least the optimization of available information.
Communications as Values Advocate
The competition of data is compounded by the competition of values. Teams bring forth value-laden recommendations, which even cross-functional teams, constituted as they are as a miniature of the whole, cannot harmonize. Assumed or implicit values driving data or recommendations are like the proverbial tip of the iceberg; the full extent is buried underneath. The missing role of arbiter can be legitimately assumed by managers using communications, in at least two points in the process, beginning and end.
Communications becomes an advocate of value trees analysis, according to W. Austin Spivey, J. Michael Munson and Donald R. Spoon in “A Generic Value Tree,” appearing in the International Journal of Technology Management. Each team providing decision input has to make explicit the values driving their recommendations and, even more important, what trade-offs and alternatives can be offered to optimize broader corporate goals and mission value. Such vertical alignment can minimize unproductive conflicts. Moreover, alternatives offered can be used to negotiate upward final consensus.
But if the values process has been less than honest or total, communications may be called on to fill the values gaps. In particular, communications can stand at the receiving end and solicit values criteria for decision-making. Inevitably, ranking or prioritizing will be required. Because communications is not directly involved and does not favor any one recommendation over another, and because in effect its only allegiance is to optimizing the decision-making process, it can preside with equanimity. It enjoys the high road of the big picture, sometimes matching or even exceeding the range of senior staff, and thus when learned, grants all managers executive perspective.
Hopefully at this point, CLOs recognizing the value of communications training not only schedule such training, but also make it doubly inclusive. On the one hand, middle- and especially upper-level managers have to be persuaded by CLOs to invite and welcome communications into the decision-making process as a critical partner and ally at all levels. Minimally, in that capacity communications can serve as an early warning system, practice damage control, help to establish a more integrated base for decision-making and advocate an open-values process so that decisions are in fact multiply value-laden in alignment with company goals. On the other hand, communications professionals themselves have to be alerted by CLOs to prepare themselves for the challenge of being differently and more comprehensively perceived and used. In particular, they have to learn to envision themselves as possessing unique skills and roles not provided by any other specialization. In other words, for the training to be effective, CLOs have to go outside the box and build into the workshops, setting up both sets of participants for optimum interactive interfacing.
Communications is the supreme middleman. It presides over the cracks between which data falls. It bridges and aligns the values gaps between competing team recommendations so that the final decision can be inclusive, diverse, transparent and balanced. Above all, communications experts must directly and knowledgeably enter the management and operations fray. If they are to be brokers and advocates of vision and mission, and if they are to bring to the decision-making and operations process what is currently missing and what is uniquely theirs to provide, they must in fact act and perform like CLOs themselves. Indeed, communications so redefined may ultimately turn out be the best ally and extension of the chief learning officer. Because communications takes place not only at the top but also at every decision point across the board, it miniaturizes and diffuses its connecting power and anticipatory function throughout the entire company at every level of decision-making and information gathering. Communications properly relearned and refocused and championed by CLOs can diffuse throughout an organization its contribution of optimization—perhaps in itself the supreme mission of trainers and CLOs.
Irving H. Buchen received his Ph.D. in communications from Johns Hopkins and has taught at Cal State, University of Wisconsin and Penn State. He currently teaches communications at Florida Gulf Coast University and is a member of the business online doctoral faculty at Capella University. He also serves as management and human resources consultant at COMWELL, HR Partners and his own company Optimum Performance Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.