|This post is a guide to the different media available for communicating today, and when to use each, and a forecast of how this will change in the next two decades.
Communicating an important message used to be easy: you walked to where the people you needed to communicate with were, and delivered the message. Today we have masses of tools for communicating, each of which has many ‘features’ that seem to have been added because they were possible rather than useful. You have to choose . So here’s a guide to deciding what tool to use when.
I expected to find lots of guidance on this subject online that I could plagiarize, but no such luck. Seems no one else has figured this out either. So let’s use the scientific method and start with objectives. We communicate for various reasons:
Note that these objectives are from the perspective of the communicat or, not that of the communicatee (if there’s such a word). It would be interesting to do this analysis from the recipient’s perspective, what they hope to get from the communication, and see the disconnects, but I’ll leave that to someone with a better sense of irony than mine.
Next step is to identify the general types of tool, and the different communication formats available with each tool, and specify the highest and best use of each tool, i.e. what communication it is most suited to:
The list above greatly understates the complexity of the decision process, since the advantages aren’t black and white, and apply better in some formats, with different sized audiences, and with different deliverer/recipient communication arrangements (1-to-1, 1-to-n, room or virtual space set-up etc.). But it should allow us to at least narrow the choices sufficient to make a decision tree.
My first crack at the decision tree is shown at the top of this post. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that most people, unlike most bloggers, are slow to accept new technologies, and that most technologies are not very far along in their evolution. This first decision tree, with its preference for the tried and true, reflects this.
In some cases this tree will lead to an unsatisfactory conclusion. For example, you may conclude that although you can’t afford the trip to tell a distant employee he or she is fired, or an estranged brother that your father has died, the telephone is too impersonal. When that happens, go back to the top of the tree and reconsider the trade-offs.
I spent most of June at out of town face-to-face meetings, ranging from a brainstorming session with people I mostly knew well, to a high-school reunion with people I hadn’t seen in over 30 years, to a conference with a group of international colleagues, none of whom had ever met at all. In all these cases I concluded the meetings, though expensive, had to be face-to-face. We couldn’t afford not to meet in person.
But that’s today. I have no doubt that in a few years (a generation at most) a combination of information culture change (watch any group of teenagers communicating, anywhere in the world, and you’ll see what I mean by this phrase) and communication technology improvements, will dramatically alter this decision tree, so that it looks more like the one below.
I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the communication ‘killer app’ of the future will be peer-to-peer videoconferencing. Not the bulky, cumbersome room videoconferencing tool of today, but the next-gen personal wireless webcam-based tool that will allow you to look at, and talk to, some one on the other side of the globe as if they were right beside you. For the same reason that I have predicted weblogs will transform the way in which we share information, by becoming the proxy for what you know, so do I predict webcams will transform communications by becoming the proxy for where you are. Turning on your individual webcam in the future, so others can see you, will be as simple and automatic as putting on your glasses is today, so you can see others.
And just as Social Network Enablement and Social Software will connect and empower individual weblogs, so will they connect and empower individual webcams, so where you are becomes irrelevant. When that happens, importance of face-to-face communications will plummet.
A little of this depends on advances in processing power and/or wireless bandwidth, but for the most part it depends on (a) social, cultural acceptance of new technology, (b) ubiquity of the technology (i.e. everyone has it) and (c) simplification of technology, so that it mimics what we do in face-to-face communications and hence becomes intuitive. These preconditions for success have a precedent: Fax technology was invented in the 1920s and was first used outside the military only fifty years later, when it became ubiquitous (at least in business), socially accepted (because it was inexpensive and faster than the mail) and easy-to-use.
I’m confident that these new tools will be ubiquitous by the next generation, and that technology developers will finally make them easy to use (blog technology is still a challenge to me). As to cultural acceptance, the ability of people to speak with a distant relative every day, and see them at the same time, and the ability of parents and children, and spouses to check in with each other simply and often, will suffice all by itself. The enormous benefits to business will just be the icing on the cake.
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