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Your Story: Throwing new tools at a communication problem?

I'm working on a (likely non-43 Folders) piece about a topic that seems to keep coming up whenever I talk with people about how their team plans, collaborates, and generally communicates with one another. I'd love to hear from you in comments if you have a contribution to make.

What’s your story?

Do you have a story about a time when your team or company tried to solve a human communication problem by adding a new tool? In your estimation, how did things turn out?


Yours doesn't need to be a horror story to be included here -- there are certainly ample examples in which a thorny problem disappeared by introducing a bit of high (or low) technology to the mix.

But, the anecdotes I hear from worker bees often focus on the frustration they felt when a wiki, a new CMS, a mailing list, or some other tool was introduced into an ecosystem that was suffering from a more fundamental communication problem. A lot of people tell me that this makes matters much worse all around, often amplifying the complexity of the original problem, in addition to piling on burnt cycles that were committed on getting everyone up to speed on the new "silver bullet."

If you have a minute over the next week or so, please share your story here. Redact details that you think need redacting, but please consider telling me how things went for you and your group. And, if you feel like a whole or partial solution to the core problem ever did come along, that would be great to know, as well. Already documented this someplace else? Know of someone else who did? Links to relevant stories are also greatly appreciated.

If things pan out, I may be contacting a few of you offline for more details, and conceivably, an interview or two. Thanks in advance.

wtaylor's picture

Re: Your Story: Throwing new tools at a communication problem?

I've had a mess of such experiences. The one that comes closest to mind is the creation of a web-based calendar for our institution. I teach at a medical college with ~500 students. Our faculty is largely adjunct, and even full-time faculty are distributed geographically & temporally between clinic and classroom locations, and have difficulty coming together for face-to-face meetings. We joke about Mercury being in permanent retrograde in our school's birthchart - communication is a constantly broken issue. One difficulty we've faced, is the lack of a central institutional calendar, easily accessible to all, capable of catching scheduling conflicts, and available from remote locations. As the resident edugeek, I was charged with creating a web-based calendar, and muckled together an installation of WebCalendar - technically a great application. We placed portals on the school's website and learning management system, handed administration to the school's receptionist, and ... basically no one used it. Changes in meeting times/dates were often not updated, many items were never placed on it, serious conflicts between overlapping events continued to occur. Even after 3 years, folks still express surprise on being told/reminded that this even exists. We still largely rely on a collection of individual calendars residing in various offices, often in significant conflict with one another.

In contrast, another tool - phpSurveyor (now LimeSurvey) - introduced at about the same time - has been received very successfully. I set up an installation of this to be used for voting on faculty senate issues. Our official quorum was previously 10%, as out of 90+ full-time and adjunct faculty, we were fortunate when we could manage to get 10 in a room together at one time for a face-to-face meeting. With online voting, we were able to easily boost participation to 35-50% of faculty.

I think the difference, is that this latter has a focus around specific prescribed tasks. It involves not merely the introduction of a tool, but introduces a focus for activity, a specific invitation for participation. The calendar has been more of a "build it & they will come" project - perhaps not a realistic expectation. Complaints about our prevailing system are common, but we don't seem to be able to come together with a collective vision to drive a solution.

Kindof like a hammer. A great tool, but houses don't seem to get built when you merely lay them around the place.

Will Taylor




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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