Communication: The Problem


The Problem

        The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein identified some interesting problems of language.  Language is a logical system through which we communicate.  Language is also that through which we very often fail to understand what is being conveyed to us, that is – it is that through which we fail to communicate clearly.  Although we may share an agreed-upon vocabulary and work within similar logical constraints (i.e. conventions of syntax and grammar), we often persist in failing to understand one another.

        Wittgenstein proposed that we use personal language-games.  This is to say – we each invent our own private language games in which what we mean by the words, phrases and concepts we use are probably clear to us but may not necessarily be clear and unambiguous to other people we are attempting to communicate with.  Clusters of concepts, mental associations, attributed values, personal memories and each of our own unique and semi-independent emergent rules and evolving algorithms of connectivity and conceptual recombination characterise these internal language-games.  We may have a clear internal, personal meaning of what we are attempting to communicate when we formulate a message but unless we are very cautious this message may rely too greatly on our internal language-games of meaning.

        Part of this problem lies in the fact that we must necessarily abbreviate our meanings into bite-sized (comprehensible) pieces when we communicate.  If I was hell-bent on delivering a completely unambiguous message and meaning to you, I may choose to explain to you my thoughts in extraordinary and very likely mind-numbingly tedious detail. This would transgress social norms and also in most circumstances leave you skimming the text for emotionally or contextually charged words.  If you are skimming my text, then you are performing an abbreviation and time-saving method which all but guarantees that the message you interpret or translate is not the one I had intended to convey.

In semantics, context is everything.

Organisational Solutions

        The organisational requirement for clarity and brevity in communication can cause what may be unavoidably more complex and subtle meanings to be lost.  When a more complex system of communications and information analysis is being engaged with, modelled or restructured – it is not uncommon for new languages, methodologies and conventions to develop.  The development of new languages and methodologies for communication and organisation can also bring with it a fairly hefty overhead of complexity and potential ambiguity.  This of course necessarily also creates niches in the information and communications ecosystem for the experts and high-priests of jargonised methodologies to emerge and thrive.  (Case in point: ITIL).

        Intra-organisational (i.e. internal) communication relies on clarity and brevity for effectiveness.  Explicit technical documentation and procedural direction are amenable to clear and concise language but the inherent ambiguity of communication is often not resolved, it is usually displaced to another location.  The induction and training of staff into technical skill-sets and conceptual vocabularies is a cost to any organisation and this is also an example of the way that the requirements for reducing ambiguity to make communication and collaboration more effective can also simply relocate the cost.  In the case of the requirement for training staff – the inertia caused by ambiguity in communication represents a negative synergy that is then transferred to another location of training and upskilling staff so merely becomes a different cost (of money and time) in a different place.

        The juggling of costs and benefits is the art of management. The advantage of a shared methodology or best practice can be that skills sets are interchangeable and interoperable between organisations and sub-components of organisations.  Shared methodologies and their explicit vocabularies represent one solution to the ambiguities of communication in practical circumstances.  It may be important to note that best practice methodological solutions tend to be rigid and inflexible and do not adapt well to rapidly changing circumstances.

Different language-games and their inherent communicative ambiguities can unintentionally create conflict.

Message Delivery

        Language and communication provides a narrow aperture through which we most often only see a vague and blurry sketch of the intended meaning.  Written language differs significantly from spoken,  conversational interchanges.  In a verbal interaction it is to be expected that someone will repeat themselves possibly several times and in several different ways while checking that they are being understood and modifying the message as necessary to massage a more successful message delivery.  Written language is committed to the page, screen or network and is (generally) unalterable after that point.  If the words used are not cautiously and thoughtfully constructed it is probable that the intended meaning will be obscured and coherent message delivery will fail.

        It perhaps a matter of subtle analysis, empathy and foresight to be able to consider the likely places where the meanings of a message may break down and require reconstruction, resending or the use of alternative channels to facilitate effective communication.


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