Shahid Anwar |
Organizational theory tells us that institutions are a function of what they communicate and how! Good institutions come from good understanding amongst its collective workers, and a commonly defined perception of objectives and purpose of that institution.
A case study of the Higher Education Department Punjab (HEDP)
As a case study, let us examine the communication patterns of the Higher Education Department Punjab (HEDP). The HEDP is neither unique nor much different from the rest of the bureaucratic organizations in Pakistan. By and large, it is performing like other public-sector departments.
Communication gap occurs when information is not received or understood as intended by the sender.
However, having been a participant observer for about three decades, I have closely observed its communication patterns, and their disastrous consequences for everyone, particularly the young students enrolled in colleges under HEDP. I passionately wish it well and my purpose here is to explain the patterns of communication at the HEDP and give my recommendations for improvement.
What are the current communication methods at HEDP? How are these producing negative identities and leading towards a split understanding of reality? How are distorted identities and lack of shared vision undermining institutional goal-achievement? How could these patterns of communication be changed to create a positive identity?
What is communication and communication gaps?
Communication means not only the transmission of information but its comprehension as well.
Here, we need a working definition of communication and communication gap. Merriam-Webster defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior”. Another definition says “transmission of information”.
It doesn’t matter whether the message is received and understood. For the purpose of this discussion, communication means not only the transmission of information but its comprehension as well; it involves exchange, though not always. A communication gap occurs when information is not received or understood as intended by the sender.
Institutional goal of all stakeholders is to nurture education
Seemingly, four major components of the department, the administration, the teaching faculty, the students, and Punjab Professors & Lecturers Association (PPLA) are engaged in communication to achieve an institutional goal of nurturing education. However, the flow of communication is structurally asymmetric.
There simply exists no channel for feedback and input from the field except the PPLA. No direct or indirect line of communication exists between the top layer and the students who are the recipients of the end product. So, this asymmetric model of communication, in which three main components of the HEDP have little interactive contacts, particularly, the administrators are virtually operating without any input/feedback from the field.
The administration, the teaching faculty, the students, and Punjab Professors & Lecturers Association (PPLA) are engaged in communication to achieve an institutional goal of nurturing education.
Beyond the structural analysis of the non-symmetric model, a little content analysis of the official messages can be useful. There is an overall deterioration in the quality of drafting. Dr. Ilhan Niyaz in his book, The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan 1947-2008, has pointed out this fact that bureaucracy has been producing wonderful official literature. Things have changed.
Now, too often, the language used in official communication (particularly from Directorates and Principles’ offices) is stuffed with grammatical errors, inappropriate words and at times without sentence structure, and unusual formatting. It is commonplace to use multiple highlighters like italics, bold, red color, underline and at the same time as an additional threat of administrative action, under subject line ‘URGENT, IMPORTANT, TIME BOUND’.
Verbal and informal communication means no one takes responsibility
Another form of communication is verbal and informal. It is equally asymmetric. The “subordinates” are supposed to be at beck and call (obey any command or fulfill any wish) of “super-ordinates”, notwithstanding the holidays or beyond office timings. Moreover, many things are actually done on verbal/telephonic orders which are at times even contrary to written rules and instructions.
The administration, having no direct communication line with the students, never knows their needs and concerns in their respective local contexts.
Such communication stays off the official record but subordinates have to comply and bear responsibility as well (for the decisions, they never made). In informal conversations, the administrators often contend that teachers are idle, unproductive, and a burden on the economy. On the other hand, the teaching wing considers bureaucrats arrogant, unresponsive, and out of touch with ground realities.
No Interactive feedback chain hinders improvements
The consequences are obviously negative for everyone, the department, teachers and the worst sufferers—the students. First and foremost, the administration, having no direct communication line with the students, never knows their needs and concerns in their respective local contexts. Teachers have an interactive relationship with students but there is no institutional mechanism to process the feedback, input or proposals back up the hierarchical control chain.
Every faculty member should be provided an official digital identity, and his/her requests should be processed online.
Moreover, the communication gap insulates administration from the key stakeholders—the teaching community. More it gets isolated, more it loses influence and respect. The tone and content of official circulars are true reflections. Often, top-down emails resort to threats under PEEDA Act. It is a sign of ineffectiveness and desperation. On the other side, the teaching community is also showing unhealthy symptoms. They feel alienated and suffer a sense of worthlessness which erodes their positive energy and dampens the will to contribute. It is a sheer wastage of great human resource. However, the worst victims are the thousands of students.
How can we improve communication to get better results
How can these patterns of communication be changed to produce positive identities, common reality, and shared goals?
The bottom-up flow of information needs to be unblocked. In the age of information technology, it can be done quite easily. Every faculty member should be provided an official digital identity, and his/her requests should be processed online. Many organizations adopted digitalization long ago. The HEDP also has done so but only for the top-down transition of information. It needs to open the bottom-up communication, as well.
Through effective and symmetric communication, an organization builds relationships of trust and inspires confidence.
Besides the effective and inclusive use of technology, change of orientation is required. The HEDP needs to recognize that symmetric flow of communication can help a department, to achieve its organizational goals. Since, without genuine involvement and input from the teaching community, it cannot even implement anything, given the passive resistance. So, blocking feedback means foreclosing the opportunity for policy correction and capacity to motivate and seek cooperation.
On the other hand, the teaching community should realize its social responsibility. Even if the government is not considering them a stakeholder, they have to create space. The popular motto, knowledge is power, is what they teach to the students. They should be able to use the power of logic and reasoning to get themselves recognized as primary stakeholders.
The PPLA should go beyond conventional trade-unionism based on narrowly defined community interests. It needs to include countless academic issues related to curriculum, examination system, textbooks, and quality of leadership of educational institutions, training, and so on. They can consider establishing a think-tank to conduct policy research and seminars on educational issues.
The HEDP is blessed with a large knowledge base (around 18,000 teachers) and great reservoirs of young potential (about 800,000). Just a better communication model can produce an amazing synergism. Failing to do this means, we continue to waste immense youthful potential.
In conclusion, two-way flow of communication is crucial for stability (smooth functioning of everyday business) and change (getting feedback from the field in order to make policies according to ground realities). Through effective and symmetric communication, an organization builds relationships of trust and inspires confidence. An institution gets its authority embedded among the stakeholders and society. In so doing it enhances its capacity to manage stability and change.
Shahid Anwar is a social and political analyst based in Islamabad. He has been writing for Dawn, The Nation, The News, and Weekly Cutting Edge.