The communications gap

It’s paradoxical: College graduates with 17 years of continuous education frequently have trouble communicating effectively at work.

Even more enigmatic is the fact that young adults are at the center of a virtual information vortex; data is distributed and conferred in mass volumes constituting a perfect storm of content. It’s a digital play on the proverbial forest-and-trees adage: They can’t see the meaning for the messages.

Let’s start with doing a little counting, or rather, a little reciting of incomprehensible counts.

The Radicati Group researches email statistics, and reports 3.7 billion email user accounts in 2017, generating 269 billion emails sent and delivered every day—1.9 trillion per week.

By 2021, the forecast is for 4.1 billion user accounts and a daily volume of 319 billion emails.

Suffice it to say that the numerical product of 319 billion multiplied by 365 days is beyond our ability to comprehend. No one can ever count to 116 trillion; a centenarian lives only a little more than 3.1 billion seconds.

As email nears its 50th birthday in 2021, it’s considered the old-fashioned dame among digital interactions. Social media outlets and communications have proliferated in the past 15 years, led by the gargantuan Facebook, which boasts more than 2 billion active monthly users. Facebook Messenger has only been around since 2011, but generates 7 billion daily conversations, or more than 2.5 trillion annually.

Those huge numbers hang a heavy asterisk on reports that teens think Facebook is for “old people”: 76 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds still use it. That’s a higher percentage of teen usage than Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter.

Factor in the entire social spectrum and astronomical figures abound: In a year there are 200 billion tweets, 1.8 trillion YouTube videos watched, and 1.5 trillion Instagram “likes” registered.

It becomes mathematical mush to make the mind swim.

And then there’s texting, which at last count by the folks at Pew Research was up to 8.3 trillion SMS messages annually. Millennials are the heaviest users, averaging 67 text exchanges every day.

Today’s powerful personal devices, coupled with the Internet of Things and more broadband reach than ever before, have ushered in an age of interactive overload.

From a pure data-dump perspective, today’s college grads appear to be standing tiptoe on the top rung of the evolutionary communications ladder.

They would certainly agree.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducts annual surveys on career readiness competencies. In the most recent edition, 80 percent of students from the college class of 2017 considered themselves proficient in oral and written communications. But in the same survey, when employers were asked to rate recent college graduates, the percentage fell by half: Barely 41 percent were deemed proficient.

Put another way, six out of 10 college graduates are not skillful communicators in the eyes of the people who write their paychecks.

Given that human resource professionals continually and overwhelmingly list reading, writing and speaking skills as “very important” requisites for career success, the implications for performance metrics like earnings, promotions and raises are dire.

The simplistic answer is higher education has to do a better job preparing students. But that’s easier said than done when freshmen arrive on campus with advanced degrees in video games, social media, TV and texting. That’s a lifetime of bad communication habits to undo. Think passivity, slang, partial sentence fragments—all of which hinder business communications competence.

Work-related communications in our multimedia world transcends mere writing or speaking, too. Upstream from the act of communicating itself is the critical thinking, creativity and preparation that precedes all effective conveyance of information.

Regardless of where graduates wind up working, they’ll be writing memos, reports and instructions. In larger organizations, they’ll write recommendations and plans and proposals. The more college writing assignments can resemble the real-world requirements, the better.

Students also need more corrective instruction on the perils of impersonal electronic communication. Even accomplished writers, highly trained in grammar and syntax and commanding capable vocabularies, can be misinterpreted in texting.

Through the use of emojis and emoticons and other imagery, inflection on social platforms can be simulated to aid in understanding meaning, but those crutches are rarely appropriate at work. Business communications need to be clear, concise, accurate and persuasive. Used improperly or indifferently, email can undermine all of those requirements.

Email is never a conversation, for example. By nature it’s a monologue, not a dialogue, and that dynamic tends to negatively affect things like wording (we’re all bolder in email, usually to our detriment). It is a wonderful medium for itemization, confirmation and information, because email creates a time-stamped record that is shareable and printable.

And while texts seem more conversational, they carry the curse of eternal capture. A spoken misstatement dissipates, and memories fade. But an intemperate or ill-advised text is documented forever.

Onboarding programs probably need to incorporate more communications training, such as when a phone call or visit is most appropriate, and an email or text is least so.

The communications gap is one of the widest in the NACE survey. Closing it will benefit companies, customers and employees’ careers.

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