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.