Serial Communication

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Effective communication is the backbone of any successful organization, creating a strong connection among team members. A key element in this communication landscape is serial communication— the step-by-step passing of information up and down the organizational structure. In this blog post, we'll break down the details of this type of communication, looking at its features, advantages, and challenges. Let's dive in!

What is Serial Communication?

Serial communicationOpens in new window involves transmitting information one bit at a time, sequentially, as opposed to parallel communication, where multiple bits move simultaneously. It's frequently utilized in data transmission, like modems and computer networks. However, our focus in this blog post is on serial communication within the realm of organizational structure—the methodical relay of information from one individual to another in a sequence, following the established chain of command or hierarchical structure.

Serial communication, as the name suggests, involves the sequential transmission of information from one individual to another, forming a chain link of communication. It follows a structured path, typically originating from top management and cascading down to lower levels, or vice versa. This pattern is often likened to a grapevine, where each person relays the message to the next, ensuring that everyone receives the same information.

While serial communication may seem simplistic, it plays a crucial role in maintaining order and consistency within an organization. It ensures that important announcements, policy updates, and task instructions reach all corners of the organization, keeping everyone aligned and on the same page. This unified understanding is essential for coordinated action and collective success.

A Brief Background Overview

To truly appreciate the significance of serial communication within organizational contexts, let's take a journey back in time and explore its historical roots. The concept of structured communication within hierarchies can be traced back to organizational theorists and management scholars who have laid the foundation for understanding how information flows through the layers of an organization.

One notable figure in the exploration of organizational communication is Chester BarnardOpens in new window, an American business executive and organization theorist. In his seminal work, "The Functions of the Executive" (1938), Barnard delves into the complexities of communication within organizations. He emphasizes the importance of a clear and formalized chain of command for effective organizational functioning.

Barnard's ideas, building upon earlier works by theorists like Max WeberOpens in new window and Henri FayolOpens in new window, highlight the necessity of a structured flow of information to ensure that tasks are carried out efficiently within an organization. The concept of a scalar chain, a hierarchical structure through which communication flows, aligns closely with the principles of serial communication we observe today.

As organizational structures evolved over the decades, theorists such as Herbert Simon and Daniel Katz further contributed to our understanding of how communication patterns influence decision-making and organizational effectiveness. Their research reinforced the notion that a sequential and organized flow of information is essential for the smooth operation of complex organizational systems.

In essence, the roots of serial communication within organizations can be traced to the early 20th century, where organizational theorists recognized the need for a systematic approach to communication in increasingly complex corporate environments. The principles they laid down form the basis for the structured communication patterns we witness today, emphasizing the importance of clear channels and sequential transmission in fostering effective organizational communication.

Some Setbacks Associated With Serial Communication

With serial communication, messages often change—sometimes dramatically—as they are sent from one member of the chain to another. Because each sender may omit, modify, or add details to the message as he or she transmits it; serial communication suffers several serious setbacks.

  1. The first setback is that the content and tone of the message change as it moves from person to person. Messages are seldom received the way they were sent—especially if the message is being transmitted orally from person to person.
  2. The second setback is that bad news and complaints are seldom transmitted. This is in part due to the stress associated with delivering bad news (McKee & Ptacek, 2001). Rosen and Tesser (1970) have labeled this reluctance to pass bad news the MUM EffectOpens in new window. To digress a little, the MUM (minimize unpleasant messages) effectOpens in new window, is the idea that people prefer not to pass on unpleasant information, with the result that important information is not always communicated (Michael G. Aamodt).
  3. The third setback with serial communication, especially when it has to do with informal communication channels, is that it is less effective the farther away two people are from one another. This means a supervisor is more likely to pass along a message to another supervisor if the two are in close physical proximity. It is unlikely, therefore, that an informal message originating with an employee at a plant in Atlanta will reach another employee at the corporate office in Phoenix. The importance of physical proximity cannot be overstated. As you probably would imagine, proximity does not play a role when messages are communicated electronically using e-mail. Thus, e-mail may reduce the power of proximity when communication is formal.

Because of these problems with serial communication, special precautions are necessary. Four techniques will assist in maintaining the accuracy of and achieving understanding with serial communication.

Senders should
  1. Keep the message simple
  2. Request feedback
Receivers should
  1. Take notes
  2. Repeat the message

Although serial communication is typically oral, e-mail has increased its presence in written form. The ability to forward messages without paraphrasing them minimizes or eliminates the distortion customary in oral serial messages. This advantage is lost, however, when those who receive the message add to or comment on it before passing it along. Having to read the additional information can place a burden on the receiver.

Some serial communication follows a pattern known as the grapevineOpens in new window. Unlike messages being passed through a sequential chain, grapevine messages create a random pattern. Each receiver may tell no one, one person, or several people. The result is a communication flow that rambles and spreads in unpredictable ways.

Messages that travel through the grapevine may be positive, neural, or negative. Negative grapevine communication, often referred to as gossip, shows disrespect for others and may be viewed as unethical. For example, telling family and friends that you have a new supervisor could start a positive or neutral grapevine message; telling those same people that your former supervisor was fired for falsifying expense reports would initiate gossip.

By employing a combination of communication patterns, organizations can create a more fluid and effective information flow system. Serial communication can serve as the backbone, ensuring consistent and structured information transmission, while parallel and diagonal communication can supplement it, adding speed, flexibility, and real-time feedback loops.

In conclusion, serial communication remains an essential tool in the organizational communication toolbox. Its structured approach ensures that information reaches all corners of the organization, maintaining alignment and consistency. However, organizations should embrace a hybrid approach, incorporating parallel and diagonal communication to enhance agility, responsiveness, and overall communication effectiveness. By balancing structure with flexibility, organizations can foster a dynamic communication ecosystem that empowers them to navigate the ever-changing landscape of business.

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