Meeting the Challenges of Communicating in a Large, Complex, Heterogenous Enterprise

02/25/2013 05:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013
  • Dr. Ricardo Azziz Regents' Professor, Augusta University (AU); former founding president, Georgia Regents University (now AU) and former founding CEO, Georgia Regents Health System

Communicating in a large, heterogeneous and complex enterprise can be difficult, very much like trying to make waves by throwing a pebble into a tar pit. This is true whether an organization is mission-based, margin-based or a combination of both. The challenges for many organizations and leaders at all levels include:

• Quantity--Receiving a constant influx of information makes it hard to distinguish important from unimportant data, particularly amid a busy schedule. Consequently, many of us ignore most communications media (emails, newsletters, newspapers, etc.) or opt out of public dialogues (e.g., open forums).

• Size--Breadth and depth creates an environment in which it is generally not possible to personally reach every member of a large enterprise directly.

• Relevance--Interest in a message can vary widely depending on your role in the enterprise.

• Accountability--Supervisors and administrators may fail to carry a message forward, believing that communication isn't their responsibility.

• Culture--Some large organizations often lack a culture of transparency, which leads to a lack of systems to communicate broadly, as well as a general level of apathy and skepticism.

These obstacles are very real, but they can be overcome. Transparent and timely communication is a key leadership responsibility requiring dedicated effort and time. Communication is important, if not critical, in ensuring alignment of an organization's multiple stakeholders and constituencies, particularly during a time of change. When stakeholders complain they don't know what their leaders are doing, and those leaders complain their constituents don't understand their actions, the culprit is simple: failed communication.

Communication enhances leadership not only by moving messages forward, but by ensuring accountability. Taking time to communicate a message requires articulating the reasoning behind a decision. Unfortunately, busy leaders and managers often spend little time communicating their thoughts and actions to those they serve. Employees and external communities more readily accept both positive and negative outcomes when they feel they understand the reasoning behind decisions. Open, frequent and transparent communication is a major tool and obligation of leadership.

Transparency is fundamental when attempting to align large, complex organizations of individuals with different backgrounds, priorities and perspectives. However, data without a measure of education and background does not produce transparency. Provide the tools to ensure appreciation and understanding of the information being conveyed. Offer enough background and context to enable people to reach their own conclusions. Explain the purpose of your actions and how they will be used. The education needed may be as simple as a footnote, or it may be complex enough to require ongoing education in the principles of business and strategic thinking.

Communication, like the process of education itself, should be iterative and repetitive, stressing major points that will form and inform the language of the communities your enterprise serves. It's hard to overdo communication that is clear, concise, up-to-date and relevant. Provide basic data, then offer access (for instance, through an imbedded link or Web site) to more data if needed. Communication should be predictably unpredictable to maintain interest, but also sufficiently frequent to provide continuity and a storyline.

Of course, even the best communication is meaningless if the message is ignored. If you are on the receiving end of a message, accept responsibility for keeping yourself well-informed. Read printed information. Watch videotaped messages. Attend open forums. Strive to keep an open mind, attempting to understand the background and context of the message, and keep listening for further developments in the storyline.

Resist the easy temptation to demonize the message or messenger or both, assuming there is much more hidden behind the message that you are not being made aware of. In fact, a message is usually just that, a bit (or byte) of information. It may appear to carry with it or to reflect more than shows. And to a great degree that is true, because true messaging in a complex, heterogeneous, transforming environment is part of a larger ongoing morphing dialogue. If you do not keep up with the dialogue (and not just by listening to the one source you find convenient), you may find that the message somehow alludes to more than you know.

Thus, there are responsibilities on both sides of the house. Leaders and managers must strive to take time away from their busy schedules to communicate developments, decisions and the reasoning behind them on a regular basis. Employees and other stakeholders should strive to embrace these, understand them and consider them within the broader storyline of the mission and vision of your enterprise.