Friday, October 16, 2009

It's Not a Competition

Today I read an article in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) digital edition called “Why Email No Longer Rules…And what that means for the way we communicate.” It summarized the differences between email and social networking services like Facebook and Twitter and the challenges presented by the changes in information flows. I thought it was fairly good until I read the last paragraph and the comments. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the writers and audience of The Wall Street Journal are—shall we say—conservative. With respect to social media, the writer concludes, “And we will no doubt waste time communicating stuff that isn't meaningful, maybe at the expense of more meaningful communication. Such as, say, talking to somebody in person.” Puh-lease.

When are people going to get that social media isn’t about trying to cram a business email into 140 characters or mindlessly reporting what you had for breakfast to an uninterested cyberworld? When are we going to stop thinking that the decline of civilization is at hand because Facebook and Twitter will erode our verbal communication skills? Ooh, I just had a flashback to the 1980s when I told my boss that email would change business communications forever and that the ability to post and answer questions on open discussion boards gave a whole new dimension to research. Fast forward to the 1990s when my company’s former head of IT said, “We will never, ever have an intranet” and I laughed out loud.

Okay, Michelle, belay the snarkiness and deploy some patience. Cultural change is difficult. They’ll come around. Try to be constructive.

Let’s go through these issues one by one.

1. Email is superior for business communication

It’s not a competition. No one said you had to choose only one true communication method.

Sure, for some things, email rules. For other things, it is not the best solution. For yet other things, there may be equivalent solutions—there may even be a slight edge in efficiency.
Email is great for:

• Private communications
• Keeping a trail

I sure as heck don’t want my boss tweeting follow up information about my performance review or my doctor answering my personal medical question on WebMD if I didn’t post it there in the first place.

Email is also great for keeping a specific communications trail. When I have to answer questions for internal audit at work, I keep an email trail. That way I know what was asked and how it was answered, the dates of all of the communications, etc. Easy reference and only I and the auditors care to see it anyway (i.e., need to know).

However, email is not a great tool for collaborating on a document. Nothing like writing a few paragraphs and then 20 other people send individual emails with their individual edits. This situation screams, “Use a wiki” or, at the very least, use one working document in a shared workspace with “track changes” switched on.

Now, what about all that less obvious stuff in the middle that isn’t particularly private—perhaps it could be better addressed if it were shared in unexpected ways—and doesn’t need to be saved for posterity? Think about it. There’s a heckuva lot of it in my email inbox right now. How much is in yours?

• “Did you see this article in today’s WSJ? {link} Interesting summary of email vs. social media in business.”

• “Hey, do you have any information or old reports on topic x? I thought you worked on a team related to it a couple of years ago…”

• “It occurs to me that so-and-so {link to bio} may be an interesting speaker for our lecture series. Can’t remember where her specialty fell on your priority list. I may run into her at my next stop and I can ask her about speaking if I see her, but I don’t want to bring it up and then tell her later we’re not really interested.”

• “Did we ever get a copy of the slide deck from Joe? I can’t find it.”

What if I tweeted the WSJ link? Instead of a few of my colleagues privately debating the merits of the article, in mere moments I could be pointed toward expert assessments and related articles. Instead of speaking in theoreticals with my colleagues, people at other companies that actively are using social media in business can share real experiences and data with us.

What if the question about the old reports and team was posted on an internal Twitter-like system, but flagged to make sure I would notice it (@michelle). Not only would I answer the question, but others who may have relevant information could also weigh in, even if we didn’t know who had that relevant information. Others could weigh in with related information not specifically requested.

What if I texted the question about the speaker? My colleague directing our lecture series can look up the professional bio information easily from the link, make her assessment, and answer me quickly enough to seize the opportunity if it is, in fact, an opportunity we want. Note: links can’t be sent over the phone.

When someone just asked me the last question, the person in the next cube overheard it and said, “Just got it and posted it. I’ll send you the link.” What if the person with the answer wasn’t in his cube or worked in another area? Twitter-like apps allow him to weigh in even if I didn’t know he had the answer, and point to the link for more than just the requester to see.

None of these require email trails. My inbox is not cluttered and I don’t have to clean it up. And I might even get a quicker, more complete answer than I would have otherwise. I may even point someone else who also could benefit from the information—but who didn’t think to ask about it while I didn’t think to include them—in the right direction.

2. We’ll lose depth if we communicate in 140 characters or less.

Well, yes, we’ll lose depth if we try to fully communicate in only 140-character units. But, if you look at a Twitter or Facebook feed, there is a mix of what can be communicated in 140 characters and pointers to further information. Links point to blog entries, pictures, articles, reference works, etc.—depth is still there, but it comes to us via hyperlinks.

3. We don’t care what you had for lunch. It’s digital narcissism and a big waste of time.

Think of social media posts about what you had for lunch as a sort of digital small talk and a way to give people with whom you’re communicating a mental picture to replace the physical one they’re missing. It helps build the personal connections behind the productive ones. After all, you shoot the bull with colleagues now and then, don’t you? On the way to a meeting, you chat about weekend plans or your kid’s soccer game, right? When you come in to the office in the morning, you lean over the cube wall and rehash last night’s ball game or Zumba class, don’t you? You comment on the way back from the cafeteria about the yummy looking taco salad your friend just bought, right? (If you don’t, you work in a lonely place.)

Well, posting what I had for lunch on social media is the same thing. It’s not narcissism because it is intended as an invitation into conversation and a glimpse into my day for my friends. It’s all part of building relationships.

Today, a colleague on vacation tweeted about being at a popular Thai restaurant. Working from home, I chimed in about how much I enjoy Thai food and made a menu suggestion. Another colleague back at the office made a joke about it. We all had a good laugh, got to vacation vicariously through my colleague, and now know that we share a liking for Thai food. Revolutionary? No. But even while on vacation, my colleague, with a miniscule time and effort investment, was continuing to sustain the personal connections behind our working team without any intrusion from work on his personal day. People that have some level of personal connection work together better professionally. This exchange took 2 minutes, if that, out of each of our days. If we were in the office together, we might have had a similar conversation anyway—nothing new and no big time waster. But on this particular day, if we didn’t tweet, we wouldn’t have made that connection at all. And I’ll tell you, when you’re working at home to try to jam on a project, a momentary break to make contact with the outside world, without breaking your momentum, is a sanity saver.

Of course, many of our tweets have nothing to do with food. Well, okay, at least some of our tweets have nothing to do with food. Some days.

What social media is about is connecting with people in way you might not have otherwise. Through Facebook, I’ve reconnected with school friends I haven’t heard from in decades. Though we now live, literally, all over the globe, we’ve caught up on each other’s careers, families, interests, and lives through pictures, notes, updates, and links. In a small way, we are right back outside our lockers of 25 years ago sharing what we’re thinking or doing every day, only it’s better because now we can really be of support to each other through much more complex challenges than facing math tests and prom dates. We encourage each other through everything from potty training to job searching to cancer. These are people I had true and heartfelt connections with many years ago, but time, space, and life separated us. Now, I can easily maintain at least a portion of those friendships through simply writing 140 characters a couple of times per day, or more when necessary. Sometimes, if we happen to be online at the same time, we pull up the chat window and have real-time conversation with no long distance rates and no child-awakening telephone rings. And yes, when it is appropriate, we still pick up the phone and call. I even recently reconnected with one friend who, in one of those late-night digital chats when we were discussing the pitfalls of potty training, noted that he’d be in our state soon for a class reunion. He agreed to drive to my city and give a lecture at my company (and visit). His lecture was extremely valuable and well received. This wouldn’t have happened without Facebook.

On Twitter, I check out interesting people that my friends quote, and, if I find them interesting, follow them. I’ve had digital conversations with people I would have never otherwise met and may never meet—a whole variety of known business experts and people who aren’t famous but are interesting and knowledgeable—people who push relevant information to me and quickly point me toward answers to my questions. A few of these people have become key professional resources for me and there’s a good chance that we could work together in the future. It’s like being at a professional conference all the time—in the background. And, trust me, the time I save looking for relevant information more than compensates for the few minutes it takes me to type 140 characters (or click the “tweet this” key while reading an article) here and there throughout the day.

4. No one will talk anymore.

I hear this one all the time: “The kids were sitting right next to each other, texting each other instead of talking.” Yes—just like we used to have code phrases or pass notes as teenagers so that our parents didn’t know what we were talking about. I knew a few girls who learned a sort of sign language so that they could talk without saying a word. Do you seriously think teenagers won’t still talk, too? Social media is just one more way to talk more often, not less often.

In the professional world, it isn’t much different. Sometimes, like in the examples I already gave, there is a convenience to using digital communications, even in real time. Among these are brevity (e.g., "I can’t stop to chat because I’m running to a meeting, but can you answer this one quick question?"), the ability to share links and other visual aids, extended reach, or privacy (e.g., a person I once mentored would IM me for quick advice while difficult situations were unfolding because she was in a cube and wanted privacy without having to call attention to her situation by fleeing to a conference room to use the phone).

There may even be an advantage to social media for those of us who aren’t as quick on our feet as we’d like to be. (That’s around 95% of us, isn’t it?) Even though it takes me just a few seconds to post a comment in social media, I still need to click a button to transmit. That gives me a moment to check to make sure that I said whatever it is I’m posting in the way I really want to share it. Sure, typos still happen, but I have a moment to rethink, reword, delete, add, or change the tone. I come off as a much better conversationalist than I really am. Or is that true? Actually, it gives me a chance to convey the meaning I truly intended, rather than one blundered into because of my words outpacing my thinking. So, in fact, I communicate better.

Do these digital conversations replace verbal ones? No! They most often are conversations I would not have had otherwise. These are extra conversations, more opportunity to connect and converse, right when the communication is most useful and relevant.

We didn’t stop using the post office when the telephone was invented. Perhaps the art of letter writing suffered, but the art of communication simply found a new vehicle and added to the opportunity for people to connect more frequently, with more direct relevancy, and across larger distances. People could become more involved in each other’s lives (“Mom, listen! The baby just said “Dada!”) in ways that letters can’t quite convey. So, in this socially networked age we have more vehicles for making the world smaller and more connected. And, if life is all about the connections we make, the relationships we have, the way we reach out to each other, how can giving us ways to connect with others throughout the globe, in real time, in larger numbers and with more diversity of thought and experience than ever before be the downfall of civilization? Seems like exactly what civilization is all about to me.

Stop the fire and brimstone sermons on how social media will condemn our souls to oblivion and get connected. You’ll see. Of course, the people who need to read this won’t ever see it because I’m going to blog it and then transmit the link to Twitter and Facebook. Maybe some of their more connected friends will print it out for them and paste it into their print copy of The Wall Street Journal. Or tell them about it.

After all, it’s not a competition.

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