Nov 27 2008

Methods of communication

I try to avoid posting anything about my day job (and if you’ve read my other posts you’ll know I also try to avoid posting things about the personal goings on in my life, which means the available subject matter for this blog is growing more and more limited ;-)), but insomuch as this is of broader interest I thought I’d post some of my thoughts about it here.

{End disclaimer, thoughts to follow}

I recently implemented instant messaging (IM) software in my office (for those who care, we’re using Spark with private/local jabber server) and am trying to figure out what exactly its place is. There are so many technical tools in the modern workplace, I think it’s a little confusing to people about which method they should use for any given situation.

In my office, for inter-office communication, email (including listserve), IM, phone/voicemail, paper note, and in-person discussion are the most used options, but I think that the selection of which one to do is based primarily on the preference of the initiator and not on the strengths of the medium. I think that my coworkers understand some advantages and disadvantages associated with each (like that I will be displeased with them if they email SSNs around, and nuances of when email is more appropriate than verbal agreement), but I don’t think we have a very developed idea as a department of what will work out best.

I have thought a little about the distinctions between different forms of communication, and I guess that some of that has even spilled over into this blog in posts about myspace, facebook, and other social networking sites, but I don’t really have anything developed enough to apply or recommend to my office.

I feel like it’s slowly coming to a head, because the people that use the IM software only get value from it if the people that they want to talk to (or ask questions of) are logged in, so there’s pressure from that contingent to force everyone to login when they’re at their computer. By force, I just mean that it would be office policy, or that I would change the settings to have it automatically login, and not that I would strap their hands down and eyelids open Clockwork Orange style. Of course there’s resistance from another part of the office that it’s just another way for people to disturb them while they’re focusing, or another expectation on their time.

Thus far, I’ve been fairly agnostic about the issue, telling people that it’s another tool they can use if they want to, but I can tell that people are looking for me to weigh in on what the policy should be.

After the obvious temporal guidance (don’t send a paper note for something you need an immediate response on) there are a few other aspects I’ve considered that I am trying to turn into a more prescriptive framework.

Clarity/mutual understanding is important in any of these, since we’re talking about communication after all. In this respect, I don’t think the playing field is exactly level across all mediums. Clarity will only be assisted by feedback from the person you’re communicating with. Communication in person will provide a much richer set (body language, questions, intonation, etc) on which to determine if the understanding is shared by both parties. IM has some merit for clarity in that it’s better built for dialogue than say email is, but like anything digital-text-based it’s stripping out a lot of information which could be easily communicated in person.

Redundancy is pertinent in that for some forms of communication, the messages are stored permanently and even backed up. I like the idea that if one of our computers died, email would be available from any web-capable computer, and I like the idea even more that if somehow all of our computers died (as in, the whole school’s network died) that all the data could be restored within a few days from backups. This redundancy is one edge that technology has, but for instance IM communications are logged locally, so moving to another computer does not afford you that history.

Metadata/Header information relates to legal sufficiency, but matters in other senses too. It’s good to know the year, date, hour, minute and second of both transmission and receipt of some types of messages and to know exactly where it’s coming from.

Security perhaps I should have put earlier on the list, since the government trend is that this should be the first thing on my mind at all time. It’s of significance since we deal with sensitive information that we know where exactly our communication is going before it reaches the recipient. I like my users to understand that there are a lot of people on (and off) campus that could legitimately, or illegitimately intercept or listen in on their phone calls, emails and voicemails. Since IM is encrypted and never leaves our campus, the transmission is pretty secure, but since it logs in plain text files, it’s really only as good as the computer security is. With physical communications it’s at least easier to understand when/where there are privacy and/or security concerns, but technology can remove that intuition since most people don’t know the whole flow.

Ease of dissemination, particularly in my environment, forwarding and the ability to carbon copy someone are huge assets to what we do and need to be considered in any communication tool.

Addressing/Contact lists How easy is it for me to communicate with someone for the first time, or to recommunicate with someone that I reach only infrequently? Since our email is connected to an LDAP, it automatically looks up people’s email addresses as I type them into the “To” line. Also, our default setup adds email addresses to the contact list if I’ve ever received or sent email to a particular address. In general, I find email to be very quick (and predicative!) at helping me communicate with the person I want to.

Multitasking is somewhat contentious as to how effective it actually is. But that debate aside, there are always times where we’ll have several things going on at once. And some types of communication facilitate this better than others. Depending on the severity and content of the correspondence I have found it to be very helpful to have 4 IM windows open at once and the ability to switch between the conversations quickly.

Searchability/Retrieval is becoming more and more important the more inundated with information we become. Digital text based communications are very good at this, and based on the information that’s stored and the user interface, we may be able to search for patterns that we didn’t immediately realize or recall were there. Email tends to have robust tools available for searching by any number of qualifications, but these could be available via other technical tools as well depending on what you’re using.

Richness of information As I was first thinking about this post I knew that I wanted to mention that my officemate and I frequently communicate via IM even though we’re sitting less than 5 feet away from each other. Part of the motivation for this is the ease with which richer information and multimedia can be communicated. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to give someone a url over the phone, but it’s kind of a pain and prone to error the longer the link gets. Hyperlinks, pictures, videos, sounds, can all be a necessary part of the message. Also, things as easy as an ordered list maybe be easier to present in an email using html formatting than they would be to dictate over the phone or put in an IM.

I drew those characteristics up in a few minutes based on thinking about what is done really well by each of the mediums. I’m sure I left some out and would appreciate comments for other things I should be considering as well.

This whole discussion is similar (although maybe of less significance) in my personal life as I am ofter faced with the decision of whether to send email, text messages, phone calls, or snail mail. For some things there inherent recommendations, but not for everything.

Ok, I fear this may have been the most boring post I will ever write on this blog, but it is something I’ve given thought to and wondered if others had as well.