Monday, October 30, 2017

Too Many Ways to Talk

If you work in an office and want to get in touch with someone else in your organization, what is the first thing you think of?  Emailing?  Texting?  Phoning?  Walking down the hall?  For some people, the number of choices is getting to be a problem, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe.  There are chat programs like Slack, teamwork coordination programs like Trello, and don't forget Google Calendar (I usually do).  And there's the occasional oddball in a group who doesn't like online chatting, or who can't let go of Skype when the organization moves to a different platform. 

The report cites a survey that shows despite all the recent advances and new systems, three-fourths of all interoffice communication is carried on with one of three methods:  texting, email, or talking on the phone.  So despite the efforts of all the hopeful innovative software companies, systems developed fifteen to a hundred years ago are still carrying the bulk of messages between people at work.

Why is that?

One answer is that we are creatures of habit.  There is that within us which craves routine and stability in the ways we go about our daily lives.  A few of us genuinely enjoy waking up in a different place every day and having to learn entirely new ways of doing basic things.  But such people are rare exceptions, and most of us simply want to learn how to do something useful and keep doing it more or less the same way. 

Another answer is that as we age, it gets harder to learn new things.  The average age of principals in startup software companies is probably around 24, and there's a good reason for that.  Young people have flexible neurons that easily master and devise new concepts, and for such people, learning a new method of interoffice communication every six months might be an inconvenience, perhaps, but if it means staying ahead of the competition, they can do it. 

But as one ages, the joy of learning a new way to do your job turns sour, at least in some cases.  Yes, the new way may let you do some things that were hard or impossible the old way.  Skype can let you see body language in a customer that simply doesn't make it over the phone.  But at some point, the time lost in fumbling around trying to learn a new system exceeds the time saved by using the system's purported advantages.  And so for people who don't easily and quickly pick up the ins and outs of new software or hardware, the alleged advantages may never be realized.

What many people don't realize, including software developers, is the fact that introducing a novel interoffice communications tool can profoundly change the way an organization works, and not always in a good way, either.  My favorite bad example is the way the accounting-software-suite system known under the trade name of SAP was imposed on academic organizations such as MIT and my own institution, Texas State University. 

Accounting is a form of interoffice communication, broadly speaking.  But before SAP came along, the situation could be described thus:  the accountants and clerks were in charge of the computers, and the managers were in charge of the accountants and clerks.  After SAP, SAP was in charge of everything:  clerks, accountants, managers, and everybody else except the people who were hired to install SAP—and sometimes I wondered about them, too.  Far from being merely a more efficient way to do the same basic things, SAP was a revolution in disguise.  And like most revolutions, it caused many casualties:  people who were sometimes highly competent under the old system, but who simply couldn't deal with the radical changes and chose to retire or quit.  A historian and MIT administrator named Rosalind Williams wrote a book about her university's experience with this process, and it didn't go smoothly, to say the least.

So would I have us writing inter-office memos with quill pens and calling office boys to deliver them?  No, but what often gets lost in the shuffle of new communications technologies is the question of purpose.  What are the kinds of things we want to communicate?  Are the existing ways adequate to do these things?  And if not, what new technology could we use that would not merely annoy people who do not adapt easily to change, but would make us work better at the things we're supposed to be doing? 

Just to end this on a mostly positive note, there is one innovative technology that I think has made things better, at least for administrative assistants:  the meeting-scheduling software typified by such applications as Doodle. 

In the old days, I would call our department's admininstrative assistant and ask her to schedule a meeting with X number of people.  Depending on how big X was, she would either look at teaching schedules or end up phoning people with different options for the meeting time and shuffling things around until she found a time and place where at least most people could make it.

Now she doesn't have to get involved.  I just set up a Doodle poll and send it to people who I want to arrange the meeting with, and they indicate which of the candidate times they can meet.  When everyone responds, there's the whole situation right in front of me, and I can either pick a time that leaves one or two people out, or sometimes there's a time when everyone can meet, and the problem is solved then and there.

If you're a manager thinking about mandating a new or different way of communicating within the office, think about it for a while.  Will it really make things better?  Or will it just keep up the constant churn of new-software aggravation that saps energy and time that could be devoted to getting the real jobs of the organization done?

Sources:  Andy Rosen's article "E-mail. Slack. Trello. G-chat. Do we have too many office communication tools?" appeared on the Boston Globe's website on Oct. 27, 2017 at  Rosalind Williams addresses the advent of SAP at MIT and many other issues pertaining to technological change in her 2003 book published by MIT press, Retooling:  A Historian Confronts Technological Change.

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