"Communication comes up in every department. The repercussions of not communicating are vast," says Theo Theobald, co-author of Shut up and Listen! The Truth About How to Communicate at Work. "Life would be insufferable."
poor communication can be a purely practical problem. Gearbulk, a global shipping business with branches around the world, faced language and geographical difficulties, as well as a maelstrom of paperwork. With up to 60 documents per cargo, it was a logistical nightmare to track and monitor jobs, while tighter security regulations after 9/11 meant customs documents had to be ready before a ship was allowed to sail.
"It used to take a horrendous amount of time, with data entered all over the place: Word documents, spreadsheets, e-mails," says Ramon Ferrer, vice-president of global IT at Gearbulk. "We wanted an electronic system that streamlined our communications."
Installing an automated system means data is now entered only once but can be accessed by anyone in the company, wherever they are.
"Reporting is faster by a matter of months," says Ferrer. "An operational team carrying a voyage all the way across the world doesn't always have to be talking to each other â€” and we don't waste time duplicating the same information."
Given today's plethora of communication tools, it seems strange that we still have a problem communicating. But the brave new world of high-tech can create barriers â€” senior managers hide behind their computers, staff use voice mail to screen calls, and employees sitting next to each other will send e-mails rather than speak.
"Managers should get up, walk round the office and talk to people," says Matt Rogan, head of marketing at Lane4, a leadership and communications consultancy. "Face-to-face communication can't be beaten."
Communication tools can be hero or villain, depending on how they are used. "E-mail is a great displacement activity," says Theobald. "If you leave the sound on, the temptation is as great as a ringing phone. people will interrupt meetings to check their e-mails."
He recommends checking e-mail only three times a day, allocating a set period of time to deal with it.
Another bugbear is simply hitting the "reply all" button, bombarding people with information. "We had unstructured data coming at staff from left, right and centre, leaving it up to individuals to sort out," says Gearbulk's Ferrer. "Our new system has reduced e-mails and changed the way people work. It will remind you about work flow."
Information overload also means people stop listening. But there may be a deeper reason why a message fails to get through, according to Alex Haslam, professor of psychology at Exeter university.
"Everyone thinks a failure to communicate is just an individual's error of judgment, but it's not about the person: it's about the group and the group dynamics," he says. "Just training people to be good communicators isn't the issue."
The problem is that employees develop common loyalties that are far stronger than the need to share information. This can even extend to questions of safety.
"In the mid-1990s there were a lot of light air crashes in Australia because the two government departments responsible for air safety weren't communicating," says Haslam. "The government was trying to save money and both groups felt threatened. The individuals were highly identified with their own organisation and unwilling to communicate with the other department."
A company is particularly at risk when cost-cutting is in the air. Individuals withdraw into departmental loyalties out of fear. Sending such people on yet another "how to communicate" course will be pointless. Instead, Haslam believes that identifying the sub-groups within an organisation and making sure each group feels valued and respected can do far more to encourage the sharing of information. The key to communication, he says, is trust.
"You need to trust your colleagues to give you the right information at the right time. The question, "Why wasn't I told?" is a sign of lack of trust.
"The sign of a highly functioning organisation is one where not very much information is sent around. unfortunately, that's the same for a really badly functioning one."
But there is one clear difference: in the former, listening is likely to be a common activity. For truly great business communication, you need to listen as much as talk. Hopefully, you will then be able to spot potential problems before they become serious issues.