Introduction to Situational Analysis

A communicator within a professional organization has to deal with multiple variables that are both general (cultural background, age, etc.) and specific to the organization (role of the person in the organization, organizational atmosphere, etc.). You may be thinking, “Phew! There are so many variables—how does anyone ever become an effective communicator?”

Realize, first and foremost, that you don’t have to be “bombarded” by communication variables. Instead, you can approach them systematically, gain control, and use them to your benefit in creating professional communications by doing an initial situational analysis, or an evaluation of the variables in the impending communication situation. A situational analysis might organize communication variables in the following way:


Communication Variables
Audience all of the variables that deal with the backgrounds and current roles of your listeners or readers – their interests, cultural heritage, education, employment, age, understanding of your topics, role with the company, values, etc.
Purpose the reason why you are creating the communication; what you hope to have happen as a result of the communication
Content the information that you want to send in the particular situation; your main idea
Role your position in the communication (employee, manager, trainer, trainee, etc.)
Tone the way in which you want to communication to “sound” (straightforward, friendly, authoritative, etc.)
Organizational & Cultural Contexts what characterizes the organization: its values, shared history, how communication flows, its level of formality or informality, its goals, etc.  Also what characterizes the individual or group in terms of nationality, age, gender, etc.
Medium the way in which the communication is sent (e-mail, in-person discussion, memo, report, blog post, etc.)
Constraints the things over which you have no control (available time in which to create the communication, expectations for format, etc.)

Note that a situational analysis identifies the type of information and characteristics of the communication situation; it does not provide the actual information or communication itself.

For example, the following situational analysis was done by a supervisor before writing an initial email to employees, letting them know that they needed to attend an in-person meeting about upcoming changes in office space.  The supervisor—but not the employees—knew that the company made a decision to promote working remotely and provide employees with laptops and cell phones.  Concurrently, the plan is to move everyone below the managerial level to cubicles when working in the office.

Sample Situational Analysis
Audience all employees below the managerial level. There are more females than males.  Most of the workers are in their 30s-40s, and many of them have been working at the company for over 5 years.  They are a diverse group culturally. The company has always given them office space, and many rely on private space since there’s increasingly a number of online meetings.
Purpose to get affected employees to attend the meeting and to lay the groundwork to buy into upcoming changes
Content need to attend a meeting about changes in office space
Role supervisor, adult, rational, supportive
Tone calm, supportive, encouraging
Organizational & Cultural Contexts traditional organizational top-down structure; diverse group of employees with many cultures represented
Medium email
Constraints anticipating and dealing with unofficial grapevine communication, making sure everyone reads the email and attends

A situational analysis always should be a very early step in creating professional communications. You need to consciously identify and understand the situation or context within which the communication will occur so that you can be aware of—and thus effectively manipulate—communication variables. Communication changes from person to person and from situation to situation. Effective communicators identify communication variables and make them work to their advantage.

In the sample above, based on her analysis of the situation, the supervisor made a conscious choice to use email to inform her audience of the  face-to-face meeting, as email is the standard way her organization operates to announce meetings.  She decided to defer delivering the specific news to a face-to-face meeting, since she knew that news would be met with mixed responses and would generate a lot of questions, which she could answer more efficiently to a group of the whole, to help ensure understanding.  She decided to let her audience know the general topic of the meeting but not the particulars, because she did not want employees coming to the meeting upset.  She identified that she needed to use a very straightforward, business-as-usual tone. Doing the situational analysis was an important first step in this case, as it is in all cases in which the communication is more than a simple yes or no response.

The video below, about the general concept of “the rhetorical situation,” enforces the concept of planning a communication that the situational analysis specifies.

The following video briefly touches on the situational analysis concepts of audience, tone, and medium in the context of workplace communication.