On Thursday 15th March, at 1.30pm local time, tragedy struck Miami’s Florida International University (FIU). A pedestrian bridge over 8th Street (connecting the school’s campus to a popular neighbourhood for FIU accommodation) collapsed, killing six people who were caught beneath 950 tons of steel and concrete. Ironically, the structure was commissioned to protect lives following the death of a university student, fatally struck by a vehicle on this busy thoroughfare last August.

The inevitable investigation is underway revealing, among other things, that on Tuesday 13th, two days before the accident, an on-site engineer had left a voicemail for one of his contacts at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) warning of a crack on the north end of the span.

The message indicated the need for some repairs but that, from a safety perspective, there was no cause for concern. Sadly, the foreboding voicemail went unheard until Friday 14th, the day after the bridge collapsed. In the intervening period, the FDOT employee was out of the office.

Would an immediate response to this voicemail or a more persistent attempt to get in touch with FDOT have made any difference? Who knows? No doubt the enquiry will review all the evidence and reach its verdict over the coming weeks.

What does resonate for me, however, is that here is a message, containing important information, which left the mouth of a sender who fully intended it to communicate pertinently with a specific recipient but which, in fact, failed to reach its target.

In short, an unfortunate case of transmission rather than an example of effective communication.

Interestingly, in less sophisticated times, a transmission model of communication did hold sway. It was based, for example, on how a radio station would broadcast its messages to someone listening in their car. The announcer didn’t really know if the bulletin had been processed by the driver but, assuming the equipment was in full working order and the signal was clear, there was a good chance that it would be.

These days a linear, one-way focus on the sender and the message seems simple-minded. Indeed, the text books on communication studies dismiss transmission in favour other models. There is a more sensible interaction model where a feedback loop evidences a reply to the original missive, where both parties become senders and receivers, where the dialogue builds through a series of reactions, where the emphasis is more on the communication process itself.

There is also a transaction model, more reflective still of our complex communication options and behaviours. Here we travel beyond the exchange of messages and use communication to shape our reality, forming alliances, creating relationships, building communities. We have all become communicators (rather than mere senders and receivers).

As we are reminded daily, this model of our times requires vigilance. We need to understand the social context for our communication. What are the stated or unstated norms which must be observed? And, increasingly, there is an important cultural context to consider. For truly powerful and enriching communication, we must strive for inclusivity across diverse identity characteristics like ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, ability and religion.

So, what’s my point?! It’s this. Despite how clever we are, as individual brands, as micro-broadcasters, we are still prone, even in business, to transmit rather than communicate, parking our messages on the hard shoulder of the superhighway.

I see this the whole time in my work helping businesses with their commercial relationships, typified by a belief (certainly a hope) that ‘I sent him an email two weeks ago’ results in successfully communicated information. This outbound report is then chalked up as a hit and often forgotten, compounding the lack of real connection.

What tends to lie behind this flawed practice, at the basic level, is the assumption that our message will be heard just because we sent it, harking back to the transmission model. Given the weight of traffic into inboxes and the time poverty of their owners, this is an unwise attitude.

Beneath the surface, however, a focus on transmission can sometimes expose an inability fully to participate in a two-way exchange. We can all impersonate Einstein in a single email but, equally, can struggle when difficult questions are posed in the heat of a wide-ranging, unpredictable debate. We may have failed to prepare properly, to understand the issues, to consider the what ifs.

Effective communication has never been more challenging despite the limitless channels to everyone’s eyes and ears. The rule is simple – without feedback, we are transmitting. On occasions this is unavoidable, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves and ensure that we are resourceful in our attempts to close the communication loop.

And, at work, to communicate purposefully, let’s know our business, understand the needs of our receivers and adopt relationship behaviour.