Communications in the Digital Age is Confusing

Your team needs a protocol.

The TLDR version of this article is captured in this 11 min video.

Every advance in communications technology makes communication both easier and more complicated. Back in the Time Before Internet, there were only so many channels of communication, and they all seemed expensive.

For example, one of the rituals of my childhood was calling my grandparents in New Jersey, which was a long distance phone call that incurred something called toll charges, a concept so foreign to my kids that they consider a phone bill some sort of affront to their fundamental human rights. It’s not like Thomas Jefferson had the foresight to write “freedom to tweet” into the First Amendment, but sometimes my kids see it that way.

I came of age at the end of The Analog Era: dot matrix printers, 5–1/4" floppy disks, 300 baud dial-up modems, and (gasp!) fax machines, which changed “the way we do business… forever.”

This advertisement for fax machines was a bit hyperbolic about the lasting impact of the technology. Fax has been superseded by digital modes of communication over the Internet.

Today, communication is much more complicated. We have so many options that it’s difficult to choose which one to use.

Email? Snapchat? Twitter? Kik? Instagram? SMS/MMS? Facebook messenger? Skype? (desktop, app, or for business?) Zoom? Bluejeans? Slack?
LinkedIn?

Old school phone call? Bump into each other at your kid’s swim practice? (Don’t laugh. The genesis of this talk came during a 6 hour long swim meet marathon where an effort to stave off boredom turned into a meaningful collaborative work relationship).

The myriad of choices often makes finding the right channel to communicate a mysterious game of Clue, like: “Text Colonel Mustard with Twitter about the candlesticks.” (Sort that one out, Alexa).

In my classroom, I establish an explicit communications protocol that exploits multiple channels without adding confusion.

When selecting a channel, students and Imust know two things:

  1. The privacy of the communication, and
  2. The urgency with which a response or action is requested.

We create a two-dimensional coordinate system that plots each of our comm channels according to privacy and urgency. It looks like this:

It is essential to know the privacy (number of people) and urgency (time between communication and response or action) of a message when selecting a communication channel for sending it.

The urgency axis is measured in units of time, with the most urgent appearing at the right edge of the quadrant. For example, emergency calls to 911 are urgent. They require an immediate response, so we find the 911 channel just above the “now!” marker on the urgency axis.ri

The privacy axis is measured by the number of people for whom the message is intended. For example, if I post something on twitter or Medium, then it’s is public — everyone can view it, so @seagertp is found at the bottom of edge of the quadrant, where the least private channels are found.

In our class, we use Slack because it provides multiple options across the privacy/urgency spectrum. We create Slack channels for groups, can tag individual members of the team, and direct message individuals. In this was, we can choose the mechanism in Slack that matches the privacy corresponding to our audience. We consider Slack messages to communicate the expectation of a 2–3 hour response time (i.e, same day response). That’s more urgent than an email, but less urgent than a phone call (20–30 minutes response).

There is one exception to this sense of urgency in Slack, which isn’t marked on the figure, and that is our #general (or, if you have it in your organization, an #announcements channel). This channel does not expect a reply.

Slack allows audio and video calls without disclosing mobile phone numbers to the entire class, like Skype. Because phone calls are in real time, they are more urgent than text messages, and consequently move to right on the graph. They’re probably even more private than direct message (DM), meaning the figure could be improved by moving the calls function up the graph.

The most urgent and private channel of communication is probably face-to-face (F2F), when responses are expected in real time as part of conversation, so F2F goes in the upper right-hand corner.

Email is now a 2–3 day response time. It used to be, back in the late 90’s, that the rule of thumb was that all emails should be answered within 24hrs (on business days) as a matter of professional etiquette. But with so many alternative messaging platforms available, and soooooo much junk mail, that’s just not the case. When sending an email in our class, the sender is signalling an expectation of 2–3 day response or action time.

For document sharing, we use box.com because it is the best of the big three doc sharing platforms (the others are Google Drive and Dropbox) for collaborative work. Loading a document to box might not require a response, or at least not something on the order of 2–3 days, unless it’s accompanied by a comment that tags an individual collaborator, which generates an email to them. Tagging elevates the urgency to the 2–3 day level, while loading a doc to box and posting a link to the doc in a Slack message can elevate to a 2–3 hour urgency.

Email is not a confidential channel, despite the wishes of everyone who accidentally hit ‘Reply All,’ or had an email they thought they were sending in confidence forwarded to a larger group. So the email oval is drawn to encompass everything from private to public, because it’s difficult to discern the privacy expectations of the send from the fact that they chose email. Additional context or instruction is required.

Also, we maintain certain email ettiqutte expectations with regard to email:

  1. Always cc: anyone whom you mention in an email, so that they are directly informed of what you’ve said about them.
  2. When in doubt, use ‘Reply All’ because we err on the side of transparency in our class (rather than opacity).
  3. Never, ever use bcc: because that violates the principles in 1. and 2. above.
  4. Never, ever, (no never, as in I mean it is not alright) send email attachments. Rather than email attachments, use box to load a doc and tag in a comment the people whom you want to view it. The data is from 2012, so maybe it’s getting a little old, but Microsoft created a poster about the productivity losses associated with email attachments.
Email attachments suck, by Microsoft (https://www.neowin.net/news/microsoft-says-attachments-suck-in-new-infographic)