Saturday, April 18, 2009

Corporate (Mis)communication!!

What Is Communication? Communication is defined as a process by which we assign and convey meaning in an attempt to create shared understanding. This process requires a vast repertoire of skills in intrapersonal and interpersonal processing, listening, observing, speaking, questioning, analyzing, and evaluating. Use of these processes is developmental and transfers to all areas of life: home, school, community, work, and beyond. It is through communication that collaboration and cooperation occur.

Communication is the process of transferring information from one source to another. Communication is therefore the articulation of sending a message through different media, whether it be verbal or nonverbal, as a being transmits a thought provoking idea, gesture, action, etc. Communication is a learned skill. Most babies are born with the physical ability to make sounds, but must learn to speak and communicate effectively. Speaking, listening, and our ability to understand verbal and nonverbal meanings are skills we develop in various ways. We learn basic communication skills by observing other people and modeling our behaviors based on what we see. We also are taught some communication skills directly through education, and by practicing those skills and having them evaluated.

There are also many common barriers to successful communication, two of which are message overload (when a person receives too many messages at the same time), and message complexity.

How all human communication fails, except by accident, or a commentary of "Wiio's laws": Wiio's laws are humoristically formulated serious observations about how human communication usually fails except by accident. This document comments on the applicability and consequences of the laws, especially as regards to communication on the Internet.

Professor Osmo Antero Wiio (born 1928) is a famous Finnish researcher of human communication. He has studied, among other things, readability of texts, organizations and communication within them, and the general theory of communication. In addition to his academic career, he has authored books, articles, and radio and TV programs on technology, the future, society, and politics. He formulated "Wiio's laws" when he was a member of parliament (1975-79) and published them in Wiion lait - ja vähän muidenkin (Wiio's laws - and some others'; in Finnish).

1. Communication usually fails, except by accident: This is the fundamental one among Wiio's laws; others are corollaries from it, examples of it, or vaguely related notes. It is easy to see the relationship between it and Murphy's law(s) (see also: The Complete Edition of Murphy's Laws) and it is easy to see as just a humorously pessimistic expression of feelings caused by some specific failures, strengthened by pessimistic people's tendency to remember failures better than successes. Perhaps Prof. Wiio did not mean quite this. That would just prove law 3. And if he did, that would provide an additional example of the very law 1, since people who have read about the laws seem to take them as sarcastic humour only. The law is to be interpreted as relating to human communication. Communication between computers (and animals) often works quite well. Human communication uses vaguely defined symbols. It has often been said, quite appropriately, that it is the use of symbols, i.e. the ability to define symbols for permanent or casual use, that separates man from (other) animals. It is also the thing that makes human communication fail, as a rule. One reason for this is that by being conventional by their very essence, symbols are prone to misunderstanding. You use a word thinking it has a specific meaning by a convention; but the recipient of your message applies a different convention; what's worse, you usually have no way of knowing that.

Let us list some examples of why human communication fails: Language differences, Cultural differences, Personal differences and Just having some data lost.

Remember that the laws of statistics are against you: even if the probabilities of failures were small when taken individually (they aren't), for success you would need a situation where none of them happens. A single misunderstanding in any essential area destroys the message. If you know some arithmetics, you can see that the odds are really against you. Just take a simple example where communication can fail for twenty different reasons (which is a huge underestimate). Assuming that the probability of failure is just 0.1 for each of them (unrealistically optimistic), calculations show that you'll succeed with the probability (1-0.1) to the power 20, which is about 12%

1.1 If communication can fail, it will: The factors that can make human communication fail might not be very serious, when each of them is taken in isolation. However, there are so many risks and they can interact in so many ways that it is statistically almost certain that communication fails.

1.2 If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails: Even if you pay great attention to make your communication unambiguous, effective, and understandable, there will still be too many risks you haven't taken care of. Moreover, your measures are at best functional most of the time, which means that the combined probability for your communication to fail in at least one of the ways in which it could fail is higher than you dare to imagine.

1.3 If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there's a misunderstanding: When communication seems to be simple, easy and successful, it's probably a total failure. The recipient looks happy and thankful, because he understood your message his way, which is what he likes, and very different from what you were actually saying.

An old Usenet saying tells us that to every complex question, there is an answer which is simple, understandable, and pleasant, and plain wrong. People love to accept simple answers; only later do they realize they were wrong. More harmfully, many wrong answers have the nasty feature of "working" at first sight. It's much more harmful to get such an answer than to get an answer which turns out to be bogus the first time you try it.

1.4 If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails: Being content with the formulation of your message is a sure sign of having formulated it for yourself.

2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage: This Murphyistic remark is a warning about the very real possibility that ambiguities will be resolved in just the way you did not mean. Notice that this does not mean the worst misunderstanding you can imagine; rather, something worse - an interpretation you could not have imagined when you formulated your message.

3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message: People who understand you can be a real nuisance. It might take some time before you see that they completely failed to see what you meant, but that does not prevent them for propagating their ideas as yours.

4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds: There's a widespread superstition that the more you communicate the better. In reality, increasing the amount of communication most probably just causes more misunderstandings. There are people who keep repeating that there can't be too much information. Whether that's literally true is debatable. What they mean (cf. to law 3) is just plain wrong. There can be, and there is, too large a volume of messaging. Data does not equal information.

4.1 The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate: In addition to reformulating law 4, this refers to the fact that repetition strengthens false ideas. When people see the same message repeated over and over again, they usually start believing it. Even if your message happened to be true, they misunderstood it, so what they actually believe is not what you meant. And since the message has been presented so strongly, they tell it to their friends, who propagate it further, etc. Naturally, in that process, it gets distorted more and more.

5. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be: This law is just remotely related to the basic law. It is however more and more important: mass communication creates a world of its own, and people orient themselves in that virtual world rather than the real one. After all, reality is boring!

6. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance: Even more remote to our main topic, this simply states that events close to us look much more important to us than remote events. When there is an aircraft accident, its importance in Finnish newspapers basically depends on whether there were any Finns on board, not on the number of people that died. It is however relevant to law 1 in the sense that it illustrates one of the reasons why communication fails. No matter what you say, people who receive your message will interpret and emphasize in their own reference framework.

7. The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago: Similarly to law 6, this illustrates one of the causes of failures in communication. It applies both to senders and recipients. The recipient tends to forget relevant things, such as items which have been emphatically presented in the message as necessary requirements for understanding the rest of it. And the sender, upon receiving a request for clarification, such as a question during a lecture, will certainly be able to formulate an adequate, easy to understand answer - afterwards, when the situation is over.

Despite being entertaining, "Wiio's laws" are valid observations about all human communication. For any constructive approach to communication, we need to admit their truth and build upon them, instead of comfortably exercizing illusionary communication. As a constructive summary, we can just state that you cannot communicate successfully. You can only increase the odds of accidental success by paying serious attention to the laws discussed above. One example is the Dilbert comics, which often illustrate strikingly the ways in which human communication fails, especially when related to hi tech. In particular, communication between Dilbert and his boss is guaranteed to fail, since the boss has no idea of the content of the activities he "manages."

Following is an example to illustrate the above points/laws:


From: Managing Director

To: Vice President

"Tomorrow morning there will be a total eclipse of the Sun at nine o'clock. This is something which we cannot see everyday. So let all employees line up outside, in their best clothes to watch it. To mark the occasion of this rare occurrence, I will personally explain the phenomenon to them. If it is raining we will not be able to see it very well and in that case the employees should assemble in the canteen."


From: Vice President

To: General Manager

"By order of the Managing Director, there will be a total eclipse of the Sun at nine o' clock tomorrow morning. If it is raining we will not be able to see it in our best clothes, on the site. In this case the disappearance of the Sun will be followed through in the canteen. This is something we cannot see happening everyday."


From: General Managers

To: Industry Managers

"By order of the Managing Director, we shall follow the disappearance of the Sun in our best clothes, in the canteen at nine o' clock tomorrow morning. The Managing Director will tell us whether it is going to rain. This is something which we cannot see happening everyday."


From: Industry Managers

To: Location Heads

"If it is raining in the canteen tomorrow morning, which is something that we cannot see happening everyday, the Managing Director in his best clothes, will disappear at nine o' clock."


From: Location Heads

To: Marketing Executives

"Tomorrow morning at nine o' clock, the Managing Director will disappear without his clothes. It's a pity that we can't see this happening everyday."

Note: Information gathered courtesy Wikipedia.

Photographs: Comic strips from "Dilbert" - a satirical take on various everyday "work/office" and by extension "life" scenarios.

Note on "Dilbert" - for the uninitiated - (first published April 16, 1989) is an American comic strip written and drawn by Scott Adams. Dilbert is known for its satirical office humour about a white-collar, micromanaged office featuring the engineer Dilbert as the title character. Dilbert is the eponymous main character of the Dilbert comic strip. He has a rare condition characterized by an extreme intuition about all things mechanical and electrical (and utter social ineptitude), an idea that was explored in the animated television episode titled "The Knack". He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Although his ideas are typically sensible and occasionally even revolutionary, they are seldom carried out because of his powerlessness. He is easily frustrated by the incompetence of his co-workers (most often the Pointy-Haired Boss) and is often sarcastic and snide. For more details please log on to:


  1. It was interesting to read Prologue and Epilogue of the post. :)

  2. Thanks for the review.

    The prologue and epilogue of this particular post only serves to reinforce the points/laws mentioned in the post...