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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.

Liz Williams's picture

Technology enables, people create

I can echo a lot of what's already been said here: if the technology enhances a process that's working, the technology will get used. If it doesn't, it just adds overhead, sometimes at an absurd level. To me, this is a simple customer service issue: is the technology developed by engineers for engineers because they think it's a cool thing/will revolutionize the world, or is it developed to solve a problem people actually have/facilitate a process already in place? Above all, a technology must take into account the people who use it.

I'll add a couple of things I haven't seen here: The task of organizing workgroups starts with elimination: tasks, decisions, all kinds of clutter need to go. What's left is easier to organize. I notice that many technology solutions encourage clutter and propagate the myth that organizing clutter will lead to effectiveness.

And, I think work clutter starts with decision clutter: If I've got 20 priorities, I've got no priority, so I keep everything. How will I clear the clutter when it all seems so necessary?

I ran a 5-year experiment once: I threw out all the memos and documents I got at work; my cubemate saved every one in well-organized (to him) stacks on his desk. In 5 years, I had to ask him to find a document I needed only 3 times. Now I throw things away with abandon. It helps me think.

I use basecamp, and I mostly like it for making available the most current task list and documents. It takes a little too much time to keep up though, and it needs one point person managing it and making sure it's current. Even with that, I've had people forget about it and ask for the latest doc. Sigh. So, not sure it works much better than revision-dating documents and emailing them to groups. Either way you need someone responsible for making it work.

I've blogged about how clear decisions in meetings lead to more focused-clutter-free actions here http://collaborationzone.com/the-collaboration-hall-of-fame-nominations-are-now-open/2008/02/25/ so I'll be brief: When we told our boss why we stopped talking every time she spoke (because we thought she was making a decision), she scribbled a large "D" on one plate and a large "O" on another, holding up the "O" plate when she was merely expressing an opinion, and the "D" plate when making a decision. This simple technology improved our meetings immensely: They got shorter and produced more fully informed decisions as well as better follow-through.

I think the root problem here is the belief that technology - low or high - enables us to circumvent the laws of nature (time, space, need for rest), and the laws of human nature (comfort, safety, belonging, the inherent messiness of collaboration).




An Oblique Strategy:
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