January 20, 2019

Bring Back The Two-Way Radio

Communication technology today is, for the most part, amazing. I say this because it isn’t totally amazing.

During its evolution, technology has enabled, indeed forced us to abandon critical components of communication that are essential to run a successful construction company. Those of us who have been around long enough to remember the two-way radio era could lend some credence to what I am saying. To those who never experienced the power of such a device, let me enlighten you about this more personal period of O&G history.

Once upon a time, before personal computers, cell phones, emails and texts, we communicated through two-way radios. While I don’t want to denigrate these advancements, they sorely lack the impact of the radio. You see, this simple device, with the push of a button, was a microphone to every employee in the company.

Unlike the voice-activated technologies of today, it blared activated voices. This is important for two reasons. A voice, when angry, amused, complimentary or instructive, is exponentially more expressive than a text or an email because it sets an unmistakable tone. And when such a voice is in a public forum, it lends gravity to the issue because everyone in the company is listening. This elevates the concept of accountability and responsibility, which leads to credibility.

Today’s technology is appropriate for personal communication. However, when we need to spread the gospel of productivity, safety, quality and ethics, the radio is the superior medium.

Much of what I learned early on in my career can be traced back to the exchanges I listened to on the radio. Car 1, Car 4 and Car 9, otherwise known as Raymond, Francis and George, could be heard daily spewing out orders and suggestions on everything from safety to production to equipment maintenance – sometimes with humor, sometimes with tutorial instruction and sometimes with the fury of Genghis Khan. These public tongue lashings served as baptisms into a corporate culture that was demanding, to-the-point and bigger than the individual. They provided a sense of belonging no email could ever duplicate.

Sitting at South Main (Command Central), you could be an ear witness, in real time, to all the crucial issues besetting every job site of every division. At the end of each shift, questions streamed over the airwaves. “How many tons, how many cubic yards, how many linear feet?” If production was down you would ultimately be asked, “What happened?” – and God help you if you had no answer or the wrong answer. You felt the pulse of the company and knew with certainty where your attention should be focused.

Political correctness was non-existent. Words and tones were chosen to send the message home. Outbursts like, “You tell ‘that guy’ the next time I see him doing anything that stupid it will be the last time!” served as strike one in a two-strike scenario in which every employee was at bat.

One classic exchange that sticks out in my mind involved Car 1 and an employee who had a company pickup truck. Noticing that the truck was dirty, Car 1 told him to wash his vehicle. His response: “I washed it yesterday.” Car 1’s response: “Did you wash your face this morning?” The message was clear – the truck was the face of the company and should look clean every day.

Sometimes when atmospheric conditions permitted, we could hear the dialogue or diatribe of other companies overlapping our frequency. These, too, reminded us of how the competition viewed the world and what we needed to do to compete.

Yes, our corporate culture has been hijacked by technology, making it harder to communicate with those actually doing the work. The solution? Make it a point to spend time in the field, not the field office. Speak to the crews. Impart our expectations. Listen to their problems. You just might learn something that can benefit all of us.

Having said all this, I think it is fitting to close in the style of that “more direct” era. The story involves a golfer who teed up his ball and swung only to miss the target and wind up killing several hundred ants on an adjacent ant hill. Subsequent attempts flailing at the golf ball ended the same way, killing more and more ants. Finally one ant said to the rest of the colony, “If we want to survive we better get on the ball.”

Over and out.

David M. Oneglia