Communications Inefficiencies

27 Feb 2013

Something both strange and unfortunate is happening in the rush to embrace new communications technologies. The world seems to be moving relentlessly toward less efficient communications modalities.

Maybe I'm in a small minority who thinks this way, but I find it annoying when I'm on some news website, find a story of interest, click on it, and the screen pops up with a video of some guy reading a script off a teleprompter. What I'd like to see is that script itself. I want to scan it quickly and find the parts of the story that are of interest. Scanning for relevant content is a heck of a lot more efficient than listening to someone drone on - not to mention the 15-second video advertisement that precedes the "news." Yet video is replacing text in many communications. Certainly there are places where video adds an important dimension to a story, but the trend to present one-directional distribution of content by video seems to me to be a leap backwards.

Information delivery by video is just one example. The process of creating email messages or documents is another. We used to sit down at our laptop and use a full sized keyboard to get thoughts into digital form. Keyboards started shrinking as we moved to netbooks. They got much smaller when we went to Blackberry and two-thumbs replaced eight fingers (at least for those of us who learned touch-typing). The next step was a smartphone in which the keyboard is now on the screen, so that it's both small and without any tactile sensory feedback. This is progress?[1]

I just got done with an IM chat on Skype with a colleague. It spanned 25 minutes to exchange his questions and my suggestions for his upcoming vacation to my corner of the world. A voice conversation - merely a click away on Skype - would have covered this in seven minutes, and probably provided greater details which were too cumbersome to type out.

I raise these examples to add to the frequently discussed concern that all of us are burning too many hours sorting out spam, reading too many emails on which we are needlessly copied, being buried in too much data and too little information, and other time-sinks of modern life.

So are the tools the problem? Yes, partially. Muddled concepts, poor design, and form factor compromises all contribute to communications inefficiencies we see in our workplace. But the other problem is not understanding how best to use the tools that we have. The great tendency is to apply new tools to existing processes. Because we are accustomed to the current way that work gets done, using new tools to automate today's methods is much easier than figuring out how can we change what we do to take advantage of new technology capabilities.[2]

That is what's happened in many UC deployments. The array of new tools that unified communications brings has been applied to yesterday's processes. In many cases, that brings some improvements, but misses what can be real breakthroughs in how work gets done.

Presence, which shows up on our "buddy lists," is one example. We all have circles of contacts in our business lives, and it's useful to add a presence capability to see whether a colleague we know is available. But a far more useful capability would be to have lists also automatically organized around expertise. Then, when seeking advice about a particular business issue, we could look for someone who may be an expert but who is not necessarily in our buddy circle. Some social network systems tout this sort of solution, but so far few enterprises are using the systems this way.

This tendency to underuse innovative capabilities (like presence) is exacerbated by the way UC is often introduced into organizations. In many firms, UC was thought of as a side-benefit to introducing a new IP-PBX, or as an adjunct to some other system brought into the company such as e-mail. The result is a "try it out and see how great it is" approach to introducing these new capabilities. With that kind of an introduction, it's not surprising that people tend to find their way to applying the new tools to existing ways of working-automating and adding functionality to current ways of doing things, but often missing really innovative ways of getting things done.

The approach promoted here at and used in our consulting practice is to start, not with the technology, but with the business processes and with identifying the communications bottlenecks and breakdowns in the current workflows. The new UC capabilities are therefore introduced to fix specific problems or to address specific opportunities. In some cases, that means augmenting existing processes or introducing new ones. Some see that as a barrier, but our consistent experience is that people will readily embrace the changes, because they get immediate feedback of how the new approach is much better or easier or more efficient.

The way to stem the drift toward inefficient communications is to link "how to use the tools" directly to tasks that people want or need to accomplish. That means identifying the use cases and the usage profiles in the organization, and matching communications capabilities with the work to be done. This is an important part of implementing new systems, and also of figuring out what capabilities and what technologies are really needed in the first place.

[1] Of course the "inefficiency" trend started with keyboards themselves. The familiar QWERTY design was purposefully not the most efficient for typists. The goal was to slow down typing so the mechanical actions in manual typewriters wouldn't jam. Dvorak keyboards are designed for better efficiency and less strain, but are rarely used.

[2] We've been doing this a long time. The original voicemail systems didn't have the technical capability to "answer the telephone." They were non-integrated, verbal email systems. You logged into your mailbox and sent and received messages with others. That was a new process, and required changes in thinking about how communications works. A few years later voicemail was integrated with the PBX, and now that automatic telephone answering function started replacing secretaries. We automated what was a manual process and saved some headcount. But a more innovative communications concept, "verbal email," was lost. Few people today even know it's still possible.


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