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Monday, 7 May 2012

Communication barriers?


I read this very interesting report today commissioned by The Economist about the cultural and communication barriers in business (Competing across borders). 
      The survey of 500 and something executives focuses mostly on cross-cultural communication in businesses, but some findings bear relevance to communication in the workplace in general.
      One of the key findings of the report was that although companies are aware of the very high* cost of not improving the communication skills of their employees, they still fail to invest enough in language and communication training of their workforce.
      I think a similar report could be written about workplaces where computer-mediated communication is used (so basically every white-collar workplace where computers are used). I am not sure if we are aware that whatever we do in our e-mails, IMs or MSNs, on our official Facebook walls or corporate wikis will somehow affect our company --  think about misunderstandings, or lack of cooperation, or not being able to make someone complete a task -- purely because we failed to get our meaning across via the computer-mediated communication technologies.
      One of the authors of the report, Nancy Adler, professor at McGill, Canada, said “Interconnectedness through modern technology has deluded many people. There is the false assumption that just because we can reach anyone in the world so easily through email or Skype, we are, therefore, all the same.”  This is very true, but we might also add: it is also a false assumption that just because we use e-mail and Skype,  we all know what we are doing...
    I could not help but recall David Crystal's thoughts on communicating over the Internet back form 2001: "People seem to have begun to sense that they are dealing with something new, as far as their linguistic intuitions are concerned. They are realizing that their established knowledge, which has enabled them to survive and succeed in spoken and written linguistic encounters hitherto, is no longer enough to guarantee survival and success on the Internet". (Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the Internet.)
     Reading endless IM logs for my research and dealing with thousands of e-mail exchanges at work, in which even the choice of pronouns or a duplicated punctuation could offend people  (and not to mention reading all the literature on the subject), I can say for sure that we are still not sure how to navigate through this new communication battlefield. Some rules are established, yes, but most are only based on our own previous experiences from spoken, written and computer-mediated interactions, and there is no guarantee that our experience matches everyone else's experience. 
    What we do with language online is far from established, and the communication issues we face have a direct effect on interpersonal and professional relationships, and consequently on the business. 
    I am now really looking forward to a similar large scale report on this.


* 48% of the respondents said that misunderstanding and communication issues have stood in the way of major cross border transactions (page 9)


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