What is the difference between communication and communications?

Communication is a shared experience.

Communications is how that experience is shared.*

In a recent blog on “True Collaboration”, I referred to a book, Midnight Lunch written by Sarah Miller Caldicott. There is a figure in the book that depicts shared experience at a Meta level. Here is the figure.

Image 1The figure is interesting in that it positions “True Collaboration” within the context of overall shared experience and relative to some other Meta forms of communication. It also sets up the overall context for what Caldicott describes as Thomas Edison’s model for True Collaboration, i.e. the 4 phases of Team Collaboration Success.

Good pictures not only communicate information (a 1,000 words), but also understanding.

The figure above left me wanting more. So I started to play with the concept of Shared Experience and Collaboration.

The term collaboration is used very liberally, because there is a great and well founded interest from corporate executives to use collaboration as a means to greater innovation.

In the technology world, vendors speak about collaboration and how their offerings enable greater collaboration – video conferencing tools, software tools like Microsoft’s SharePoint and even headset manufactures are riding the collaboration bandwagon.

The vendor clamoring can be confusing and seem contradictory. But they are all right. Their tools do enable greater communication or shared experience. But not all these tools enable the True Collaboration that Thomas Edison subscribes to which was at the heart of his amazing success as an innovator.

Shared Experience and the Level of Interaction

If we equate “Shared Experience” with “Communication” and measure the Number of Participants by the Level of Interaction, your Shared Experience looks like this:


This becomes a relative framework for different types of communication enabled by different types of communications.

Adding Different Types of Communications to the Model

High-level-300x269If we go back to Caldicott’s model, her Discovery Learning falls nicely into the framework, but her “True Collaboration” and “Tasks” need to switch positions on the framework to make sense. See the figure to the left.

Why do they need to switch positions? True Collaboration is a 4-step process and the last step requires less than a dozen people in a highly interactive discussion. Shifting the True Collaboration ellipse to the bottom of the graph reflects this state. Conversely, Tasks are defined as “a piece of work to be done or undertaken”. Tasks are accomplished primarily when a person is working in “focus time”, and not interacting directly with others. It may seem counter intuitive that tasks can be accomplished with a high number of participants and a high level of interaction.

But, they can. This is a relatively new phenomenon called “mass collaboration” and is described further below. The three ellipses from Caldicott’s model are represented on the graph above:

  • True Collaboration is represented by the Yellow ellipse
  • Discovery Learning is represented by the Blue ellipse
  • Tasks are represented by the Red ellipse

162813135We could spend quite a bit of time using different examples of communication/shared experience and where they fit on the graph and why. And there could be lots of debate around where an activity might be positioned.  Let’s look at a few of examples:

  1. A CEO’s live update to all employees in the company would fall in the upper left of the upper left quadrant.  Why?  Because there are a very high number of participants (every employee in the company) and the level of interaction would be pretty low – mostly a ‘state of the company’ communication with perhaps a few questions.
  2. A phone call between 2 people would fall into the very bottom right of the graph. High interaction between only 2 people.
  3. Mass collaboration, e.g. digitizing books, see TED video, is only practical when large numbers of people work independently (focus time-task).  Mass collaboration would fall in the very top right of the graph, high number of participants and a high interactivity (meaning lots of interactions to get the task done – more on tasks in a moment).
  4. Reading an email written by one person to another, would fall into the very bottom left of the graph.  Low number of participants (2), and low level of interaction.

We can position any kind of communication on this graph and the relative positions of different kinds of communication and communications brings a relational perspective that can be very useful, especially when trying to sort through the merits of new tools for communications.

Here is another observation I found interesting.

One of the things I have had to explain to clients is that there are ‘real-time’ collaboration tools and there are ‘iterative’ collaboration tools. The easiest way to tell the difference is, if you cut the connection and the collaboration session ends, it is real time, if it doesn’t end, it is iterative.

If you are on your cell phone and the connection is cut, then the conversation is over – this is real-time communications.  If you lose your email connection for a while, you can pick up the email communication when you have a connection again – this is an iterative communication.

Adding Real-Time and Iterative Communication to the Model

As I mapped out different types of communications, I found that Real-Time and Iterative communications each formed a distinctive line on the relative framework.

newob-300x266Real-Time shared experiences (communication) follow a mapping represented by the red arrow. When the numbers of participants are high, the interaction is low; and as the number of participants drops to very low levels, the level of interactions becomes high.

Conversely, the Iterative shared experiences are represented by the yellow arrow. And for Iterative interactions a low number of participants will result in a relatively lower level of interaction, i.e. iterations; and high number of participants leads to a relatively higher level of iterations between participants.

Also of note is that the Iterative arrow aligns with the tasks ellipse as depicted by Caldicott. Back to the example above of Mass Collaboration. This is an iterative, task based, form of collaboration and maps as described above.

One final observation: True Collaboration as defined by Caldicott has 4 phases. The first phase is discovery learning for example – also mapped on the figures above and you can see where the 2 ellipses intersect.

Collaboration, as defined by “Brainstorming sessions” where people get together in real-time, or as defined by the 2 Pizza rule I wrote about in a past blog, occurs where the Real-Time arrow intersects the Collaboration ellipse.  See the final figure below.


This True Collaboration in Real-Time is the sweet spot for innovation.

Communicating is the core of every interaction we have.

The relative framework for different types of communication enabled by different types of communications brings an insightful view to communicating.

If we can make our organizations better at communicating, the organizations can become better. Better in a lot of different ways.

How can we make our organizations better at communicating? Here are two transformative things you can do:

  1. A corporate communications framework must be formalized. I call this a framework, a corporate collaborative ecosystem (CCE).  The CCE must have a framework, which embraces both the real-time and the iterative collaboration requirements for the organization.  Read this blog to see what the framework should look like.
  2. Move more of your organization’s communications to Real-Time. This will have a profound impact on your business. I will discuss this in more detail in a future blog.

If you need help sorting out the patchwork of communication tools in your organization and turning them into a tapestry, we can help. Contact us.

* My definitions for Communication and Communications above, pertain to interactions in which people are involved.  It has been pointed out, that communication can also take place without a human being involved.  In the technology world this would generally be accepted as true.  But, is a connection between machines a true communication? A philosophic topic for another day …

  • Edgar says:

    If we can make our organizations better at communicating, the organizations can become better. Better in a lot of different ways.
    That is the whole truth, the most important part of life, both private and business is communication.

    • You have the crux of it. The blog was more business oriented but communication is as important in our personal lives. Everything we do that touches another individual has communication intertwined within it. Also notice how many problems boil down to “a lack of communication”.

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