The universal language

QR_ Insights is the online home of our Industry Reflections column, the PLM Essentials series, and topically pertinent thoughts from across the QR_ business and wider industry.

Founding director Rob Ferrone discusses the importance of effective communication.

“Communication works for those who work at it.” It’s easy to focus on engineering and variant complexity, but a lot of fog and friction within NPD programmes comes from communication complexity. Here QR_ founding director Rob Ferrone draws on orchestras and elephants to illustrate the fundamental but often overlooked importance of effective communication in the context of complex engineering programmes, offering four top criteria for getting it right. As is often the case, a lot comes down to focusing more on people than systems, and getting the right data in front of the right people at the right time.

Published 22 Sept 2022

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By Rob Ferrone, QR_ founding director

“Communication works for those who work at it.” – John Powell

The history of human communication can be traced back to around 100,000 BCE. Simple but fundamental means of communication – oral stories, cave paintings, pictograms – allowed us to generate collective knowledge and pass it between people and through time. As humanity developed, cultures emerged and started to establish norms around the ability to create, transmit and consume information. Symbols, in particular, allowed complicated information to be conveyed in a much simpler way than speech. Calendars, for example, started to gain traction from 15,000 BCE. Now, in 2022, we have virtually all of humanity’s accumulated knowledge accessible at any time and stored in our pockets. 

So, with this increased complexity and the absurd quantity of information, how has communication evolved? In this article, I would like to view this question through the context of a business that develops and manufactures complex engineered products.

Starting with the fundamentals:

Each business brings together a myriad of people for the first time, from different backgrounds and cultural norms that influence understandings, while asking them to cooperate to achieve shared objectives. All too often, this is where communication fails. It doesn’t matter if they are the best at their role, a sought-after and talented individual, they need to know the ‘music’. 

Sticking with this analogy, an orchestra contains many musicians and instruments, almost all of whom would be excellent at sightreading music. However, if the music was being written in real-time and they were all playing together for the first time, it would be exceptionally challenging and almost certainly a disaster.

So, where does communication fail?

Well, if you were to print out this page, place it on your desk and ask the person opposite what symbol this is – 6 – they could tell you it was a nine. Exactly the same symbol but an entirely different perspective and meaning. A well-known parable from the Indian subcontinent describes a group of blind men that come across an elephant for the first time. Using their sense of touch, they each feel different parts of the animal and are unable to reach a consensus on what it actually ‘looks’ like. Depending upon the retelling, accusations of dishonesty ensue and it descends into violence!

Our perspective and biases can fundamentally affect the decisions we make and our ability to correctly interpret information, emotions consciously or subconsciously affecting our interpretation of facts. In most contexts, we are experienced enough to be right most of the time and muddle our way through, but some things are simply too complex.

Ok, so, what does great communication look like?

There is a joke that studying the science of linguistics is like learning a new language. While most of our communication is oral or visual, we also know that effective communication can be made using other means, like braille, or that the delivery of the same words can lead to wildly different interpretations on account of tone or body language; "come with me" can easily be either menacing or inviting depending on the delivery. What about those from different cultures? Have you ever found yourself overseas in a wholly foreign setting and reverting back to basic hand signs to aid in communication? While I wouldn’t classify this as ‘great’, it almost certainly helped convey some form of basic information in an otherwise impossible situation.

Coming back to the professional setting, more specifically, the development of complex engineered products, product data management and product lifecycle management, the quantity and complexity of information is impossible for a single person to comprehend, remember or transmit. In such circumstances, these are my top criteria for successful communications:

One: If data can be made to accurately represent the physical world, then agree upon which information matters and how to know when it is ‘good’, in the sense of both its accuracy and desired value.

Two: They say that a picture speaks a thousand words. In QR_’s world, the right format of data reporting can convey that beyond comprehension. 

Three: It is vital that we take time to understand what motivates others. What do they need? What do they understand?

Four: To document definitions and make that information accessible. Cascade this to anyone joining the business.

Despite the fact that we have been doing this for over 100,000 years and are, at this very moment engaged in it, communication is never perfect. It is however, undoubtedly the key to collaboration, which is fundamental to life but especially to product development.

Product development is all about the data – ensuring its quality and making sure it gets to the right person at the right time. If done right, there is a single source of truth with no ambiguity, ensuring everyone is on the same page and knows what needs to be done. This can enable successful collaboration with disparate groups, even those that may be working together for the first time.

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