05 January 2011

Adopting Modern Communication

With the growth of social networking, we now have a large and diverse range of tools for communication: at one end there are traditional methods such as face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, letters and memos, and at the other there is instant messaging, micro-blogging, and e-mail. Unfortunately the natural conservatism of most people means that it is hard to get buy-in to use modern social networking methods. A problem here is that if you propose to a group of, say, 10 people, a meeting using some form of online discussion, then one or two are likely to refuse to take part and suggest a conventional meeting instead. Even if a conventional meeting is agreed, an online calendar could be used to arrange it and distribute any papers, but I go to some meetings where our calendar system is not used; the reason usually given is that one or two attendees refuse to use it. This sort of minority rule is holding back the adoption of modern methods of communication in many organisations, although in some places it works because management make executive decisions that certain technologies have to be used.

The one (relatively) modern communication method with widespread acceptance is e-mail, and this can sometimes be a compromise solution, but as I have written elsewhere it is, in my opinion, an unsuitable tool for discussion.

The reason frequently given for refusing to take part in on-line discussions is that the person prefers to talk to others, either directly or by telephone. The implication here is that they feel that methods such as instant messaging are always inferior, however it is voice communication that is often unsatisfactory. Consider, for example, a simple telephone call where one person rings another with a question, or to make a proposal. Sometimes the recipient can respond adequately without needing any time to think, but all too often the receiver would like a minute or two to consider their reply, or even look something up. The social dynamics of a voice conversation, however, demand the the responder replies immediately, even if only to say “I’ll call you back”. Also if the intended recipient is not by the telephone, the conversation cannot even start, and if they are, it may not be convenient for them to stop what they are doing to enter into a conversation. Conventional meetings can have similar problems: unless there is a strong chairperson who can control the discussion (rare in my experience), it is usually necessary to jump in quickly if you want to respond to something, to have any chance of being heard.

Tools such as Skype allow a combination of text messaging, voice and even live video. The addition of voice to text messaging adds an immediacy to the discussion, but may not enhance its quality. Instant messaging does not imply instant replying, and I believe in general you get a higher quality of discussion when people are given the chance to think before they respond.