This is the third 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
These days communication professionals must be able to see both the forest and the trees
Communication is a complex system even in its most basic form: conversation. Like all systems, conversations are mutual interactions. A says something to B. B responds. And so begins a dialogue. If they know each other well and the parameters are clearly marked their discourse will go as expected. If not, then it is apt to be unpredictable; possibly uncontrollable; and almost always self-adjusting.
Now multiply that infinitely. What with the growing dominance of social media and the share of data it throws off, the notion of a conversation is becoming ever more complicated. To be sure, no single person nor organization can adequately converse with hundreds of friends or millions of followers. But those friends and followers are also nodes on assorted networks. Currently, more than 60 percent of the world’s online population connect through social networks, while 85 percent regularly send and receive emails. Thus, the ability to engage in these innumerable exchanges largely defines today’s communication.
Successfully managing such conversations, or any other form of communication, means being able to step back and scan all of the critical components – ideas, issues, audiences and technologies, among others. They will vary depending on the situation. Not everything will be apparent; certainly not right away. And some are bound to change throughout the process. The challenge is to recognize how, when and why the elements intersect, and with that knowledge continually build appropriate strategies and content.
Doing so requires a systems approach. This involves dealing with issues holistically rather than concentrating on their separate parts. By viewing problems in broad context – and observing how the different pieces interact and influence each other – we can look beyond what is immediately obvious to pinpoint all possible causes of a problem, and to anticipate all potential consequences.
Furthermore, thinking systemically entails seeing audiences the way they see themselves so as to identify what kinds of content are important to them. What do they need or want? How much do they already know and understand? What will they do with information once they have it?
Lastly, it means accepting the fact that as circumstances change so do outcomes; and both can be extremely uncertain. Swift and seemingly endless changes make it impractical, if not impossible, to codify communication in hard-bound rules or templates. There are too many variables and too much volatility to effectively keep reapplying even the best practices.
Still, it is quite possible to diagnose problems and determine solutions by understanding them in terms of the systems they create. Only then can we really know how best to communicate.