Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 17;   April 25, 2012: Communication Refactoring in Organizations

Communication Refactoring in Organizations

by

Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada who became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command in operation Overlord

Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada, assigned to intelligence in the Office of the Chief of Air Corps in October 1940. He became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command, where he established advanced Headquarters on the Normandy beachhead on D-Day plus one, and directed his planes in aerial cover and air support for the Allied invasion of the continent. As LTC Michael Chandler argues in his Air University thesis (2007), Gen. Quesada identified weaknesses in German air doctrine that limited their ability to prevail in the war. Specifically, German doctrine viewed air power as a tool of ground units. In effect, the German air elements were divided into silos controlled by ground unit commanders. They were therefore limited in their ability to act as a coherent force. This placed certain kinds of missions outside their ability to accomplish — specifically, missions on the scale of the theater, such as air dominance.

Something similar happens in the enterprise when its elements — here called "silos" — are unable to act in a coordinated fashion. Communication refactoring removes one obstacle to coherent action.

For more, see Chandler, Michael J., Lieutenant Colonel, USAF. "Gen Otto P. Weyland USAF: Close Air Support in the Korean War." A thesis presented to the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, U.S. Air University, 2007. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

When we discover misunderstandings, and work them out, we tend to focus on the misunderstanding at hand. Afterwards — not often enough — we ask ourselves, "Is it possible that there are some similar misunderstandings elsewhere?" If we look upon misunderstandings as potential indicators of broader difficulties, we often find opportunities to search around for other examples of that same difficulty.

For example, suppose you discover that one of the Advance Marketing (AM) teams began meeting weekly to make plans for a new product introduction. And suppose you find that they've been meeting without a representative from Customer Support (CS). This isn't good, because AM does need input from CS, and CS needs to be fully aware of what AM is planning. After investigating, you manage to correct this communication defect.

But you don't stop there. It occurs to you that other AM product introduction planning teams might be doing the same thing — that is, excluding CS. Not by intention, perhaps, but it doesn't matter why. Upon investigation you discover two AM teams that are including CS and one that isn't. So you fix the one that isn't, too. Finally, you address the problem generally between AM and CS, and that kind of omission won't be happening again. Success.

But what about the relationship between CS and the Product Development teams? Are they keeping each other as informed as they need to? Since you don't know, you investigate that, too, and you fix what you find there. More success. You keep doing this until all the connections with CS are working right.

Then you take it further. You look at all the silos, top to bottom, to determine whether all the people that need to connect with each other are actually connecting. It becomes an enterprise-wide initiative.

I call Communication refactoring is a
disciplined process of improving
communication between the
parts of an organization
this process communication refactoring. It's a method for generalizing one situational repair of organizational communications to all possible instances where it might be beneficial, throughout the organization. In this way, by improving organizational communication gradually, we help to transform the organization from a series of weakly interacting silos into a coherent whole. I say "help" because there's a lot more to do to achieve coherence, but communication refactoring is a good start.

The term refactoring is borrowed from Software Engineering, where it refers to a disciplined practice of gradually transforming a program's code, usually by a series of seemingly tiny changes, that, over time, make the code more readable, maintainable, and extensible without directly affecting its intended functionality. By analogy, communication refactoring is a disciplined process of improving communication between the parts of an organization.

You might ask, "Where else can we apply the refactoring approach to improve the effectiveness of the day-to-day interactions of organizational life?" My guess: everywhere. You can start today. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Noticing  Next Issue

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