Communication Is Fundamental to Business Performance

Article excerpt

"I am programmed by V'Ger," said the probe, a mechanical device built to resemble the bald and beautiful Lt. Ilia. "I am programmed by V'Ger to observe and record normal functions of the carbon-based units infesting U.S.S. Enterprise."

Puzzled by the meaning of the phrase, an ensign asks a few minutes later, "carbon-based units?" And Doctor McCoy, responds, "human beings ... us."

According to most critics -- including my younger son -- an N.Y.U. graduate student in film studies -- Star Trek: The Motion Picture, at 1979 Paramount release, is not a great movie. But we Star Trek fans enjoyed it. And it did provide an accurate, if unusual, description of human beings as carbon-based life forms.

Analogously, as I think about the relationship between business and communication, I have come to believe that business is a communication-based activity.

Now at first, calling business communication-based may sound as alien to you as calling humans carbon-based. So, let me explain the metaphor.

While pure carbon does occur in nature -- in the forms of graphite and of diamond -- most carbon exists in combination with other elements. The meal we have just eaten provided much of its nutritional value in the form of sugars and starches, two families of carbohydrates, and carbohydrates are, as you might guess from the name, built around carbon atoms. As we breathe, we take in oxygen and we exhale a carbon-compound gas, carbon-dioxide. I could go on. But, in short, living tissues of animals, plants, and humans are made up largely of carbon-based molecules, On planet earth, physical life is, indeed, carbon-based.

So, when I say that business is communication-based, I mean to say that communication is as fundamental to business as carbon is to physical life.

More specifically, by saying that business is communication-based I mean to make three specific points. First, that we will most accurately understand the relationship between business and communication if we treat communication as formative. Second, that we will most accurately understand the functions of communication in business if we regard communication as appearing in compound rather than pure forms. And, third, that we should expect to find that communication is related to business performance. While each of these three points might benefit from detailed demonstration, I will offer only introductory comments.

I have said, first, that in understanding business we should treat communication as formative. In an important book chapter, Linda Putnam and two of her colleagues have noted that the concepts of communication and organization have been understood as related in several different ways. For example, some scholars treat communication as contained by organizational structures; some treat communication as something produced by organizational structures- and some treat communication as equivalent to organization structures. It is this later view that comes closest to -- while differing from -- my own.

In my view, it is not merely business organizations that are communication phenomena but, rather, all business transactions, whether or not they involve an organization. The foundation of all commercial activity is the voluntary exchange, involving goods, services, and money. Thus, for example, a university professor trades her or his professional services for a compensation package and both the professor and the university benefit. For my present purposes, the crucial point is that any voluntary exchange -- an exchange between employee and employer, between customer and salesperson, between manager and subordinate, between investor and owner -- requires: that participants correctly recognize each other as moral agents with property rights; and that participants have access to a system for making, receiving, and evaluating offers.

In sum, a voluntary exchange emerges from a rich network of previous interaction and the exchange itself is, inescapably, a communication event. …