What led to Nokia's fall? Bad communication

It wasn’t that long ago that Apple launched its first iPhone into a global market dominated by Nokia. The Finnish company had started the first decade of the 2000s as the unquestioned mobile phone leader. But 10 years later, Nokia would limp out of that decade, having relinquished its market leadership to Steve Jobs and his Apple juggernaut.

A lot has been written about Nokia’s dramatic fall. Was it a bad marketing team? A sluggish R&D operation? Or bad financial forecasting?

It may have been all of those business issues and more. But it was also something more fundamental: communication within Nokia had disintegrated to the point of dysfunction.

It’s unlikely that communication in the company wasn’t simply confusing, untimely, and inadequate. There are times during significant organizational dysfunction that the flow of information can slow to a near stop. Case studies researched and written about Nokia’s demise suggest this was the case.

A unique way of looking at communication problems like Nokia’s was developed in the early 1970s by a scholar named Huseman. He described communication dysfunction in a way that Wisconsinites can understand. He theorized that organizational communication can become stratified, often by job title or position in the corporate hierarchy. These stratifications create barriers that stifle communication upward and downward. The barriers to internal communication, Huseman said, closely resemble the thermal layers of lake water that form barriers to oxygen circulation. The lack of oxygen can be deadly to aquatic life, just as the lack of information flow can be deadly to an organization.

Among the most common causes of these barriers — Huseman called them “communication thermoclines” — are fear, hoarding of information (it’s power, after all), and misalignment of corporate goals. Each of these can be seen in what Nokia thought was its biggest challenge: developing an operating system that could compete with Apple’s new iOS. It was viewed as an all-consuming R&D problem, and it was.

But what if Nokia would have viewed the challenge as a communication problem first? As Apple threatened, top managers could have ensured alignment on its priorities and how to accomplish them, demonstrated by what they said and did that information sharing was valued, and worked to eliminate the fear among middle managers of sharing “bad” information.

Even if your business never will have a challenge as profound as Nokia’s, the question should be one you ask regularly: Could the business problem I have be a communication problem in disguise?

Rod Hise is president of Rod Hise & Co. Ltd., a strategic communications consultancy.

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