Communication – Not Simply ‘A Transfer of Information’

The front page of a number of papers this morning carried the story that international pilots’ lack of English was causing potential disaster situations. Although English is supposed to be the international language of air traffic control systems around the world, and all pilots and air traffic controllers are supposed to have an internationally recognised qualification in English, the truth is that many of the people receiving the certification do not have the necessary level of skills. This are not just occasional one-off failures – the reports highlight the fact that’s some countries have institutionalised by-passing the necessary controls in order to give significant numbers of people the qualification, even when they are clearly not up to standard.

The Level 4 qualification that is the minimum level that all pilots are supposed to achieve certifies that they have a level of English that allows them to speak on aviation-related topics with accuracy and clarity, resolve misunderstandings and react to an unexpected turn of events. Give the pressure that any pilot or air traffic controller will be under as soon as a non-normal situation arises, the likelihood is that under such pressure, language skills will lessen even further, and the failure to create an effective communication channel between air traffic control and the pilot could mean that a situation that would otherwise have been handled as a relatively routine incident can almost immediately escalate into a major incident, and potentially a catastrophic disaster.
At the start of every course that I run, I ask the participants (all of whom are experienced risk, crisis and business continuity managers) ‘What is the number one cause of problems in security management programmes?’. The answer ‘Communication’ is usually either the first or the second option they offer me.

The truth is, that however well we might prepare our incident response programmes, once something goes wrong, we will need to put together a plan, distribute information, confirm positions, update the various teams, re-assess the situation, be aware of potential issues, and try to maintain a continually evolving four dimensional picture of all of the pieces that go together to make an effective response programme. It is hardly surprising that it is the management of the information exchange that is both the first thing to go wrong, and the failure that causes greatest problems.

Most people, if asked, will reply that ‘communication’ is something along the lines of ‘transfer of information’. And that is certainly not wrong. However, it fails to capture the full nature of crisis management communication.

The first thing we can add is rather than being the simple ‘transfer of information’, communication is ‘the transfer of complex information’. A crisis management message will often have a number of constituent parts, each of which are critical to the full understanding of both the current situation, but also to understand the requirements that are needed, whether it is to respond to that situation as it is, or to prevent it from escalating / deteriorating to a worse condition.

The second addition we can make to our original statement is that ‘Communication is the transfer of complex information under pressure’. There is always the background pressure of the general operating environment, but there may well be the specific pressures associated with a particular event which has just happened, or is just about to happen. The person transmitting the information may be aware of the catastrophic consequences of the failure of the person receiving the information both to understand its significance and then to take the appropriate avoiding actions. There may often not be enough time to go over and explain the message again, so there is the pressure to get it right, first time.

And the final thing we can add to the original definition is that ‘Communication is the transfer of complex information under pressure, to multiple stake-holders’. This means that any information that is needed to be transmitted / transferred, will need to go to multiple people who are either involved in the specific incident or who will be affected by the actions that those people who are involved in the situation will need to take to prevent or avoid that situation from happening or escalating.

As I often say in my lectures, within a crisis management scenario, the most significant role of the crisis management team is to not to make decisions or to give instructions, but to ensure that information flows smoothly and freely around the multi-agency frameworks, so that as much as possible all the players in the game have an on-going and updated ‘Common Operating Picture’ at all times.

Once we have the understanding that ‘communication’ is ‘the transfer of complex information under pressure to multiple stake-holders’, it puts into perspective the demands that effective communications puts on any operations manager, and highlights the reason why communications is likely to be the critical component that fails once a crisis is triggered.

David Rubens
3rd April, 2017
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