The meaning of ‘communication’

Every now and then you realize you’ve been using a word without thinking about what it really means.

Take “communication”: It means vastly different things depending on the context. Communications applications include e-mail, instant messaging and video. Communications infrastructure includes everything from IP routers to satellite networks and phones. And in a relationship, there’s always the dread phrase, “Sweetie, we need to communicate more.”

So what does communication really mean? In its broadest sense, to communicate means to generate images and ideas in the mind of another being (not necessarily a human one). When you say “biscuit” and your dog wags his tail and starts drooling — you’ve communicated.

But there’s a bit more. The concept of communications generally implies that the intended message has been received more or less accurately. To twist the old adage, if you post a sign on a tree in the forest, and nobody sees it — you may have expressed yourself, but you haven’t communicated. Or if you say “biscuit” and your dog runs to the door with his leash in his mouth — again, you haven’t communicated.

All great stuff, but why does this matter to network managers? Simply this: if you’re in the business of crafting a communications strategy for your organization, you’ll want to be clear on what that encompasses. Take the notion of “accurate receipt of communications.” If senior management is expecting E911 capabilities (any call for help is guaranteed to go through to emergency services), and your VoIP system doesn’t have 911 support — you’ll need to revisit the requirements. Another question in this context is how long communications services are expected to remain functional in the event of a power outage. This affects power and backup engineering for every facility, including the data centre and all branch offices.

At a broader level, it’s important to understand what’s in folks’ minds when it comes to a communications strategy. What information needs to be available, to whom, and in what timeframe? Do remote users need access to interactive video? Or is data sufficient? What about integrated application access? Which users need to be presence-enabled?

There’s also the question of distance. It’s worth noting in this context that if you’ve communicated enough information in the right detail across a long distance, you’ve essentially made physical interactions geographically independent.

Take faxes: The huge advantage to faxing a document is the ability to enable people to sign documents remotely (and instantaneously). Telemedecine is another example: Doctors can remotely operate on patients. Or, more esoterically, the phenomenon of quantum entanglement may one day make it possible to teleport around the galaxy.

Again, this has a practical implication for IT execs. Think in terms of communications technology to enable physical interactions to become geographically independent. Under what circumstances is physical presence required today — and how can technology make that requirement obsolete?

The bottom line: Sometimes, it pays to think about the many meanings of an ordinary word.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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