What is the role of communication in control?

Communication is ubiquitous in all functions of management. The control process is lubricated by communication of information at several points. Information on plans, programmes and budgets is to be transmitted to managers responsible for determination of standards of performance, which in turn need to be communicated to those functionaries who have to meet them through various operations. As soon as actual performance or results/output is measured, information in the form of reports have to be prepared and communicated to the concerned managers for purposes of evaluation. If actual performance matches standards, the fact is fed back to the operating system as an indication of satisfactory results. If actual performance is adversely out of line with standards, then also information on such deviations and instructions on needed corrective action are fed back to the operating system to set right the inputs and/or processes in the future for example, adjustment of workload or allocation of resources.

It is clear from the above that communication is an important element of the control process and involves ‘feed-back’of information. In the control cycle also depicted earlier in the diagram, several feed-back loops have been shown linking the various stages of the control process. So much so, the concept of feedback gained much importance in the literature on control process. Feedback of information is nothing but communication of results, their positive or negative aspects and the need for continuance of operations along pre-determined lines or correction of deviations to the operating units. Feed- back of information is necessary for purposes of enabling the operating units to know the results of their operations i.e., to know how they have actually performed, whether there are any serious deficiencies and what action has to be taken to set them right.

Feed-back is generally thought of in terms of a loop or circuit. There are two types of feedback loops— closed loops and open loops. In a closed feed-back loop, directions on corrective action are definitive, are meant to maintain the operating system’s activity on predetermined lines and are incorporated in the control system itself. Such an arrangement is aimed at enabling the operating system to function in a deterministic manner with no outside intervention for correction of deviations. In other words, mechanisms are built into the system for automatic self-regulation and self-adjustment of the system’s functioning and performance in a ‘steady state’ manner.

In an open feed-back loop, enough scope is left for outside intervention to correct or adjust or adapt the system’s functioning and outputs. There is no automatic internal arrangement as such for self- correction of the system. The need for flexibility or openness is recognised. To this extent, the corrective mechanism is not deterministic but discretionary. There is scope for application of one’s mind as to the need for correction of deviations or for adapting the system to match the changes in the situation.

Both closed and open feedback loops are useful in their own way. If a system is desired to function with steady state efficiency in accordance with pre-determined output requirements, a closed feedback loop could be incorporated for its control. In this connection the concept of cybernetic control is relevant. It refers to a pre-determined self direction and self-regulation of the internal functioning of a system in a closed setting through automatic negative feedback of corrective information and instructions. The term ‘cybernetics’ was coined by Norbert Weiner and is defined as the science of communication and control in terms of which the normal self- regulative and adaptive functioning of living organisms could be explained. Weiner and others who did considerable research in the areas acquired important insights on the application of the principles of self-control among biological species, to man-made mechanical and social systems. The thermostat in a refrigerator (a mechanical system) operates on the principles of cybernetic control. The objective is to keep the system’s activity and output well-regulated, stable and balanced in a mechanistic manner, with little scope and need for human intervention once the process of control is initiated.

It has to be remembered that cybernetic control is self-regulative control and not self-adaptive control. Engineering process controls, computerised controls, and procedure/rule based operational controls (like inventory control, statistical quality control etc.) are examples which apply principles of cybernetic control. These types of control systems do not have built in mechanisms for adaptive responses to changes in the external environment. They consider the external environment as given and concentrate on ways and means of achieving internal stability, reliability, order and precision in a routine and standardised manner.

As against the above closed feedback loop cybernetic/operational control systems, open feedback loops are useful in designing higher management control systems which are meant to enable organisations and their major subsystems to become flexible and adaptive by coping with environmental complexity and changes. The activities to be controlled are non-routine and relatively ill-structured. Much managerial judgment, discretion and innovation are required to monitor, measure, regulate and adapt the functioning of the system and to keep the system in a state of ‘dynamic equilibrium’.

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