A metaphor can be a wonderful thing. It can also steer people down the wrong path. Take the familiar term often used for disseminating information throughout an organization – the cascade. Frequent readers of Inside Out know how fervent I am about avoiding the trap of believing that you’re communicating when all you’re really doing is sending out data and messages to an “audience.” As I’m often fond of saying, that may be the best you can do sometimes, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s communication. I have a stock reply for people who bemoan that they need more “two-way communication” in their organization – Seriously, what other kind is there?
Getting Stuck in a Downflow
The problem with the cascade as a metaphor for communication is that information only goes one way – top down. Sometimes, organizations try to build in processes to help ensure that the people responsible for cascading the information to the ranks below actually do what’s expected of them. But it’s rare to see any real accountability built into the system for doing it right. What’s more, people are seldom given the opportunity to engage in a genuine conversation about the information they’re receiving. The typical drill is more like “hear this and do that.” On top of that, you rarely see a process to ensure that the questions and comments that come up at the bottom of the cascade find their way back up to the originators of the information.
Cascading Down the Drain
Part of the reason for this flawed approach to communication is that people take the cascade metaphor too literally. The emphasis is on making sure that messages get from the top to the bottom of the organization – like a cascading waterfall. That’s because they’re more focused on the process than the outcome. Bottom line, if you don’t have some way of generating feedback with the same rigor you devote to sending out a “message,” it’s like information down the drain.
Creating a Fountain of Feedback
A better metaphor for the communication process – one that captures the interactive quality of how communication is supposed to work – is a fountain. Think of it as a cascade with feedback. That’s essentially what a fountain does – water flows around and around from top to bottom and back up again in a continuous loop.
The fountain also works better to illustrate the growing awareness that the main function of organizational communication should not be to create messages to be sent to audiences, but rather to facilitate conversations among partners and stakeholders. What’s more, the interactive nature of a fountain approach to communication also captures the growing demand for transparency and authenticity in the workplace. It’s a vivid reminder of the Marshall McLuhan quote I’ve cited before in Inside Out – “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.” Next time you’re tempted to use the term cascade, ask yourself if a fountain might be a better reflection of the principles and practices you want to embody in your organization’s approach to communication.
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