Internet technologies and the miniaturization of computers have fundamentally changed how we communicate. They shaped social values, changed behaviors and created new challenges ranging from spam, huge email volumes to big data and privacy. Communication is a great case study to understand how technology and social trends interact, support and counter each other.
In the early 90ties email was new and business communication primarily relied on mail and phone. Listening, responding to and even forwarding voice messages and creating voice distribution lists was common and the primary means of urgent communication. It was unintuitive, slow but simple.
It still amazes me how things have changed since then. Not only has technological innovation created many new communication channels like instant messaging, web conferences or social media; the increasing reliability of the technology and underlying networks enables these new asynchronous communication media to replace synchronous conversations in many cases.
At the same time social values have changed. Nowadays, many feel it intrusive to call someone. Texting is the primary communication media. An upfront "When can I call you" over SMS, Skype, Viber, Whatsapp or WeChat is often used to clarify when the person is able to talk. In the private domain, cyberbullying and sexting have triggered discussions about acceptable use. In business, messaging has established itself as an unobtrusive forms of communication to check simple questions quickly even during meetings. Its increasing use prompts companies to start archiving messaging conversations.
After years of struggling with high email volume I now start to struggle with communication channel volume. The amount of communication channels is increasing constantly. Every other week I receive an invite from a friend or colleague to a new social network or messaging app. The amount of channels increase constantly as social networks like Facebook implement their own messaging platforms to keep users on their sites longer.
At the same time, the separation of communication channels vanishes. Phone, Lync, e-mail and LinkedIn for work, Skype, Viber, Whatsapp or Facebook for friends. That is history. Clients increasingly contact you on the private channels as well. Once they enter your contact details on their phone all the communications apps pick it up.
This increases your workload. You need to listen constantly on all channels to ensure that you are not missing anything and maintain similar levels of responsiveness on all channels you choose to entertain. Even worse, those "instant" messaging applications expect a more "instant" response than email. After work/life balance issues we now face work/life separation issues.
This diversification of communication channels is the next challenge after you mastered your huge email volume. The right choice of the communication channel internally or externally becomes increasingly challenging. What are the right channels to use to get your message out to your different customer groups? How do monitor the channels to ensure responsiveness and prevent damage? How to build and sustain supportive communities to support your company and brands? How to find and engage valuable members of your community?
As texting is becoming an increasingly accepted form of communication also in business its downsides are becoming visible but there are also upsides.
Some turn to the new channels hoping to address old problems like the ever increasing email volume:
The diversification of our communication toolset also allows us to fine-tune and align message content and format to be more impactful. For example, some of my Asian clients are using Whatsapp to transport sensitive messages that would be hard, if not impossible, to relay in formal face-to-face interactions between subordinates and superiors. This does not only enable more effective vertical collaboration along existing reporting lies but also the creation of more effective temporary structures like projects that aid the projectization of organizsations.
The signs for convergance are on the wall. After phones became smart, that smartness now kills the phone. Internet connectivity is already more important than phone network access to many. Netflix and Hulu kill cable TV. 38% of the US population does not have a fixed phone line anymore. It will only be a matter of time until the classical/separate phone networks - wired as well as mobile - vanishes and gets replaced by pure Internet networks. And the dying has started.
The concerning issue with that development is that the quality and reliability of VoIP services is still below the standards set by PTSN networks and might never reach it. Who of you remembers that the good old PSTN phone even worked during a power failure? I only hope that the common VoIP label: "not for emergency calls" does not actually cause the loss of a life one time.
Until those positive trends set in, unfortunately, for now, it seems that technology will not help us with but rather increase information overload.
So how can we personally cope with that diversity and communication channel overload? I find that communication effectiveness starts at home. You cannot control how other people communicate but you can surely start with changing yourself and might be able to influence others by setting a good example by limiting and wisely choosing your channels and establishing sound practices and routine. To dive deeper have a look at my Email productivity & etiquette tips