Chats, Conversations, and Collaboration: A Deeper Look

The discussion of collaborative tools has resolved relatively quickly into two clear camps, the Slack/Microsoft Teams/Hipchat camp and the Yammer/Workplace by Facebook camp.  Debates are continuing as to which mode of interaction is the richer.  Stowe Boyd has described a difference between Work Chat (the former camp) and Work Media (the latter camp). Stowe’s preference is for Work Chat as he views it enables deeper work. Others have made equally strong arguments against chat as a mode of interaction.

My experience is that the success & value of any of these tools depends on three key elements: strategy, context and change support. No piece of technology is guaranteed to achieve any work outcome without considering the desired change in human behaviour in the current context of the organization.  The Collaboration Value Maturity model focus on how adoption maturity can be facilitated in any of these tools. My discussion of Chats, Conversations, and Collaborations is an effort to add another tool to the process of organizations considering their way forward.  This post will dive deeper into Chats, Conversations, and Collaborations as human interactions to highlight why they matter.

Interactions, Not Tools

This post will focus on human interactions, not the tools. Why? Changing the human interactions is what delivers the value.  We need to keep this clear as we target changes in behaviour and we consider workplaces that increasing have multiple platforms (& passionate advocates for each platform).  The role of a community manager in shaping the strategic value of collaboration in the organization is to be able to navigate all these platforms and to help the users of each to maximize the value of their work collaboration needs.  This is an exercise in coaching the human interaction of collaboration, not platform advocacy. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t shape the interactions that way.

No tool is focused on one form of interaction, but each is better suited to facilitate one mode. You can easily chat in Slack or Teams. They are chat platforms. You can carry out a conversation too, but you will have to deal with the interruptions of other colleagues chats and the fast moving stream of messages. You can chat in both Yammer and Workplace, but both tools endeavour to push instant messaging style interactions to other channels to reduce noise and handle chats greater demand for velocity.

We also use these interaction patterns in other forms of technology and other interactions around the workplace. Understanding the different roles and value of chats, conversations and collaboration can help us be more effective in the way we use text messaging, email, meetings and workshops in our organisations.

Chats vs Conversations – Confirmation, Context, and Coaching

I have described Chats as ‘Shared Information” and Conversations as “Shared Understanding”  Chris Slemp recently asked me to clarify this distinction noting that to many a difference between information and understanding might sound like ‘splitting hairs’. As a long term practitioner in collaboration, a deep thinker on how collaboration can create value and how the different platforms are better used I always value Chris’ insights. I agreed with Chris that the distinction is a fine one and that in our action-oriented organisational work cultures we are not used to reflecting on how we work and what makes our work more effective. Any thing that smacks of philosophy or models of thought is usually disparaged as being impractical and a waste of time.

Here’s how I explained the difference:

I can show you the data that climate is changing. That is ‘Shared information’. If you still believe it’s not an issue there’s no Shared Understanding. (If that topic stirs too many political issues or debate, substitute ‘the project is behind its burn down’. It works just the same)

Just because I transmit information doesn’t mean it is received and certainly doesn’t guarantee it is understood. We need shared context to interpret communication effectively and we also need to be able to navigate our own biases, distractions, worldviews and priorities to understand others. Choices of channels, relationships and available feedback loops. influence our perceptions and processing of any information. In our digital age, the idea of rapid fire exchange of information between humans is an appealing and ever present one. Too often we fall victim to the view that humans are like computers and will process each new piece of data immediately on receipt. George Bernard Shaw supposedly remarked

‘The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

As an aside, in information theory terms a Conversation is probably better described as seeking to achieve ‘shared knowledge’, where knowledge is when information becomes an actionable pattern, but that is an even more finicky technical distinction for most people. Understanding the distinction between data, information & knowledge distinction remains an under used concept and reflects the extent to which information theory and knowledge management have fallen from favour. In an era of ‘fake news’, we may be tempted to reconsider this.

Chris raised the following great example in our discussion of how we innately understand the need to navigate different patterns of interaction to achieve meaningful outcomes:

So, similar to people wanting to take email exchanges that go on too long into a face to face meeting, you’re positing that chat is for all the quick little exchanges we need in order to get our shared work done, and anything “meaty” needs be escalated to a forum. Conversely, the weightier matters were previously ironed out in a forum, and the picky details (information) are exchanged in chat.

Email is terrible for shared understanding because when we read we’re not forced to confront our biases and worldview. For example, it takes a whole cycle of email to attempt to correct me on a view and I will inherently resist ‘correction’. Email does not offer a relationship to keep me engaged in the discussion long enough to see my error. When I converse with another I’ve got a greater chance of having differences understood, exposed and explored. My experience is that forums do this better than email & chat tools. Partly this is an outcome of threaded discussions with a slower velocity and higher context. Seeing a conversation in the context of all of its information helps me find to find a shared understanding with others.  Text and chat appear in my context and are often shorn of supporting information or relationships. This can lead to confusion or misunderstanding when language is flat, concise and devoid of tone.

It’s too common for people to read email, text or chat and not get the information expected by the sender. Think of the classic CYA ‘everything’s going well but..’ email. So many times the recipient comes back later and says ‘how could this happen? you sent me an email telling me everything was ok’. The sender says ‘I was reassuring you before I highlighted an issue’. We chat to confirm our expectations. We discuss to explore our understanding.

However, one additional benefits of the conversation forum is transparency.  Transparency of lack of shared understanding invite others to coach the conversation. Some times third parties have a critical insight to bring people together in shared understanding or can better see the dysfunction. I have seen many debates in collaboration platforms where two opposing opinions could not find reconciliation until a third party joined in that group or thread to supply a missing part of context or to help clarify the language of one of the participants.

A Deeper Reflection on Collaboration

Talk is cheap. Doing is where the value gets created. If your collaboration platform is just about chats and conversations, then your senior executives will get bored and seek a better way.

Where most collaboration platforms fall short is that the organisation has not defined the value to be created and maintained an expectation that the discussion on the platform will advance the real work of the organisation.  Discussing abstract capitalized nouns, like innovation, digital transformation, quality, or employee engagement, can seem valuable. A richer conversation within your organisation and greater transparency will help your organisations performance. What is far more valuable is when the collaboration platform is the vehicle for the work of the organization and enables employees to lead change.

The Collaboration Maturity Model highlights the tipping point when this work begins.  The tipping point begins when employees move beyond just sharing information.  When employees begin to see the collaboration platform as a vehicle to solve work issues or to create new ways of working, the beginnings of change and innovation.

Some of our commonest issues in organizations are simple issues of misalignment and misundertanding.  Two processes don’t align. Two teams goals don’t enable coordination of their outcomes. The current targets no longer connect to the strategic outcomes sought. Solving these issues can be as simple as a conversation to highlight the issue and agree changes to fix it.  However, more commonly there is a project of multiple individuals and teams to make the change happen.

Collaboration also starts to offer organizations new models of work that fundamentally change the traditional linear process of production along value chains that cut across silos. We are not adding a layer of conversation on top of work. Collaboration offers new ways of working. Crowdsourcing, co-creation, agile methods of work, design thinking and more approaches enable teams to rethink each step in their process, turning interaction, feedback and priority setting from a one-off process to a continuous adaptation.  All the stakeholders can be a part of the process as it develops through iteration.

Even more radically collaboration enables organisations to let employees explore greater autonomy in the achievement of goals.  The autonomy is safely underpinned by transparency of the work underway, clear networks of relationships to support the employee and a sense of shared purpose to facilitate the new interactions. Leadership in this context shifts from planning, motivating and managing the change to inspiring, coaching and shaping the employee’s work and the outcomes.  In this context, collaboration offers organizations a new way to plan, not for specific tasks and outcomes, but for the emergence of new strategic value.

10 thoughts on “Chats, Conversations, and Collaboration: A Deeper Look

    1. You are very welcome Gail. As I have learned from great thinkers in change, some times naming things helps us see new potential trajectories and potential.

  1. Hi Simon, another great post again! Liked the point you made about transmitting information doesn’t mean it is received and certainly doesn’t guarantee it is understood. Leaders often get frustrated when they don’t see what they have said takes effect as expected. A simple solution, like saying it three times if important enough, doesn’t seem to have made a difference either, as far as the effect of the solution is concerned. It is unequivocally necessary for leaders and change practitioners to be aware the reality in our daily conversations: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant”, as John Robert McCloskey, an American writer, has described it.

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