Addressing the communication continuum

Oct 31 2005 by John Blackwell Print This Article

It's interesting to take a moment to reflect on what the last 15 years of technology advances have delivered for our workplaces – to question if the effectiveness of our organisations has actually improved, and if so, how?

For the vast majority of today's 'knowledge workers' – the folks based in offices using some form IT for their daily activity – the most common interaction they have with technology is as a communication tool of some of form or another.

If we reflect back to 15 years ago, the choices of communication in the workplace was far simpler and mostly confined to three straightforward choices. Managers could have a face-to-face meeting with an individual, they could have a team meeting, or they telephoned people.

On those rarer occasions, managers might have sent a memo or a letter. But, predominantly they used synchronous communications – one where you could distribute a message to your colleagues, and receive instant feedback. Was the message good? Was it poorly received? Understood or misunderstood? Whatever the outcome, you knew the message had been received.

In the ensuing 15 years, for our knowledge workers, the advances in ICT software have predominantly been in communication tools. We have seen the insurgence of fax, voice mail, e-mail, SMS, web cast, etc – all of which are fine as tools in the right place at the right time. But, how often do we ever question "when is the right time?" or "which is the appropriate tool?"

Interestingly, the marked difference from 15 years ago is that majority of the new tools adopted across our workplaces are asynchronous. Asynchronous communications of this kind are 'notifications' – they may elicit a response, but if so, the response is invariably not immediate.

With an asynchronous message, the sender is left in limbo, not knowing when a response might be forthcoming or even whether the recipient actually understood the message. And worse still, these asynchronous tools are increasingly being used as 'broadcast' medium – using the dreaded 'cc' or 'bcc' functions to communicate messages to vast swathes of the workforce, whether they like it or not!

The result of these new workplace tools is a massive increase in the volume of communications we generate across our workplaces.

The majority of managers receive between 30 and 60 e-mails per day. This is consuming more than half of their working day
Our research has found it is not uncommon for managers and knowledge workers in today's organisations to receive 30 to 60 e-mails per day. At the extreme, we encountered some city managers that were receiving over 1,000 e-mails per day.

Further, we found that handling asynchronous messaging (e-mail being the main culprit) commonly consumes 50 – 60 per cent of a manager's working day.

None of these newer asynchronous tools have replaced the old conventions of meetings and phone usage – they have simply extended what we refer to as the 'communication continuum'.

The term the 'communication continuum' describes the array of possible channels we have at our disposal for communicating and collaborating with colleagues.

Today the spectrum across the 'communication continuum' stretches from a face-to-face meeting through team meetings to e-mail solutions and an ever-increasing spectrum of virtual collaboration tools.

The conundrum facing today's workforce is which tool to choose and when? When should e-mail be used as opposed to a simple face-to-face chat? How many of us have received and abrupt or poorly worded e-mail – and one that has been cc'd to several colleagues – when the message could have been far more effective had it been conveyed in a quick face-to-face chat over a coffee?

The impact in the workplace of this insurgence of new tools into the 'communication continuum' is two fold – a sharp increase in demand on time and huge middle management pressures.

The demands on our time caused by the extended 'communication continuum' is that somehow, somewhere, the additional 50-60 per cent of our working day being consumed by asynchronous communications needs to be made up.

We still need to meet with our colleagues, to be creative and inventive in our workplaces, to craft those new solutions and services that make our businesses competitive – quite simply, to do the jobs we're employed to do.

The pressure on our middle managers is more strident. Being a middle manager in today's organisations is fast becoming the most thankless and least favoured job in the workplace.

For most, the step up the ladder into middle management means embracing a greater diversity of asynchronous tools in the 'communication continuum'. Frequently it involves stepping away from the daily interaction with our colleagues and co-workers and moving into an increasingly virtual world.

The adoption of asynchronous tools have enabled our workforces to become more distributed and remote from the middle management strata, yet the expectations of middle managers remain to do more, better, quicker and faster with less. How often have we heard middle manages plea's of; "what's expected of me?", "how do they know I'm a manager?", and "I don't understand my role as a virtual manager".

Now, we're not advocating the rejection of new technologies or tools – far from it, the appropriate use of emerging tools can be a boon to workplace effectiveness. But, to be effective, there needs to be greater understanding of the appropriate tool to use – and when – across the communication continuum.

How many organisations offer any coaching or mentoring about which tool to use, never mind how to use the tools effectively.

It's time to recognise the old adage about placing good tools in poorly trained hands. For our workplaces to be truly effective, forward-looking business leaders must recognise the issue of the ever-extending 'communication continuum' and that locking middle managers into a cycle of increasing time spent on asynchronous tools is not productive.

We must consider the 'communication continuum' in its entirety and adopt a balanced diet of tool usage across the spectrum. Put simply – do not forsake the quick chat over coffee for the sake of dealing with the e-mail mountain – just remember, if it's asynchronous, it'll wait.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.