A Little Help Please

We interrupt our free-flowing discussions about audit skills because I’m looking for help regarding some concepts I stumbled across that may connect to improving the way we communicate.  Which, when you stop and think about it, isn’t that big a leap from our discussion about innovation and creativity; at the root of both of these is the way we use connections to learn more. But I won’t belabor that correlation too much because my point is not to actually connect this to the Moneyball discussion we’ve been having; it is, as I said, to get a little help out there. 

Communication is the lifeblood of our profession. Interviews, reports, meetings, workpapers- it is all about conveying information from one person to another. I have been reading James Gleick’s book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, and, because it is about the changes that have occurred in our handling of information (from African drums to telegraph to computers to whatever it is we do in the future), it is also about communication.
In the book, Gleick introduces Claude Shannon. Considered by some to be the founding father of the electronic communications age, he worked at MIT and Bell Labs where he formulated a theory explaining the communication of information and worked on the problems of efficiently transmitting information. In part of his work, he took the classical communication model and added a new perspective.
The basic communication model (the one we were all introduced to in those Business Communications classes in college) has three points – the sender, the message, and the receiver. The focus of that model is on the sending of the message (with additional conversation around the noise that occurs which can obscure the message.) Shannon changed the focus. He turned it into five points – the input or “intelligence” to be transmitted, the transmitter (sender), the signal (the sending of the message), the receiver, and the final output or the “intelligence” received.   The ideal state in this model is for the input to be identical to the output.
Shannon effectively stood the process on its head because, rather than focusing on the sending of the message, the focus is now on the message being sent and how completely it is received. The challenge then is no longer about sending a message, it is about getting the original concept (even before it is translated into a language – in other words, the “picture” in the sender’s mind), in full, across to the receiver.  
(Just in typing the previous paragraphs I face this challenge. I have a thought in my mind [dying a lonely death] and I am trying to convey that thought, feeling, and insight across to the reader in such a way that he or she has the same thought, feeling, and insight.)
Semi-practical application. In the minds of all auditors, whatever their message medium (written report, conversation, etc.), they have in their mind a picture of what it is they are trying to say, and the challenge is putting that, full-blown, into the mind of the receiver. In some instances the failure is the medium (for example, written vs. oral), in some instances it is the noise (pre-conceived notions about audit), and in some instances it is that the auditor does not have a full understanding of the message to be sent (an incomplete picture).
Shannon’s focus on transferring the message as perfectly as possible helps us all better understand what we are trying to accomplish in our communications, and what may be impacting our ability to do so. Put it another way - whenever we feel we are having problems communicating (sometimes through the use of a blog), this approach might provide a better insight into straightening out that problem.
But, none of that is where I’m looking for help.
The next chapter in Gleick’s book describes Shannon’s work around code breaking in WWII (where, somewhat surprisingly, much of our concepts about information technology have arisen). In yet another communications model, he starts with the message, encodes it, transmits it, decodes it, and then has the final message received. During the transmission, he has added a step outside the process where the enemy cryptanalyst also receives the message. It is then the cryptanalyst’s job to eliminate the “noise” created by the code in order to find the message underneath.
Here’s where I need the help. When I see what the code breaker is doing – trying to see through the code into the message – I see an analogy to any receiver. That is, any receiver is trying to break through the noise – the unintended code – to get to the actual message. My question, has anyone seen any work in the communication field around this concept? Has there been work done around using code breaking theories in order to see through the random noise in communication?
I just have a feeling there is something important to be learned here about how we can all listen to and, maybe more importantly, hear the real message that is being sent. And I guess I did tie it to the previous posts, because I just have to know if there is a connection going on that can make all our lives a little better.

Posted on Apr 10, 2012 by Mike Jacka

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  1. I haven't seen any work on this but what I know is everyone's communication whether sent or received is interpreted through perspectives tinted by our personal life experiences and our past experiences and feelings dealing with the communicator - i.e. if you respect/ trust the communicator your interpretation and perception of the message conveyed will be colored entirely differently from another who has had very bad past experiences with the communicator of the message. They will look for hidden agendas or reject it entirely even if it is the truth etc.
  1. Mike,

    I just read your article in the Internal Auditor April 2012.  I can't help you with the reference you are looking for in the article above but like the other commenter.  i think there are some things happening that put communication on its head.  For example, the cultural reference you made in your presentation.  Was it simply a generation gap?  or Has our communication fundamentally changed from receiving information to seeking information that interests us?  For example, we no longer hum the same tunes (usually from a Broadway show) because so many people are into independent music.  Just recently have heard that many people now prefer to give away their music rather than sign a contract with a label.  We get our news in snippets because few have time to read the journal articles in The Economist, etc.  There is such a flood of information and music that it could reach the point where there is little common ground.  You can talk to your neighbor about the weeds this spring but little else.  Political correctness also plays a part in this.  We are mostly civilized human beings that rarely wander off the reservation to utter words that might offend another. Yes it is true that we may not be truly living but only existing.  In short, many of the truisms that we could assume we all shared in the past have changed with the technology.  I'm not blaming the technology but saying that there have been profound changes in our lives and there are still only 24 hours each day.

    I think we seek the information that we want rather than receive information as though we have unlimited capacity to hear or respond.  We listen selectively or not at all because there is a lot of noise.

  1. Beverly,

    Intereting you bring up the IA article.  I've gotten a lot of quetions raised about it, and plan on addressing in a blog post which is soon to come.  To your first question - no it was not generational -it included people from 20 to 50.

    But, to the rest of your comment - I think you are identifying one of the causes of the problem - the way we get information.  But I don't think that excuses people from sharing the truisms that help us define who we are. 

    And, ultimately, I am not so much making a point about what people do not know (no one of us can know everything), but about the need to have an attitude that shows a desire to learn that which is not known.

    All to say, you make some good points, and this is a very complicated issue.


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