Communication is Key

  • Published
  • By Maj. Mark Snow
  • 22nd Comptroller Squadron
Can you imagine a world without computers, blackberry's and cell phones? We use this technology for convenience and speed, thinking that our message needs to get out there as soon as possible. I do believe this technology has advanced our society so far so fast that we lose the basic skill to survive in our business - communication. We lose the true meaning of the message and how to talk with one another. How often do we lose sight of the message or misinterpret it when it is delivered via email or blackberry? How many times do you get frustrated with emails that go back-and-forth? Wouldn't it be easier to pick up the phone or go see the person to resolve the issues and iron out the message? Understanding the message is the most important part that binds the members of an organization at different levels and areas with one another.

All organizations rely heavily on communication in order to succeed. Let me start with a review of communication. Communication is the process of transferring meaning in the form of ideas or information from one person to another. It consists of six parts - the source; encoding the message; transmitting the message; receiving it; decoding the message; and feedback to the source. There are two types of communication: formal and informal. Formal communication is used to send directives, policies, and other information to members of the organization and to get feedback from the members so that managers can determine effectiveness of the communication. Informal communication, on the other hand, is communication through other than formal channels.

Next year will mark the 35th anniversary of Operation Homecoming - the release of the American Prisoners of War from North Vietnam. Can you imagine the fate of the prisoners if they did not communicate? Communication was absolutely critical to their survival. The 4th Allied POW wing captured the meaning of communication. They relied heavily on informal means to get the message across to the entire unit. The North Vietnamese guards recognized the importance of communication and went to great lengths to prevent communication between the prisoners. They separated the prisoners from one another. They also isolated the senior ranking officers away from the other prisoners in an attempt to prevent organization and resistance. Their efforts, no matter how brutal, all failed.

The prisoners also knew the importance of communication. They knew they needed it in order to organize, plan, and set into motion policies and procedures they could use in order to survive their imprisonment. The one thing they relied on was the Code of Conduct. At first they tried to follow the code to the strictest. However, the guards began to torture the prisoners for information they could use both against the prisoners and the United States. The prisoners learned quickly that all people have a breaking point. The prisoners decided to take as much as they could then lie. Make the lie simple and easy to remember; or give incomplete, insignificant answers to the question that cannot be used against the prisoners.
Once the torture practices began, the SROs knew the prisoners must continue to communicate to increase resistance and boost morale. But how could they communicate? Smitty Harris, a very early shootdown, was credited with the "tap code." The code was based on the tap chart.

The prisoners would tap out the message to fellow prisoners in hopes of not being caught or the message "heard" by the guards. As the guards stepped up efforts to catch the prisoners tapping messages, the prisoners devised other forms to get the messages out. Since most of the prisoners were usually sick with a runny nose they used the tap code via coughs and sniffles. They would also whistle or sweep the code to isolated prisoners. They new they needed to keep communications going to learn about new interrogation tactics, to build morale, and most importantly for camaraderie.

Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus wrote, "Communication creates meaning for people. It's the only way any group, small or large, can become aligned behind the overarching goals of an organization." This was very true in the 4th Allied POW Wing and is still has the importance to our wing today. Several POWs have agreed that their survival was totally dependent on their communication processes and systems. Had it not been for the success of communicating resistance policies and encouragement they could not have survived.

Through history communication is the important piece to the success of every operation. If the message is not delivered clearly or timely, missions don't happen and safety and success will be affected. Stop and think a moment next time you're sending a message and read it to see if the message/requirements are clearly stated. Would it be easier to call the receiver or go see them to convey the message? Don't be a "prisoner" to your email or blackberry.