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Communication

Introduction

The hierarchical model I have outlined functions through communication and feedback loops. Communication includes all the signals present in the operational world that relate to the status of that world. At Level 1, communication is represented primarily by inputs made to devices and other actions while environmental responses received by the individual represented feedback. At Level 2, communication comprises verbal and non-verbal acts that facilitate the building of working relationships and coordination of activity, both within and between collaborative groups. At higher levels, actors communicate mainly through documents and other artefacts. Communication is the driving force of the system. This chapter builds on some of the concepts already developed around sense-making and task management and looks at how these things get done. We will primarily look at the structure and function of communication in an operational context. For convenience, in addition to communication between individuals and teams at the level of collaboration (Level 2), I will also look at the implications of managerial communication as forms of control.

I start with a brief review of the evolutionary evidence for the development of communication. A consistent theme of this book is that we are the product of our inheritance and the echoes of this development are still present in how we communicate today. I take a functional view of communication in that the ability evolved to meet a need. We will look at some examples of communication both within a crew and also between an aircraft and air traffic control (АТС). We will also look at aircraft checklists as tools of communication. What I hope emerges from the discussion is the fact that communication is a remarkably plastic, flexible process with communicators patching and repairing incomplete signals and, yet, still managing to arrive at the required outcome.

The Evolution of Communication

It is now widely understood that a range of different species is capable of quite complex communication. Bees can share information about the location of food sources. The distress calls of young chimpanzees can differentiate between different predators. Dolphins coordinate their behaviour when attacking schools of fish. In homi- nids, it seems that the structures necessary for speech evolved around half a million years ago. Being capable of speech, though, does not mean that language was actually used; it just means that the structural adaptations necessary for forming words were present. In all probability, our ancestors were using gestures long before they started speaking to one another. You only have to watch someone on their mobile phone to appreciate just how deep rooted gestures are in our communication toolkit and we have all witnessed how, when struggling for a specific word, the hands come into play to try to get meaning across.

From an evolutionary perspective, we need to ask why language evolved. It makes no sense to invest in the anatomical development of bones, muscles, nerves and brain capacity unless it serves some purpose in terms of survival. There are two main candidates for why we communicate: to exchange information and to promote social bonding. As Dunbar (2014) observed, there is no compelling reason to prefer either option, but the evidence suggests that language developed in a social context. We talk to facilitate living in groups. Experiments that look at recall of information from stories have shown that social content is more memorable than technical - factual - story elements. We are inveterate gossips. Another finding that has a parallel for our discussion is that communication about scarce resources is greater between kin than between non-related individuals. In a study of radio transmissions by lobster fishermen off the coast of Maine (Palmer, 1991), in situations where there were many strangers on the frequency, fishermen were less likely to broadcast the locations of good fishing compared with when it was just fishermen from the same community. The case can be made that communication for social bonding preceded the transmission of facts. I do not want to draw too many conclusions from this brief discussion other than to suggest that we underestimate the evolutionary nature of communication and the implications at our peril. Ironically, while the evidence suggests that communication evolved in a social context, in aviation, we use constrained, codified language to achieve a primarily technical function. It seems, then, that we have almost designed communication to fail. I start this chapter with a case study that illustrates the nature of that fragility.

 
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