13 May 2015

The Art of Communication – Joining the Dots

The Communication Age
In one of my previous roles, the CEO made the following comment on a company-wide web conference. He said:
“I knew something transformational had happened when I realised I spent most of my time talking to people on my laptop whilst checking my email on my phone”
It raised a laugh, and also led nicely into a conversation about the transformational journey that the organisation was on, but it also planted a nagging thought in my mind that has festered into a deep frustration with the world of electronic communication.

My concern is that while we live in an era where much of our involvement with technology is now taking place on what was once a pure communication device (the phone), our methods of communicating seem to be getting more and more fragmented.

This is something that had clearly captured the imagination of the IT community. It is easy to tell when this happens because as soon as IT becomes interested in something it gets a product name, and in this case the product name is “unified communications”.

In Simpler Times
A long time ago, if we wanted to communicate we talked either face to face or by phone. If we wanted to convey information, and time was not of the essence we sent memos or letters. For the younger generation, memos are a bit like emails… in fact they are exactly like emails only slower (but not much). For the very much younger generation, letters are like memos which are like emails, only slower (but not much).

Essentially, there were two ways of communicating and they served very different purposes. There was no need to unify them.

Now we’re in a bit of a mess. We have text, voice and video. We have interactive and broadcast. We have peer-to-peer, group and community. I know it’s a mess because you can’t draw a catchy Powerpoint slide for it and in architecture that is the very worst type of problem!

There are so many channels of communication now that keeping up with them all is becoming a full time job. Glance away from your email for a moment to follow your twitter feed, check facebook, or text a friend and you lose control of your inbox. Heaven forbid if you actually call someone or listen to your voicemail (yes – some of us older types still do that).

Not Another Silver Bullet
And this is where Unified Communications comes in. This is the silver bullet designed to kill this particular werewolf, and what it promises to do is bring all of your communication together into one place. (I mentioned IT silver bullets and werewolves in a previous post entitled “Skin in the Game – The Human Factor”)

Wikipedia introduces Unified Communications as:

“a marketing buzzword describing the integration of real-time, enterprise, communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, voice (including IP telephony), mobility features (including extension mobility and single number reach), audio, web & video conferencing, fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), desktop sharing, data sharing (including web connected electronic interactive whiteboards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax)”

Unfortunately, unified communications as a product does not solve the real problem and the problem is demonstrated by the very description above. Communication is coming at us from so many disparate sources now that there is simply no way we can absorb it all, nor can we engage with all the channels available.

People are filtering and they are filtering brutally. For some, voicemail and phone conversations are dead; for them it is IM or SMS whilst for others the opposite is true. For some, their world revolves around email and even conversations with colleagues in the same room take place via email whilst for others, email is something they rarely look at and seldom respond to.

We are like teenagers and parents at home; occupying the same space, sharing the same experiences, but exchanging no communication bar a few dismissive grunts.

It’s Talk Jim, but Not As We Know It
Each channel of communication attracts a different demographic and even within those channels we tune down to only those people who think and act like we do. We talk about the value of diversity, the importance of community and the productivity of collaboration, but what we are really doing is communicating with a much smaller group of people than ever before. There are just more people in that group. Essentially we are in real danger of talking to ourselves (or other clones of ourselves) and reinforcing our prejudices and ill informed beliefs.

These are not communities to which we belong – they are cliques. Communities are positive; they introduce us to others with opinions and perspectives different to ours. Cliques by their very nature contain no diversity and encourage intolerance. Communities force us to learn to coexist whilst cliques fulfill our need to interact without teaching us to accept differing views.

The communication channels to which we subscribe fail to consolidate information from varied sources. There is no filtering to remove duplicates and so those who shout loudest win whilst the minorities go unheard. There is no gathering of differing views from outside our immediate circle. We hear the same thing again and again every day and we get no perspective or balance, and there is simply no time left for real two-way conversations.

Burst the Bubble
True unified communications does not yet exist, but if it did it would do several things for me.

It would allow me to absorb communication in the way I want rather than having communication foisted upon me via the channel chosen by the sender. If I want to receive messages via email why shouldn’t I, and if a friend wants everything via text good on them. Listening is a rare enough skill as it is without having to become a technology juggler to do it.

It would bring balanced opinion to me on a subject in which I am interested. This is not the same thing a majority opinion; I don’t want proportional representation in my incoming communication. In the wonderful world of online media it is very hard to hear the one detracting voice when all around are shouting “burn the witch!”

It would allow me to send information to individuals, groups, communities and the world simply by sending it. I shouldn’t have to find out which channels they are listening on and join those channels to participate. If I want to distinguish how I communicate surely it would be better for me to create “avatars” for myself in cyberspace. Avatars that present one part of who I am (such as my working persona separate from my home persona) with which people can interact by choice.

But most importantly, it would enable real two-way communication that helped me to grow as a person.

Instead of letting technology turn us into tribal factions, let’s try to use it to bring back the global village. It’s good to talk.

The Enterprising Architect

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