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The Science Behind Cluetrain - Communication Theorey

Communications and Information Theory

During the 1986 Atlanta Olympics, Coca Cola spent 1.5 billion dollars on supporting its role as sponsor for the event. Yet after the Olympics were over 5% of those locals surveyed thought that Pepsi was the main sponsor! After all this marketing weight, even in the home town of Coke, the message was still confusing for many residents. What has been the response to this confusion? The response has been to see the problem as insufficient weight. It has been to pump up the weight, volume and the costs of marketing even further. As in the first world war, ever larger frontal assaults on the consumer are the conventional wisdom’s response to a lack of penetration. But like the barrages of the first world war, this increasing weight of messages only serves to increase the noise and paradoxically therefore reduces the ability of the consumer to hear what is being said.


The more weight, the less penetration. We are becoming numb.


This communication problem is not confined to conventional marketing but has become an internal communications issue as well. How does a head office effectively communicate to its staff at a time when everyone is being bombarded with messages both in the office and at home?


It is very challenging now to communicate head office messages to staff. In  fact it seems to be difficult to really connect on many management levels within the organization. What does our message have to compete with? A lot of noise!


At home we are flooded with marketing messages. Children used to the fast intercut of TV, find teachers boring. Increasingly, we have channels of communication that are “on” the whole time – home-based email, pagers, cell phones, potables and “Palms”. There is no place where we are immune from an intrusion of a message from the outside. At the office, we increasingly rely on email to act as the primary channel for communication. We even routinely send email to folks in the next door cubicle! Email is convenient to send but we are becoming smothered as recipients. Keeping up with email makes it often hard to get your work done Returning from a few days away , or worse a vacation, can mean being faced with pages of unopened mail. Many people routinely delete mail before reading it.


What is the breakthrough? It surely cannot be to increase the volume and weight any more? The cause of the stalemate on the western front  was the introduction of a new set of technology ( think of the new information technology in parallel ) without a new operational doctrine that would release its full power. It was only at the outset of the next war that the essential new doctrine about how to use this technology was applied. The result – Blitzkrieg!


Is there a new doctrine for effective communication now that our traditional human and text channels have been supplanted by technological methods? I think that there is and that those of us who understand the new doctrine will find a breakthrough.

Information Theory – A New way of looking at Communications


Like all really great intellectual achievements, Information Theory is on the surface very simple. What does this mean? Let’s use a simple example to explain the model.


If I say to you face to face “Let’s go for lunch” you would  likely understand what I have said to you.


Code - first of all I coded the message in a code that you understand. Our common code is English. If I had spoken in Ukrainian, you would have heard me send a message on the face to face aural Channel but you would not have been able to decode it in detail. What is interesting about the human Channel though is how much Bandwidth it has. By using the face to face channel you would have at least sensed that I was asking you a question. If I had sent you an email, the main new channel, in Ukrainian you would have missed not only the detail, but also the fact that I was asking you a question. Email has only a small amount of Bandwidth when compared to the face to face channel.


This short illustration contains the essence of the variables in our problem  - Code and Bandwidth. The issue in communication is to use the best code/bandwidth set up to get through the noise.


Noise - If I had asked you this question when you were on the phone talking to someone not important to you about a trivial matter, my message would likely have got through to you – the noise would have been dealt with because I was in front of you and had access to more bandwidth than the other person.. If however, you were on the phone and had just been told by your wife that your house was on fire, the noise of this event would have likely blocked out my message. She would have broken through by using Surprise.


Surprise is a key element in communication. The more surprise the more the message beats the noise. More on Surprise later.


Power – you will probably open a message from your boss before one from me. Power is not about volume it is about amps. Organizationally the greatest power that you can put behind the signal is when the top person gives up their time and comes to you face to face. A powerful signal is an email from the Boss.  A phone call directly to you is even more powerful. Being called up to his office more so and to have him come to you the most. More about Power later.


So how does this set of ideas work? Claude Shannon, the founder of the Theorey, identifies the critical relationships of a communication system as follows:


·        The power at the source of a signal

·        The bandwidth of the channel through which the signal travels

·        The noise on the channel such as static which can obscure the signal

·        The receiver who must be in a position and state to decode the signal


Let’s take this approach to information and apply it to what is going on your organization.

Applying Information Theory to an Organization


The new reality - We have shifted most of our effort to communicate from a human channel (face to face) to a technology-based channel.


Why did we do this – Convenience and Surprise. At first, when there were few users, this new channel had both convenience and surprise. It was a remarkably effective channel. So we all started to use it and to use it a lot. The novelty, or surprise element, wore off very quickly.


What do I mean by Surprise?


Our nervous system is remarkably good at screening out the familiar. Just as the pictures on your wall fade into the wallpaper over time so do all stimuli. Someone bursting into your office demanding lunch will get you attention more than an email from me asking for lunch. Very large amounts of information are lost when it becomes familiar. If you walked out onto the street and had a 747 fly overhead at 2,000 feet you would get the message. You would likely  talk about it all day. But I lived on the final flight path to London airport. After a few months I never heard the planes. I was only reminded of them, hundreds a day at 2,000 feet on finals at full throttle and full flaps, when I recorded a message to my parents on my tape recorder and played it back! We go numb when there is too much familiar noise. In fact the message becomes noise when we hear it too often. This is why many men find it difficult to hear their wives – they have shut her out. My wife sent me to the ear doctor.


So there is a lot of noise on the technology channel. One way of dealing with noise is to increase the bandwidth. But our problem is that the technology channel has in human terms a very narrow bandwidth. Only text can be sent on email and only voice on the phone. Yet 90% of the inter-human message is delivered by body language, tone and even smell. So the technology channel can only, by definition, deal with very simple messages. We all know this intuitively but the convenience of the technology channel makes us lazy.


So a reminder – we have chosen to shift from a very broad bandwidth, the face to face human model of communication, to a convenient but very narrow channel that can only deal with simple messages. We have also increased the volume of messages to such an extent that our nervous system is screening them out. There is almost no surprise in the system.


Am I saying go back to face to face all the time. No. I am saying that we need a better code on this channel if it is to work. Most of the huge successes in squeezing more information down the wire have taken place as a result of using better code.


Again what do I mean by better code?



An example –If I say to you  “Let’s have dinner” my code tells me that I am asking you for an evening meal. You share the same off Island context as I do – so this is a neat bit of code. But, to most native Islanders this “dinner” means let’s have a meal in the middle of the day. To used compressed code you need to share a common context. The more context you have, the less code you need in the channel. If I don’t know the Island context for dinner, I would have to expand what time of the day I really meant. To make things even more challenging on the Island for those of us from away who may not know the context for the code is that “lunch” is a snack taken after supper late in the evening. If you don’t know the context, you decode the message wrong. If I asked you to go for dinner face to face, I could pick up other signals that would tell me that perhaps we were not communicating effectively. But on an email I would fail to see any other supporting signs that we were not agreeing on the same thing. So by improving the context, we can get away with a smaller signal which is more suited to the electronic channel which has smaller bandwidth.


If we are to continue to use the low bandwidth channel, we are not going to turn back the clock,  we will have to find out how to amplify the signal by adding more context. What do I mean by this?


We need to add back into the system, enough face to face to provide the set of shared assumptions that will enable us to use this narrow bandwidth well.


Example - See you can understand this next sentence


only infrmatn esentil to unerstan mst be tramitd”


You can understand this because you have the larger context of understanding how English is really spelled. If you did not have this broader context, you would be stumped. With more effective context, you can compress the signal to fit the narrower bandwidth.


Noise – The Value of better Code

How can we further reduce the impact of all the noise on the line?


We can all see how much noise is on the line. We can all hear it ourselves. I doubt that we will be able to isolate ourselves from the barrage of messages from the outside world. A high level of noise is a constant. Introducing rules to reduce traffic will not help.


One of the ways of getting through the noise is not only to compress the code but to use a better code.


I have deliberately written this report in a different type of code than is used as a convention at work. Can you see what I am doing?


I am trying my best to write as I speak. I am using a conversational and personal code which is messy and therefore full of surprises. The paradox is that speech is messy and yet we are taught to write in a non messy way. Result – the messy gets through and the tidy does not!


We can only deal with tidy writing when the noise level is low. You can read deeper books on the second week of your vacation because your internal noise level has been reduced.


Conventional wisdom tells us that all business writing should be formal (AKA tidy). I think that this was acceptable at a time when the pace of life was slower when there was not much noise on the line but that now we cannot decode formal language anymore. It is too lengthy and obscure a code for receivers who are bombarded with noise. Not only is the message often encoded in obscure language but the message is often about things that are not really interesting or important.


Remember, my screen will shut out the dull and the familiar or messages that are too predictable. I need surprise. Have a look at this typical memo about a typical meeting


“The regular semiweekly meeting of the executive committee was held in the board room of the Fairfax Inn on Friday Nov. 5th. Mr. Al Underwood’s financial report began the meeting. All members were present except Director Sarah MacDonald, who was visiting Ottawa. Senior manager Jean Gallant came in late after a meeting with the IT division. Reading of the minutes from the previous meeting was dispensed with and the minutes were approved as written. A copy is herewith attached for your convenience.


Al stated that the previous quarterly financial statements showed that…”


When memos were hand typed, when life was slower at home, when most of our communications was face to face this type of code was understandable. Now it is not. It is essentially boring because it does not deal with issues that are important to the reader nor does it use language that we can absorb quickly – No one actually would ever say to you that “I herewith attach a copy for your convenience!” and who cares who was there. What I want to hear is what happened. And then only if I can see how it might affect me personally.


Describing important issues in Bureaucratic Code means that, in a noisy system, the message gets lost. We tend to use jargon – or code that has no impact – when describing important initiatives at work.


What is the impact on you when you hear the terms


·        Recruitment and retention?

·        Official languages?

·        Learning Organization?

·        Diversity

·        Modern Controllership?

·        Information management?

·        Harassment and discrimination

·        Government online?



Better Code – the Heart/Head Human Issue

None of these labels, or code, means much to me as an individual. There is no surprise and no emotional energy contained in them. Are you moved by them. Do they sound out like clarions to action?


The key to human communication is not the word but the heart!


These labels have to be thought about some more. We need to find a way of talking about them that is meaningful to the recipients. As Monsanto found out in the Biotech wars – talking about the science, taking a rational approach, is not a winning communication strategy. 


“I have nothing to offer you but blood toil tears and sweat”  is how Churchill began one of his great speeches at the outset of the war. How many memos at your organization start like that?


The purpose of communicating in organizations is to harness the power of the people to act in a concerted way to achieve some goal. All good generals understand that the only way to achieve this is to work on the heart. Good generals do not use jargon when talking to the troops. Good generals do not avoid bringing up the truth either.


We have been misled to believe that if we can understand something intellectually, we will be motivated to act. Think of yourself – it is simply not true. I argue that all decisions are made first with the heart and then with the head. Think of the last house or car purchase you made. Yet most of our code in organizations is aimed at the head only. Aimed at a head that is too busy to decode the special bureaucratic language that we like to use at work.


So the effective human code must contain an emotional element to be heard.


What does this mean in practice? It means that the senior officers need to speak directly in human terms to the “troops”


This means regularly meeting all the folks directly and telling everyone what is going on. It means using a setting where the full range of the human bandwidth is available.


An example of what this means in practice.


As a boy, I met general Montgomery. He told me how he prepared the men of the D Day invasion force. From February to May in 1944, he personally met with 2 million people. His car would arrive at a camp and he would speak for about 10 minutes. He would stand on an ammunition box and call the men around him. Those in the front row would be inches from his face. The full range of the bandwidth was available to those men in the front row. His message went as follows:


*Many of you will be wounded and some will die

*I will not throw your lives away

*We have the best equipment, you have had the best training and we have the best plan

*You are the best

*We are doing this for the best of reasons

*You are saving the world

*When it starts its all up to you

*Thank you


What has this story got to do with us? I think it is a model of how to deal with the information issue on a context level. This is my experience of the ideal context setting operation by a senior executive who needed to provide context to men who were going to experience a great deal of noise. His mission – to give meaning to the work. His method – to use the full range of the bandwidth to show that he was to be trusted.


By being so close, he enabled others to feel his own sense of the truth.  No one can lie under those circumstances. He put no distance between himself and his message.


Up front he recognized their worst fears. Many managers think that they are helping by not addressing this reality. They don't. If we lie on this issue, the fear is worse. There are fears about the future at your organization. When you talk about these fears up close, people can tell if you are telling the truth – the words are not enough. They need to know that you are telling the truth. You don’t need to tell everyone just enough so that they can tell others. By dealing with their fears, you reduce the internal noise in their hearts and heads so that they can hear the rest of your message.


He spoke about his experience as a young man in the first world war and his determination not to treat them casually - he recognized their individuality and he shared with them his own sense of having been exploited. There was no them and us separation. He was building trust by closing the distance between the message sender and the recipient.


He reconfirmed that he thought that they were important by reminding them of the scale and nature of their preparation for this task. They could see the abundance of material that had been devoted to them and the investment in their training. As a result, they had confidence that they could do what they had to do. He reminded them that he thought that they were the best - the proof was that he had come out to see them.


Words are cheap. If we care, we have to act in caring way. By turning up in person he was using the most powerful signal possible. He spent the most valuable thing he had , his time. His time was the power behind his message/words.


He reminded them that their mission was a noble one - he gave them meaning. We are desperate to find meaning in our lives. We too can be galvanized into courageous acts by knowing what we are doing is truly noble. In human communication, meaning is the most powerful of all codes which can transcend all forms of noise.


He had the courtesy to thank them - he reminded them that victory would in the end be up to them and not him. Having the best plan or the best ideas are easy. Doing the right things is difficult. Everything that will happen will happen on the front line.


He remembered that the purpose of his meeting was not to talk but to help his people act. If our communication misses this point, it becomes noise.



The answer to the stalemate of the 1914-18 war was not to give up the new technology and return to bows and arrows and Knights in Armour. It was to find the new doctrine for its effective use.


I am not advocating relying solely on face to face meetings – the world has moved on. We can do better if we recognize the new rules. Here are a few recommendations about how you could apply them.


·        Reframe your key issues so that they have meaning and emotional impact. If you cannot do this, they probably are not important – put the required human aspect into the code - have a look at the Cluetrain manifesto for examples of the type of language that is required


·        Set in motion a process where senior executives engage as a matter of routine the troops in small groups face to face to discuss the larger issues facing you – put the context around the message so that it drives not only a further compressing of the code but action


·        Deliberately throw out the jargon used in routine correspondence and reframe the labels on the main issues so that they have meaning to people on personal terms – use better code with more surprise in it.


·        Set in motion a staff based intranet oe better still  blogging!


·        Set up a process to have better local context. I suggest pay for team breakfasts – we communicate best as humans over a meal. Breakfast is the only meal that routinely could fit the schedule and the public’s sense of propriety. We are talking coffee and buns and an hour in the day when we can set up the day. Routine breakfast at work could become like dinner at home – the time when a lot of stuff gets dealt with without it all becoming a big deal and then getting out of hand. This builds a really neat human channel to allow a lot of stuff to use small code on email – the local context is worked out at breakfast. Such a process would remove the need for a lot of more formal meetings and would put a human face on the manager.







© Copyright 2002 Robert Paterson. Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.
Last update: 11/09/2002; 11:41:40 AM.