Arto Mustajoki: Communication is everything

13.10.2011

The need for successful communication concerns all aspects of university life. A piece of new knowledge is worthless while it remains within the mind of a researcher. It becomes valuable only if he or she is able to transfer it in a digestible way to other representatives of the research community. This involves four steps.

The text

  • has to find its way into the hands of other researchers
  • must be read by them
  • needs to be understood and recognised by them as remarkable research
  • should be used (and cited) by them in new studies on that particular topic

For the first step the choice of the journal or publisher is crucial. In achieving the second and fourth steps it helps if the reader knows the author beforehand. Gaining esteem and respect among colleagues is scarcely possible without active networking with them. The third step is more probably taken by the reader if the text is written in a rigorous but captivating manner. This is all about communication. A researcher also needs special communication skills for selling her or his ideas to research financers.

Teaching as the second task of the university differs very much from research, but there is at least one similarity: it is not important how much knowledge the teacher possesses, the only thing that matters is what the students know and understand after the course. As a matter of fact, when it comes to the impact of a university on society, the students’ communication skills are essential. Wherever they end up working, their expertise can only be used if they are able to express themselves in an appropriate way and to solve problems through interaction with other people.

The destiny of a university is in the hands of politicians and future students. Both groups of people often listen to public opinion. We get money from the state only if decision-makers rely on the significance of our work. Our university gets smart and active applicants only if young people think that it is the best place to study. Politicians and senior high school students (lukiolaiset) base their decisions on the impression they have of us. This is what makes interaction with society so important.

We also need effective communication within the university. If we fail in distributing the right information about new strategies and plans even to those who are reluctant to receive it, they will create their own urban legends and circulate them to their surroundings. This leads to a self-made turbulence that hinders people from concentrating on their real work. It is equally important that the university decision-makers, from the rector and the board to department heads, should know what really happens in the university. There is a big risk that information percolates to them through too many filters that contort the real picture.

Communication is always a dialogue. When a student meets a supervisor, he or she learns more from articulating her or his own thoughts than from the comments of the supervisor. In writing about our own research, we have to match it to what other researchers have done before us. Monologue, speaking to yourself, is not accepted.

There is one single thing that dictates the successfulness of communication: recipient design. In order to affect our readers and listeners, we have to get our message through to them. We all know this, and as part of our communicative skills we even have a certain automatic device for performing recipient design. Nevertheless, we constantly fail in our attempts to do so – in writing project applications, in making public speeches, in telling the authorities about our work, in expressing ourselves at meetings, in our personal life. We cannot reach the level of perfect recipient design, but we are able to learn to do it better.

While writing these lines, I have been hearing counterarguments from the readers: in a university the first priority is always the content; it is our knowledge and our research results that count; all other things are secondary.  Yes, but the content is worthless if we are not able to transfer it to other people. In recruiting people we test their expertise very carefully. So the content and knowledge is there.  In communication skills we are much weaker.

Every assessment of Finnish research ends with the observation that the level of research is higher than its visibility in the world. Our reputation among politicians and young people is quite high, but it could be much higher if we were better at telling them about our work.

So, in my opinion, the keyword in making our university more prosperous is communication.

Arto Mustajoki professori Suomen Akatemian hallituksen puheenjohtaja

P.S. Alkuperäinen tarkoitukseni oli kirjoittaa juttu suomeksi, mutta en saanut sanotuksi yllä olevaa ajatusta käyttämällä suomen sanoja viestintä ja kommunikaatio.

Lähde: Helsingin yliopisto http://blogs.helsinki.fi/huipullejayhteiskuntaan/

Viimeksi muokattu 23.3.2015
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