Chats, Conversations, Collaboration and a note on Communication

Three things have become obvious to me in 2016 and on reflection they offer insights into how we can think about the ongoing culture change and challenges of enterprise collaboration:

People Love Chat: The rise of Slack, Hipchat and a raft other chat tools, the passion for chatbots and the advent of Microsoft Teams all signal the value of chat communication solutions. These tools (and their integrations) appeal to our need for instant gratification, the demands of an agile workplace, our wish for connection in a mobile world and the need for a little entertainment in the ongoing pressures of work. Whether this way of working appeals to you or not, it is a rich pattern of human behaviour and we recognise it from the way we use consumer tools like iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Line, etc. The growth challenges of Twitter can be traced to chat behaviours shifting to more controlled community oriented solutions like group messaging or to more engaging solutions like Snapchat and Instagram.

People Hate Meetings More: Of all the blogposts I wrote in 2016, the ones that discussed changing meetings exploded. People hate email but they are prepared to live with the pain because email feels like process work, they are accustomed to the burdens or email pushes responsibility to others. People hate meetings and they really want to change them. (Makes me wonder if Sartre had a point about ‘hell is other people’) Email can be a way out of interacting with others because we don’t interact with other people, just formal rituals around their words and artefacts. Meetings do require interaction with the messiness of real people. For many organisations, meetings are the dominant form of conversation and collaboration. For too many meetings, no choices are made to explicitly managed the pattern or optimise its benefits for attendees.

The Untapped Value of Collaboration is Huge: Surprisingly few organisations with collaboration solutions have a strategy to realise value from new ways of working. Fewer still have resources that strategy to ensure that they have managers working to realise the productivity benefit and the transformation of work outcomes. Often the collaboration solution is implemented for an abstract capitalised noun or seen as a platform for enterprise communications objectives. Organisations have a huge opportunity to work more effectively when they explicitly engage in shaping the nature of collaborative work underway.

Human Behaviour

Changing the nature of work is hard. We love to focus on the technology as if it will transform the human behaviour. However, from all the work I’ve done and read on adoption, one thing is clear to me. Technology enables new patterns of work. Human behaviour and decisions shape what patterns get used and how in organisations. At times, human behaviour gets lost under the features and functionality of the technology and we forget to focus on the enduring patterns. Many times the implementation of technology is not asking people to adopt a new human behaviour, it is just asking them to switch to another deeply human pattern.  Let’s look at the insights above in that context.

Chat (Share Information): We walk through the halls of our activity based office spaces to get a coffee and we chat with our colleagues. We ask our work colleagues for a quick chat to resolve an issue. We make a phone call (average call length is now well under two minutes).  These are short interactions. They are an exchange of information. A chat is fast, incidental and pointed.  A chat is far more likely to be lighthearted than a more considered form of interaction. The accumulation of chats contribute to a deepening of relationships even if the content of the conversations are not particularly significant or useful because they act as acknowledgement, share context and develop trust and social capital.

Conversation (Shared Understanding): Often in our work places we need a conversation to get deeper in our understanding of an issue. We need to reconcile divergent information and divergent views of the situation. We may need to make a decision either together or alone but in a way that engages others that are impacted. Conversations take time.  They can stretch from an intense 10 minutes to a gruelling 10 hours or weeks and weeks of cumulative interactions. Conversations need us to work through a process of aligning purposes, concerns, context and actions (as Conolly and Rianoshek explain in the Communications Catalyst).

Collaboration (Shared Work): Our work is increasingly dependant on the work of others. We don’t work as an island turning inputs into outputs. We need to manage complex scenarios, dynamic processes, the interplay of our work with the goals and processes of others and we need to interact with others to discover, design, deliver or deploy our solutions. We do this work in an environment of a rapid flow of information, high levels of uncertainty and continuous change. Many organisations see collaboration as a long meeting with lots of people, debate and sticky notes. The need for the pattern of collaboration in our organisations is far more extensive. We may need to collaborate with our team, a project team, a group of stakeholders, the whole organisation or even people well beyond the organisation to achieve our objectives.

Sidebar: On the Thing We Call Communication (Shared Narrative)

Communication is a term we use a lot in business. It is embedded in business vernacular because most organisations have teams responsible for communication. However, it is less common that communication is a two-way exchange of information in this usage. Communication is the broadcast of information to audiences in the organisation through email, intranet or social channels.  The pattern of human interaction that best matches to communication is story telling. A narrator holds the attention of others usually for a while to recount some important information to the group in the form of a narrative. Stories can be told in as little as 30 seconds (think a TV ad) but usually we take 30 minutes to an hour (TV show) or 2-3 hours for a saga with lots of conflict and many phases of action (think a movie) When communication teams start to engage in two-way exchange in an organisation, the pattern of interaction tends to be a chat, a conversation or a collaboration.

Lessons For Meetings:

What is the point of your meetings? Is your meeting a chat, a conversation, a collaboration or communication?

One of the key meeting pain points is that we call one hour meetings for a chat. That’s about 59 minutes of time wasted. We also call meetings to narrate stories (usually with slides). Narration by slide deck is another time waster, particularly if we forget to make sure that the story has enough value, conflict or action to engage people’s attention. The audience sits passively and lacks the emotional engagement in the narrative to feel their time is being rewarded.

Meetings work as a place for conversation and collaboration when run to achieve those explicit purposes. Aligning the attendees, purpose and facilitation of a meeting to this goal is critical. In a busy working life, people expecting one pattern of interaction will not sit happily through another.  There are also other options that might work better, particularly if you are unsure of your purpose, looking to work out loud and you aren’t exactly sure who would value and add value being in the room. In these cases, there is probably more value working out loud in an enterprise social network, even if only to shape the work to be done in a later meeting.

Lessons On Choice & Adoption of Technology Tool:

IT and business executives focused on efficiency of effort and investment long for the one tool to rule them all. These demands often push tools to stretch across multiple patterns of human interaction. The complexity of features that result as tools endeavour to cover chat, collaboration, conversation and communication patterns can add to the adoption challenges for users. The nature of real social human interactions in relationships means that even if we choose one tool for each pattern, people will still mix their behaviour into other tools. If you get frustrated that people chat in your social network or hold long conversations in your chat channels, get over it and then help the users how to work in more effective ways.

Human behaviour also reminds us that we know how to switch between chats, conversations and collaboration. In every day parlance we even signal these changes to each other with “this needs further discussion” or “we should meet to work on this”. We happily switch tools when we move from phonecall to meeting to application. Instead of worrying about too many tools, let’s focus on realising the value in each pattern of work with the new tools available and encouraging a better match of pattern and tool.

To add to this we now see vendors increasing the diversity of their tools to match to these different patterns. If you’ve ever seen the infographics of all the brands of cloud marketing automation solutions, I think that’s where vendors are headed for productivity and collaboration solutions. This is not an era for one perfect solution. The competitive landscape is a raft of different solutions, that meet a single point use case to every use case under the sun.  Leading vendors like Microsoft will try to crowd out most of that space with offers that appeal to the enterprise IT buyer and offer some form of stack integration. It’s the marketing strategy of Nestle, Unilever and P&G of the 60s/70s. Take the shelf space. Smaller vendors will make their solution appeal to a niche.

The patterns of human behaviour aren’t going away. The technology doesn’t change them. What is important to organisations and users is to understand what patterns of human interaction are needed now, what patterns are desired for future strategy and how to nudge behaviour from one to the other to make work more effective. If a team depends on a high volume of chat to manage agile digital product development, turning that off won’t increase engagement or productivity. If a team needs to interact widely across the organisation with stakeholders and work out loud with uncertain stakeholders, then forcing a chat tool is not likely to deliver the required benefits for adoption.  If your digital team is working in a chat tool effectively but regarding as alien by the rest of the organisation, how can you help both parts of the organisation to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Work in your organisation, now and in the future, has its tempos and patterns and the tools need to align to those patterns.Not the other way around.

Lessons for Team Structure:

Harold Jarche recently published a blog post exploring three contexts for work of self-governing teams, inspired by his Personal Knowledge Mastery work and the insights of Valdis Krebs and Patti Anklam.  The discussion in Harold’s post of a Productivity Network, an Alignment Network and a Connectivity Network has a very close relationship to the human behavioural patterns Collaboration, Conversations and Chats.

We need to recognise that network connectivity, the transparency possible in networks and the have permanently changed the options for how teams manage collaboration, conversations and chats and offer new contexts for leadership and self-leadership. As discussed in my 2017 work roadmap, key organisational challenges are developing the models of team structure, management and organisation to be able to leverage this work.

Simon Terry provides consulting, advice, speaking and thought leadership to global clients through his own consulting practice, and as a Charter Member of Change Agents Worldwide, a network of progressive and passionate professionals, specializing in Future of Work technologies and practices.  The focus of Simon’s practice is assisting organizations to transform innovation, collaboration, learning and leadership. 

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