Business communication explained

by Matt Bochenski

Business communication explained

Your business depends on the successful sharing of information — and so do your employees. Yet 66% of companies lack a long-term plan for their internal business communication. Why is this such a critical mistake? What are the most common communication challenges, and how can you avoid them?

What is business communication?

Communication matters. In every arena of our lives, we have a fundamental need to share and receive information. Without effective communication, we can’t make ourselves heard, connect to our peers, and ultimately achieve our goals. This is particularly applicable in the workplace, where cooperation determines the success of individuals, teams, or even an entire business.

This is what we mean by 'business communication’: your ability to communicate with every other member of your organization, and their ability to communicate with each other.

It’s a simple concept, yet one that has a significant impact on the health of your business. Business communication underpins almost every aspect of your day-to-day operations. From leadership to staff training, project collaboration to resource management, there are few activities that don’t rely on the successful sharing of information and ideas.

The importance of getting this right should be self-evident, but there’s also a significant body of research that points to the value on offer. Studies suggest that organizations with effective business communication are more profitable, more productive, and enjoy higher employee retention. Despite this, most businesses fall short when it comes to strategizing their internal comms. While 70% use plans to support specific campaigns and initiatives, only a third (33%) have a document that details their longer-term strategy for internal communications.

This is a mistake. To fully appreciate this, it’s worth taking a moment to explore why every company should care about its business communication.

Why you should care about business communication

Communication helps workers meet their need to connect

In the middle of the twentieth century, psychologist Abraham Maslow published his academic paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. Within this he revealed his now-famous Hierarchy of Needs. It's a pyramid-shaped diagram that arranges human requirements in an ascending progression from basic needs — those we need to survive — through to our psychological needs, and then finally those that fuel our sense of fulfillment.

Maslow’s Hierarchy states that once human beings have met their physiological needs (food, water, warmth and rest) and are in a position of safety and security, a sense of belonging is the next thing we value the most. The desire to connect to our peers is an essential element of our everyday wellbeing.

And this isn’t just a theory: more recent research has found physical evidence that proves Maslov was right. Scans of human brain activity show that whenever we’re not busy with an active task, our brains default to thinking about other people and what’s going in their heads: their thoughts, emotions and goals.

"A workplace with strong business communication is more likely to make employees happy"

In short, human beings are hardwired for social connection — and needless to say, communication is the lifeblood of connection. Our interpersonal relationships rely on the back-and-forth exchange of information; on a grander scale, the sharing of goals and values is what makes us feel part of things that are larger than ourselves. And this is just as applicable to our work lives as it is to our personal endeavours.

What does this all mean for business leaders? Your employees have to be able to communicate. If they can’t for some reason — they lack the right tool or forum, or they don’t feel empowered to speak up — then their basic needs aren’t being met. They’re probably unhappy, and this is something you should care about. Not just for the sake of human decency, but also because unhappy workers are less productive and more likely to quit their jobs.

On the other hand, the opposite is also true: a workplace with strong business communication is more likely to make employees happy, which leads to higher productivity.

In short: an investment in your tech is an investment in your people.

Engaged workers are the best workers

As we’ve established, providing good communication channels and the culture to support them is key to your workforce's wellbeing. But if that’s not a strong enough incentive for you, consider this: when you get business communication right, your employees will be more engaged with their work and with the company as a whole.

And time and time again, research has shown that engaged workers are also better for your bottom line.

Gallup’s Q12 Meta Analysis report is one of the numerous publications that support this idea. “This study confirms what Gallup has seen with previous meta-analyses,” said the research institute. “Employee engagement consistently affects key performance outcomes, regardless of the organization's industry or company.”

MIT research has also found that the most engaged employees are informed about their company and have more direct communication with their managers. But in most companies, only a small fraction of the workforce is fully engaged. Fifty percent of employees are unclear about the direction of the business, while 84% say that they don’t get enough information from their leaders.

The prospect of fully engaging the entirety of your workforce may seem daunting or unrealistic, but as we’ll see, new technology can provide significant help. And it’s a goal worth pursuing. When your employees have full visibility of the company mission, and you've empowered them to join company-wide conversations, they become personally invested in the business.

This workforce-wide sense of collective ownership is something that every business can achieve, but doing so requires a strong internal communication culture, supported by the right tools and channels. While it may take time and money to establish this culture, the opportunities on offer provide a strong motivation for the investment.

As should the pitfalls that may arise if you neglect this area of your business.

When you get it wrong, the whole organization suffers

Because good communication is the cornerstone of so many aspects of modern business, problems can snowball in its absence. If an employee has an issue that stops them from sharing or receiving the information they need, the disruption spreads far beyond that lone worker. It impacts everyone who relies on that individual and, in turn, potentially all the people who depend on them.

In short, when your workforce can’t communicate properly, the business ceases to function as it should. This can lead to expensive errors. A recent survey of 400 corporations concluded that communication issues had cost them $37 billion over a single year.

While any number of factors can contribute to communication problems, one of the most common causes is a lack of investment in the right tools and channels. More than a third of workers worldwide believe that outdated technology and processes are making their jobs harder than they should be. Frontline employees are even more likely to hold this opinion — which is hardly surprising when you consider that the majority of frontline communication still relies on pencil and paper.

As tempting as it may be to ‘make do’ with outdated technology, the cost of inefficiency far outweighs the short-term savings. Few businesses would consider using old channels for their external communications — relying solely on radio ads and paper flyers for their marketing efforts, for example.This is an area where it’s essential to keep pace and explore the latest platforms at your disposal. Why should your internal comms be any different?

And regardless of whether you stay up to date with communications technology, the younger members of your workforce certainly will.

Gen Zs expect you to care about business communication

Most estimates forecast that Generation Z now accounts for between a quarter to a third of the global workforce. Regardless of the exact figure, it’s clear that this young demographic will account for an increasing proportion of your employees over the next decade. If you want to attract the best talent from this generation, you’ll need to meet their expectations of a modern workplace.

The most obvious of these expectations is a demand for the latest tools and platforms. The link between tech and Gen Z is so commonly cited that it’s almost a cliché, but the research certainly supports the connection.

One recent global survey found that 80% of Gen Z respondents want to work with cutting edge technologies, and the same percentage believed that tech will contribute to a fairer workplace. Yet Gen Z is hardly alone in holding this opinion. Millennials are equally likely to see this a key factor in choosing a job, which should further underscore the importance of investing in this area.

But while your younger employees will certainly expect their workplace to match — if not outpace — the technology they use in their personal lives, this only tells part of the story. Because Gen Z is also defined by its emphasis on human values.

For all their love of tech, the overwhelming majority of Gen Z workers care deeply about the ‘human element’ in their jobs. They want to work with colleagues who challenge and motivate them, who are open to collaboration and collective thinking, and available when they need to ask for help. In fact, ‘supportive leadership’ and ‘positive relationships at work’ are the top two most-desired traits in a potential new job.

Company leaders must take a holistic approach to business communication. Adopting the right tools is an important part of the process, but you must support it with a strategy that creates the right culture — where people are encouraged to talk and listen.

You should now understand why it’s essential to have a long-term plan for business communication — and why the 67% of businesses who don’t are taking a serious risk. Perhaps the best way to start is by examining the seven most common forms of company communication.

What are the most common forms of business communication?

There are seven distinct forms of communication. The major difference between them is the type of information people are sharing, the timing of its sharing, and the direction the information follows as it moves through your company.

As you’ll see, there's a degree of overlap between forms — but for now, it’s helpful to discuss them as separate entities. We’ll start by exploring the different directions in which information can be communicated.

Top-down business communication

Top-down communication is traditionally associated with leadership. It’s a trait found in social hierarchies — situations where there’s a group of people - with one person (or several) in charge.

When leaders want to communicate with the rest of their team, department, or perhaps even the entire company, the information is passed down through the management chain until, in theory, it reaches everyone.

Top-down communication's strength is that it allows leaders to tightly control the spread of information, as they can tailor details for audiences at each stage. For example, when a CEO wishes to implement a policy change, the basic facts stay the same as the news travels throughout the company. However, at each step, new information or more detailed instructions can be added to help employees implement the policy.

Of course, this structure also carries risks. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link: if one person fails to convey information accurately, their mistake gets passed on to everyone else. By the time anybody spots the error, the wrong information is already out there.

For businesses, top-down communication is essential. It allows leaders to share their vision for the company, set agendas, and direct behavior across the workforce. But it's also based on a questionable assumption: the CEO is the all-knowing master of his - and it was usually a 'his' - realm. At heart, top-down communication stems from the idea that leaders talk while others listen.

Today, we see a shift in attitudes. We're beginning to understand that leadership is listening. And this means senior executives need to pay attention to the information flowing the other way through their organization.

Bottom-up business communication

This is the opposite of top-down communication. Here information starts from the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder and moves upwards, with leadership being the last in line to receive it.

Once again, the success of bottom-up communication is determined by the people's reliability at each step of the chain. As we’ll discuss below, there’s a two-fold problem here. Firstly, most business leaders don’t believe that they need to listen to their frontline, so they don’t promote a culture that encourages people to speak up. Even if they do, employees typically lack the tools that make it easy to pass information up the chain of command.

Despite these hurdles, bottom-up communication can and should play an integral role in your business. Everyone in your company has a different perspective. Creating open lines of communication with your frontline staff will provide valuable intelligence on everything from what your customers are thinking to the efficiency of your manufacturing processes.

And as we’ve already discussed, when you give your workers a voice, it makes them feel connected to the broader business — which is good for them and good for your bottom line.

Lateral business communication

Also known as horizontal communication, this is the most common form of information exchange. Lateral communication takes place between people at the same level: it’s what happens when team members talk about a project they’re working on, or when store managers share best practice.

Lateral communication can unfold across almost any medium you can think of. The critical factors here are that your employees can access the channels that best suit their working needs, and they then adopt them universally.

In short, adoption matters. So while many platforms support lateral communication, it’s important to ensure that you’re not using too many of them. Fewer channels mean less onboarding, which in turn makes it easier to aim for company-wide uptake. After all, there’s no point in training a single department in a powerful tool if no-one else in the business knows how to use it.

Synchronous and asynchronous business communication

Top-down, bottom-up, and lateral communication describe the direction that information follows as it flows through your organization. The four remaining forms of communication are all concerned with its speed and timing.

As their names suggest, synchronous and asynchronous communication exist in direct opposition to each other. In synchronous communication, information is shared back and forth with immediacy, or at least something close to it: one person says something, and then the recipient responds as soon as they process what they’ve read or heard.

Speech is the most obvious form of synchronous communication, but instant messaging tools also fall under this category. When you send someone a message on a chat app, you typically expect to get a reply back pretty swiftly. If the recipient takes too long to respond, frustration sets in — you’ll likely try another means of contacting them, or speak to someone else entirely.

With asynchronous communication channels, there’s an understanding that there will be a gap between the initial message and any response. Posted letters are the classic medium of asynchronous communication, but email and message boards are more relevant examples in today’s workplace.

The important thing to know about synchronous and asynchronous channels is that your business needs both of them. Synchronous communication lets you share information at speed; asynchronous communication ensures that information is there when the recipient needs it.

If you try to use asynchronous tools for synchronous communication — or vice-versa — problems arise. We’ll explore this further in the next section of this article.

Static and dynamic business communication

Static communication describes any information that’s designed to remain consistent over time. Dynamic communication describes the information that people are continually updating.

The best way to understand static communication - sometimes known as “cold” communication - is that it's permanent. Think employee handbooks, HR policies, work from home advice, or technical support pages. These are all things that tend to be associated with a company intranet: you probably won't search for them every day, but you expect them to be available on the rare occasions when employees need them.

In contrast, dynamic communication - sometimes known as ‘hot’ communication - is information that recipients can change or update. The whole point of dynamic communication is for multiple individuals to alter information together collectively. Digital collaboration tools have made dynamic communication a core element of the modern workplace, enabling entire teams to work on the same documents at once.

Static communication makes a record and provides a point of reference. Dynamic communication is all about collaboration.

Each of these communication forms has a different role to play, and your employees will need to use them efficiently if your business is to flourish.

Next, we’ll examine some of the most common communication problems that tend to arise, along with their solutions.

Common business communication challenges (and how to solve them)

Synchronous communications don’t work well at scale

Picture a scenario where you’re with five friends, and you’re all taking part in the same conversation. Nice and straightforward, right? But if another eight people were to show up, it would be significantly tricker for everyone to make themselves heard.

Now imagine the same scene but with 50 people all trying to participate in the same conversation. Absolute chaos.

That’s the main criticism of synchronous communication channels. Chat apps, conference calls and in-person meetings are all designed for swift exchanges of information, where each participant can express their views. The more people who join, the more noise there is — until eventually the channel becomes unusable for everyone.

The solution: The important thing here is to control the situation and to limit excess noise. The most obvious way to do this is to break a large group into several smaller ones. But if everyone has to be involved in the same conversation, set rules that determine who can speak and when. For example, nominate a few participants to act as spokespeople for their peers, and have someone act as a chair who controls the conversation. If you want the broader audience to remain directly involved, the chair can direct a Q&A session.

Alternatively, it may help to consider a different channel altogether. Some collaborative work platforms facilitate large-scale synchronous communications — enabling a CEO to address their entire workforce via streaming video, for example. But if you’re trying to cram 50 voices into the same live conversation, it’s probably a sign that the conversation shouldn’t be live at all. Consider using an asynchronous comms method instead.

The bottom line is that your organization needs the right mix of channels and clear guidelines on how and when people use them. With both of these elements in place, the limitations of synchronous communication will never be an issue.

Bottom-up business communication is hard to do well

As we touched upon earlier, the idea that businesses should embrace bottom-up communication is a pretty recent development. This means that most companies aren’t set up to do it effectively: they lack the right channels, their leaders don’t believe in it, and their employees lack the conviction to speak up.

For businesses that do actively try to foster bottom-up communication, there are fewer established best practices to follow.

If a CEO wants to make themselves more accessible to their workers, how should they go about doing that? Do they give out their email address, and risk being inundated with messages they can’t respond to? Perhaps they should just encourage employees to speak to their line managers instead, who can pass on their feedback. Or does that only reinforce the sense of distance, and go against the spirit of ‘making yourself accessible?'

The solution: The first thing you need is a suitable channel because not all of them can handle bottom-up communication. You need one that allows leaders to give public statements in a way that encourages comments and feedback.

Enterprise social networks are a good option because they support this kind of visible mass engagement by design. In contrast, email is a particularly poor option, as our previous example illustrates. Even if our hypothetical CEO did offer up their email address, and then took the time to reply to the flood of inbound messages, their responses would be mostly invisible to the rest of the workforce. And one of the main points of bottom-up comms is for leaders to show that they’re listening to their workers.

Regardless of your choice of channels, the important thing is to support them properly. Once they’re up and running, it’s vital to champion those early adopters who are the first to use the new system. These people set an example for others to follow, so it makes sense to spotlight what they’re doing.

As a leader in the business, you have an even more significant role to play when it comes to modeling behavior. Senior figures should set the tone by interacting and responding to employee posts and questions. For the CEO, this might just mean giving a thumbs up or making the odd comment, but team leaders should be more active as they make their presence felt. This encourages people to offer their views and join the company-wide conversation.

Above all else, be sure to listen to the feedback when it comes in — and back this up with some kind of visible response, so your workers can see that you’re engaging with what they have to say. Without this, your employees will doubt your sincerity, and you’ll fail to create a bottom-up communications culture.

People prefer to use the tools that they know

There are several aspects of this challenge. The first is something we’ve already talked about: employee expectations.

If your technology isn’t good enough, you’ll struggle to attract the best talent, which means you’re losing a competitive advantage. Meanwhile, if your tech is bad to the point that it’s borderline unusable, your existing employees may dump them for their consumer apps — which, as we’ve discussed, is a major security headache.

Another universal problem is that humans are naturally resistant to change. Their preference for the familiar can make them reluctant to adopt new tools and channels, even if the old ones have significant flaws. This is somewhat understandable: it takes time and effort to learn new processes, and most people would rather keep their heads down so they can get on with their work, and the rest of their lives.

If left unchecked, this can lead to situations where individuals or even entire teams favor different communication methods. This may seem unlikely if most of your employees work in the same building, but if your business operates across dozens of sites in multiple countries, it’s easy to understand how localized habits and procedures can start to gain traction.

If multiple strands of your organization are using different channels, it’s much harder for them to communicate properly. It also undermines your efforts to create a unified approach to business communication.

"If you give people an easy solution and help them see the benefits, they’ll be quicker to adopt the new tool"

The solution: We’ve already underscored the value of investing in up-to-date technology. But as you introduce new platforms, it’s essential to support them with a strong rollout plan.

Help your workers understand what the new tech is for, what it’s replacing, and why you've decided to make this shift. Then ensure they receive proper training in how to use the new tools, with an understanding that this may take time. If you’re following a phased approach, ensure that everyone has full visibility of where and when their peers are making the switch, and what procedures they should follow during the transitionary period.

That covers half the challenge, but what about people’s resistance to change? You can make life considerably more straightforward — for you and your employees alike — by adopting platforms that are easy to switch to. There's no point paying for a fantastic tool that will solve all your theoretical issues if it requires a Computer Science degree to switch it on. People don't care enough to learn something that complex, so look for something foolproof.

And though it should go without saying, you should check that the tech you’re introducing genuinely meets your worker's needs - accessibility being one of them. This provides the incentive for people to embrace the change you’re suggesting. If you give people an easy solution and help them see the benefits, they’ll be quicker to adopt the new tool — and more likely to keep using it.

For all the reasons we’ve outlined, it’s vital to include your HR and Comms departments in the decision-making process. Don’t leave your choice of tech to IT alone, because they may not be as concerned with your workers’ real needs.

One final thought: as you introduce new platforms, don’t be afraid to turn the old ones off. Consolidation is the name of the game, so instead of looking for several best-in-class single apps, find accessible tools that employees can use for multiple tasks. Being more efficient will give you a better return on your investment, and it’ll also mean fewer programs for your employees to learn and monitor.

People using the right tools for the wrong tasks

Individual preference can sometimes result in over-reliance on a particular medium or method. In turn, this can lead to another common headache: people trying to use channels for the wrong form of communication.

Imagine trying to use an asynchronous medium for synchronous communication, such as conducting a ‘live’ conversation via dozens of back-and-forth emails in a short timeframe. While it’s certainly possible to communicate this way, it’s wildly inefficient compared to the same exchange via instant messaging. The result is a considerable amount of noise in the inboxes of everyone involved.

It can also work the other way around, with people using synchronous channels for asynchronous messages. This is a common issue with team-based instant messaging tools, primarily designed for a single, ‘live’ conversation per channel. If someone shares a message for future discussion, it will disappear from view if other conversations kick off in the meantime.

Some tools solve this problem with a function that allows users to “pin” important posts for swift retrieval. But it’s still easy for people not present at the time of the original post to overlook messages and miss essential information.

And of course, there are obvious risks if organizations keep static information in a dynamic communication format. Whenever people use a channel for a communication form that it wasn’t designed for, problems swiftly arise.

The solution: Again, the answer here is to have transparent processes in place, supported by the right culture. The more effort you put into creating clear, company-wide guidelines for your entire workforce, the less likely you are to run into this challenge. With that in mind, this issue's potential should be one of the factors that persuade you to conduct a full audit of your business communication (see below).

Four tips for better business communication

Conduct a full audit of your current business communication channels

If you’re serious about improving your business communication, you need a clear understanding of your current practices.

Carry out a company-wide audit of the channels, and gather a wide range of insights from across the business. What’s working well? What are the most common problems? Which platforms would your employees most like to use, given a choice? The answers to these questions will tell you whether you need new tools or better training.

Treat business communication as a resource to invest in, not a cost to be minimized

Hardware and software upgrades can be a significant expense, especially when you have to apply them to every employee in your workforce. But as this article should have made clear, the benefits of strong business communication eclipses the costs. Cutting corners will expose you to risks that your business can’t afford.

The important thing is to invest in the right solutions for your organization, which is why it’s good to start with a detailed audit.

Give everyone a voice, supported by a clear process

Leaders that understand the real value of business communication look for ways to make their entire workforce part of the conversation. They champion perspectives from across the organization and do everything they can to encourage people to speak up. As part of this, they create a culture where employees can express dissenting views, knowing that senior management will actively listen and respond.

All of this requires a good range of powerful channels, supporting your needs across all seven forms of communication. But communication platforms are only valuable if you train employees to use them to their full potential, and they understand how these tools contribute to your business — its mission, values and internal culture.

Share your business communication roadmap

It takes a serious commitment to create the communications culture that your business, and employees, deserve. Once established, it requires consistent care and attention to maintain.

Making this happen requires a collective effort from everyone in your organization. Take the time to understand the necessary change. Develop a clear vision for what you want to achieve, and then share that vision with your workers. Give them a voice, listen to their input, refine the plan. If you do these things, it’s an entirely achievable goal.

Only a third of businesses have a long-term strategy for their business communication. Make sure that you’re one of them.

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