This is the seventh 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
What we don’t know can hurt us
The classic science fiction film Alien was originally promoted with the tag line “in space no one can hear you scream.” Not so in cyberspace where just about everything is audible. Which makes it possible for organizations to constantly monitor their environments for any signs of opportunity or misfortune. Scores of communication managers thus believe that thanks to social media all they have to do is sit back and passively listen to the conversations of target audiences. With any luck everything they need to know will eventually cross their paths.
Complex systems, however, aren’t nearly so accommodating. For every situation that arises, there can be multiple causes; some so minute they are, at first, imperceptible. To further confound matters, equally small and barely visible changes can produce an erratic chain of events that ultimately results in problems that are too big to ignore. This is the basis of chaos theory, a mathematical principle that was highlighted in another science fiction classic, Jurassic Park.
On those occasions when organizations accurately source their problems they still may not be able to correctly gauge the outcome, since cause and effect are not always closely related in time or space. It may take awhile before actual consequences are indentified; sometimes only after reaching several false conclusions. Under these conditions successful communication is a process of trial and error.
Even when an organization’s observations are spot on, its reading of a situation may not square with that of its audience. Sundry studies have shown that two or more people can experience the same event and come away with very different impressions. This is a variation of a phenomenon known as “selective perception,” which can sometimes pit companies against consumers.
Consider Netflix’s hapless attempt during the summer of 2011 to raise its prices. While there is probably never a good time to jack up customers’ subscription fees by as much as 60 percent, doing so in the midst of a national debate over the debt ceiling and government default was especially untimely. The political ruckus subjected constituents to a heightened sense of economic uncertainty; and when people are uncertain they are much more resistant to change. So the increase was deemed unacceptable by a great many subscribers.
Meanwhile, Netflix was focused on a separate economic dilemma. Forecasts revealed that its content costs were slated to increase a billion dollars by the end of the year, making it obvious, at least to the company, that the $8 a month it was charging subscribers could no longer support the ongoing delivery of high-quality streaming videos. Hence, the new fees probably seemed quite reasonable to Netflix. But in a series of bewildering explanations, CEO Reed Hastings failed to make the case and was unable to sync customers’ concerns with the company’s financial jam.
Hastings may have had more success had both he and his subscribers perceived the big picture and grasped each other’s predicaments. But truth is there are a great many things going on in the world locally, nationally and globally; some quite discernible, the rest initially taking place mostly out of earshot. Simply listening to conversations may not be enough. For example, before the Arab Spring erupted, Middle Eastern governments regularly tracked citizens’ communications. Yet no one foresaw that the death of a vegetable vendor in a Tunisian town would start toppling regional dominoes, some of which are still teetering.
In complex systems, context matters. Just as in journalism, the who, what, when, where, why and how must all be taken into account. Individually they send very different messages than the stories they tell as a whole.