Thinking about communication

When was the last time you wrote or received a letter? Can you remember? When I was young, it was always a chore to have to sit down and write a thank you letter for a birthday or Christmas present. The letter didn’t just consist of writing ‘Thank You’. You added extra information about what you may be doing with the present, what other presents you may have received and general information about yourself and activities. To the recipient this was a bonus: they obviously had an interest in you to have bought you the present in the first place and the thank you letter enhanced the connection. As the writer, it made you stop and think about the person behind the present. Each letter was specific to an individual or individuals. The relationship was strengthened. A win-win all round, even though I had to be persuaded to sit down with the pen and paper.

Fast-forward to today’s technology and an instant message of ‘Thanks for the present x’ doesn’t quite have the same depth, especially when it can be copied to any number of recipients. However, an individual video call would be as good as a letter, with the added benefit of a visual connection. So, the lesson here is that good communication needs thinking about. The convenience and speed offered by technology can lead to the baby being thrown out with the bath water. Whatever the technology, there are still humans at either end of the communication process. Messages using the written word are the most common medium and yet they are the easiest to get wrong. Emails, tweets and instant messages are too easy to fire off, without the calm forethought required in a business environment. This can lead to misinterpretation, ambiguity and errors.

Radiography is one of the oldest NDT methods and I suspect that its longevity is in no small part due to its inherent ability to effectively communicate results through radiographic images. Other methods mimic this through the use of sketches, pictures of signals and plots of data. The communication required for the application of NDT methods is covered as part of the training, but perhaps there is room for improvement. A key vehicle for NDT communication is the written procedure. These tend to be of a standard form, covering all the necessary information from a QA and HSE point of view. Yet the emphasis should be on the operator understanding the process and on clarity rather than an overload of information, ie effective communication to the operator.

All operators undergo the same training; however, their reading and writing abilities will vary and some may have hidden disabilities such as dyslexia or difficulties in concentrating on text. Maybe there is room for improved communication here as well. Flowcharts, which present text in a more visual manner, can help with operator understanding and the pre-job brief is another beneficial tool. These all help but do not guarantee that the communication has been fully received: I have learned from my own experience that the pre-job brief needs careful delivery.

The actual inspection transfers the onus of communication to the operator. The operator observes the NDT signals. They have to screen their thoughts, generate a hypothesis for the origin of the signals and test out the hypothesis before sentencing. As described last month, a good way of making sense of the signals is to put down those thoughts on paper or screen, in an appropriate manner. In a recent television programme, one participant made the comment that when you draw something you begin to understand it and really observe it. Can we improve in this area by imparting critical thinking and/or drawing techniques?

Having completed the inspection, the operator is required to communicate the results through the inspection report. This is a very important document that has key consequences. It is used as input to asset management decisions and safety cases and, in some instances, can be evidence in legal proceedings. The inspection procedure often details what information needs to go into the inspection report and may provide a proforma for completion. Even so, the operator needs to be competent at communicating their findings using data, words and images. This is achieved by training and continuous support and feedback.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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