Any sycophant wanting to sound like a problem-solver can easily achieve credibility by issuing a statement about improving communication. This methodology of EMBA-Officer turning faux business-consultant is happening at this very moment in a US Naval conference room somewhere in the Naval Enterprise. In fact, taken into consideration the number of these let’s see what we can do to make things better meetings I personally have had to go to on any given day in just a single Naval squadron, coupled with the public knowledge of our Nation’s 166 (US Navy) ships, 85 submarines, and 153 Naval squadrons being stationed in every time zone around the globe, this is undoubtedly happening multiple times per hour (this excluded the Army units and Army ships (which outnumber Navy ships, by the way), the Marine Corps (which has both ground and air units), and the U.S. Air Force (and their cacophony of meetings and paperwork)).
Back to our hapless dolt standing in front of the conference room with the astounded attention of his or her superior Officer-- In just a moment the dreadfully boring, yet too colorful and awkwardly animated Power Point will crescendo and an enthusiastic order will be given from the far end of the table to make it happen! But nothing will; the concept of communication is largely dependent on what the organizational culture allows it to become. In the painfully hierarchal and management-heavy juggernaut that is the US Navy, communication among the ranks is a hot-sale topic with few sincere buyers. It is fitting that 2011 marks the 100-years of US Naval Aviation Celebration as I write that this, our flailing communications strategy and design, has to change (mature) if leadership (read: management) wants to adapt to world it lives in, instead of cling desperately one it was created in.
The Real Deal. Dutch researchers van Vuuren, Jong, and Seydel (2006) wholeheartedly agree with the claim that organizations benefit when their employees are more honestly and respectfully engaged. Their research found that effectual top-down communication in an organization, followed by the perception that feedback was encouraged and listened to, contributed to success of the entire organization. The Navy model is missing the additional caveat placed upon the success-model by van Vuuren, et al. (2006) requiring the mere perception of welcomed feedback. It is common-law that the squeaky wheel does not get the grease but rather the axe in our organizational spectacle. Allowing for the communication to be freely and openly unilateral, or as Steven Kerr, current advisor to Goldman Sachs, would call it “boundaryless” (Greiner, 2003) is the seemingly unwanted means to the obviously desired end.
Boundarylessnesss. Back when he was CEO of GE, Jack Welch’s hired Steven Kerr as his personal consultant and Chief Learning Officer (CLO) for the company. Steven Kerr pioneered communication-broadening strategies and incorporated them into the core design of GE’s leadership training and operations (Greiner, 2003). Like the Navy does today in Her closed system, GE used to have a propensity for incarcerating information within the circles where its service professionals felt it was relevant. Unlike the Navy however, GE has moved past this management-serving design and into an open design by incorporating wider communication up and down the corporate ladder (in Navy speak: Chain of Command). They found, as many researchers have proven, that ideas for increased potential and growth can come from the most junior person on the staff (Christensen, 2005; Davenport, Prusak, & Wilson, 2003; Greiner, 2003; Seidman, 2009; Tarley, 2002). Kerr’s plan as the CLO was to infuse positive communication strategies in the entire corporate design. He believed that as people are leading (or led) correctly that the successful habit patterns of their leadership should and would “be injected into people’s DNA by the way they are managed” (Tarley, 2002, p. 53). Kerr said that management would, in everything it does, be consciously and subconsciously training the next generation of management in communication, innovation, marketing, networking, and other company philosophies (Greiner, 2003). His “concept of boundarylessness [served] as a powerful integrator. It [was] about helping the organization assimilate to change rather than rejecting it” (Davenport, et al., 2003, p. 212).
911. Another concept lacking in the military is an information broker or warehouse. Of course everyone is working on ways to improve the hammer, make the user safer, and strike the nail harder. The problem is not that the wheels are not turning, but that they are either not on the same axle, or are askew of other people tackling the same efforts. This lack of cross-pollination will thwart any attempt to make it happen and maximize the potential for fresh ideas and perspective (Christensen, 2005; Luecke, 2003; Tichy & Devanna, 1990). Kerr explained the need for a broad communication design as a 911 concept:
You have to give people a 911 if you want to increase learning in a company. They need a number to call, places to go to share good ideas, or if they want to search for something out there. For example, if you’re at USC and you want to find out if there is any part of USC that’s really good at managing alumni relations, or good at fund-raising, or good at recruiting minority students? At USC you could ask, but you wouldn’t know who to go to, because there’s no one place you could find out. If Biology did it well, Math would never know it. So, a corporation is the same way. I used the term 911 because the 911 guy never comes to your house directly. He brokers supply and demand. Somebody calls and says, “I have a fire.” The 911 guy sends the fire department. So that’s why I used that metaphor…that’s the job of the CLO. Sometimes you have people saying, “I need to know, is there anybody out there who does a good job on educating about quality? (Greiner, 2003, p. 5)
Involving the entire staff in the knowledge pool increases corporate buy-in (Van Vuuren, et al., 2006), which increases organizational citizenship, team alignment through value congruence, and will inevitably increase core competencies (Christensen, 2005; Davenport, et al., 2003; Greiner, 2003; Seidman, 2009). For the Navy this is could be a major selling point should anyone care to listen.
Communicating With The Modern Sailor
One of the problems with change is not the change, but in convincing people to leave the safety of the past and come to terms with the inevitable future. “The current military force is just under one-third smaller than it was in 1990” (Hall, 2008, p. 25), yet we still employ the chain of command concepts as when we had more people to shuffle about. Scary change could save time and money; for example, we still transmit message traffic in dinosaur shorthand from the ticker-tape days seen in old World War II movies instead of use simple paperless (instant) e-mail. “Unlike the years of Vietnam, during the days of the draft, today’s enlisted ranks do not include the extremely disadvantaged. Instead, the ranks are filled with the upwardly mobile working class, 96% of whom have graduated from high school, compared to only 84% of the rest of America” (p. 28), yet we still are in the habit of dismissing the intelligence of our working-class and excluding them from the problem-solving efforts. Sadly, the way the system is set up, the enlisted men and women are the ones actually dealing with the problems first-hand, yet are generally excluded from offering solutions.
The more mature and intelligent face of the military today means that our leadership needs to lead our men and women in ways that do not parallel the requirements their leaders had when they were leading them so many years ago (Hall, 2008). Scroggins (2008) writes that this new generation of workers is pursuing jobs with deeper qualitative meaning and quantitative pay-offs than the workers from earlier generations (p. 57). These new kids seek external rewards and attention for their efforts. The see the (self-determined/proclaimed) high-value they are adding to the Navy as something that should be regularly rewarded and pointed out publically. This is a difficult motivational-communication adjustment for leadership to understand (and provide) and needs serious communication maturity (Hall, 2008; Scroggins; 2008). Scroggins (2008) goes so far as to insist that “for those organizations concerned with the retention of high performing employees, attention to the creation of meaningful work experiences may be a key component to reducing employee intentions to leave and maintaining high performance” (p. 58).
Making it Work
The psychology of managerial communication mirrors the simple first step of public speaking; one must know to whom they are speaking in order to speak effectively. Our leadership (again: management) must understand that the majority of the Navy is starting families sooner (and making other adult choices), are more educated, joining younger, and are staying in the service longer than the generation before them (Hall, 2008). Just the simplest communication methodology from generation to generation is enormously different (Houppert, 2005). The new kids text, e-mail, MSM, IM, Facebook, and use various other forms of electronic mediums at a pace older generation (mine) may not merely be uncomfortable with, but may also find distasteful (Hall, 2008; Santrock, 2008). This distaste can, through transference, become an unintentional global view about an individual’s aptitude (and/or his or her entire social group) (Muchinsky, 2006; Santrock, 2008). In our case it is a generally negative view, and thus the continued exclusion from the lower-echelon from the decision-making entity portion of the US Naval Enterprise by many. It is not hard to deduce why a leader (or entire system) would abstain from the kind of communication methodologies (boundarylessness, for example) that would encourage initiative and creative input from their subordinates when they discount their intelligence, abilities, methodologies, and commitment before the conversation is allowed to begin.
The concept of communication is largely dependent on what the organizational culture allows it to become. In the closed system of the US Navy many opportunities for innovation and creativity may be missed in part due to ignoring inputs from the entire team. Some of the communication strategies already proven effective by gurus like Steven Kerr could be realized at the macro- and micro-level for the betterment of everyone in and affected by the US Navy. In Her efforts to right-size and become more efficient (while remaining operationally successful), the US Navy’s capabilities need not decrease if we are simply smart enough to harnesses the increased capabilities of the fewer people we employ to fill the increasing requirement.
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