Por Sam Cox y Terry Cunconan
They are quick to see that
issues like the style of the organization, timeliness of the communication,
the amount of communication, vertical as well as horizontal bottle-necks,
and a healthy grapevine need to be explored, monitored and evaluated.
Enter the communication audit.
One way to begin a class or workshop
on Communication Audits is to engage the participants in a learning
activity or exercise that highlights the crucial role of effective
communication. One activity goes like this. Participants are divided
into groups of three or four and given a brown paper bag filled
with various objects. They are told they must use all the objects
to create a useful and marketable product. They name their new product.
Then, they carefully write clear, step-by-step instructions for
building their product. No pictures or diagrams are allowed. They
must rely solely upon words. Time is allowed for them to double-check
their instructions before the product is disassembled and all the
parts and instructions are put back in the bag. Then groups exchange
bags and produce the product based solely on the instructions provided
in the bag. The finished products are displayed for the product
designers. The original producers determine how accurately their
product has been replicated.
Then each group answers these five
questions. (1) Did you recreate the product exactly? (2) Were the
instructions written clearly? (3) What makes instructions effective?
(4) What impact do assumptions have? (5) How does this exercise
apply to written communication in your job? Once the groups are
finished, a de-briefing session is conducted where everyone participates.
Typically issues like "team work was helpful," "the
opportunity to ask questions, especially at critical times, would
be most beneficial," "ineffective communication costs
time and energy," "assumptions got us in trouble,"
and "the inclusion of visual communication would really help"
are discussed. Finally, the debriefing session concludes by linking
the effective communication activity experience to communication
audits. Now that participants are keenly aware of the vital need
for effective communication, they are ready to explore ways and
means to assess the situation and condition of communication that
occurs within organizations. They are quick to see that issues like
the style of the organization, timeliness of the communication,
the amount of communication, vertical as well as horizontal bottle-necks,
and a healthy grapevine need to be explored, monitored and evaluated.
Enter the communication audit.
The focus of this paper is the question:
"How effective is the communication audit in determining the
situation and condition of the organizational communication?"
To answer the question we will first address reasons for conducting
communication audits. Second, we will present an overview of the
communication audit process. Third, we will report results from
communication audits where organizational communication students
formed the audit teams. Finally, we will conclude by providing answers
to our question.
Reasons for Conducting a Communication Audit
Since this paper is being presented
to the Congreso Iberoamericano sponsored by the Comunicacion Organizacional
CIESPAL, justification for conducting communication audits within
organizations will be brief. Undoubtedly, most if not all organizational
communication scholars and practitioners share a belief that communication
is the coupling that holds organizations together and the agent
of change that insures health and growth. Therefore, reasons to
conduct a communication audit are almost self-evident. An audit
is a test of the quality of communication within an organization
(Zaremba, 2003). Downs (1996) points out that the term audit is
often associated with a negative action or procedure used to remedy
some organizational problem. He encourages the consultant to substitute
the term assessments for audits suggesting communication interventions
in organizations are simply an examination of the quality of communication.
Communication audits frequently identify strengths of the organization
as well. Monitoring the organizational communication provides insights
that enable organizations to not just bounce from crisis to crisis
but to proactively initiate change. Since organizations can be accurately
described as organisms, which go through life cycles (see for instance
Fifth Discipline, Senge, 1990), a periodic health checkup
is strongly advised. Like diagnosing a disease in the early stages
within the human body, communication audits enable organizations
to respond to needs and changes in a timely and effective manner.
Arnold and McClure (1996) summarize
the purpose for doing needs assessment, and we would argue especially
communication audits, is to gather relevant information to help
define the problem, provide background for alternative solutions,
and create an atmosphere that will support the training program
that will ultimately be provided. DeWine (2001) points out that
communication audits are simply diagnostic tools for intervention.
Therefore, a communication audit, as Downs (1996) notes, "is
merely a process of exploring, examining, monitoring, or evaluating"
the communication within an organization (p.3). Its goal is to identify
how things are done there as well as what is done well and what
needs improving. So, rather than seeing the communication audit
as a bad thing, as often is the case with tax audits, we would argue
that when a communication audit is conducted in a professional manner,
it is as valuable to management as a echocardiogram is to a cardiologist.
Both are means of diagnosing what is not easily apparent.
Downs (1996) in his text, Communication
Audits, explains that management typically sees five functional
benefits to a communication audit. One is the verification of facts.
While managers often know the strengths and weakness in their organizations
they almost always desire some verification. The audit enables everyone
in the company to get past idiosyncratic perceptions and assumptions
in order to make decisions based on valid information. Thus, as
managers attempt to monitor the pulse of the organization, sometimes
they are surprised by what really is happening. A second benefit
is the diagnostic benefit. As addressed above, communication problems
can be headed off before they become critical. A third benefit is
feedback. Most of the time when difficult and even welcomed new
policies are implemented the only feedback loop is informal chat.
While "management by walking around" has it merits, there
is the danger of distorted perceptions. Therefore, the audit provides
an internal benchmark of how well the current policies and practices
A fourth benefit identified by Downs
is the communication benefit. The well-established "Hawthorne
effect" happens with an audit. Issues that might have been
forgotten or ignored will often become common practice once employees
are asked for their input about those policies and practices. The
intellectual capital of the organization is utilized on a much broader
basis since everyone involved in the audit is provided a forum for
suggestions and ideas-an important element in any audit. A study
by Brooks, Callicoat, and Siegerdt (1979) in Human Communication
Research claimed that 85% of the organizations in their study did
make changes in their communication practices due to conducting
an audit. Finally, Downs mentions the training effect of an audit.
He argues that managers who participate in the planning and conducting
of a communication audit inherently improve their communication
processes and skills
Overview of the Communication
Based on several years of experience conducting and managing
communication audits, we use an acrostic of the term A-U-D-I-T to
describe the process. It is: A-pproaching organizations;
U-nderstanding the goals and strategies for that specific
audit; D-ata collection tools must be carefully selected;
I-nterpretation of the collected data; and, T-alking
about insights and possible actions.
An audit can be initiated internally or externally. As facilitators
of a communication audits course, we act as external consultants.
In most cases, the approach is built around the philosophy of expanding
the walls of the classroom in the context of service learning. Initial
contact requires defining clearly for the potential client the purpose
of a communication audit, the potential benefits, and an interview
plan for gathering information to identify appropriate assessment
strategies and tools that compliment the process and structure of
a particular organization.
U-nderstanding the Goals and
Strategies for That Specific Audit
When a person says "communication audit" often the response
is bewilderment, even by managers. But the reality is that communication
audits, just like financial audits, are simply assessments of the
strengths and weaknesses of the communication within a particular
organization. The more common and inclusive concept in the business
world is the needs assessment. As Goldstein and Ford (2002) have
powerfully argued, any healthy needs assessment must contain at
least three levels of analysis. He labels them the Organizational
Analysis, the Requirements Analysis and a Task and Knowledge, Skill
and Ability Analysis. Elements of the organizational analysis include
clarification of the mission and vision of that organization, identification
of the training climate, and determination of unique legal or external
constraints faced by that particular organization. When explaining
the requirements analysis, Goldstein includes clarification of the
requirements of the job as well as the role of each job in the context
of that organization. He spends time within the task analysis to
discuss the knowledge, skill and ability required to succeed in
Our experience suggests that who
initiates the approach to the communication audit--researchers,
consultants, professors with classes or management--is far less
important than making sure everyone involved Understands the objectives
that hope to be achieved. What is important is that all parties
are fully involved in laying the groundwork so that full agreement
is reached as to what will occur. The organization must be confident
that their purposes will be achieved or the entire experience will
likely be sabotaged--intentionally or unintentionally. Also, everyone
must agree to and be clear about what data will and will not be
collected and analyzed, and how that data will be reported. Issues
like the number of people who will be involved, when they will be
interviewed or administered questionnaires, who will conduct the
interviews, and where it will take place, must be stipulated in
the initial phase. Furthermore, as is most often the case, the audit
team needs to become familiar with that particular organization.
Our experience has been that a taking the audit team through a typical
new employee orientation, having them read the employee handbook,
and requiring them to spending a few days just observing are enormously
beneficial to the audit team's insightfulness when it comes time
to conduct interviews as well as interpret the data.
Another element of our understanding
aspect of the process is the opportunity to educate management about
the entire communication audit process. Issues like financial arrangements
ought to be addressed. Downs (1996) stresses that issues like financial
arrangements that address the cost of phone calls, postage, travel,
data entry and analysis, and employee time for participating in
the audit are important. Furthermore, during the planning phase
the nature of the final report must be finalized. It is very important
to the audit process to be able to tell those participating exactly
what will happen with what they tell you. Employee honesty will
be significantly enhanced if they know who will be told what and
in what form. We strongly advise that management be given both a
written and oral report of aggregate data only. Anonymity is crucial
especially in the interview process. Similarly, it is also helpful
if management agrees to provide everyone access to the final written
report. It is during this phase that the relationship between the
audit team and the organization is established. Sometimes the organization
already has a fairly clear idea of what is causing a problem, at
other times only vague symptoms are known and the organization wants
the "doctor" to conduct the complete examination. In other
scenarios, as occurred with our General Electric (Harmon Industries)
audit, it was a joint project throughout. Management had some ideas
of what they thought was needed and the audit team suggested diagnostic
measures to verify the supposed need. A strength of this approach
is that external auditors, who are almost always eyed with some
suspicion, should honestly admit that they could never know the
organization as well as those who work there. Thus, during the planning
phase key expectations, who will be liaison, what areas will be
audited, which means of data collection will be used, which employees
will participate, the timeline for the entire process, and how the
audit will be presented and promoted throughout the organization
must be determined.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect
of the understanding phase requires careful attention to the relationship
between the communication within the organization and its functions
in that organization-task, social, motivational, climate and improvement.
Communication, by its very nature, is dynamic, changing, and a process,
not static. Therefore, issues like filtering, feedback, external
constraints, identity and others must be considered when designing
the audit. Auditors must carefully relate their examination of the
communication to all the relevant processes within the organization.
Thus, key issues like the amount of information exchanged, the directional
dimensions to that flow, and how well the various media are used
by the organization must be considered.
D-ata Collection Tools Must be
The tool bag of the communication audit is filled with numerous
instruments (see Downs, 1996, for an excellent description of many).
However, we believe they can be categorized as interviews, questionnaires,
critical incidents, message tracking, and communication networks.
Most would agree that the basic instrument is the interview. While
this is the most low-tech and oldest means of assessment, it remains
an excellent tool. Although perceptions can be inaccurate, they
remain the basis of behaviors and decisions. In communication exchanges,
meaning is in the listener not the sender. Thus, perceptions are
quite important. Also, the interview provides the opportunity to
probe issues deeply and discover areas that had not been identified
as noteworthy by management or the auditors. Those with first-hand
experience provide the information and the interviewee receives
the reward of being heard. Finally, the interview, not being so
time-bound, provides a wonderful opportunity to probe serendipitous
Along side the interview is the
questionnaire or survey. The standard issues of sample size, scope
of the questions, wording, format, order and distribution and collection
all apply. Return rates often depend on overall support of management,
when and where the questionnaire is filled out, where they are turned
in, and how the process was publicized. Similarly, analysis can
consist of frequency distributions, means and ranks, differences
in actual means, correlations and statistical comparisons among
Another important thing to determine
about a communication audit is whether or not the appropriate strategies
have been selected for that organization. Many perspectives need
to be taken into account before the audit is conducted. Like quality
research, often a pilot of multiple audit tools ought to be made
before a full-blown communication audit is conducted. One crucial
reason for this is that an audit, at best, is only a snap shot of
what actually occurs within any organization. Thus, it is imperative
that the snap shot be as accurate as possible. Issues like confidentiality,
when and how it is administered, who will have access to the data,
how the data will be reported, etc. must be clearly determined before
the audit can be conducted in order to get reliable results.
Since we use organizational communication
students as audit teams, we spend a great deal of time educating
them about the audit tools of interviewing, questionnaires (paper
or online), critical communication experiences, ECCO analysis and
communication networks. What we use and strongly recommend is a
combination. For example, with the General Electric (Harmon Industries)
audit, we began with the Downs/Hazen Communication Satisfaction
questionnaire and followed that with two levels of interviews.
I-nterpretation of the Collected Data
The data from an audit is only as good as those trained to interpret
the results. Evaluation of data is a crucial step in the audit process.
As often happens, data that is relative to different types of organizations
and settings is often interpreted as absolute data. For example,
what does it mean that 30 percent of the employees are dissatisfied
with the amount of information they receive about company stock?
Or that 17 percent say they receive excellent feedback? Are those
the key people who need the information about the stock or the feedback?
Several issues are important when interpreting the data. One is
relevant strengths and weaknesses. In the audit of UMB Bank we found
every item on the questionnaire had mean score of 3+ on a 1-5 scale.
Thus, the issue was not glaring weaknesses or problems but relative
strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, we compared the results with
a national data bank for that particular industry. Therefore, the
absolute score could be more accurately interpreted when compared
with the benchmark of national trends in that particular type of
T-alking About Insights and Possible
The pre-arranged agreement
regarding to whom the final report will be made must be fulfilled.
From the beginning we would typically argue for a broad reporting
of results or, perhaps two different reports-one for general distribution
and one for just management. Either way, the auditors must produce
and present what was promised. If as the audit process has progressed
management has requested a change in the reporting format or forum,
the auditors owe it to those questioned and their personal integrity
to never violate what was promised. Instead, compelling arguments
can be made for sharing the insights and possible actions widely
so that the next audit will produce even more reliable and valid
Over the years we have conducted numerous audits, usually using
organizational communication majors taking either a Communication
Training or Communication Audits course. These courses are senior-level
and graduate-level courses. Therefore, by means of these genuine
learning experiences, students learn first-hand about communication
audits of area organizations. Our roles have been to be both teacher
and consultant. The following cases provide samples of communication
audits as well as a means of illustrating how well audits enable
organizations to determine their communication situations and conditions.
General Electric (formerly Harmon
In 1991 and again in 1996 a communication audit of General Electric's
Electronic Components Division in Warrensburg, Missouri (formerly
Harmon Industries) was conducted. Several meetings with all top
management at the facility-including all three shift supervisors
since the plant was in production 24 hours a day for seven days
per week-resulted in selection of the Downs/Hazen Communication
Satisfaction Questionnaire as the initial audit tool. Based on the
findings from that survey, two levels of interviews were conducted.
Once all the data was collected it was interpreted and the findings
were transmitted to all supervisors who had agreed to share the
results with the entire workforce.
The Downs/Hazen survey identified
strengths at GE. Workers were most satisfied with communication
about benefits and pay, company profits and finances, company accomplishments,
the amount of supervision, receptivity to supervision, job satisfaction,
a compatible work group, that supervisors trust workers, company
policies and goals, and the ability to self-rate productivity. Weaknesses
centered around horizontal communication-problems with group leaders,
differences between shifts, and the third shift often being left
out of the communication loop; downward communication-lower management
needs more floor time, conflicting reports from plant and production
managers need to cease; personal communication; and, the communication
climate. The follow-up interviews revealed a need for standardization
in reports and implementation of policies, recognition via constructive
feedback rather than destructive feedback, and significant improvement
in the performance appraisal system. Recommendations for improvement
in consistency, communication strategies and performance appraisal
Another communication audit
was conducted on the Warrensburg branches of the UMB Bank. Relative
strengths and weaknesses were again identified using mean scores.
But with UMB Bank a percentage breakdown was also provided to help
understand the most and least satisfied aspects of their communication.
For example, their most satisfied issue was "extent to which
my supervisor trusts me." And their least satisfaction included
"recognition for my efforts" where 21.5% were satisfied,
11.9% were neutral and 66.7% were dissatisfied. That made recognition
a much greater concern than the relative weakness regarding "extent
to which supervisory communication motivates and stimulates and
enthusiasm for meeting company goals" where 34.2% were satisfied,
22.0% neutral and 43.5% were dissatisfied. Also, based on the results
of the survey data, interview questions included "How do you
reinforce positive behavior in your employees since the survey revealed
a concern with recognition for effort?" Finally, the relative
strengths as well as the relative weaknesses were compared with
a national data bank. For example, regarding "information about
accomplishments and/or failures of the company" (mean 7.0)
far exceeded the national norm (5.27). Again, based on the communication
audit, data driven interventions were recommended.
First Community Bank
In the Fall of 2002, a communication
audit was conducted in a 12-branch banking institution of 150 plus
employees. The bank has grown substantially and is experiencing
rapid changes in organizational structure. An organizational climate
audit was constructed that used a survey instrument along the dimensions
of communication flow, organizational values, individual values,
professional development, image, and work environment. The audit
in survey form was electronically distributed to Customer Service
Managers at each location. A small incentive was provided by the
Vice President of Marketing to increase the response rate. As a
result, the response rate was over 90%. The audit instrument/survey
collected qualitative and quantitative data. The organization scored
high marks on values, image, and work environment. Employees were
most concerned about amount and structure of communication flow
within their organization, typically of an organization experiencing
rapid growth and change. The triangulated method of data collection
assisted the audit team in interpreting their findings. This was
valuable to the audit team in the presentation of data findings
and recommendations to the bank's management team. This audit demonstrates
and reinforces the importance of selecting and using multiple tools
in collecting, interpreting, and recommending phases of a communication
An Assessment and Call for Research
The overall value of a
communication audit, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the
communication within the organization, is well established. With
the use of carefully designed audits, management as well as labor
can make decision based on verified facts. As was found in the audit
of General Electric, it was inconsistency in how communicated policies
were applied, improvement in communication especially between shifts
and the need for more and better performance appraisals that were
the real needs, which were only partially recognized by management
prior to the audit. But, following the audit, actions could be taken
with confidence since the facts had been verified.
Similarly, the organizational communication
audit does function as an effective diagnostic tool. At UMB Bank,
while employees were quite pleased with the trust placed in them
they were surprisingly dissatisfied with the recognition they received
for their efforts. In fact, when the Warrensburg branches scores
(mean 3.5) were compared with the national norms for the banking
industry (4.86), the extent of the dissatisfaction became clearly
apparent. Additionally, the use of multiple assessment methods at
First Community Bank did provide the audit team a reliable means
to explain consistent or inconsistent themes present in each phase
of the audit process.
Another aspect of audits that was
confirmed was the feedback aspect. While most clients with whom
we have worked have all had "Suggestion Boxes" or other
ways to garner feedback, all have extolled the amazing clarity of
the snap shot provided by the audit. After every audit, the companies
have highly praised the audit as the most beneficial feedback experience
they have ever had.
Finally, the audit has produced
both a communication benefit as well as a training effect. Again,
every organization has commented, when approached three to six weeks
later, before they had implemented many suggested improvements that
the overall communication climate had improved. And it was not uncommon
to hear managers say that even without formal training, they had
seen improvement. Being made aware of what was actually happening
and having verified facts to base decisions on rather than just
rumors, improvement in performance had occurred.
What is needed now is research on
the cost effectiveness and long-term benefit of communication audits.
We have lots of anecdotal evidence for the success of communication
audits. But all graduates need to be surveyed and asked to assess
the value of communication audits in their workplaces. Just because
most organizational communication graduates have productive careers
does not mean experience with communication audits is worthy effort.
So specifically, we need to learn what role the class project of
the audit has played in their careers. Finally, we need to know
how to insure that online surveys work as well as pencil and paper
surveys. What needs to occur to make that happen? And what must
organizational communication practitioners do to insure that online
interviews produce as insightful and useful data as face-to-face?
These issues need to be studied.
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Communication training and development (2nd edition), Prospect
Heights, IL, Waveland.
BROOKS, K., Callicoat, J. &
SIEGERDT, G. (1979): "The ICA communication audit and perceived
communication effectiveness changes in 16 organizations", Human
Communication Research, 5, 130-137.
DeWINE, S. (2001): The consultant's
craft: Improving organizational communication (2nd edition),
Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martin's.
DOWNS, C. (1996): Communication
Audits. Lawerence, KS: Communication Management Inc.
GOLDTEIN, I. & Ford, J. (2002):
Training in organizations (4th edition). Canada, Wadsworth.
SENGE, P. (1990): The fifth discipline:
The art and practice of the learning organization, New York:
Zaremba, A. (2003): Organizational
communication: Foundations for business & management,. Canada,
Sam Cox, Ph.D.
Terry Cunconan, Ph.D.
Investigadores del Departamento
de Comunicación de la Central Missouri
State University.Estados Unidos