This is the second in a series of excerpts from the report A Matter of Perspective: A systems approach to communication and complexity. A copy of the entire report is available here
In an increasingly complex world communication matters more than ever
Complexity is everywhere. It permeates our existence from the outer reaches of space to the inner workings of our bodies. Our brains, in particular, are highly complex organisms. Not only do they manage the billions of electrical connections that keep us alive, but they store the myriad facts, experiences, impressions and memories that variably combine to form ideas. Our ideas, in turn, coincide with those of others to create equally elaborate social, political and economic systems.
Despite their intricacies, most complex systems exhibit common characteristics. Take the weather. Its simple elements – gases, solids and liquids – perpetually collide to produce powerful atmospheric disturbances. Scientists call this “emergence,” whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and cannot be predicated based on individual components. Likewise, cold fronts and warm fronts are systems within systems, each the result of its own combination of meteorological ingredients. And anyone who has witnessed a tornado or hurricane knows they rarely move along straight lines. Such unpredictability is a hallmark of complexity.
As for complex man-made systems, they often exist in the form of networks; the most familiar probably being the Internet, which is actually a network of networks. Every point on a network is known as a node. A web site such as Facebook is a node. So too is every user on Facebook. But what defines these systems is not so much the nodes themselves as how they interact.
Most interactions across networks are based on the flow of information. So understanding how information is produced, shared and perceived – in other words, communication – is vital to operating in complex systems. As systems grow more complex, communication becomes more essential. But it too gets more complicated as audiences fragment, the means to reach them expand and the amount of available data continues to swell.
Organizations, for example, must now produce content in multiple formats – and share it across a wide array media – to connect with increasingly global stakeholders. These target audiences are dividing and subdividing themselves along geographic, economic, social, cultural, political, gender, age, ethnic and religious distinctions. Such disparities affect what kinds of content they access, how they access it, and how they interpret it.
Consumers are also finding divergent ways to handle information overload. They are abridging their sources of news through tactics likes aggregation and personalization, while conversely multitasking their way across more and more media platforms.
Of course none of this happens in a vacuum. Communication is part of larger systems which constantly entangle it in issues and events that wreck havoc on even the most deliberate strategies.
We are, however, developing means to not only become more aware of complexity, but to cope with it as well. The spread of social media, improvements in data analytics and advances in the cognitive sciences are introducing more accurate tools and techniques. We are still learning to use them and, if history is any guide, hype will exceed reality. Nonetheless, they will ultimately prove their worth.
At the same time, we continue to enhance the capacity of traditional media by finding better ways to use text, video, audio and graphic design. Yet simply developing new skill sets will not suffice. Taking full advantage of both contemporary and conventional methods also demands adopting new mind sets. We have to think differently about every part of the communication process.