5th Edition PMBOK® Guide—Chapter 10: Communication Models

1.  Introduction

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “All bad art is sincere.”  For the word “art”, let’s substitute the word “communication”:  “all bad communication is sincere.”  What does this epigram mean?  What is means is that, if by “sincere” you mean that “what is in your heart comes out of your mouth”, then bad communication is something which, although heartfelt,  somehow “loses translation” from the time it leaves your mouth to the time it gets to the other person’s ear, and into their heart (or mind).  In other words, sincerity is not enough; you have to have the skillful means of communication in order to make sure the message gets through to the hearer.  A communication model can be for communication what the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis does for design:  it is a way to pinpoint the various ways in which a communication can possibly go wrong, in order to make sure that you get it right.

2.  Communication Model

What are the five steps in a communication?  Here is a chart which summarizes them.



a. Encode The sender translates thoughts or ideas into language; this information is called the message.
b. Transmit Message The message is sent by the sender using the communication channel or medium.  The transmission of this message may be compromised by various factors referred to collectively as noise.
c. Decode The message is translated by the receiver back into meaningful thoughts or ideas.
d. Acknowledge The receiver may signal or acknowledge receipt of the message.
e. Feedback/ Response When the received message has been decoded and understood (step 3), the receiver translates thoughts or ideas into a message and transmits this message to the original sender.


3.  Discussion of Communication Steps

Here are some thoughts on the various steps in the communication process.  The idea is what can go wrong at each step, and how can you minimize the risk of such a communication failure?

a.  Encode

The simpler the message in terms of language and length, the easier it is to decode on the other end.  Many project managers like to use humor as a way to “break the ice” in communication and establish a rapport with the “audience”.  Since humor, especially a play on words, is often very language-specific, this is the kind of communication that risks being misunderstood.  I was at an international physics conference when I was at the University of Illinois, and one of the professors giving a talk started writing down the details of an equation, looked at the time and realized he didn’t have enough time to write them all down, and said to the audience, “well, the final result comes out in the wash.”  I knew that the phrase “in the wash” meant “after all of the mathematical calculations are done.”  However, this professor was then asked by a Russian colleague who was listening to his talk, “what means ‘the answer comes out in laundry’?”  He was thinking of “the wash” in a literal sense, and not in the metaphorical sense that the American physicist was speaking about.  Somehow, one of the Russian graduate students grasped this miscommunication, and started explaining to the professor in Russian what was meant.  The proverbial light bulb went off, and he smiled and said, “panimayu” (“I understand”).

b.  Transmit Message

What can cause the transmission or signal to be altered by noise?  It could be the distance itself, although nowadays error-correcting codes and algorithms try to reduce any possible noise that creeps into an electronic signal along the way.  More often, it is the cultural differences or lack of background information, that is, elements internal to the receiver and not external that cause the message to be distorted.  This is why cultural sensitivity is important as a project manager involved in an international project.

c.  Decode

Many times the decoding process can cause the original message to be lost because of emotional biases internal to the receiver.  If I say, “good afternoon, Jack!” and Jack responds, “What the hell do you mean by that remark?”, it’s probably a good bet that Jack is interpreting my (rather neutral) message based on either some event that has occurred earlier in the day or some other experience that is coloring my message in some way other than what I had intended.  Besides cultural sensitivity, therefore, it is important to add emotional intelligence to one’s repertoire of understanding as a project manager.  A more realistic example than the one I just gave is how one’s style of management can be interpreted differently by different people based on their own temperament.  If you are a “hands-on” manager who likes to give people specific direction, the phrase “do you need any help?”  may be welcomed by a new member of the team but may be resented by a “veteran” as interference, condescension, or in some way other than what was intended.  Likewise, a more “laissez-faire” attitude may be welcomed by a skilled team that has been through the mill on a similar project before, but may be considered “standoffish” by a person new to this kind of project who might appreciate some direction.  How do you know whether the decoded message is the same one you sent?  That is where the next two steps come in.

d.  Acknowledge

Acknowledging receipt of the message without indicating a reply may seem an unnecessary or even redundant step by some.  However, consider the word “hai” in Japanese.  It means “I understood what you said.”  It does not mean “I agreed with what you said.”  In taking a telephone message for another person, for example, it is sometimes helpful to repeat what the caller wants that person to do, so that if there any mistakes, they can be corrected right there and then.  This is because the context which the caller and the intended recipient may share could be unknown to you, and you may try to interpret the message in a way that makes sense to you, but which may alter the original intended meaning of the message.

e.  Feedback/Response

Actually, if you look at it carefully, the feedback/response actually mirrors steps c and b in that order.  First the reply is translated from thoughts into language (the return message or response), and then the response is transmitted back to the sender.  The reply may set off another round of communication, or it may not.  But the same principles apply in terms of encoding and transmitting the response that apply to the original message.

4.  Conclusion

Knowing the steps in the communication process can help you devise strategies to minimize the risk of a communication error.  These strategies should be encapsulated in one’s communication plan.  This is particularly important when communicating between countries, cultures, and languages.

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